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Obaa, Anmaa, Nēnē


Photo: TARUMI Kengo

The women of Okinawa are powerful. Whether or not this stems from the tradition of an ancient matriarchal society, the rates of both divorcees and unwed mothers are ranked the highest in all of Japan. Being strong does not mean that they are sharp of tongue, but that they have a remarkable zest for life. Even if they are separated from their husbands or carry children, they laugh freely and work tirelessly. On top of that, Okinawa is a place renowned for its people’s longevity1, so these women also live exceptionally long lives. It is said that among the Okinawan women who work, a wife who cannot even support a “mere” husband is looked down upon. Naturally, men are no match for women.

In mainland Japan, “obaa” is synonymous with “obāchan” (grandmother), but in Okinawa this word has a special nuance. In Okinawa, obaas are deeply respected. At a bar, say, if someone says, “Isn’t an obaa the essence of Okinawa itself?” everyone would nod in agreement, and some would even be moved to tears. An obaa is good. She has a presence close to the gods and is the very symbol of Okinawa.
 The obaa of today are women who survived the Battle of Okinawa and the U.S. military rule. When I first went to Okinawa, I met a bāchan2 at a bus stop in Koza, sporting sunglasses and puffing on an American cigarette. She wore a dazzling mūmū3 and oozed so much style that I was entranced. When I asked her age, she laughed mischievously and told me that she was 96 years old. Truly, an obaa’s energy is something to be reckoned with and cannot be made light of.

An “ammaa” is a mother, but the word is almost obsolete except in Okinawan plays. “Kāchan,” the Japanese word, is probably used most commonly now. 

Nēnē” means “older sister,” and is a term used often. An “older brother” is referred to as a nīnī. Being a Nēnē or ammaa is but one step towards becoming an obaa. In Okinawa, they say a woman is at her prime after she reaches her seventies (who knows if this is true?).

That nēnē’s cute and shy “u fu fu” laugh will one day transition to the louder “kera kera” laughter as an ammaa until she finally transforms into an obaa. The “hee hee hee” sound of an obaa laughing, protector of this island, is sure to echo far into the skies above.

Editor’s Note:

  1. The average lifespan of women in Okinawa stayed the longest in the nation until 2005 and dropped to 3rd, and 7th places since then.
  2. An old lady — a  frank way of saying obāchan.
  3. A Hawaiian dress popular in Okinawa.