Japan: Eight endangered languages in the Japanese archipelago

In February UNESCO presented the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, giving an accurate and worrying description of the languages considered endangered (about 2,500). Among these eight belong to the Japanese archipelago. Not a big surprise if we think about the severe policies of linguistic and cultural assimilation carried out by the Japanese government until the end of the WW2, after completing the annexation during the 19th century of the Ryukyu reign (now Okinawa) and the island of Hokkaido inhabited by the Ainu people.

Still, the continuing presence of a variety of languages different from Japanese, in a country that (also in the recent past) some important politicians have boasted of being a ‘one race Nation‘, has surprised many who read the news in a national newspaper [ja].

The owner of the small restaurant Amami No Ie, on one island of the Amami archipelago (Okinawa), comments on the news that his dialect is considered in danger of extinction and regards the forced assimilation by the Japanese mainland government, which started from education during the first decades of the 20th century, as one of the causes.


Among the languages at risk of extinction there is also our islands’ language, the Amami language.
This time I won't dwell upon the details too much but if we look back at the history, before and after the war the usage of languages [other than the standard Japanese] was prohibited and since then the habit of speaking them started to disappear.
Moreover, what is called the Amami language is actually different from island to island, from area to area, in both words and intonation. Some say that the reason the Amami language is dying out is because the Amami islanders now constantly travel between islands as a result of improved transportation, and have stopped using their local languages to communicate with other people.


Unfortunately, I can't speak the shima yumuta, the island language, either. The language that our generation speak is called ‘ton ordinary language’, and it's a mixture of dialect and standard Japanese.
However the Amami islands songs are sung in ‘dialect’, which ensures it is handed down correctly. I indeed believe that those who are nurturing these folksongs will be the ones to keep the Amami language alive.
Amami Island. Flicjr id: Takayukix

Amami Island. Flicr id: Takayukix

Also another blogger, native of Hachijô Island (one of the furthest Japanese islands, which belong to Tokyo Prefecture) has discovered that his hometown dialect is actually a language.


The Hachijô LANGUAGE and not DIALECT?



Hachijô Island has its own specific dialect and when I go to a spa and listen to the old people speaking, it sounds a bit odd yet familiar at the same time.
Also if we call it Hachijô dialect, actually there are five different dialects (or languages?) on this little island.
Sueyoshi, Nakanogo, Kashi, Okago, Mine
Each of these has developed and inherited its own way of speaking.
But I cannot distinguish between them at all…


It is said that the reason why they are at risk of extinction is because young people don't speak their island language, and I think this is true.
Together with the development of TV, the internet and faster communication, it's possible to fly to Tokyo in 40 minutes, and easily come and go plus at a certain age many people tend to move to Tokyo or other areas…
The changes of a language are strictly related to those in the lifestyle.
I personally cannot take upon myself the task of inheriting the Hachijô language but partly because it's fun I like to use it sometimes.
Hachijojima. Flickr id: world waif.

Hachijojima. Flickr id: world waif.

Among the languages indicated as ‘severely endangered’ by the Unesco's report there is the Ainu language, at present spoken properly only by 15 people. Its extinction, then, is a serious problem also because it has no written alphabet the language and its traditions can only be transmitted orally.

A blogger calls on the necessity to do something practical to avoid the disappearance of the Ainu language.

「アイヌの先住民族認定を求める決議」 が国会で可決され、「有識者懇談会」 も発足した。

The condition of the Ainu language is already well known and what has become necessary lately is not only the preservation of the culture but also the spread of its use.
A resolution that recognizes the Ainu people as the aborigines of Japan has already been passed by the Diet [See GV article] and the ‘Group of Experts’ [to study the Ainu issues] was inaugurated. However, how the Ainu's rights will be legally safeguarded and how their language and culture will be handed down, it is still a mystery. It is not so simple at all to erase the unfair prejudices and discrimination, as well as the dark shadow that the Japanese assimilation policies and oppression have cast.


STV radio in Hokkaido broadcasts lessons of the Ainu language [ja] and there are movements for the spread of the Ainu language. In the Ainu Culture Research Center of Hokkaido [ja], for example, they keep original voice recordings. But the Ainu language speakers are decreasing and the worrying thing is that not only at school but also at home Japanese only is spoken.
Biei, Hokkaido. Flickr id: Taro416

Biei, Hokkaido. Flickr id: Taro416

Masayuki reflects on the death of a language and its meaning.


I don't know much about the recent theories but I think the theory that language has an influence on the way of thinking is appropriate. For this reason, when a language dies, also the world of values represented and implied by that language also dies.


Often there is a debate on whether it is better to keep a language as it was in the past or to change it. However, more than thinking if a language is ‘right’ or not, shouldn't we perhaps focus on the possibility of enrichment and variety deriving from the world that every language symbolize can vanish or [if kept] be spread?
Here is a video by Isamu Shimoji (下地 勇) singing the song Obaa in the dialect of Miyako Island. [Only 3000 people in Japan are said to be able to understand this language]


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