Regulating Language

11 August 2019

Content Warning: Indigenous genocide

On April 22nd, 2019, Japan’s parliament passed a bill that for the first time legally recognised the Ainu people as the “Indigenous people” (in Japanese: senjū minzoku, literally “earlier inhabitant people”) of Japan.

If you’re like me before I went to Japan for the first time, you probably weren’t aware of a people inhabiting Japan before the Japanese. People outside of Japan have a tendency to think of it as a monocultural nation, partly due to Japan’s own perception of itself as that. The Ainu have traditionally lived in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands, as well as the Kamchatka peninsula and some other Russian islands. Intercultural relations between the Ainu and Japanese have historically been tense to say the least, but the Meiji Restoration—where Imperial Japan was reborn and its policies shifted to resemble that of western colonial governments—exacerbated these tensions.

Japan annexed Hokkaido in 1869, and the fervent hypernationalism that characterised Japanese policy at that time—which would go on to inspire some of the worst of World War II’s war crimes—first saw Ainu lands stolen and given to Japanese settlers, before a harsh policy of assimilation was implemented by the newcomers. This saw a decline not only in Ainu culture, but also their language, which is an isolate; it is unrelated to any other language.

Because of the cumulative effects of assimilation over many generations, Ainu’s uniqueness is in danger of being lost forever. There are only a handful of native speakers left—perhaps as few as fifteen—and all of them are elderly. While there is a much higher number of second-language speakers with varying degrees of fluency, without concerted efforts to protect it, Ainu’s chances of survival are, sadly, quite low.

It’s worth noting here that Ainu is just a microcosm of a worldwide loss of linguistic diversity. Just 23 languages are spoken by over half of the world’s population, while
a third of the roughly 7,100 languages spoken today have fewer than a thousand speakers left. At this point in time, the number of languages in the world is still rising as linguists are still documenting them; but there is consensus that by 2100, between half and ninety per cent will be extinct.

So, then, what role has the Japanese government played in the preservation of Ainu? Let’s start by looking at schools. Currently, the Japanese Government will not accredit any school—public or private— that does not use Japanese as the language of all classroom instruction and associated learning materials. Funnily enough, this policy began with the Meiji restoration, and affected the decline of other minority languages spoken in Japan—like those of the Ryūkyū Islands, which were annexed by Japan a couple of years after Hokkaido. Clearly, this is a huge barrier affecting the passage of Ainu from parent to child, and is primarily why the few Ainu who can speak their language as their native tongue are so elderly.

There is some hope for Ainu’s preservation, however. The 1980s saw a moderation in Japanese policy towards Ainu, resulting in some support for the production of teaching materials. There are also a number of organisations which have been established to advocate for further policy support for the protection of Ainu. There are even a number of universities in the northern subprefectures of Japan which offer tuition in Ainu. But these efforts are fighting in the face of centuries of policies designed to deny Ainu autonomy.

The plight of Ainu is exemplary of the role that the state can play in the suppression of minority languages, and eventually, their loss. Placed within a broader context, Ainu is but one example of the effects of colonialism. With the loss of languages like Ainu, we lose uniquely human ways of interpellating the world, and this is something to be mindful of when one questions the validity of protecting minority languages.

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