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The Ainu Language Endangerment

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The Ainu Language Endangerment

The Ainu, one of the indigenous groups in the world, first landed in Hokkaido, Japan, and the southern part of Sakhalin islands 16,500 years ago. They are considered as “the direct descendants of prehistoric Japanese hunter-gatherers” (Choongwon 2016). However, due to many factors, these indigenous people are facing a lot of difficulties affecting negatively to their sustainability. This paper discusses the language endangerment which is one of the significant issues among the Ainu nowadays, how it is crucial to cultural surviving and the Ainu’s efforts to reverse this situation.

Traditionally, the Ainu worked “based upon a subsistence economy” (Poisson 22) for thousands of years. The author is basically saying that Ainu people took sources from the environment through fishing, and foraging, which includes hunting and gathering, to survive. In the ancient times, Ainu and Japanese lived in proximity and traded with each other, and there were early references to a group of people who seemed to have incorporated with elements from both societies. Because of their independent livelihoods, the Ainu themselves were distinct from the Japanese agricultural community in not only subsistence but also culture and language. This closeness, however, ended up in the fifteenth century when “Japan began to extend economic control over Ezo [which consisted of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurile islands]…particularly at seaports” (Noguchi and Fotos 46). Even though the Japanese control extended steadily, the Ainu luckily kept their language, traditional practices, and values by the end of the eighteenth century. The Meiji Restoration was a significant turning point toward assimilation in 1987. According to John Maher, “Meiji signaled, by law and military fist, the first systematic attack on Japan’s indigenous cultures and languages” (Linguistic Minorities and Education 115-127). The author suggested that due to policies and laws of the Meiji Era, practicing Ainu language and tradition declined and limited in locals, and thus disappeared a culture legally.

One of the efficient policies of the Meiji government in prohibition Ainu language was restricted education. A project established by the government was to build an experimental school for the Ainu. Thirty-five Ainu people, aged between thirteen to thirty-eight, were brought to Tokyo all the way from Hokkaido to be acculturated into the mainstream Japanese community. (Yamamoto). Nonetheless, two years later, only five out of eighteen young adults remained in the school when the rest died because of sickness, returned home or went missing. This study indicated a total failure of the educational system. Moreover, Steven Heine states, “Ainu children were forced to attend schools that were conducted solely in Japanese as use of Ainu in education was banned by law” (8). As children are the future of a society, prohibiting them from learning their language as well as knowing about their culture creates badly impacts on that culture’s future. Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay J. Whaley assume, “…literacy is essential to nationalism…and language survival in the modern world” (32). It means linguistic unknowingness influences people’s identity and awareness to protect and develop their tradition, which weakens diversity and sustainability of a culture.

Not only present in education, the Ainu language endangerment also happened throughout daily life. “As of 1998, out of the total population of 23,800, there are estimated to be only 20 or 30 speakers, that is, less than 1%,” states Tasaku Tsunoda (18). This statistic indicated an overwhelming warning about loss inherited language among the Ainu. In addition, DeChicchis classifies the Ainu speakers into four categories including “archival Ainu speakers; old Ainu-Japanese bilinguals; token Ainu speakers; and second language learners of Ainu” (110) and precisely explained those. The first group who used language from the Ainu textbooks and original resources already passed away. The second group of people whose population is very small were born in Ainu family, learn the language from their family, but spend a lot of time studying Japanese at school. The third group consists of speakers who might be born in a family with one of grandparents or parents knew Ainu language, but not regard themselves as the Ainu. The last group involves young adults that are originally Japanese and interested in Ainu culture. Overall, DaChicchis’s researched shows a variety of age groups, degrees of language competency, and life experiences. One significant issue was that some ancestors hid their actual identity as Ainu from their descendants due to the fear of discrimination. Some views of Ainu people about their identity were collected by Midori Minami (150):

“Numbers of Ainu people I met told me that in their childhood they did not want to grow up to be the ‘Ainu’…many Ainu parents even declared that they intended to end their lineage as the Ainu at their generation, hence told children to be ‘ordinary’ (Japanese). Staying as ‘Ainu’ was first legally prohibited, and then was habitually and emotionally avoided in order to adapt to the harsh realities of social situations. However, many of those who ‘bent’ their identities, which often meant becoming ‘invisible’, waited for a long time they could ‘bend back’.”

In Ainu people’s cognition, it seemed that identifying as Ainu was either a shame or a fear of them. Because of racism against indigenous culture, people were no longer willing and proud to be a part of their community.

Both refusing to be Ainu citizens and being prohibited from learning Ainu lead to negative outcomes. Firstly, losing language means losing a critical part in culture. As Claire Kramsch mentions in her book “Language and Culture”, there are three important functions of language in a certain culture. According to Kramsch, initially, “language expresses cultural reality” because it contains all history, facts, beliefs and ideas of scientists, poets, composers, and so on to share with other people. Then, “language embodies cultural reality” through daily communication. Lastly, “language symbolizes cultural reality” since it identifies people’s cultural values. Because of its significant roles, language loss results in a huge destruction of the culture. The second impact of the language endangerment is political power. In some countries, different ethnicities illustrate dissimilar political privilege in the government. This means that losing language deprives legitimate power with certain rights. Finally, the fewer speakers of a society survive, the more likely that society will be genocidal. In the article of William J. Sutherland, he assumes, “…languages have been classified as threatened if the number of speakers is less than 100, 500, 1,000, 10,000, 20,000 or 100,000.” Although there are not exact numbers of speakers that are the minimum requirement for a survival indigenous village, decreasing speaker population is a warning for extinction. The explanation for this consequence is that if there is nobody talking and passing the language and tradition to the next generations, locals will practice another language as well as different values instead, and thus lead to the gradual obsolescence of that culture.



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