The Monolingual Situation in Japan. The Government's Struggle to Keep Minority Languages Alive

Elaboration, 2012

9 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of content

1. Aim and Structure of the paper - Why did I choose this topic?

2. What is the actual language situation of Japan/ Which minority groups do exist in Japan
a) Japanese as the national language of Japan
b) The Ainu language
c) Ryūkyū­languages
d) Other languages

3. What is done to keep minority languages in Japan alive?
a) Reasons for the dying out of minority languages in Japan
b) What is done by the government and private institutions to keep minority languages in Japan alive?

4. Conclusion and Outlook

1. Aim and Structure of the paper - Why did I choose this topic?

The Japanese language is spoken by 127 Million people and ranks on the 9th place of the most frequent spoken languages. However, Japanese is not a universal language, since most of the people are native speakers and the center of the Japanese language is Japan. Nowadays it is spoken on the 4 main islands of Japan - Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Japanese can be also found in the former colonized parts of Japan - in Korea, Taiwan, Sakhalin, in some parts of China, in Hawaii and even Brazil. For Western people Japanese seems very exotic and difficult to learn, especially the writing and reading of the Japanese language is a struggle for every language learner from a Western country. It consist of the Hiragana and Katakana syllabary and the Chinese characters called Kanji. Although we can find Chinese characters in Japanese, both languages have totally different lexis and grammar. The Chinese characters were brought to Japan in the year 300 and developed by the Japanese people to fit their own language system. There are controversies about if Japanese is an Altaic language or a malayo­austronesian language. Since Linguists cannot find a certain genealogical relationship to another language, Japanese is considered as a Japonic language and can still not be clearly defined by today. Choosing the language situation in Japan as the topic of this paper is influenced by my big interest in the language and culture of Japan and the difficulty of defining the Japanese language. (EMBJapan, 2009:

Japanese is not as difficult to learn as it seems, the grammar is very easy compared to other languages. Verbs just have two forms of tense - past and present. Moreover there are no articles and no strict word order like in English or German. Very interesting Asian concepts can be found in the Japanese language, such as polite phrases or several different words which must be used depending on the person you are speaking to. While living in Japan for one year I only got in touch with the Japanese language since Japan is a monolingual country. However, there are minority languages in Japan, but they cannot be found in daily life and you rarely get in touch with them. The only aboriginal language in Japan, the Ainu­language is dying out. (EMBJapan, 2009:

In this paper I want to give a short introduction to the language varieties in Japan and I want to talk about the struggle with minority languages in the country. When talking about minority languages I will especially refer to the Ainu­language, the indigenous language of Japan. Japan is a country having a very old tradition and varieties of culture. Since language is an important part of every culture I want to point out, that the struggle with minority languages in Japan has a social­cultural background. First I want to give an overview of the main languages existing in Japan.

2. What is the actual language situation of Japan? Which minority groups do exist in Japan?

In this paper I want to focus on the most common languages in Japan. The minority languages I will talk about are the most famous ones and also the ones, influencing the Japanese society and politics most.

a) Japanese as the national language of Japan

Japanese is the official language of Japan. The standard Japanese taught in school is called Hyojungo or Kyotsugo. Both words combine the concept of “not being a dialect”. However, in Japan you can find different dialects of the Japanese language, a famous example is the Kinki Japanese dialect. It is spoken in the region of Osaka and Kyoto. Before the year 1600 Heian (nowadays Kyoto) was the old capital of Japan and the Kinki dialect was the common spoken Japanese. Japanese consist not only of many Asian concept phrases or words, but also got many loanwords from Europe and especially English­speaking countries. Since 1853 there was a starting flow of loanwords into the Japanese language and it still continues nowadays. Some examples are “aisukurimu” (ice cream) or “raibu” (live). (Reischauer, Jansen, 1988: 381­393)

b) The Ainu language

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan and inhabited the island of Hokkaido and the northern part of Japan's main island. Ainu means “Human” in the Ainu language. Again it is not clear, where the Ainu language derived from, linguists say that it might have Paleosiberian origins. From the mid­ fifteenth century on the Ainu suffered from invasion, exploitation and brutal treatment by non­ Ainu Japanese. Those actions lead to a considerable

The violett area shows the region where Ainu are inhabited decrease of the population. Moreover since the latter half of the 19th century the number of speakers of the Ainu language decreased rapidly. Tasaku Tsunoda states in his book Language endangerment and language revitalization: An introduction that by 1998 out of the total population of 23.800 Ainu only 20 or 30 speakers did exist. This is, in fact, less than 1%. The Ainu language is still not an official language by today. (Otaru, 2004: (Tsunoda, 2006: 17­18)

c) Ryūkyū­languages

The Ryūkyū­islands are an island­group in the south­west of Japan with around 1.5 million inhabitants. Almost 90% of the inhabitants live in the main island Okinawa. People of the Ryūkyū­islands are often called Okinawans. Most of them are Japanese, but Chinese and Indonesian minority groups can also be found. The origin of the Ryūkyū­language is still not clear. It belongs like Japanese to the family of Japonic languages. However, around 1500 years ago Ryūkyū and Japanese parted and developed differently in their spoken regions. Ryūkyū­languages show similarity to Korean and Altaic languages. Since they are not recognized as an official language they now have the status of a dialect in Japan. After the spread of the Standard­Japanese Hyojungo in 1868 and the annexation of the Ryūkyū­islands by the Japanese government, the speaker of Ryūkyū­languages started to decrease. Elderly people are still able to understand and speak the Ryūkyū­dialects, but younger people living in the bigger cities just have a passive understanding of the language. Most of them use Japanese and cannot speak Ryūkyū­languages anymore. (Shibatani, 2002: 195­198)

d) Other languages

Besides the Ainu population of 25.000 people the Koreans with a number of 690.000 people are the largest minority group in Japan. About 100.000 of the Koreans are naturalized Japanese, though. Besides that we can find 69.000 Chinese people in Japan.


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The Monolingual Situation in Japan. The Government's Struggle to Keep Minority Languages Alive
University of Potsdam  (Institut fuer Anglistik)
Foundations in Bilingualism
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ISBN (eBook)
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japanese, language, minorities, linguistics
Quote paper
Friederike Börner (Author), 2012, The Monolingual Situation in Japan. The Government's Struggle to Keep Minority Languages Alive, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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