“For us, the Ainu language isn’t only a communication tool, but our identity,” says Kaori Tahara, a historian of Ainu origin. She is one of the many people whose precious insights allowed myself and co-author Francesco Bassetti to explore efforts to revive the Ainu language in Japan and their connection to the international movement for indigenous rights in an Insights feature published on the Japan Times. The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan. Their native land of Hokkaido was colonised by the Japanese in the second half of the 19th Century, while the Ainu of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands were caught in the conflict over these territories between Russia, which currently lays claim to them, and Japan. Subjected to a policy of assimilation, Ainu people lost their traditional way of life and were forced to become Japanese citizens. Their language was almost entirely erased as its speakers were educated in Japanese in schools and a growing sense of shame about their heritage resulted in them electing not to teach their native language to their children.
Both Ainu and non-Ainu people have been committed to reviving the language at pace with a revitalisation of Indigenous culture starting from the 1950s. Ainu continues to be taught in various settings in Japan today, and is also in use in certain day-to-day settings especially in Hokkaido; while the language is considered critically endangered and it is thought that all its native speakers have passed away, the movement to revitalise it has received support and recognition on an international level. Yet its long-term survival remains uncertain: “Until it is recognised as an official national language, included in school curriculums and increasingly used in everyday life, it risks being relegated to a museum exhibit instead of being embraced as a living culture”.
“Languages are endangered because they’ve been conquered, colonised and oppressed. Speaking them can be an act of resistance and decolonisation.”K. David Harrison, linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania
I spoke about the Ainu language on episode 72 of the Japan Times’ Deep Dive podcast.