Japan’s most endangered languages face extinction
mephase Ryuichi standing in the museum his mother built on Yonaguni, a tropical coral-fringed island in southwest Japan. Large pottery vessels, intricate baskets and floral printed fabrics fill the shelves. One display case contains a used book: a dictionary that the woman collected to preserve her local language, called Dunan. Mr. Ikema is one of the dwindling number of people who still speak it.
Yonaguni’s is one of half a dozen native languages spoken on the Ryukyu Islands. The island chain, which includes Okinawa, stretches thinly almost from Kyushu to Taiwan, and was once an independent kingdom. That precarious position has made the Ryukyus a battleground for the chain’s larger neighbors. His languages are among the victims.
Although the Ryukyuan languages and Japanese belong to the same family, linguists believe that they have about as much in common as English and German. But when Japan annexed the islands in the 1870s, it called the Ryukyuan languages simply Japanese dialects. They were banned in schools. Students who continued to speak had to wear sad placards around their necks.
Ryukyuan families kept the languages alive at home. Then, after the second world war, America occupied Okinawa and encouraged a return to Ryukyuan languages in an attempt to distance the islanders from the rest of Japan. By associating the local languages with their unpopular work, however, America may have halted their decline. “Speaking Japanese became a tool to liberate the Ryukyus from the Americans,” said Patrick Heinrich of Ca’ Foscari University in Venice.
The decades of neglect took a toll. In 2009 unesco they declared the six Ryukyuan languages (which are almost unintelligible to each other) critically endangered or threatened. Ryukyuan activists have since made some progress in reviving the practice, especially on Okinawa. But the languages are still in danger. And the activists are not helped by Japan’s continued reluctance to recognize them as distinct languages. To do that, notes Mr. Heinrich, would involve recognizing how far, and under what circumstances, the Ryukyus became part of Japan: “It takes you to history.”
Dunan is probably the most endangered language. Only about 100 people speak it fluently. The Yonaguni government has therefore provided optional Dunan courses in schools. Muramatsu Minoru from the local board of education, who is from Honshu but learned the island’s language, has made an effort to compile new Dunan dictionaries. There is a Dunan quote that sums up the stakes: “If you forget the language, you forget the island; if you forget the island, you forget your parents.” But it is difficult to imagine such small measures saving Dunan. Mr. Ikema is not optimistic. “Dunan will disappear eventually,” he says.■