The that the Ainu have received has meant



Ainu language is now close to extinction and experts estimate that there are
only around twenty native speakers of the language left (Anderson E
& Goodman-Iwasaki, 2001) . The development of
the Ainu language has been severely affected by historical events such as the Japanese
colonization of Hokkaido, but also a general sense that Japanese is the ‘one and
only’ national language which has made it difficult to see the Ainu’s position
in a society promoting homogeneity. As a result, the judgement and prejudice that
the Ainu have received has meant a significant loss in terms of community.
Elder generations were unable to pass on the spoken language and the younger
generation were influenced to idolise Japanese in exchange for Ainu. Despite
the introduction of the Ainu Heritage Protection Act and language classes, this
still does not deter from the fact that the Japanese are still unwilling to identify
the Ainu as an ethnicity of their own. Therefore, without official recognition,
the Ainu language is at as much risk to complete extinction as it was fifty
years ago and language revitalisation is still a distant prospect for the Ainu


Ainu speakers, there was a progressive language shift from Ainu to Japanese.
However, one of the reasons for this language shift was the Japanese
colonisation of Hokkaido instead of Russia. It has been argued that the
language shift on Hokkaido is an example of when traditional language usage
context became restricted and are taken over by another language (Japanese),
usually the dominant language used at a broader societal level (Martin, 2011). This indicates that
since Japan was a greater nation, both in terms of geographical land mass and
population, the country had the power to influence and secure Hokkaido
territory and this was achieved through linguistic and cultural change. The
assimilation policies of the Meiji Restoration were responsible for the
decrease in Ainu language usage in the public domain. During this era, the
transmission of Ainu to the next generation was severely disrupted (Martin, 2011). This has been most damaging
to the Ainu language because as previously mentioned, the majority of Ainu
speakers nowadays are the elder generation and this suggests that the inability
to transmit Ainu is a principal factor which has rapidly reduced Ainu speakers in
an already small community and indicates why Ainu can no longer function as a
spoken language. (Martin,
Conversely, Heinrich argues that the establishment of schools conducting
classes in Japanese proved to have the greatest impact on Ainu, resulting not
only in Ainu children becoming proficient in Japanese but also in their coming
to view their heritage language and culture as inferior (Heinrich, 2012). This indicates that the Ainu language
was affected not only because the Ainu were prohibited from speaking their own
language but also because later, they were mistreated for this reason and no
longer wanted to speak their language. The Ainu inevitably began to view their
ethnicity, culture and language with negativity and subsequently stopped
transmitting the Ainu language to their children (Heinrich,
suggests that the assimilation policies have also had a psychologically detrimental
effect on Ainu identity and language shift was inevitable as it was not only
external pressure from the Japanese but also an internal choice once the Ainu
themselves no longer wanted to maintain the language.

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Japanese has always been viewed as the dominant
language in Japan however this has never been recognised officially; it is
simply taken for granted that the dominant and only historical contender is the
national language. Nearly all of Japan’s 128 million people speak and write
Japanese (Gottlieb, 2008), and in the past, Japan has been a
mainly homogenous society. This suggests that the recognition of a national
language has always been unnecessary. However, after the colonization
commission of Hokkaido (Shibatani, 1990), the Japanese heavily enforced use of
the Japanese language; given that Hokkaido had effectively become a Japanese
island. Language policy in Japan is piecemeal in the sense that there is no
overarching document which takes into consideration the national language,
minority or community languages such as Ainu and the nature of strategically
important foreign language learning within the same policy framework (Gottlieb, 2008). This indicates that
the reason for the lack of measures implemented for Ainu language protection is
because there was no initial legal framework which identified the Ainu as a
separate indigenous and ethnic community. Furthermore, the Japanese government
does?not collect data on language use by its citizens. Census forms contain no
question on ethnicity and listed under the category of ‘Japanese’ are the Ainu
population. (Gottlieb, 2008) The existing Ainu population are
therefore seen as Japanese citizens. Since the 19th Century, the
Japanese government have continued their attempt to integrate the Ainu
population through a lack of ethnic minority recognition. Until recently, it
can be argued that the Japanese government virtually supressed all matters with
relation to the Ainu community and language. However, since the passing of the Ainu
cultural promotion act in 1997, the indigenous language has also enjoyed a change
in status after decades of suppression, although, the number of native speakers
remains small (Gottlieb, 2008). This implies that the ideology of “one
country, one language” has effectively made the recognition of the Ainu
community a low priority for the government. Likewise, the lack of address on
the matter has had an indirectly proportional effect; discouraging use of the
Ainu language within the community but furthering Ainu assimilation into
Japanese society.


can be argued that the arrival of the Japanese on Hokkaido led to a dramatic
reduction in the number of Ainu speakers. The Ainu were falling under
increasing pressure to assimilate into the new Japanese society, both
culturally and linguistically (Maher, 2001). Shogo Sakurai
argues that this can be linked to bilingualism which was seen an undesired
trait. He suggests that a common thread among these minority language speakers
is that they were victims of a modernist language ideology that was “in search
of homogeneity” (Bourdieu, 1991) and that viewed “multilingualism among
ethnolinguistic minorities not as an asset, but as a sign of ‘backwardness’, a
barrier to assimilation” (Bourdieu, 1991). However, the idea of multilingualism
can also be viewed threatening for Japanese speakers and their homogeneity.
Therefore, by establishing the Ainu language as inferior and influencing this
viewpoint on the Ainu community has accelerated language decline. This was
already a common phenomenon in Japan with dialects being officially discouraged
and even punishments given in schools for speaking anything apart from Japanese
(Gottlieb, 2008). Thus, knowledge of Ainu has also been
transferred through Japanese-Ainu code-mixing and codeswitching which are still
practiced to this day. Even among community members who are monolingual
speakers of Japanese, certain Ainu words and expressions are reported to be
part of the local lexicon (Anderson E
& Goodman-Iwasaki, 2001). Ainu is a SOV
language (Tranter, 2012)  like Japanese and since monolingual speakers
understand Ainu lexicon, it is not isolated in terms of grammatical complexity suggesting
that it is not difficult to shift between the two languages. This is evident in
a publication of an Ainu language newsletter ‘Ainu Times’ which had articles
presented in the Ainu language and written in Japanese katakana script as well.
Similarly, Kayano Shigeru is an Ainu ethnic who learnt Ainu from her
grandmother and Japanese from her parents and learnt to speak both languages
equally well which suggests that bilingualism in Ainu and Japanese does not
have a detrimental but rather, complementary effect (Anderson E
& Goodman-Iwasaki, 2001). Similar to
Shigeru’s situation, in order to transmit the Ainu language to the next
generation, the Ainu people established their own Ainu language classes in
Nibutani in the prefecture of Hokkaido (Igarashi & Kess.F, 2004). This basic
knowledge has proven to be instrumental in implementing Ainu language and
culture classes for both adults and children. However, attendance was reported
to decrease yearly and on average, 12 to 13 students attended the classes (Anderson E & Goodman-Iwasaki, 2001)  which indicates that, although language
classes are a means of language revitalisation, the low attendance figures
suggest that that Ainu is still a relatively unpopular and unknown which is
linked to Ainu being recognised as an individual ethnicity, culture and
language in Japan.


Ainu have a rich culture and history and were already a developed civilization
before coming into contact with the Japanese. They originate from the Hokkaido
island, which is one of the 4 main islands of modern Japan, north of Honshu (Shibatani, 1990). Supposedly, they
are descendants of the Jomon people, however there are also influences from the
Siberian hunter-gatherers, the Okhotsk due to migration (Lee S, 2013).
Therefore, the group has not only East Asian but also Russian ancestry. In the
15th Century, the Japanese people had already settled in on the
Oshima peninsula, south of Hokkaido and they came into contact with the Ainu
people through the first of a major series of battles. (Shibatani, 1990). Between the late 18th
Century and the early 19th Century was the first instance of threat
towards the Ainu culture, caused by Japanese and Russian expansion. Under the
Japanese central government, the Ainu were seen as Japanese rather than
recognised as a community with a culture and language of their own. The
situation worsened after the Meiji Restoration and by the end of the 19th
century, no Ainu community remained beyond the purview of Japan and Russia. The
use of Japanese and Russian languages among the ethnic Ainu increased, and Ainu
language use declined (DeChicchis, 1995). The Ainu language could no longer
function as the primary means of communication amongst the community. Today,
Southern Hokkaido is the last autochthonous location of a few native speakers
of the language (Tranter, 2012). There are four main categories of Ainu
speakers: archival Ainu speakers, old Ainu-Japanese bilinguals, token Ainu
speakers, and second language learners of Ainu (DeChicchis, 1995). However, nowadays, many people possess
receptive knowledge of Ainu; so, they can understand it but cannot speak it (Anderson E
& Goodman-Iwasaki, 2001).  There is no longer any community where Ainu
serves as the primary medium of spoken expression and interaction, Nevertheless,
Ainu is becoming an increasingly popular language to study at language centres
offering courses. (DeChicchis, 1995). Ainu was a language synonymous with a
region, culture and people, but now has become a minority language in a greater

There is no doubt that the rise of certain ‘power’
languages such as Mandarin and Japanese have become more popular and desirable
to learn. This has led to other languages being ignored in return. There are
many minority languages in Japan however almost none of them have received
official recognition from the government and many of them are close to
extinction. On the contrary, the dominance of the Japanese language is
unrivalled in terms of number of native speakers and foreign language learners
in Japan. However, this does not mean that other languages are pushed aside in
favour of one superior, national language. The Ainu are an ethnic minority in
Japan and the Ainu language is considered close to extinct nowadays, it is
important therefore, that the reasons for dramatic language decline are
understood and more significantly, the measures implemented to conserve Ainu,
its speakers and promote language revitalisation in Japan. This essay will
describe the status of Ainu as a minority language and evaluate the development
of Ainu and its speakers which are facing extinction today.