Hokkaido Ainu is a heritage language of Japan. There used to be three, but only Hokkaido Ainu survived. However, the status of the language in Japan is still iffy. Although the Japanese government partially recognized the Ainu people and their culture in 2008, the language, the people and their culture remain largely unknown to the Japanese population. You could say that only a few speakers of the language and the linguists are fascinated by Hokkaido Ainu.
According to the latest data from Ethnologue, Hokkaido Ainu is nearly extinct as there are only ten native speakers left. The speakers are located in Hokkaido and the islands of Tsishima and Kuril. Most of the native speakers are in their 80s. Hokkaido Ainu is only in oral form. There has never been a written form of the language. Elders passed on the language to their descendants orally. The absence of a written form prevented the Ainu people from preserving their language after the government banned it. ‘Yukar,’ the traditional Ainu storytelling is the only way the Ainu people can extend the life of their language.
Traditionally, the language is transcribed using kana, a Japanese syllabic script that is a derivative of kanji.
Tomomi Sato of the University of Hokkaido, who is an authority in the Hokkaido Ainu language, said that for many Japanese, the Ainu people are not existent. This is something that they do unconsciously or consciously. Some even think that these indigenous Japanese people do not mean anything.
Status of the Ainu language
Because it does not have any relation with other language families, the Ainu language is considered a language isolate. It is a language that is spoken by a Japanese ethnic group with the same name that inhabits Hokkaido. However, its origin is unknown, just like the people who speak this indigenous language.
The three variants of the Ainu language used to be spoken all over the southern half of Sakhalin Island and in the smaller island group of Kuril. Ainu has 19 dialects aside from the three variants. The last speaker of Sakhalin Ainu passed away in 1994 and the other one, Kuril Ainu is already extinct. The Hokkaido Ainu had 15 native speakers in 2016. Today, there are only 10 who are fluent in the language while 304 can understand it. The numbers are not definite because some people hide the fact that they are of Ainu descent and they can speak the language to avoid discrimination.
A specially extended katakana is now used to write the Hokkaido Ainu text.
Many linguists have studied the possible origin of the Ainu language. They traced the possible origin from different parts of the globe. However, it is already established that the main area where the Ainu lived is in Hokkaido, which is also an Ainu word that means ‘dry area.’
In the work of Ivar Lindquist and Pierre Naert published in 1960, the two linguists posit that the Ainu language originated from the Indo-European language family. Another linguist by the name of James Patrie, believed that the language is of Altaic language origin, which he discussed in his thesis called ‘The Genetic Relationship of the Ainu Language.’
The ‘Kitano Gengo’ or the Northern Languages mentioned the Ainu people in the discussion of the North Pacific Rim hypothesis. In this study, they thought that the descendants of the Ainu people were the American Indians who migrated to the East from Alaska, passing through the Bering Strait into Siberia and going down to Sakhalin in Russia.
The Japanese government forbade the Ainu people from practicing their customs and speaking their own language for close to 100 years. Students of Ainu heritage were not allowed to speak Ainu and were forced to speak Japanese. For fear of discrimination, people of Ainu descent denied their heritage and hid the fact that they can speak the language.
Generally, it is difficult to find the younger generation of Ainu people. In a research published in 2012 by Jeffry Gayman entitled Ainu Right to Education and Ainu Practice of “Education “: Current Situation and Imminent Issues in Light of Indigenous Education Rights and Theory, which was printed in the Intercultural Education Journal Vol. 22, he mentioned that about 66% of Ainu youth do not even know that they are of Ainu heritage.
In 1994, Shigeru Kayano was the first Ainu who was able to enter the Japanese Diet. He spent most of life promoting awareness and the well-being of his people. In 1997 Shigeru’s leadership and help from his supporters led to the lifting of law banning the practice of Ainu culture. The Ainu people were finally able to have cultural freedom with funding from the government. They were able to regain and preserve their way of life. The government established radio stations and courses on the Ainu language. Their culture became known to more people through performances for the public.
The Ainu Cultural Promotion Act of 1997 paved the way for the transformation of the Ainu dictionaries, making them valuable tools to improve communication and help in preserving the records of the language.
It has become a challenge to revitalize the Ainu language and culture although the efforts are ongoing in Hokkaido and other parts of Japan including the Kanto region. Ainu oral literature is now documented, and the Ainu Association of Hokkaido established language classes since 1987. Their programs include family learning and training courses for Ainu language teachers. While some Japanese universities teach the language, the curriculum of Japanese secondary schools does not yet include it.
The Ainu Association of Hokkaido is the leading supporter of the revitalization efforts. Through coordination, newer efforts were established to revitalize the Ainu culture. The first radio program is called FM Pipaushi, which included Ainu language lessons that ran for 15 minutes. A newspaper, The Ainu Times, was established in 1997 and two shopping complexes used Ainu names: Pewre (young) and Rera (wind). They are located in Chitose, a city in Hokkaido. Non-no, a popular Japanese fashion magazine, uses the Ainu language for its name, which translates to flower.
The Ainu people
The actual origin of the Ainu people is still vague although they were indigenous to Hokkaido, parts of Honshu and some areas that belong to Russia, such as the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin.
Officially, the population of Ainu people in Japan is 25,000. However, there is an unofficial estimate – 200,000. This is because the Japanese society absorbed many of them altogether. Due to this, they do not know that they are of Ainu descent.
Newer research says that the culture of the Ainu came from the combination of Satsumon, Okhotsk and Jomon cultures. The Japanese Jomon period was from 14,000 BC to 300 AD. The Ainu people were hunter-gatherers, yet they revere animals and even consider the bear as a ‘kamuy’ or ‘head of the gods.’
Initially, it was thought that the Ainu were of Caucasian origin because they have deep-set eyes that resemble the eyes of Europeans, light skin, larger frame and more body hair. Pure Ainus are believed to have brown hair and blue eyes. However, through fingerprinting, DNA testing and dental morphology, it was established that the Ainu came from the Mongoloid race.
Due to intermarriage, it is difficult to distinguish a person of Ainu ancestry from a person of another Japanese ancestry.
Ainu men and women grow their hair up to their shoulders. After reaching a certain age, the men do not shave thus many of them have full beards. The women also have a coming-of-age ritual: getting tattoos around their mouths.
Because they are hunter-gatherers, most of their primary food supplies are root vegetables, salmon, fox, rabbit, bear and deer. However, Ainu people cook all their food. They do not eat raw food like the Japanese people (wajin).
Based on the many theories presented as the possible origin of the Ainu people and their language, what is certain is that they are residents of Hokkaido, Japan. While it might take time before many more people admit to having Ainu blood and speaking the Hokkaido Ainu language, it is heartening to know that the language and culture of the Ainu people are being revitalized.
Promoting indigenous and minority languages
Day Translations, Inc. hails the efforts of the Japanese government to preserve Ainu, which is a heritage language. We hope that more people will be speaking Ainu in the near future. As a language services provider, we want to help promote indigenous and minority languages together with the major languages of the world. For your Japanese language translation requirements, give us a call at 1-800-969-6853 or send us an email at Contact us. We are open every day of the week all throughout the year to serve you whenever you need translation services anywhere you are in the world. Our professional translators are located in-country. They are native speakers and subject matter experts and ready to provide you with the most accurate translation on the planet.