LANGUAGE POLICIES AND MINORITY LANGUAGES IN JAPAN: Study of the Ainu Language and Shima Kutuba / Karin Noda


As a Japanese national who has spent almost all of my life in Japan, I had never reflected upon languages in Japan until I entered Sophia University. However, while I was taking a course titled Language and Human Beings (言語と人間) as a first year student, I came to understand that standard Japanese, the language which I had been studying and using as the ‘national language (kokugo)’, was created in the Meiji era. The whole story shocked me, because I realized that I had taken it for granted that standard Japanese had been the language of Japan from ancient times. The awareness of my ignorance motivated me to investigate further about languages and language policies in Japan.

Before the Meiji era, there were different types of writing forms and spoken languages in Japan, and people wrote and spoke differently based on their social status, hometown and gender. Also, at that time, the Ainu language and Shima Kutuba were widely used. The Ainu language was used by the Ainu people who lived in the present Hokkaido prefecture, while people in the present Okinawa prefecture used Shima Kutuba. Shima Kutuba is a term employed by Okinawa prefectural government, and includes; (1) the Ryukyuan languages such as Okinawan, Miyako, Yonaguni, Kunigami, Yaeyama and Amami; and (2) the languages of both North and South Daitō Islands. However, the Meiji Restoration prompted the Japanese government to create and disseminate the national language, and in the process of disseminating standard Japanese, minority languages in Japan, such as the Ainu and Shima Kutuba, were gradually abandoned.

Today, standard Japanese is taught as the ‘national language (kokugo)’ at schools, while the situation surrounding the minority languages is quite severe. So, the revitalization of the Ainu language and Shima Kutuba is a pressing issue. As Harrison states, the extinction of a language will result in the loss of knowledge, which is ‘an accretion of many centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, infinity, cyclicity, the unknown, and the everyday’ (Harrison, 2007: viii). Among these minority languages in Japan, this paper focuses on the Ainu language and Shima Kutuba, as these languages are more endangered compared with other minority languages in Japan, such as Korean and Chinese.

The main focus of this thesis is to develop measures to revitalize the Ainu language and Shima Kutuba. The first chapter examines the history of languages and language policies in Japan, from the pre-Meiji era to the present. Then, the second chapter explains the present practices to preserve and promote the Ainu language and Shima Kutuba. The third chapter first analyzes pros and cons of these measures, as well as opinions from the Ainu people and people in Okinawa prefecture. Then, the chapter proceeds to examine two cases of language revitalization. Finally, this thesis suggests some measures for the revitalization of the Ainu language and Shima Kutuba.

Minority languages

Before the Meiji Restoration, both the Ainu and Shima Kutuba were used in the present Hokkaido and Okinawa respectively. As for the Ainu, Gottlieb says, ‘For two centuries before the modern period began, it was forbidden for Ainu people…under the auspices of the Matsumae clan to speak or write Japanese, in order to preserve an image of them as alien, Other and subject to control’ (Gottlieb, 2011: 27). In the case of Shima Kutuba, ‘The central Shuri dialect has functioned as the standard form since the fifteenth century, when it was used as the official and literary language of the then Ryukyuan Kingdom’ (Gottlieb, 2011: 29).

According to Gottlieb (2011), the Meiji Restoration prompted the central government to define Japan’s territory and borders. As the Japanese central government’s attempts to modernize Japan and create standard Japanese continued, the situation surrounding languages inside and outside Japan started to change. This section examines four languages; the Ainu, Shima Kutuba, Taiwanese and Korean.

First, as for the Ainu,

‘It was particularly important to define the northern border in relation to nearby Russia; the Ainu people were therefore to be re-badged, this time as citizens of Japan, in order to maintain a claim on Hokkaido as Japanese territory rather than as a peripheral trading post. Everyone living in Hokkaido had to be shown to be a Japanese citizen who, by extension, spoke Japanese: one unified nation with one national language’ (Gottlieb, 2011: 27).

In order to train the Ainu people to use standard Japanese, the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act (Hokkaidō kyūdojin hogo-hō) was enacted in 1899. This law ordered compulsory education for Ainu children in standard Japanese. At the same time, the use of the Ainu language was prohibited and the Ainu language was gradually lost.

Second, Shima Kutuba was also replaced with standard Japanese in stages. Heinrich analyzes the central government’s motivation behind this replacement as follows.

‘after the Meiji restoration…In seeking to secure its borders, the young Meiji government openly claimed the Ryukyu Kingdom for Japan, and forcibly annexed it to the Meiji state, as Okinawa Prefecture, in 1879…Language was to play a key role in the subsequent transformation of Ryukyuans into Japanese nationals…The Ryukyuan languages and Japanese are two distinct branches of the Japonic language family…the existence of such linguistic distance between Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages had to be downplayed in order to support the nation imagining ideology as established in the Meiji period’ (Heinrich, 2012: 84-85).

Based on this intention, Shima Kutuba was gradually abandoned through the process which Heinrich names ‘The Progressive Erasure of Ryukyuan Languages’ (Heinrich, 2012: 132). The first stage of erasure is called fragmentation, which means ‘the gradual restriction of a language to limited functions. In other words, it defines a loss of domains of use. Through fragmentation, the cultural and linguistic coherence of a language are reduced’ (Heinrich, 2012: 132). Heinrich (2012) says that events such as administrative reforms, the emergence of news reporting and modern literature and the introduction of compulsory school education contributed to fragmentation. While standard Japanese established a firm position through the above reforms, ‘use of the Ryukyuan languages was restricted to matters considered, at the time, as generally unimportant and of little prestige’ (Heinrich, 2012: 132). One example which shows the effect of fragmentation is written texts. In 1893, The Ryukyu Shimpo, the first-ever newspaper in Okinawa prefecture, was first issued. Since then, all its articles were written in standard Japanese. As a result, citizens started to have debates over political and economic issues in standard Japanese. Modern Ryukyuan literature, in which The Ryukyu Shimpo invested, was also in standard Japanese. Furthermore, the use of standard Japanese in compulsory education disconnected Shima Kutuba from the domain of academic study. In sum, while standard Japanese was used in newspapers, literature, debates over politics, economics and academics, the use of Shima Kutuba was restricted to the verbal communication in the private domain. In this way, Shima Kutuba gradually lost its domains of use. Moreover, the use of Shima Kutuba was the target of ridicule. According to Gottlieb (2011), children in the present-day Okinawa prefecture were educated in standard Japanese. The use of Shima Kutuba instead of standard Japanese was punished by the hōgen fuda. Being made to wear the hōgen fuda, children were ridiculed and shamed.

The second stage of the progressive erasure of Shima Kutuba is marginalization, whereby ‘fragmentation is further reproduced and reinforced’ (Heinrich, 2012: 134). While the first stage, fragmentation, only affected the domains of language use, in the second stage of marginalization, standard Japanese started to affect Shima Kutuba themselves. In the area of phonology, pronunciations of standard Japanese began to appear in Shima Kutuba. One example which Nagata (2001) gives is a phoneme /η/. This phoneme /η/ is used in words such as ‘east’ /aηai/ in the Yonaguni language. On the other hand, standard Japanese has /g/ instead of /η/. Nagata (2001) investigated whether 72 informants aged 11 to 89 years old distinguish /η/ and /g/. Nagata (2001) found out that while people aged 80 and over could distinguish /η/ and /g/ without mistake, people aged 11 to 39 could not distinguish the two completely. This experiment is an example of marginalization, as it shows the influence of standard Japanese on the phonological system of the Yonaguni language. Also, words from standard Japanese replaced those of Shima Kutuba. For instance, as Nagata (2001) says, the word ‘naba’ in the Yonaguni language, which means mushrooms, was replaced by ‘kinoko’ in standard Japanese. The third stage is sublimation, which is ‘the process by which a language is decontextualized from its unmarked functions, whereby use of the dominated language becomes marked’ (Heinrich, 2012: 136). According to Heinrich (2012), Shima Kutuba was used in all domains until 1879. However, the spread of standard Japanese resulted in the restriction and marginalization of Shima Kutuba. The decrease in the number of domains in which Shima Kutuba were used as a means of communication led to the decrease in number of speakers of Shima Kutuba. In the end, the use of Shima Kutuba rather than standard Japanese started to carry connotations. Today, Shima Kutuba is the unmarked choice in few domains, such as music, festivals and religious rites. However, there seem to be a shift to standard Japanese even in these domains. Subordination is the final phase of ‘progressive erasure, whereby it becomes impossible to develop a discourse of resistance against the dominant language and the ideologies that support it’ (Heinrich, 2012: 137). One example which shows the subordinated status of Shima Kutuba is the reactions from the residents in Okinawa prefecture to the prefectural government’s plans to promote Shima Kutuba. In 2013, Okinawa prefectural government conducted a survey on Shima Kutuba. There were 11 questions, and local residents aged 20 to 79 were asked to fill in the questionnaire. Also, children in their 5th grade in elementary school, 2nd grade in junior high school, and 2nd grade in high school were also asked to fill in the same questionnaire. In the questionnaire, informants were asked to give their opinions and comments freely. A man who is in his 2nd grade in junior high school says that he thinks Shima Kutuba is not necessary, firstly because he does not understand Shima Kutuba, and secondly because there is a common language (i.e. standard Japanese). Another man in his 40s says that it is better for the future of Okinawa to strengthen people’s ability to use standard Japanese rather than dialects, and he says that he does not understand why dialects are necessary. These comments suggest that Shima Kutuba is now in the subordinate position.

The third language affected by standard Japanese was Taiwanese. Taiwan was one of Japan’s colonies during 1895-1945. Standard Japanese was imposed on the Taiwanese

‘with the threefold aim of providing a standard language for communication between the disparate groups who lived on the island, raising the cultural level of the Taiwanese, and assimilating them by teaching them the Japanese way of doing things’ (Tsurumi 1967, quoted in Gottlieb, 2005: 47-48).

The fourth case of the change in the situation surrounding languages is Korean. Korea was also one of Japan’s colonies during 1910-1945. Again, standard Japanese was ‘used as the medium of education, in order to assimilate the Korean people spiritually and culturally as subjects of the Emperor’ (Gottlieb, 2005: 48). According to Sorensen, ‘The medium of instruction in all schools−even those for Koreans−was Japanese, and a large proportion of teachers in schools for Koreans, particularly secondary schools, were ethnic Japanese’ (Sorensen, 1994: 15). As a result, Koreans who received secondary education could not talk about subjects such as mathematics and science in any language other than standard Japanese. According to Sorensen (1994), this led to the shortage of teachers who could teach these subjects in Korean when the World War II ended in 1945.

To conclude this section, it can be said that standard Japanese was imposed on people for various reasons. The case of the Ainu and Shima Kutuba shows that standard Japanese was imposed because the central government wanted to clarify the newly defined Japanese border. The example of Shima Kutuba, Taiwanese and Korean imply that language is sometimes used to assimilate people both culturally and spiritually.



The Ainu language and Shima Kutuba had been oppressed and ignored for centuries before the revitalization movements emerged. As language revitalization needs dozens of years, it is difficult to assess the precise effectiveness of the present measures, even though there are surveys on these measures. However, from the case studies of the Welsh language and the Hebrew language revitalization, the present course of action taken by the state and prefectural governments and private organizations does not seem wrong. On the other hand, citizens seem to lack awareness that it is citizens themselves who should take part in the revitalization movements, and they tend to expect governments and other organizations to preserve and promote the Ainu language and Shima Kutuba.

The revitalization of the Ainu language and Shima Kutuba is vital as these languages are not just a communication tool, but also function in the accretion of knowledge. However, the Ainu language and Shima Kutuba cannot be revitalized unless they are widely used. Thus, in addition to the measures by the state and prefectural governments, further grass-roots movements will be necessary in the future.



Gottlieb, N. (2005). Language and Society in Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Gottlieb, N. (2011). ‘Japan: Language Policy and Planning in Transition.’

Current Issues in Language Planning, 9, 1-68.

Harrison, K. David. (2007). When Languages Die. The Extinction of the Worlds

Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heinrich, P. (2012). The Making of Monolingual Japan. Bristol; Buffalo;

Toronto: Multilingual Matters.

Nagata, T. (2001). ‘Yonaguni no gengo henka [Language change in

Yonaguni]’, in F. Inoue, K. Shinozaki, T. Kobayashi and T. Ōnishi (eds), Ryūkyū hōgen-kō [Considerations about the Ryukyu Dialects]. Tokyo: Yumani Shobō: Vol. 7, 439-451.

Okinawa Prefectural Government (2013).しまくとぅば県民運動推進

事業 県民意識調査 報告書 (‘Report on the Survey on Shima Kutuba promotion project’, in Japanese), Okinawa Prefectural Government.(, 29 August 2014).

Sorensen, C.W. (1994). ‘Success and Education in South Korea.’

Comparative Education Review, 38, 10-35.

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