Arts, Culture & Media

In Japan, the Ainu language is largely unknown and unloved, but linguists are fascinated by its mysteries

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Ainu artisan Maki Sekine and her Japanese husband Kenji. Though he is not Ainu, Kenji Sekine has learned the language and now teaches it to Ainu and non-Ainu students.

Credit:

Patrick Cox

One of the first things you learn about the Ainu language and the people who speak it is that the Japanese barely know about it.

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"Most Japanese, consciously or unconsciously, feel that the Ainu people do not exist," Tomomi Sato told me. Sato is an authority on the Ainu language at the University of Hokkaido. 

"The Ainu people do not have any meaning."

The public school curriculum mainly ignores Ainu, except to say it's a language that used to be spoken on the northern island of Hokkaido. There is no mention of it as a language that, in an earlier form, was probably spoken in Japan long before Japanese was. 

Similarly, there's scant mention of when the ancestors of the Ainu people might have migrated to Japan — probably before the arrival of the ancestors of the Japanese. 

If ordinary Japanese know anything about the Ainu, it's from folklore rituals staged for tourists in reconstructed Ainu villages.

Russian linguist Anna Bugaeva on the campus of the University of Hokkaido where she first studied the Ainu language. 

Credit:

Patrick Cox

Russian linguist Anna Bugaeva, my guide in this podcast episode, took me to one such village, though we spent more time in the unreconstructed part, chatting with locals about Ainu language and heritage. Bugaeva has been studying the Ainu language for a couple of decades. She was drawn to Ainu, partly because of its mysterious beginnings. Ainu is a "language isolate," unrelated to any other language, which makes it impossible to establish where it, or the people who spoke it, came from. 

"I don't think they were ever forbidden from speaking Ainu at home," Bugaeva told me. "It was their own choice, but it was pretty much a forced choice. We all want good for our children, right?"

Today, Bugaeva is a professor at Tokyo University of Science. She recently released an audio corpus of Ainu folklore

Kibata Sachiko recites an Ainu epic poem taught to her by her grandmother. She is in reconstructed Ainu dwelling in Nibutani, Japan. 

Credit:

Patrick Cox

In 2008, the Ainu won partial recognition of their unique language and culture. This has coincided with a slightly increased profile for the Ainu and, among some, expressions of pride in the culture. But unlike native American tribes in the United States, they do not own land as a people, or have nation status. 

Bugaeva hopes that this renewed interest in Ainu culture will encourage younger Ainu to learn the language, which hasn't been spoken conversationally since the 1950s. 

Podcast Contents

00:10 What my friend Yuki learned about the Ainu at school.

1:35 The stylized, unconversational sound of Ainu today.

Linguist Anna Bugaeva interviews Ainu speaker Ito Oda in her hospital room. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Anna Bugaeva

2:37 Anna Bugaeva knew from an early age she'd be a linguist. 

3:40 Anna finds her mentor. 

4:32 Sapporo: beer, winter sports and Ainu. 

6:09 "The Ainu people do not have any meaning."

6:30 A language isolate.

7:50 Anna recorded 15 Ainu folktales recalled by Ita Oda, one of the last really fluent Ainu speakers. 

8:40 "Half of the time I would go to the hospital to work with her."

10:30 Is folklore a touristic trap that makes outsiders feel good about the richness of this culture? Or is the folklore so powerful to the Ainu that they can recall lengthy poems and stories in their entirety?

12:46 Kenji and Maki Sekine are trying to bring back Ainu by raising their daughter to speak it. 

15:00 For Koichi Kaizawa the land comes first for the Ainu. Without land, there is no place where the language can thrive. 

18:35 Anna's own children: "They have never lived in Russia but they speak Russian becasue they had a chance to speak it with their parents. They will not get punished for that."

20:25 The Japanese "are not homogenous at all but nobody talks about it."

20:45 The Ainu and Japanese languages are not related.

21:00 One Ainu word that includes all the elements necessary to complete a sentence. 

23:00 The World in Words' live podcast recording is June 21 at the New York Public Library. Reserve your free tickets here

23:37 The answer to our latest NEH funder accent quiz. 

Ainu activist Koichi Kaizawa and his wife Miwako outside their home in Nibutani, Japan. 

Credit:

Patrick Cox

Music heard in the podcast

00:00 Podington Bear: "Dramamine"

2:43 Adam Selzer: "Pluck and Bounce" 

6:19 Unsettling Scores: "Cathaedrabysmal"

12:23 Adam Selzer: "Ripple" 

20:00 (morse): "J, Volume II"

22:17 Alexander Boyes: "The Resolution of Mr Clouds"

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National Endowment for the Humanities

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities