An independent television producer and an Ainu-language teacher recently released a compact disc featuring traditional Ainu stories in a bid to pass down the indigenous minority’s language.
Tatsumine Katayama, 60, a documentary producer based in Tokyo, published two books in 1999 and 2001 that feature traditional Ainu teachings based on the childhood memories of 74-year-old Mutsuko Nakamoto.
The books are titled “Upaskuma,” which in Ainu means “traditional wisdom handed down by ancestors.”
Both books were published in Ainu with Japanese and English translations and contain five short stories.
Nakamoto, who teaches Ainu in Chitose, Hokkaido, subsequently recorded recitations of the stories onto a CD so they can be used by students to learn the language.
Katayama and Nakamoto planned to release the CD last year with the second book, but rigorous pronunciation and intonation work delayed it for a year.
“There are several recordings of ‘Yukar,’ an Ainu epic, but because it is narrated in old Ainu, language beginners cannot learn vernacular speech from it,” Katayama said. “It is just like elementary Japanese learners starting with the ‘Tale of Genji.’ “
For Katayama, who has studied the Ainu language and culture for more than 20 years, the books and CD serve not only as educational materials but also as a form of language preservation.
“Ms. Nakamoto belongs to the last generation of Ainu who heard the language on a daily basis in their childhood,” he said. “We need to preserve their way of speaking.”
Nakamoto was born into an Ainu family, and her grandmother was more fluent in Ainu than Japanese. She lived with her grandmother, who even had a traditional tattoo around her mouth, until she was 14.
“I myself did not speak it routinely because it was discouraged, but I was surprised to find I remembered the language unexpectedly well while working with Mr. Katayama on the books and the CD,” she said. “When I was young, I thought Ainu was inferior in the face of discrimination. But now I feel that it was advantageous for me to have acquired the language without knowing.”
Nakamoto speaks the so-called Chitose dialect, which has been spoken in Chitose near Sapporo as well as its surrounding areas and is the most prevalent Ainu dialect.
But preserving an Ainu dialect in eastern Hokkaido has become more of a challenge due to the declining number of speakers and lack of documentation, Katayama said.
Ainu did not have its own script, making it hard to preserve the language. For pronunciation purposes, it is now written in a mixture of the Roman alphabet and katakana.
The works by Katayama and Nakamoto are part of growing efforts to preserve and revive the language.
An official at the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, the largest Ainu organization, said, “Conditions to learn the Ainu language have improved dramatically, with several Ainu-Japanese dictionaries published recently and Ainu-language lectures broadcast on the radio in Hokkaido.”
More than 400 people are studying the language at 14 classes in Hokkaido, operated by the association.
The Sapporo-based Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture has run three language courses in Hokkaido and one in Tokyo for intermediate and advanced learners since 1998. The foundation also regularly offers courses to train Ainu-language instructors.