TAIPEI - At a general store in a thickly forested mountain valley in eastern Taiwan, villagers are not speaking Mandarin Chinese nor Taiwanese but, surprisingly, a variant form of Japanese.
Aohua village in Nanao township in Yilan County is home to indigenous Atayal people, whose language stems from the days when Japan pushed thorough Japanese-language education and promoted “Japanization” during its 50-year colonial rule of the island up to 1945.
“My father repeatedly told us before he died that Japanese people did us two good things and two bad things,” said 55-year-old store manager Sicyang Isaw.
“They helped us make our life better by introducing agriculture and taught us to be hardworking. On the other hand, their tight rein and forcing us to speak Japanese were bad,” she said.
The Atayal people originally lived by hunting in the mountains and were known as fierce fighters.
“Even after Japan left Taiwan, our parents raised us using familiar Japanese,” Sicyang said. “So our common language in the hamlet is still Japanese.”
The Japanese language has continued to be covertly used for more than half a century and has evolved into a unique variant, with particles frequently omitted.
During her high school years in an urban area, Sicyang was asked by one of her Han Chinese friends if she could speak the Atayal language. She answered “yes” and spoke some.
But the friend denied that she spoke an ethnic language and pointed out to her that she was using Japanese.
Her four children can’t speak the Atayal language. Her grandchildren started taking an ethnic-language class at school while speaking Chinese in their daily conversation. Sicyang herself regularly studies the Atayal language in an adult education class.
The ethnic-language education started during the administration of Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first directly elected leader and who promoted democratization, and progressed largely under the following 2000-2008 Democratic Progressive Party presidency of Chen Shui-bian.
Indigenous people account for about 2 percent of Taiwan’s estimated population of 23.6 million. Among them, the Atayal are quite numerous, scattered across many parts of Taiwan.
They include Vivian Hsu, a TV personality active in Japan whose mother is a native Atayal.
Indigenous people face not only the language barrier but also environmental issues.
At a community center, a gathering of Aohua villagers discussed development plans for another stone pit on the upper side of the hamlet. They voiced concerns about the plans, with one saying “it may further the destruction of the environment” and another saying that “it might have adverse effects on the younger generation.”
There are numerous quarries on the nearby mountain and many men from the village make their living as truck drivers, transporting the stone quarried from the pits.
When Sicyang was a child, crabs could be caught in a mountain stream, but they are now long gone as sediment deposits have increased due to the quarrying.
Sicyang has launched a group to protect the Atayal ethnic identity, and to try to conserve the environment of the hamlet and revitalize their traditional culture.
“I believe there are similar problems around the world. The strong foist what they do not want on the ethnic minority’s land,” Hayung Noqan, a 47-year-old elementary school teacher, said after the briefing at the center. Born in Aohua, Hayung has studied the hamlet’s history.
Aohua and its vicinity once became a candidate for a final disposal site for radioactive waste from a nuclear power station in 2014.
The Aohua elementary school, where Hayung teaches, is the only primary school in the hamlet, which has a population of 1,000 people and 77 students in total.
In a classroom of first-graders, a 69-year-old female teacher wearing traditional costume teaches the Atayal language. The teacher, who is from another hamlet, said she grew up speaking the language at home. She also speaks Japanese.
Sicyang’s grandchild, Toli Iban, 9, is a third-grader at the school. At her store, Toli was asked to say something in Atayal and bashfully tried, quickly drawing loud laughter from the people around — because what he said was Japanese for “Where are you going?”
The environment these days for learning the Atayal language in schools has improved from years gone by, but Sicyang said that “taking a class once a week is too little.”
“We grew up hearing the Atayal language our parents and grandparents spoke in conversation. But our grandchildren have little opportunity to listen to the language in everyday life, so it’s the same as a foreign language,” she said while weaving an ethnic-patterned cloth.
“We have a sense of crisis that our own language may disappear. I hope we all will talk in Atayal, not in Japanese, in the future.”