Dialects at risk of extinction in Tohoku's disaster zones


In the wake of the March 2011 disasters, encouraging phrases in various dialects gave residents of tsunami-devastated Tohoku a much-needed psychological lift, but those same dialects are battling to survive amid the exodus of young people from the region.

Magenedo, Miyagi!” (“Miyagi won’t give up!”) was a slogan used to inspire downcast residents in Miyagi Prefecture, while the town of Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture used banners reading “Ganbappeshi, Otsuchi!” (“Otsuchi will keep on going!”) to encourage townspeople to hang in there.

But dialects used along the region’s Pacific coastline are gradually falling out of use as the areas using them watch their young people leave.

Many coastal residents were uprooted by evacuations and scattered around the nation after the earthquake and tsunami devastated their homes and livelihoods.

“The varieties of language that form the basis of community ties are at risk of extinction,” one concerned researcher said of the loss of a generation that was due to inherit the region’s speaking styles.

In 2012, a survey of coastal communities in southern Iwate conducted by Iwate University for the Cultural Affairs Agency found that people 40 or older and their parents regularly spoke in dialect but that younger residents did not.

“People in their most productive years left the communities with their children after the basis for their livelihoods was destroyed,” said Makio Ono, an Iwate University professor who was involved in the survey. “It’s a difficult situation for the passing on of dialects.”

Tsunami-hit coastal areas in Miyagi are confronting similar problems, researchers say, though they note the situation is far more serious in parts of Fukushima Prefecture that remain off-limits due to radiation from the triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

“Three-generation families were not rare previously, but evacuations after the nuclear accident split up many families and destroyed communities,” said dialect researcher Hatsuo Kobayashi, who teaches at an elementary school in the city of Fukushima where he took refuge.

Concerns about prejudice and isolation have also contributed to the loss of regional tongues.

“Evacuees from Fukushima find it difficult to use dialects because of concerns about being bullied or discriminated against,” an official with the Cultural Affairs Agency’s Japanese Language Division said.

Seniors are also having a difficult time coping, the official said.

“Elderly people account for a large share of those who have returned home after the lifting of government evacuation advisories. They tend to live in isolation and have fewer opportunities to speak in their dialects.”

Community-level efforts are underway to ensure dialects get passed on to younger generations.

In Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, a group of storytellers who read out folk tales in the local dialect in public have expanded their activities to include events at schools in the coastal city.

In the Kirikiri district of Iwate’s Otsuchi, volunteer students from Tokyo’s Meiji Gakuin University are working with residents to create a deck of karuta (traditional Japanese playing cards) that incorporates phrases rendered in its dialect. The cards, completed in 2015, are used in elementary school classes.

An explanatory note in the new curriculum guidelines drafted for junior high schools for the 2021 school year says that efforts to preserve and pass on dialects have contributed to revitalizing communities.

“This is an example of projects being promoted to make good use of them (dialects) for regional reconstruction,” the guidelines say.

Iwate University’s Ono said the new guidelines could help put more emphasis on preserving dying tongues.

Although “Japanese language education since the end of World War II placed primary emphasis on developing students’ abilities to speak a common language,” he said, “more schools may embrace education that uses dialects.”