The standard Ainu greeting “irankarapte” — literally, “let me touch your heart softly” — may one day be consigned to the annals of history.

Indeed, the Ainu language is currently considered critically endangered — one step away from extinction, an academic classification that refers to a language that is no longer in use.

Transmitted orally and transcribed only relatively recently, Ainu was all but obliterated with the assimilation of its speakers, the indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido, into Japanese society, a process that began in earnest during the Meiji Restoration in the late 1860s.

Ainu people were taught conventional Japanese in schools built by colonizers, and, in the process, coerced into abandoning their traditions. A growing sense of shame about Ainu heritage resulted in the indigenous population electing not to teach their native language to their children.

The last people to have been raised in an Ainu-speaking environment are thought to have passed away around the middle of the 20th century.

In spite of the language’s bleak outlook, however, a small number of cultural organizations that are supported by an international network advocating for indigenous rights are refusing to give up on it just yet.

Endangered language

There are no reliable nationwide statistics on Japan’s remaining Ainu population, as many descendants are believed to hide their identity. Similarly, it’s hard to say with any amount of certainty just how many speak the language today. According to a Hokkaido survey in 2017, a paltry 0.7% of the 671 respondents acknowledged some ability.

Starting as early as the 1950s, however, there has been an increasing interest in reviving the Ainu language, whose genetic origins are unknown.

“What matters is generational transmission,” says K. David Harrison, a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, who has devoted much of his career to documenting the recordings of the last speakers of endangered tongues around the world. “As long as children are learning it, the language is secure.”

While many are passive speakers — older people who were exposed to the language as children — and Ainu is not being expressly taught to new generations on a national scale, Jeffry Gayman, an educational anthropologist at Hokkaido University, says that youths in Hokkaido are being raised around people who continue to have an affinity for the culture.

Kenji Sekine teaches an after-school Ainu language course in Biratori, Hokkaido. | MARA BUDGEN
Kenji Sekine teaches an after-school Ainu language course in Biratori, Hokkaido. | MARA BUDGEN

“This is an important foundation,” Gayman says. “They’re using Ainu words more and more in their daily conversations and messages with one another. Ainu culture is still very much alive in rural Hokkaido.”

Ainu language courses are available all over the prefecture as well as in other areas such as Tokyo, and there are even radio shows and YouTube channels conducted in the language.

Since the 1997 Ainu Culture Promotion Act put language preservation on the government’s agenda, the Comprehensive Ainu Policy Office has been supporting language courses and training teachers, as well as creating linguistic archives.

In July, meanwhile, the Upopoy National Ainu Museum opened in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, featuring explanatory panels written in Ainu and activities, such as puppet shows, through which visitors can experience the language.

Global movement

About an hour’s drive from Shiraoi is Biratori, a place many people with Ainu roots call home. In this small Hokkaido town, children receive Ainu language instruction in school, albeit only a few hours a year, and the local board of education is working to increase the time they spend learning about indigenous culture.

Kenji Sekine, the person in charge of this task, also teaches an after-school Ainu language course.

“Coming to class twice a week won’t make you a good speaker, so I’m trying to increase the time my students use the language,” Sekine says.

To reach this goal, Sekine draws inspiration from the revival of Maori, which was recognized as one of New Zealand’s official national languages in 1987.

Students participate in an Ainu language class in Biratori, Hokkaido. | COURTESY OF KENJI SEKINE
Students participate in an Ainu language class in Biratori, Hokkaido. | COURTESY OF KENJI SEKINE

He is currently working with Maori educators to bring Te Ataarangi, an immersive educational method developed in New Zealand, to Japan.

Thirty years ago, people told the Maori their efforts wouldn’t succeed, Sekine says, and yet they managed to save the language from the brink of extinction.

“This makes me hopeful and gives me energy,” Sekine says.

Through their interactions with the Maori as well as other indigenous peoples such as the Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans, the Ainu have found the kind of support that many feel they lack at home.

“Since I first went to New Zealand, I’ve gained confidence as an Ainu,” says Akemi Shimada, chair of the Aotearoa-Ainu Mosir Exchange Program. “I had lived so long in an environment of prejudice and discrimination that I wasn’t sure who I was.”

“We Ainu try to promote our culture narrowly, with no awareness of the bigger social, historical and political context,” she adds. “The Maori people, instead, know who they are. Everything they do is part of a whole big picture.”

The Ainu’s plight for recognition is embedded in the wider global movement for indigenous rights. For example, Kaori Tahara, a historian of Ainu origin and former adjunct lecturer at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, participated in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ first Indigenous Fellowship Program in 1997.

Students participate in an Ainu language class in Biratori, Hokkaido. | COURTESY OF KENJI SEKINE
Students participate in an Ainu language class in Biratori, Hokkaido. | COURTESY OF KENJI SEKINE

In particular, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was adopted in 2007, constitutes an important tool for native communities to advocate for their rights, including “providing education in their own languages.”

While Japan voted in favor of the nonbinding agreement, it has failed to apply its framework exhaustively. Although the 2019 Ainu Policy Promotion Act has since recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people by law, Gayman says it doesn’t include any provisions on language promotion measures.

“An addendum states that it must be reviewed after five years and one of the standards against which it is to be reviewed is UNDRIP,” Gayman says. “The issue of education is a political one, dependent on policy and financial support, that still isn’t in place in Japan.”

Common heritage

“For us, the Ainu language isn’t only a communication tool, but our identity,” Tahara says. “The emotion I feel when I hear ‘irankarapte’ isn’t just given by its pretty sound, but its philosophy.”

For those who value safeguarding native peoples’ identities and creating the conditions for them to flourish in modern societies, indigenous tongues play an essential role.

“Each language provides a unique cosmovision and value system,” Harrison says.

“Deep knowledge of plants and animals is possessed by indigenous cultures and not yet known to science,” he adds. “Speakers of endangered languages are generously sharing this knowledge, but it can’t simply be translated into dominant languages. No culture has a monopoly on human genius. What they know may help save the planet.”

Members of the Ainu-Mosir exchange program pose for a photo in Tauranga, New Zealand. | COURTESY OF AOTEAROA-AINU MOSIR EXCHANGE PROGRAM
Members of the Ainu-Mosir exchange program pose for a photo in Tauranga, New Zealand. | COURTESY OF AOTEAROA-AINU MOSIR EXCHANGE PROGRAM

In this sense, the preservation of the Ainu language is not only in the interest of its people and of Japanese society, but of humanity as a whole.

Protecting endangered languages also means recognizing the rights of their speakers to regain control of their destinies and correct past wrongs.

“Languages are endangered because they’ve been conquered, colonized and oppressed,” Harrison says. “Speaking them can be an act of resistance and decolonization.”

Notwithstanding valuable efforts to fashion a new role for the Ainu language in Japan today, its future remains uncertain. Until it is recognized as an official national language, included in school curriculums and increasingly used in everyday life, it risks being relegated to a museum exhibit instead of being embraced as a living culture.

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