Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Japan

Today we'll be focusing on the linguistic makeup of Japan, a country in the Pacific Ocean composed of an impressive 6,852 islands. Over 400 of these islands are inhabited by Japan's population of approximately 126 million people. Despite the country's massive population being spread across so many islands, it is not as linguistically diverse as one would think.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, an 1830s ukiyo-e woodblock print by Japanese
artist Hokusai that is one of the most famous pieces of art in the world.
The National Language

While Japan does not have an official language, it does have a national language. Unsurprisingly, this language is Japanese, which is spoken by approximately 99% of the country's population. This is primarily because Japan is a relatively homogeneous society when it comes to culture and language, with over 98% of the population being ethnic Japanese.

The Ryukyuan Languages

Despite the prevalence of Japanese, there are other languages spoken in Japan. The Ryukyuan languages, six in all, are indigenous to Japan's southern Ryukyu Islands. The number of speakers of these languages is unknown, though they are all believed to be endangered. While the Japanese government considers them to be dialects of Japanese, linguists have shown that they are not mutually intelligible with each other or with Japanese, and therefore are separate languages in the same language family.

Ainu, The Minority Language

The Ainu language is considered a minority language in Japan. Sadly, it is nearly extinct, with only a handful of elderly speakers remaining on Hokkaido, Japan's second largest island. However, there have been recent education efforts to help revitalize the language and some people are now learning Ainu as a second language.

Immigrant Languages

A small percentage of the Japanese population is comprised of immigrants who speak their native language despite the dominance of Japanese in the country. The two main immigrant languages in Japan are Korean and Chinese, which together are spoken by approximately 0.9% of the Japanese population.