Endangered Languages and Dialects in Japan

Abbreviated Name
Endangered Languages and Dialects
Project Leader
KIBE Nobuko (Professor, Language Variation Division, NINJAL)
Languages and dialects
Related Site
General Research for the Study and Conservation of Endangered Dialects in Japan


Background and Purpose

Today, lesser-known languages are facing the prospect of extinction throughout the world. Currently, of the 6,000–7,000 languages spoken on the planet, roughly half are certain to disappear within the next 100 years and, in the worst-case scenario, only one-tenth to one-twentieth may survive. A number of factors are contributing to this crisis, including population loss in outlying regions due to urbanization, abandonment of lesser-known languages by their speakers for societal or economic reasons, and displacement of people from their birthplace due to disasters or conflicts.

When it comes to the extinction of lesser-known languages, the prevailing opinion is as follows: language extinction is a result of changes in society, and cannot be helped. Or, stated more extremely, it is more convenient for languages to be standardized and it is not necessary to protect languages that are under threat.

Let us stop to ask how languages became so variegated in the first place. It is thought that the various regional languages developed over long periods of time, influenced by such factors as the local environment, the way of life, and the way of thinking of the speakers. Extinction of these languages, therefore, signifies the loss of wisdom acquired by humankind over the ages. Just as a multiplicity of living organisms enriches the earth, so too does a multiplicity of languages enrich humankind.

The alarm to this crisis was sounded by the 2009 UNESCO publication on endangered languages. Included in the list of 2,500 endangered languages are eight languages spoken in Japan: Ainu, Hachijō, Amami, Kunigami, Okinawan, Miyako, Yaeyama, and Yonaguni. These are, however, not the only languages threatened with extinction—traditional dialects throughout Japan are also under threat. The goal of this project is to record these dialects, communicate their value to the public, and support movements that work towards their continued survival.

Objectives and Methods

We have three main objectives. 1. To create a record of the endangered languages and dialects found throughout Japan. 2. To analyze the characteristics of these languages and dialects. 3. To consider approaches for preserving endangered languages and dialects, and to support regional movements which work towards ensuring they continue as living languages.

  1. In order to produce a record of endangered languages and dialects, we shall create vocabulary lists and grammar books, and document discourse (narrations and conversations) for each region. Alongside these activities, we shall also make audio and video recordings, which will include transcriptions of the contents of the conversations as well as commentary (referred to as documentation). These activities and investigations will be carried out gradually, while in conversation with speakers of the respective languages and dialects. The work will be slow and steady, requiring patient, ongoing efforts.
  2. When executing the analysis of the characteristics of endangered languages and dialects, it is crucial to avoid being biased by the framework of standard Japanese. For example, in the Amami-Kikai dialect, first-person plural can be expressed by either wannah or waichah. Wannah denotes exclusionary ‘we’, which does not include the listener, while waichah denotes inclusionary ‘we’, which does include the listener. No such distinction exists for ‘we’ in standard Japanese (watashitachi), making the Kikai dialect appear unique. However, we also find this distinction in the Chinese language and in African languages. When making a comparison with other languages of the world, we find that the Kikai dialect is by no means exceptional.
  3. Lectures and seminars will be the means to support movements for preserving the continuation of endangered languages and dialects. During these lectures and seminars, we will present information on the value of regional languages, as well as their distinct characteristics. We will also, together with the local community, contemplate the importance of passing these languages on to the next generation and deliberate over methods to achieve this goal. Since 2014, we have held an annual “Endangered Languages and Dialects of Japan Summit” in partnership with the regions and the Agency for Cultural Affairs. This is an occasion where individuals engaged in the documentation and preservation of the eight endangered languages and dialects from the UNESCO list can meet in one place, report on the activities being executed in the various regions, and identify ways to make these activities more effective.