Japan’s mystery language

16 min readApr 28, 2021
Ainu artisan Maki Sekine and her Japanese Ainu-speaking husband Kenji. (Patrick Cox)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick: Hi, I’m Patrick Cox and this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages and people who speak them, produced by Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and if you’re thinking, “I don’t care what day of the week or what time it is, just get on with the podcast!” Fair enough. I mention it only because it’s the quietest time of the week to do this recording. There’s almost no traffic, no construction, no pedestrians. It’s almost…lonely.

But the noise — the incessant noise most other days — that’s a sign that things, in this corner of the world at least, they’re maybe not exactly returning to normal but they’re moving on to a new normality. I know that the pandemic is raging in many other parts of the world. If you live in one of those parts, I hope you’re coping, and I hope that this episode will transport you — just for a bit — to another time and place.

I realize that’s what we’ve been doing these past few episodes: transporting ourselves. We’ve been dipping into the archive, picking out episodes that are no longer available as podcasts. And the episodes that Kavita Pillay and I have chosen have been reported from places that we can’t get to very easily right now, if at all: India, the Netherlands, California even. Today it’s Japan, where I first reported this in 2016. Hope you enjoy it.

Patrick: My friend Yuki is Japanese, she lives in the US. Back in her school days which were…

Yuki: Later 70s and early 80s. Let’s put it that way.

Patrick: Back then in history classes, she learned, among other things, about beginnings of the Japanese people.

Yuki: I thought people were coming either from the Korean peninsula or directly from China. Over the long period of time we merged to build the foundation of the modern Japanese.

Patrick: I asked Yuki: What did she learn about the Ainu? Spelled A-I-N-U. This is an ethnic group whose presence in Japan may have predated those migrations from the Asian mainland. So what did the textbooks have to say about that?

Yuki: Almost nothing.

Patrick: Hmm. So I asked Yuki, “As an adult today, what do you know about the Ainu language? Do you know, for example, whether it’s related to Japanese?”

Yuki: I haven’t the slightest idea. That was not part of my education to begin with.

Patrick: Well, today, Japanese school kids do learn a little bit more about the Ainu. But not much. Certainly compared to what their counterparts in the US and Canada learn about the indigenous cultures around them. And still Japan, they almost nothing about the Ainu language.

On tape: Ainu woman reciting a poem

Patrick: This is what Ainu sounds like today. Stylized. Totally unconversational.

This is a rendering of a piece of folklore, an epic poem.

The woman reciting it — she’s elderly herself — and speaks very little of the language apart from this and other poems memorized in her childhood. This is pretty much what’s left when it comes to speaking Ainu. The Ainu people today, 25,000 of them — that’s the government figure, almost definitely a low estimate — well, they speak Japanese. With one or two exceptions.

Today on the pod, whatever happened to one of Japan’s original languages How did it became so marginalized that many Japanese don’t even know it exists. And why are a handful of linguists so fascinated by it?

Patrick: Anna Bugaeva knew from an early age she’d be a linguist, just like her mom.

Anna Bugaeva: I guess before even going to elementary school I would be reading all these languages, reading in Cyrillic. It was all over our flat.

Patrick: And that flat — that apartment — in St Petersburg, Russia, it was full of books, and full of people from far away who spoke foreign tongues: Korean, Manchu…

Anna Bugaeva: Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek. So quite early I was exposed to linguistic diversity adn I never felt scared in front of other people. We had this dictionary of Ainu dialect, and of course I started reading it.

Anna Bugaeva (Patrick Cox)

Patrick: And so Anna wound up in Japan studying Ainu. She made a beeline for the University of Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, and it’s considered the Ainu’s homeland — though actually they were settled in other parts of Japan too. But it’s where most Ainu live, where they hunt and fish, as they used to do. Anna knew who she wanted to be her teacher. One of just a handful of Japanese linguists who studied Ainu. A man called Tomomi Sato.

Anna Bugaeva: And he just got his job at this time. He was just 35, and I was his first student ever, I guess. I don’t think he had ever met a foreigner, that close. And he kind of hesitated but he said, “Okay, of course I know your mother, she edited this dictionary. Well you should be a serious student.” I could barely speak Japanese. I got accepted, got into the club.

Patrick: Anna and I were in Sapporo when she was telling me this. Sapporo’s the main city of Hokkaido — best know for its beer and its skiing — the winter Olympics has been there. Sapporo is an Ainu word — it means river covered with reeds. It’s also where the University of Hokkaido is, and so Anna wanted me to meet her mentor. These days Sato is a highly respected Ainu scholar. Well, highly respected among people who care about Ainu. Which in Japan is, frankly, not many.

Anna was really excited about this meeting. Sato has had some health problems, and doesn’t see many people. Anna wasn’t sure what he would say, how forthright he would be. There’s so much sensitivity, she told me, around not just the Ainu language — but whole story of the Ainu people in Japan. Like, there was this group of people living in Japan who spoke a totally language to Japanese — it’s as if that’s an affront to Japanese identity. So Anna thought Sato might parse his words carefully. As it turned out, he didn’t pull any punches.

Tomomi Sato: Most Japanese don’t know anything about the Ainu people and their culture.

Tomomi Sato (Patrick Cox)

Patrick: Even today, Sato told me, the Ainu are ignored. And this at a time when many other countries have changed their attitudes to indigenous people, in the Americas, Australia, Africa, Europe. But not in Japan.

Tomomi Sato: Most of the Japanese consciously or unconsciously feel that the Ainu people do not exist in Japan. The Ainu people do not have any meaning.

Patrick: Ainu is a language isolate; it has no linguistic relatives. Nobody knows where it came from, or where the Ainu people. There are just theories — and clues, embedded in the language. Sato, the professor, had taught himself Ainu. Anna, his student, did the same.

Except that Ainu is barely a living language. People say there are ten or so native speakers left, but even that’s an exaggeration. True native speakers, people who actually speak Ainu as their first language, as their default: That number may be zero. Anna says that since the 1950s Ainu hasn’t really been a spoken language at all. So had to learn it by reading texts and listening to scratchy old recordings. And if you’re lucky, finding some really, really old people and get them talking. Even then, what they’re passing on isn’t exactly, “How are you?” “Not bad.” “Can you help fix my iPhone?” “I can access my emails.” No, you’re going to get recollections from childhood — maybe simple discussions with their grandparents — or more likely, folk tales they learned by heart as kids, stories and epic poems like the one I played I start of the podcast.

Anna Bugaeva: They would be able to recite quite long stories, like 30 minutes. Some would last for even two hours or whatever. Well, I had such a speaker, who I recorded with her 15 stories, folktales. The longest is probably 40 minutes. She was one of the last really fluent speakers.

Sound of Ainu speaker Ito Oda

Patrick: The woman’s name was Ito Oda. This is a recording Anna made in 1998. Oda is reciting an epic about the Ainu Thunder God.

Sound of Ainu speaker Ito Oda

Anna Bugaeva: I don’t know how it is possible. Can you imagine, a person who is already 90 years old. Half of the time I would go to the hospital to work with her.

Anna and Ito conversing in Japanese

Patrick: In this session at the hospital Anna asks Ito Oda to express the different ways in Ainu to say “Anna and Ito exchanged earrings with each other.”

Anna and Ito conversing in Japanese

Anna Bugaeva: But still she was so happy about transmitting the language. Like, her own children or grandchildren wouldn’t bother about it often. But there was some person from overseas coming to record it. And she would be coughing but making an effort to really transmit the language. And sometimes people — I don’t know if they spoke it at all normally but they would remember these folktales.

Patrick: Because some grandparent had recited it endlessly to them when they were a child, even if they didn’t understand other aspects of the language.

Anna Bugaeva: I think it was like that. It was their lifestyle. They would gather in the evening, she described it to me. People especially in the villages, usually they visited each other quite often. So today, you would be hosting two or three people. And what they would be doing is reciting this folklore because it was still part of their culture. Some of the stories are for gods — to please the gods — and some are to amuse each other. They would really believe these are all true stories. It was their way of — their lifestyle basically, probably their joy after hard work. So that’s the only possible way I think she could have learned it. I can’t imagine any other way at all.

Patrick: Oh, that’s really funny. I have a couple of responses to that. One is that I think I’ve become quite cynical about folklore. I thought of it in terms of some kind of touristic trap that gets presented like making a bear dance. There are these moments when people put on the costume, recite the poetry. It’s all dressed up in the folklore, and outsiders, tourists — it makes everyone feel good about the richness of this culture, while in fact this culture is dying or has already died off. But maybe I shouldn’t feel sop cynically about it. It makes me rethink that, when I hear a story like this where the folklore was so powerful to its people that they could do something like recall entire lengthy poems.

Anna Bugaeva: Yeah, yeah. But I think that’s one of the reasons why the language lasted that long.

Patrick: If it extends the life of the language that’s a pretty big deal. Yet when Anna and I went to an Ainu village a couple hours’ drive from Sapporo, and I recorded the woman reciting her epic story, it didn’t make me feel good. I felt as though she was putting on a fake performance for me. It didn’t help that we were inside a replica Ainu hut. There was an authenticity issue, which I didn’t want to exploit just so I could give my reporting a bit of local color, Nanook of the North style.

An Ainu woman reciting an epic poem. (Patrick Cox)

But maybe I was interpreting this stuff the wrong way. I mean why should this women who must have recited this piece of her own folklore hundreds of times, why shouldn’t appear grumpy and bored by having to do it for some white dude with a microphone? And remembering the words to these stories that can run longer than 30 minutes — that’s extraordinary, like Anna says. Authenticity is a moveable feast.

So in this Ainu village — it’s called Nibutani — Anna introduced me to some other people she knew too. First, a couple in their 40s who are attempting almost the impossible: to bring back Ainu as a living, conversational language. Kenji and Maki Sekine are married. He’s not Ainu; he’s from the other end of Japan. But he speaks Ainu better than his Ainu wife. And so he teaches the language to young Ainu.

Kenji Sekine: My Ainu is not as good as my English. But my role in here is as a teacher. I have to teach.

Sound of a Learn Ainu audio book

Patrick: This is Ainu audiobook that Kenji helped put together for his teaching. His wife, Maki, has the typical Ainu experience of the language.

Maki Sekine speaking in Japanese

Patrick: She tells me, in Japanese, that she picked up a few Ainu words from her grandmother who would switch from Japanese to Ainu in order to pray, to dispatch the spirits of dead animals to the next world.

Maki Sekine at work. (Patrick Cox)

As she’s telling me this, Maki is making yarn, pulling fibre out of elm bark. It’s what the Ainu use to make clothes. She’s not doing it for fun — or for show. It’s actually her job. Which means she’s immersed in Ainu culture even without the language. Now, though, she’s learning Ainu, with her husband. And they’ve taken another step. They are trying to raise their daughter bilingually , in Japanese and Ainu.

Maki Sekine speaking in Japanese

Patrick: Maki says she really wants her daughter to speak Ainu — it’s something a mission — but she doesn’t want to force it on her. It needs to be her choice.

I don’t exactly know what to think about this. I mean it’s tremendously admirable and courageous to try to revitalize a language just within one family. But maybe it’s foolhardy too. It’s so much effort — and for what? If the family does succeed and they end up have conversations among themselves in Ainu, who else are they going to talk to? Anna knows of only one other family that’s doing this. That’s it.

On our way back to Sapporo, we stop by some other old friend’s of Anna’s, another mixed couple — Koichi Kaizawa is Ainu — and his wife Miwako is Japanese. They’re in their sixties.

Miwako and Koichi Kaizawa (Patrick Cox)

Koichi Kaizawa speaking in Japanese

Patrick: The way Koichi sees it, the language is of course important to the Ainu, but there’s no place to use it. The Ainu have no land set aside for them — no reservation, no nothing like that. Just partial recognition from the Japanese government and a little financial support for cultural activities. Koichi works on the land; he always has. Right now he’s working on a project to reforest this part of Japan with the kind of trees that used to be here: elm, spruce, birch. For him, the land comes first for the Ainu, as a right.

Koichi Kaizawa speaking in Japanese

Patrick: Just winning the right to a stretch of land that the Ainu could call their own, he says, that would be near-possible. Japan is densely populated. And you couldn’t kick non-Ainu off the land? And anyway, you can’t force people to speak Ainu. Don’t get me wrong: Koichi is 100% committed to all things Ainu. He just can’t envision a future where the language could come back. Even so, he and his wife practice their own limited language skills. They have a daughter who is making a successful career as an Ainu artist in Sapporo.

I wanted to know more about the status of Ainu from Anna, the outsider. She’s actually a double-outsider: to the Ainu and to the Japanese, which may have helped her gain the trust of the Ainu. What did she think happened to Ainu? Many languages die but just like us, they die differently.

The disappearance of the language she said has coincided with the disappearance of the people. She told me there are plenty of Ainu in Sapporo and other big Japanese cities, though you wouldn’t notice them. Which is on the face of it counter-intuitive. It’s pretty easier to identify an Ainu. They don’t look typically Japanese. For a long time, people thought they came from Europe. But many have become experts at conceal their ethnicity. For a long time, it was semi-official policy among the Ainu to marry non-Ainu people so their offspring would look more Japanese.

This is why that population estimate of 25,000 may be seriously lowballing it. If you go with that number, you’re assuming that people are only too happy to declare themselves Ainu, to say, “Yeah, I belong to a discriminated-against minority that has very few rights.”

This is one of the first things that Anna learned about the Ainu, this discrimination. And yes, it’s kind of a universal story when it comes to indigenous people, but in Japan it’s more intense. The pressure to fit into Japanese society just that much greater for the Ainu.

Anna Bugaeva: I don’t think they were ever really forbidden to speak in their own language at home. No, there was not such a law.

Patrick: Instead, a few decades ago, in some cases longer — people just stopped speaking it at home, and stopped passing it on to their kids. It was easier that way.

Anna Bugaeva: It was their own choice in a sense. But it was pretty much a forced choice. I mean, we all want good for our children right?

Patrick: Right, of course we do. It’s just that for most of us, we haven’t had to make that decision. Anna herself hasn’t. Her husband, he’s also Russian — he’s a translator. Their children, ethnic Russians living in Japan, they’re not missing out on their heritage language.

Anna Bugaeva: They have never lived in Russia but they speak Russian because they had the chance to speak with their parents. They will not get punished for that, or discriminated. I don’t know what would be my choice if that would be the case.

Patrick: So the Japanese — people like my friend, who didn’t learn about the Ainu at school — what did they learn? What did history teachers tell kids about when the early settlement of Japan?

Would they essentially say, would the message essentially be that the Japanese were the original people of these islands?

Anna Bugaeva: Yes, I think, the original. That’s the common view. There is nobody who doubts it.

Patrick: So there is no discussion in the textbooks of who may have alredy been there.

Anna Bugaeva: Oh no, no way, of course not. These are only the discussion between scholars. And some people…

Patrick: Wait a minute. At my school in England we learned about wave after wave of migrants who came and basically fought it out with the people who were already there, and either got absorbed or won battles and took over the reigns of power. But we very much learned that as a result the people who we are now is a tremendous mongrel mix of just one series of invaders after another. And we learned about thatBut you’re saying that that Japanese textbooks do not…

Anna Bugaeva: If they included that, it would result in the ruins of identity.

Patrick: Why? What is it about the Japanese identity would be ruined?

Anna Bugaeva: Its uniqueness, its homogeneity. Because in fact, it’s not homogenous at all. There are people who look like that. There are people who look like this. Actually they are very different. They are not homogenous at all. But nobody talks about it.

Patrick: There are some really cool things about the Ainu language itself that Anna told me about, evidence in the grammar and words themselves that Ainu is a million miles away from Japanese. It used to be claimed that it was an isolated dialect of Japanese.

I’ll end with one example of how Ainu works. This word.

Anna says the Ainu word.

Patrick: This is a verb, but it’s so much more. A verb plus, or even plus plus. It means to throw or to unload, but there’s all kinds of other information attached to this verb. Alongside to throw, you can also make out the words for I, fish, to, and shore. Anna writes it down for me.

Anna Bugaeva: This is fish, this is shore, this is to, this is throw. This is the subject marker, the so-called I. Just ignore this.

Patrick: I was more than happy to have something to ignore. Anna told me it’s called polysynthesis, this characteristic of including all the elements necessary to complete a clause or a sentence in just one word. It’s not unique to Ainu. Mohawk, among other languages, has it too. Here’s the word again.

Anna repeats the Ainu word.

Patrick: Okay, so in those few syllables is encoded the entire sentence, I threw the fish he caught on the shore. Sorry, I unloaded the fish that somebody else caught on the shore.

Anna Bugaeva: Yes, You can put everything into the verb.

Patrick: Anna Bugaeva, a Russian who knows her Ainu. Got to learn it before it was too late. These days, Anna is an Associate Professor at Tokyo University of Science. And along with a couple of colleagues she has published an audio corpus of Ainu folklore, a collection of recordings of Ainu speakers reciting folktales and epic poems, adding to what is already a pretty well-documented language.

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Thanks this time to Tina Tobey and Alyson Reed. Also to The World public radio program, where every week day you can hear what’s going on not just in the US but all over the globe. If your local public radio station doesn’t carry The World, demand that they do! Or subscribe to the podcast.

Last but far from least, thank you to everyone at the Hub and Spoke audio collective of which Subtitle is a part. Another Hub and Spoke podcast is The Constant. This is a podcast about our fraught relationship with the past. We think we’re always learning from it, but seriously do we ever learn from it? Look out for a pair of recent episodes called It’s all a lie and Don’t know much about history, which I loved. These episodes take us back to the year 1729, to a guy who declared that all of history was faked. Remind you of anyone from these times? Check out The Constant with host Mark Chrisler along with all the other Hub and Spoke podcasts.

Thanks for listening. If you want to get in touch with us, the best way is on Twitter. See you next time.

Subtitle is a production of Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America. It receives funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Follow Subtitle on Twitter here and Patrick Cox here.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod