Written by:
Nov 14, 2019

The Ainu Language—A Story of Indigenous Japanese History and Culture

Culture—it’s curious how we divert vast quantities of both time and money toward preserving some aspects of human identity and little to none toward others. 

Take art, for example.

Collectors, curators and connoisseurs the world over make it their mission in life to preserve influential pieces of artwork for future generations. And rightly so. 

So why aren’t we doing the same when it comes to language?

We allow once-great languages to wither into obscurity. As proof, Latin, the mother of many modern-day languages, only exists in textbooks today.

The Ainu People - Credit: Missouri History Museum
The Ainu People - Credit: Missouri History Museum

Language, of any kind, is the key to everything humankind has ever accomplished. Without it, we would never have been able to work together and put a man on the moon, bring the Internet to life or split the atom. Pooling our thoughts is how we develop an understanding of the world, and language is fundamental to that.

We should be proactive about preserving endangered languages, and indigenous languages are the most endangered of them all. 

As a modest contribution to this cause, we’ve partnered with a UN-sponsored initiative 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL19) to launch a new indigenous language on the Drops app.

Which language have we chosen? The Ainu language.

The Ainu Language

Understanding the way indigenous communities communicate allows us a greater insight into their way of life, more than any painting or sculpture ever could.

The Ainu language is no exception.

Ainu is a language isolate, meaning that it has no roots in any other language, nor has it been the precursor to other languages. Historically, it’s the language of the Ainu people, a linguistically distinct community.  

Native to Hokkaido—Japan’s northernmost island—the Ainu people’s roots stretch back as far as the 9th century. The Ainu are the largest indigenous Japanese community.

Map of Hokkaido
Map of Hokkaido - Credit: Ningyou

Today, despite there being a notable population of Ainu people, the language has not prospered in the same way. According to unofficial studies, there are very few speakers left globally—making it one of the most endangered languages in the world. 

This decline is mostly down to generations of integration into modern Japanese society. Many people today aren’t even aware of their Ainu heritage. 

Ainu men in traditional dress
Ainu Men in Traditional Dress - Credit: Bronislaw Pilsudski

Nevertheless, the island of Hokkaido is steeped in Ainu history. The island's capital, Sapporo, got its name from the Ainu language and you'll find many Ainu symbols and sculptures dotted around the city. They are being installed in public places like subway stations as part of the local revival effort.

A sculpture of an Ainu man holding a hunting bow and wearing traditional dress

Culture, Traditions and Identity

The Ainu people have a rich history and culture. Their traditions and beliefs are quite different from Japanese traditions and beliefs. 

Women would create dresses and other garments adorned with traditional patterns using elm tree bark. These dresses were often used on ceremonial occasions such as marriages. Today, many women dedicate themselves to preserving this craft by creating these garments in the traditional way. Ensuring that these traditions live on alongside indigenous languages is vital if we are going to succeed in our efforts to preserve ancient cultures for future generations. 

A Traditional Ainu Ceremonial Dress
A traditional Ainu ceremonial dress

Ainu houses follow a precise formula. They were typically built along a riverbank, had three windows, a fireplace, an area for valuables next to the fireplace and designated seating areas for parents, children and guests. 

These very specific, but accepted norms extended to all aspects of Ainu life; from marriage to hunting and, of course, language. Tradition and ceremony are at the forefront of daily life within this indigenous Japanese society. 

Model of a Traditional Ainu House
Model of a Traditional Ainu House

Why Ainu?

Here at Drops, we firmly believe in the importance of preserving language. As we’ve already mentioned, Ainu is one of the most endangered languages in the world.

We’re under no illusion that we alone can save a language from dying out, but we will play our part. 

Learn a new language with Drops

By supporting language revival efforts on a local, national and international scale, we can have a more significant impact than going it alone. Our primary goal of working with and supporting these groups led us to Ainu.

The Ainu language is currently the focus of a local revival effort spearheaded by Hokkaido University. The Japanese Government has recently passed legislation officially recognizing the Ainu people, their culture, their music and their language. Having the opportunity to get involved in such a worthwhile cause is an exciting prospect for us. 

The Tonkori—a traditional musical instrument played by the Ainu people. Credit: XonLoke
The Tonkori—a traditional musical instrument played by the Ainu people. Credit: XonLoke

After centuries of not receiving the official recognition they should, this level of support from the Government is the first step toward helping raise awareness of an almost lost language. 

Together with the UN’s IYIL19 and Hokkaido University, we hope to keep the momentum going and get more people speaking about (or even better, speaking) the Ainu language. 

Drops & Indigenous Languages

Ainu isn’t our first foray into the world of endangered languages.

Back in 2018, we launched Hawaiian on Drops. Like Ainu, UNESCO classifies Hawaiian as an endangered language. In the 1960s there were fewer than 300 native speakers left, resulting in almost complete extinction. 

As of September 2018 (when we launched Hawaiian), there were reportedly 25,000 Hawaiian speakers globally. Since the launch, over 44,000 people have started learning Hawaiian on Drops—a testament to the power of technology. Raising awareness and giving people access to languages in this way has always been our goal. It's how we play our small role in a much bigger effort. 

Learn a new language with Drops

“Did you know...

There is no natural way of writing in the Ainu language? It’s usually transliterated in Japanese Kana or Katakana, Russian Cyrillic or the Latin alphabet.” 

Then came Māori.

We started to attract attention for our work making indigenous languages more accessible. Our moderate success with Hawaiian helped us realize that people are interested in learning these languages. It’s just a case of putting them out there. 

After launching Māori, the UN reached out to us and suggested we partner with their indigenous language initiative, IYIL19. We’ve become part of a network of organizations all working towards the same goal: To promote the preservation of endangered languages. 

We announced our partnership with IYIL19 at the annual RISE conference in Hong Kong but kept the language we’re launching on Drops under wraps.

Until now. 

Learn With Drops

Words are like building blocks when it comes to learning a new language. Ten thousand words is said to be the amount that a person needs to know in any given language to be fluent. 

So that’s what we focus on. 

Drops is designed to increase your vocabulary in a fun, visual way. 

To help expand our visual dictionary into this new niche, we are working with the only known Ainu professor in the world. Associate Professor Jirota Kitahara of Hokkaido University is helping us with the translations and ensuring that our efforts are impactful.

Voiceover talent, certified Ainu language instructor, Kenyu Yamamaru Recording Ainu Words for Drops
Voiceover talent, certified Ainu language instructor, Kenyu Yamamaru Recording Ainu Words for Drops

We have made sure to include culturally specific words as we have done with Māori. Unique words that aren't found in other languages help us to understand different cultures better. They help us to understand social norms and the intricacies of communication.  

Final Words

Collectively, we need to start placing as much emphasis on preserving endangered languages as we do works of art. 

Language is what defines us. 

No one person or organization can do it alone. Together we have the power to preserve and even revive fading languages.

We hope you’ll join us in continuing the excellent work started by initiatives like IYIL19, organizations like Hokkaido University and individuals like Professor Jirota Kitahara.


About the Author: Charlie Gardiner is originally from the UK but grew up in Spain. In recent years he has spent his time travelling and living in several different countries, trying to expose himself to as many new languages as possible. He has been bilingual since an early age and, thanks to that, language has always been a passion of his. His other passion in life is creating well-researched and engaging online content aimed at helping and inspiring people.

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