Japan has been inhabited since the Paleolithic Age with the ancient inhabitants having a language whose nature or composition is not known. Japan is home to over 127 million people most of whom use the official language of the country, Japanese (Nihongo) which is part of the largest language group in the country, the Japonic language family.
Japanese is the official language used in the country and is also the primary language in the country with over 125 million speakers. However, there is no law that provides for the language’s official status with the language being the de facto national language in the country. The Japanese language is a member of the “Japonic” language family which also includes another language in Japan, the Ryukyuan language. Locally, the Japanese language is referred to as “Nihongo” and is native to Japan. The Japanese language is heavily influenced by the Chinese language with the language being written using many Chinese characters which are also known as “kanji.” In recent years, the Japanese vocabulary has been proliferated by other foreign languages, particularly English. The Japanese language also features the use of Arabic numerals in conjunction with the traditional Chinese numerals. Little is known of the origin of the Japanese language with scholars stating that the language was brought to Japan by settlers either from the Pacific Islands or continental Asia and replaced the existing languages of the Jomon people. Japanese is also spoken by Japanese immigrants all over the world with the largest populations of Japanese speakers being in Brazil, Hawaii, and the Philippines.
Besides the Japanese language, the other widely used language in Japan is the Ryukyuan language. While Ryukyuan has many speakers spread all over the country, the language is predominantly used in the Ryukyu Islands with the total number of Ryukyuan speakers in the region numbering over 1.45 million people with fluent speakers being mainly composed of the older generation. Ryukyuan is a member of the Japonic language family and is closely related to Nihongo (Japanese) language with the two languages sharing syllables as well as the moraic rhythm. In recent years, the use of Ryukyuan has faced a sharp decline with the young generation preferring to use Japanese or corrupted versions of Ryukyuan. Linguists in Japan agree that the language is facing a real threat of extinction and UNESCO has classified the language as endangered.
Other Native Languages
Other languages native to Japan include Hokkaido Ainu, Bonin English, Nivkh, and Uilta. Hokkaido Ainu is predominantly used in Hokkaido Island by members of the Ainu ethnic group. The Ainu language is headed to extinction with only ten fluent users existing to date, all of whom are above the age of 80 and UNESCO has classified the language as critically endangered. There are several policies which have been implemented to aid in the revitalization of the language including the printing of Hokkaido Ainu dictionaries. The Nivkh language is another language native to Japan which is facing a severe threat of extinction and is used by the Nivkh people residing along the Amur River. Bonin English is a creole language used by residents of the Bonin Islands and is English-based. Uilta language is another language native to Japan and is also known as Orok language.
Increased globalization which intensified after the end of the country’s self-imposed isolation in 1853 has caused several foreign languages to be used in the country including English, German, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and French.