Island Languages Day in the Amami Islands Date in the current year: February 18, 2024

Island Languages Day in the Amami Islands Many people think that Japanese is the only language spoken in Japan, but they are wrong. The Ryukyu Islands, for example, have their own indigenous languages. Although the Ryukyuan languages are officially considered dialects of Japanese, they are not mutually intelligible with Japanese or with each other. To highlight the importance of preserving the Ryukyuan languages, Island Languages Day is celebrated in the Amami region of the Ryukyu Islands.

According to a generally accepted theory, the Ryukyu Islands were populated by people speaking Proto-Japonic in the first millennium. Since the archipelago was relatively isolated, the languages here developed differently than in Mainland Japan.

In 1879, the Japanese Empire annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom. The Japanese government enforced a policy of assimilation, declaring Japanese the official language of the island and restricting the use of the Ryukyuan languages. For example, students who were caught speaking their native language were forced to wear a dialect card as a form of punishment.

During World War II the Ryukyuan languages started to be regarded as dialects of Japanese, and speaking them was declared illegal. This policy of the Japanese government has led to near extinction of the Ryukyuan languages. The problem is particularly acute in Okinawa Prefecture; despite having nearly 900,000 speakers, the Okinawan language is spoken primarily by elderly people, while children and young people in Okinawa Prefecture only speak Japanese.

Okinawan isn’t the only Ryukyuan language. For example, about 12,000 people inhabiting the Amami archipelago spoke the Amami language. Amami is more closely related to Okinawan than other Ryukyuan languages, especially its southern variety spoken in the town of Setouchi, and a number of Amami speakers also speak some degree of Okinawan.

Since the Amami Islands are less urbanized than Okinawa, their language is declining less quickly than Okinawan. Still, most native speakers of Amami are old people, and it is considered endangered just like the rest of the Ryukyuan languages. According to UNESCO, they are on course for extinction by 2050.

In 2006, the government of Okinawa Prefecture declared September 18 Island Languages Day to raise awareness of the status of the Okinawan language. The following year, the Amami Islands followed suit. Here, Island Languages Day is celebrated on February 18.

The main goal of Island Language Day in the Amami Islands is to draw public attention to the problem of the extinction of the Ryukyuan languages and to emphasize the importance of preserving the cultural heritage associated with them. Linguists and language activists organize various events on the occasion.

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Island Languages Day in the Amami Islands, cultural observances, observances in Japan, Ryukyuan languages, Amami language