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Mix of Japanese, indigenous languages survives decades after Japan rule in Taiwan

Chang A-feng, 81, speaks about events before the end of World War II, in her home village of Hanhsi, Yilan County, Taiwan, on June 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

YILAN COUNTY, Taiwan -- In the town of Hanhsi in the northeastern mountains here, where many of the Atayal indigenous people reside, a language resembling Japanese -- "Yilan Creole" -- can be heard being spoken.

"Anata, roko iku?" The question, "Where are you going?" sounds similar to that of the Japanese, "Anata (wa) doko (e) iku?" But how did this language variety come to be born? According to Osaka University professor emeritus Shinji Sanada, 72, who researches the language spoken in the area, it is a new language variety born out of contact between Japanese and the indigenous languages of Atayal and Seediq during the time that Taiwan was under Japanese rule (1895-1945).

When this reporter visited 81-year-old Chang A-feng to ask about prewar life in Hanhsi, she greeted me, "Have you come from Taipei?" in Japanese. Chang, who is Atayal, only studied Japanese until she was 7 years old under the Imperial Japanese language education system.

"The school was right next to the (Shinto) shrine," Chang explained in fluent Japanese. "I still remember my teachers, Nakazono-sensei and Kuroki-sensei, even now. My name during the Japanese time was Kimiko Kawashita."

Then, Chang's nephew Liang-hsiang, 48, came to visit, and the conversation quickly shifted into the mixed language Sanada calls "Yilan Creole": "Kyo yaba kirunai. Koshirake kimochi ii" (Today wasn't hot. It was a bit cool). Here as well, "kyo" (today) and "kimochi ii" (comfortable) is very similar to Japanese, while "koshirake" resembles "sukoshidake" (a little). However, as the two became engrossed in conversation, it was no longer intelligible to a native Japanese speaker.

While the two speak Japanese to Japanese visitors, Yilan Creole is spoken between villagers. Asked when Chang began speaking the contact language, she of course switched back to Japanese, "I'm not really sure, you know?"

Chang Liang-hsiang, 48, stands near a stone monument in the ruins of a Shinto shrine erected during Japanese colonial rule, in the village of Hanhsi, Yilan County, Taiwan, on April 4, 2018. (Mainichi)

On high ground in the center of the village, the remains of a Shinto shrine from the Japanese colonial times still remain. The stone lanterns, a portion of which has been destroyed, and other architecture reflect the story of the past even now. There is even a stone monument on the grounds of the shrine with the Japanese word "oath" engraved in it. Something to the effect of "we will work to use Japanese in daily life" could barely be made out.

According to remaining records in Yilan County, the Japanese language school in Hanhsi was established in January 1914. However, right before that, this area was completely uninhabited. Beginning in 1903, the Japanese government forcefully moved the indigenous peoples from the mountains and closer to flatter areas so they would be easier to govern. The people of Hanhsi were part of this policy, with the Atayal and linguistically different Seediq people moving from villages deep in the mountains to live there.

"My parents lived far off in the mountains," recalled Hanhsi resident Liao Ing-tao, 93, from stories she had heard from her parents in fluent Japanese. "The Japanese (government ordered us) to move to lower ground."

As the government pushed Japanese language education in the new villages, languages like Atayal and Seediq became prohibited. Liao made a face, recalling, "If you said something in Atayal, you would get beaten by your teacher."

However, Chang revealed, "My parents would go to learn Japanese after they finished their work in the fields. But (in conversations between villagers), they would speak mountain languages (like Atayal and Seediq) too. They mixed the two, Japanese and the mountain languages."

Liao Ing-tao, 93, testifies about how her parents were moved from the mountains to the town by the Japanese government during its rule of Taiwan, in her home village of Hanhsi, Yilan County, Taiwan, on May 11, 2018. (Mainichi)

Sanada explained, "While Japanese, Atayal and Seediq were all being used, Yilan Creole emerged as a 'makeshift' language variety around the 1930s." That language variety has been passed on to the next generations, and is still spoken over 70 years since the end of Japanese rule in Hanhsi.

This is Part 1 in a series.

(Japanese original by Shizuya Fukuoka, Taipei Bureau)

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