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Vestige of Imperial Japan hidden in language of eastern mountains of Taiwan

Atayal women perform a traditional dance in the village of Hanhsi, in Yilan County, northeastern Taiwan, on May 11, 2018. (Mainichi)

YILAN COUNTY, Taiwan -- During the traditional Atayal festival in the small village of Hanhsi in the northeastern mountains here, one will hear words by the many indigenous people that sound something like Japanese flying back and forth in conversation.

However, when asked, "Do the villagers here speak Japanese?" in Japanese, 36-year-old local Fang Hsi-en made a face like he did not quite catch the question. When asked once more in Mandarin Chinese, Fang answered, "Koshirake," which sounds like the Japanese for "just a little bit" -- "sukoshi dake."

Fang went on to explain in Mandarin, "This is our native language -- a variety that is like a mix between Atayal and Japanese. It's different from Japanese (spoken in Japan). I do understand some words in Japanese, but I can't catch what other people say." In this village, this variety is apparently mainly called "Nihongo" (Japanese) or "Kangke no Hanashi" (Kangke speech), among other names. "Kangke" is the name of the village in Taiwanese, while "Hanhsi" is Mandarin.

In Taiwan today, many people in their 80s or older speak Japanese. This is because the island of Taiwan was annexed by the Japanese government in 1895 after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). The Imperial Japanese government then educated the residents of the colony in Japanese language right up until the end of World War II. However, among the generations born after, only those who have studied Japanese as a foreign language are able to speak and understand it.

When turning an ear to the conversation of villagers in Hanhsi, things like the grammar, accent and sentence ending markers differ from Japanese, and it is difficult for a Japanese person to keep up with a conversation in the village tongue.

"The language of education as well as the lingua franca is Mandarin Chinese, so young people in Taiwan mainly speak Mandarin," explained Fang. "Still, there are many junior high and high school students who speak 'Nihongo.' Even now, when I speak with my classmates from the village, it's still in Nihongo." Recalling with a smile, he added, "When I was a student, we used to get weird looks from the Japanese people around us when we spoke it on the street in Taipei."

There are even some villagers in their 20s who speak the variety. The 25-year-old Wu I-no cooed to his son that he was very handsome, using the Atayal word for "very" and the word "iro-otoko," which means "lady-killer" in Japanese, but refers to a handsome man here.

Over 70 years have passed since Japanese was taught in Taiwan, but in the four Yilan County villages of Hanhsi, Aohua, Tungyueh and Chinyang, a language resembling Japanese is still spoken as a native language, mostly among middle-aged and elderly people. According to the linguists studying the variety in Yilan County, it was born out of the interaction between Japanese and the Taiwanese indigenous language of Atayal when Taiwan was under Imperial Japanese rule.

In the village of Tungyueh, the majority of residents belong to either the Atayal or Seediq indigenous peoples of Taiwan. Osaka University professor emeritus Shinji Sanada, 72, and associate professor Chien Yuehchen, 47, of Taiwanese National Dong Hwa University located in the eastern city of Hualien, have come here to interview the locals of this seaside village.

"There are four bags here. How do you ask, 'Which bag is my bag?'" Chien asks 71-year-old resident Sa Mei-yu. Sa replies, "Dokono kaban ga washi no?" This is close to the Japanese: "Dono kaban ga watashi no kaban desu ka?" Sa uses "washi" as a first-person pronoun, common in both "Yilan creole" and some dialects of Japanese. The Japanese word for which, "dono," has become what would be possessive "where" in Japanese, "dokono." Sanada and Chien have published and presented their findings about the characteristics of the vocabulary, grammar and other elements of this "Japanese."

Sanada and Chien consider the language variety to be one of the world's 100-plus creole languages. A creole is born out of just such colonial circumstances as the prewar relationship between Japan and Taiwan, where there was a need for communication between locals that may speak one or more different languages and their foreign government. When this mixed variety is then transferred to the next generation as a native language that is spoken in the home, it is labeled as a creole language. The word creole itself comes from the French word meaning "born in a colony."

Sanada and Chien have dubbed the Japanese-like language spoken in Yilan County, "Yilan Creole." Yilan Creole differs a little by each village, and for example, a comparatively larger number of Japanese words are used in the village of Aohua. As to why the variety was born, Sanada and Chien point to Imperial Japanese policies toward the colony of Taiwan.

Once annexing the island, the Japanese government of the time began to try to consolidate its rule over the indigenous peoples that resided in the mountains. The Japanese government forcibly moved the islanders to flat areas where they would farm and be easier to govern. According to a volume edited by the Imperial Japanese government of Taiwan, the number of those moved numbered around 40,000 people by 1941.

Both Seediq and Atayal people from other regions were sent to live in Tungyueh, and the Imperial Japanese government set up "Japanese language institutions" that acted as schools to teach the colonial language. But among the villagers themselves, Atayal and Seediq, which had been prohibited, are still used, and all three ended up being in use at the time.

"It was hard for the Atayal and Seediq to communicate with one another, so they mixed in their common language, Japanese, when speaking with one another," explains Chien. "This variety, Yilan Creole, which was a mix of the three languages, then became the home language of the next generation." This is a process similar to the birth of creole languages in European and American colonies in Africa and South America. However, it is only in these four villages in Yilan County with a total population of roughly 3,200 that a creole born of a Japanese colony has been confirmed.

However, children and young people have been moving away from speaking Yilan Creole due to Mandarin Chinese becoming the postwar common language and language of education in Taiwan. Yilan Creole may soon disappear completely -- a fate that it also shares with the world's other creole languages.

"The Japanese colonial governance that led to the birth of Yilan Creole is regrettable, but the fact that a creole language based on Japanese was born in Taiwan should be carefully recorded in the history books," said Sanada.

"The base phonetics and phonology of Yilan Creole comes from the Atayal language," Chien explained. "We cannot turn a blind eye on the cleverness of the residents of the four villages in creating this new variety that bequeathed the important elements of the Atayal language to the next generation."

(Japanese original by Shizuya Fukuoka, Taipei Bureau)

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