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The Diversity in Asian Studies Event Series will address the need for diverse perspectives in the field of Asian studies. This year's series focuses on linguistic diversity, highlighting East Asian languages beyond Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese.


Menoko Itak: Language of Women in the Ainu language

Kanako Uzawa

The Ainu, meaning “human” in the Ainu language, traditionally lived in the Kurile Islands, southern Sakhalin, Hokkaido, and part of Honshu. In the 19th century, they came under Japan’s colonial rule. In 2008, the Japanese government officially recognized them as the Indigenous peoples of Japan. Ainu were once described and perceived as exotic people of Northern Japan, Hokkaido (Ainu Mosir in the Ainu). The Ainu became a very popular research subject both internationally and domestically from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. Thousands of Ainu objects were collected from Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and Kurile islands which are now stored in many museums worldwide. This presentation will focus on hidden stories and narratives of the Ainu women through Ainu museum collections from the eye of Dr. Kanako Uzawa, an Ainu scholar and artist. She will present the current situation of the Ainu culture and language. At the same time, she will also discuss the process and challenge she faces through ongoing Ainu art exhibition-making in collaboration with the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Lastly, she will introduce the trailer of her most recent art video production, Ainupuri, in which she reconstructed the counter-narratives that Ainu objects stored in the Historical Museum of Oslo University in Norway. This tells her storytelling in the form of narration, poetry, song, dance, and performance; Laura Liverani’s visual storytelling mediates these personal and collective histories in a constant dialogue between the two artists.

Language diversity, new speakers, and well-being in the Ryukyu Islands

Patrick Heinrich

Just like other nation-states around the world, Japan is multilingual and features autochthonous languages such as Ainu, Japanese Sign Language, and Ryukyuan. There are six different Ryukyuan languages which comprise a total of 700 local Ryukyuan dialects. These local varieties are usually called shimakutuba or shimamuni in Ryukyuan. All local varieties of the Ryukyuan languages are endangered today, and they are set for extinction around the mid century if no counteraction is taken. In the first half of his talk, Patrick Heinrich will introduce some background knowledge about the linguistic diversity of the Ryukyus and provide historical and sociolinguistic information on their current status and vitality. In the second half, he will report on two topics that give hope that some varieties of the Ryukyuan language may be maintained. He first reports on new speakers – young or middle-aged individuals who are learning a Ryukyuan language through what we call ‘language reclamation’. Language reclamation differs from second-language learning in two important ways. It involves a very emotional experience and a sense of language ownership from the very start. He reports here mainly on interviews he has conducted with new speakers. He then turns his attention to a recent development in endangered language studies, that is, the study of the relation between language and well-being. Speakers of Ryukyuan languages report much higher rates of life satisfaction than passive speakers or non-speakers of Ryukyuan. Based on quantitative research he has conducted with two Ryukyuan communities, he argues that speaking Ryukyuan itself contributes to Ryukyuan well-being and that speaking Ryukyuan enhances the experiences of belonging to a local community and in that way to life quality.

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