Hōgen ronsō: the great Ryukyuan languages debate of 1940

Patrick Heinrich 1
  • 1 Faculty of Foreign Languages, Dokkyo University, Saitama, Japan

Abstract

This paper analyzes a language ideological debate in which the status and utility of the Ryukyuan languages were discussed. One fraction supported the continuous oppression of the Ryukyuan languages as an inevitable means for Standard Japanese language spread in the Ryukyus. Their critics called for calmer judgment, pointing out the cultural value of the Ryukyuan languages. In the course of the debate, opposing visions of future linguistic orders in the Ryukyus emerged. It was the vision of those calling for Ryukyuan language oppression which turned into reality. The reason for such sociolinguistic change is rooted in power inequalities between the Japanese mainland and the Ryukyu Islands. Today, all Ryukyuan languages are set to become extinct by 2050 if no counter-action is taken. The language ideological notions connected to the Ryukyuan languages in the course of Japan’s social and linguistic modernization and the reproduction of these arguments by one fraction of the debate constitute the obstacles that all those seeking Ryukyuan language revitalization must surmount. They may find useful points of departure for doing so in the arguments of the critics. However, the debate is also of interest for students of linguistics and the social sciences, since their disciplines do not emerge as “neutral” in the course of debate. Rather, they constitute central pillars in the modernist quest for homogeneity and monolingualism in a linguistically diverse state.

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Contemporary Japan is the peer-reviewed biannual journal of the German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo. The international editorial board consists of distinguished Japan specialists from a broad array of disciplines. The journal publishes in-depth, original work from all disciplines as they relate to contemporary Japan and her historical roots. Beginning with Volume 25, Contemporary Japan is available open access at De Gruyter Online.

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