The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

A Basic Analysis of the Languages Spoken by Immigrants in Japan

Joint Research Coordinator SHOJI Hiroshi

Reserch Theme List


As the number of foreigners living in their midst has risen precipitously in recent years, Japanese have become interested in the existence of languages spoken by these “newcomer foreigners” (immigrant languages). However, even if data collected concerning the language of earlier Korean immigrants to Japan is included, the overall situation regarding the diversity of immigrant languages remains unclear. Our research effort is premised on understanding the current situation regarding immigrant languages, as well as constructing a theoretical and technical framework for future research on immigrant languages for systematic research in Japan. Specifically, we propose to investigate the following themes. (1) Understanding immigrant language research in Japan (areas related to the actual substance of language such as language contacts, interference, code mixing/changes; usage situations/language territories/language functions and other areas related to language usage; and language exchanges, language communicators and other areas related to language preservation). (2) Fabrication of theories and methodology that have a close relationship to theme 1 at the micro and macro levels, and organization of studies into topics related to the languages of immigrants in Japan. (3) As measures for theme 2, studies of several preliminary model cases on immigrant language survey research are selected so as to be able to focus on the conspicuous conditions and issues of particular importance for future research into immigrant languages in Japan.

Research Results

During the two-and-a-half year research period, this research committee held 15 meetings at which 29 reports were delivered. During the first half of the period, the research consisted of overviews of the situation for immigrant languages focusing on the immigrant communities in which the committee members involved themselves. The research meetings included exchanges of information concerning the conditions for immigrants in Japan, public policies towards immigrants, bilingual theories, Japanese language education for immigrants, and other related topics. During the second half of the period, along with individual reports on the language situations in various immigrant communities, there were reports on the preservation and education of immigrant languages in Europe, Canada and Sakhalin.

The following points characterize the situation for immigrant languages in Japan. The use and preservation of immigrant languages in a community varies from community to community and in general depends upon the relationship between the immigrant community and the host society. The status and economic value of each language in the host society is also a major factor.

In families where the first languages of the parents are different, in many circumstances these same kinds of factors could determine which language becomes the first language for the children and which language is spoken in the home. Overall, within immigrant communities an inverse correlation is shown between the natural acquisition of Japanese and the preservation of the immigrant language. Often within the community or family, strategies exist to overcome difficulties in natural acquisition in terms of insufficiency in reading and writing. In contrast, it was pointed out that in many situations where both parents lack fluency in Japanese, children who have acquired Japanese-language capability function as linguistic go-betweens with the general society.

 Although there is a tendency for immigrant languages to be replaced by the host language as generational change progresses, it is easiest to first move from methods for the transmission of substantive content to methods for the expression of more formal (courteous) content. Alternatively, during the process of substitution there are often situations in which the arrival of newcomers leads to reinvigoration of an immigrant language. One form taken for the continued existence of immigrant languages is mixed usage with the host language. Generally, immigrants form communities based on considerations of family, birth status and nation. As immigrants from Spanish-speaking Latin America demonstrate, however, there are examples of language communities appearing. The importance of research into the language landscape and ethnic media as indicators of language activity in a given immigrant language community was also pointed out.

 Problems faced in conducting research on immigrant languages were also noted. First is the overall imbalance in the research. While there has been a great deal of multidimensional research into the use of Korean as an immigrant language, for most immigrant communities, many aspects outside the area of Japanese-language education remain untouched by research. In contrast, we confirmed the need for research on the consciousness of Japanese people concerning the use and preservation of immigrant languages, and how the languages have a major connection to public policy. Amidst the practical problems involved in the social integration of immigrants, the importance of education in the first language is being recognized. Here we need to reevaluate the role of schools for particular nationalities as one approach. Related research areas need to be addressed in the future, including establishing basic terminology and concepts for such terms as “immigrant,” “immigrant community,” “immigrant language,” “host language” and “community language.”

Until now there has been almost no lateral research linkage in the field of immigrant language study. One of the successful results of this research was that we were able to obtain an overall view of the present situation of immigrant language study in Japan thanks to the active contribution of the individual project members concerning their own research fields.