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

Immigrant Communities and Immigrant Languages in Japan

Joint Research Coordinator SHOJI Hiroshi

Reserch Theme List


immigrant language, language policy, multilingualism


As a result of an influx of immigrants, many immigrant languages are spoken in Japan today. However, the overall picture is not clear in terms of how the languages are being transformed, their forms of usage, or their preservation and education conducted in the languages through their contact with the Japanese language. The premise of this research is to comprehensively research the overall situation concerning immigrant languages in Japan, while understanding the situations for specific immigrant languages, as well as to consider various factors which contribute to the languages including the immigrant communities, language policies, education, and language and gender. Our goal is specifically to understand the following aspects of representative immigrant languages in Japan: 1) the actual state of these languages in terms of language contacts, interference, and code mixing; 2) language usage in terms of language domains and language functions; and 3) conditions concerning language preservation and language education. Parallel with these aspects, we intend to consider language problems encountered by immigrants in actual participation in society and language problems that immigrants encounter when trying to move socially upward, with the focus especially on elements involving gender, literacy and school education.

Research Results

  • Publication of research results
    The Research Group on Multilingual Phenomena, headed by Hiroshi Shoji, published “Multilingual Japan: The Current Situation and Issues” (Sangensha, 2013). This collection contains articles authored by nine members of the group, which examine some of the results of its activities. A report for the entire group is now being compiled.
  • Society subcommittees
    In November 2011 four members of the group held a symposium entitled “Immigrant Language Education within Immigrant Communities--Focusing on ‘oldcomers,’” at The Japanese Association for Language Policy”. The objective was to attract attention to problems concerning immigrant language education. In June 2013, the leader of the group held a round table discussion on immigrant languages at the Japanese Association for Migration Studies. Entitled “Keeping Immigrant Languages Alive: The Significance of Language for Immigrant Communities”, this discussion gave researchers an opportunity to examine the value of immigrant languages.
  • Overview of research
    The problems faced by immigrant languages in Japan began to attract attention in the 1990s, as the number of newcomers increased rapidly. Initially, immigrant language studies focused primarily on language support and Japanese language education for immigrants. However, relatively few studies examined the languages spoken by immigrants, or simply portrayed immigrants as speakers of a language. This study sought to examine three main themes: 1) language contact, language entities such as code mixing, and change; 2) the use of language, including language regions and the functions of language; 3) the sustained use of language and understanding the status of language education. While addressing these themes this study also sought to draw attention to the language problems faced by immigrants in their efforts to participate in society and advance their social status. Special attention was given to issues such as gender, literacy, and school education. During three years of research, the group held 13 presentation sessions at which a total of 28 researchers presented the results of their studies. There were also two interim research report sessions involving all the researchers.

The following results were taken from the presentations and proposals made at these sessions:

  1. This study obtained new information about the status of language in Vietnamese, Indonesian (Christian), Dominican, Filipino, Pakistani, and Korean immigrant communities.
  2. Of particular interest was the continued emergence of information about the use of the Korean language and publications in Korean made during the Japanese administration, two areas that have been little studied. Although the expected advances were not achieved in research on the Japanese literacy of immigrants, the study reported that government largely has ignored the Japanese language education of immigrant adults, in contrast to the attention given to the Japanese language education of immigrant children.
  3. The study also mentioned NGOs that provided information in easy-to-understand Japanese to foreign residents with poor Japanese literacy in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
  4. The study also examined a literacy education project in the USA that aims to provide educational support for the many illiterate children there.
  5. Regarding the treatment of immigrant languages in host societies, a historical study was presented on the status of language in Korea during the prewar period and in WWII.
  6. The results of the analysis of descriptions of immigrant languages in historical public and private documents were also presented.
  7. This study indicated that in contemporary Japan a monolingual attitude exists in the Japanese language consciousness and foreign language awareness. This attitude is deeply rooted within the language behavior of the general public towards immigrants, educational policies, and foreign language education.
  8. Although some research presentations touched on code mixing and language change within immigrant languages, one of the areas examined by this study, a number of advances have been made in research on the languages of second generation immigrants. First, this study showed that language education and language inheritance among second generation immigrants faced a general crisis during the economic downturn following the “Lehmann Crash”. Second, the study demonstrated the need to redefine second generation immigrants as a cross-lingual and cross-cultural entity, rather than viewing them as the weak link of the immigrant community, and allowing the awareness and recognition of storytellers to influence the many different ways in which this generation is portrayed. Finally, the idea of immigrant languages as an asset was raised in relation to public support for the language education of immigrants in the host society and sustaining their motivation to learn the language of their new country.