One of the first things you learn about the Ainu language and the people who speak it is that the Japanese barely know about it.
"Most Japanese, consciously or unconsciously, feel that the Ainu people do not exist," Tomomi Sato told me. Sato is an authority on the Ainu language at the University of Hokkaido.
"The Ainu people do not have any meaning."
The public school curriculum mainly ignores Ainu, except to say it's a language that used to be spoken on the northern island of Hokkaido. There is no mention of it as a language that, in an earlier form, was probably spoken in Japan long before Japanese was.
Similarly, there's scant mention of when the ancestors of the Ainu people might have migrated to Japan — probably before the arrival of the ancestors of the Japanese.
If ordinary Japanese know anything about the Ainu, it's from folklore rituals staged for tourists in reconstructed Ainu villages.
"I don't think they were ever forbidden from speaking Ainu at home," Bugaeva told me. "It was their own choice, but it was pretty much a forced choice. We all want good for our children, right?"
Today, Bugaeva is a professor at Tokyo University of Science. She recently released an audio corpus of Ainu folklore.
Bugaeva hopes that this renewed interest in Ainu culture will encourage younger Ainu to learn the language, which hasn't been spoken conversationally since the 1950s.
00:10 What my friend Yuki learned about the Ainu at school.
1:35 The stylized, unconversational sound of Ainu today.
Courtesy of Anna Bugaeva
2:37 Anna Bugaeva knew from an early age she'd be a linguist.
3:40 Anna finds her mentor.
4:32 Sapporo: beer, winter sports and Ainu.
6:09 "The Ainu people do not have any meaning."
6:30 A language isolate.
7:50 Anna recorded 15 Ainu folktales recalled by Ita Oda, one of the last really fluent Ainu speakers.
8:40 "Half of the time I would go to the hospital to work with her."
10:30 Is folklore a touristic trap that makes outsiders feel good about the richness of this culture? Or is the folklore so powerful to the Ainu that they can recall lengthy poems and stories in their entirety?
12:46 Kenji and Maki Sekine are trying to bring back Ainu by raising their daughter to speak it.
15:00 For Koichi Kaizawa the land comes first for the Ainu. Without land, there is no place where the language can thrive.
18:35 Anna's own children: "They have never lived in Russia but they speak Russian becasue they had a chance to speak it with their parents. They will not get punished for that."
20:25 The Japanese "are not homogenous at all but nobody talks about it."
20:45 The Ainu and Japanese languages are not related.
21:00 One Ainu word that includes all the elements necessary to complete a sentence.
23:00 The World in Words' live podcast recording is June 21 at the New York Public Library. Reserve your free tickets here.
23:37 The answer to our latest NEH funder accent quiz.
Music heard in the podcast
00:00 Podington Bear: "Dramamine"
2:43 Adam Selzer: "Pluck and Bounce"
6:19 Unsettling Scores: "Cathaedrabysmal"
12:23 Adam Selzer: "Ripple"
20:00 (morse): "J, Volume II"
22:17 Alexander Boyes: "The Resolution of Mr Clouds"
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