Japan’s mystery language

Japan is an ethnically homogenous nation where everyone speaks Japanese, right? Not exactly. Other groups including the Ainu also have called Japan home, perhaps for longer than the Japanese themselves. Today, the Ainu language is spoken by only a handful of people. One of them, Russian-born linguist Anna Bugaeva, takes Patrick Cox to meet Ainu speakers (and non-speakers) on the island of Hokkaido. Along the way, we learn about the mysteries of Ainu, a “language isolate” unrelated to any other language in the world. Bugaeva says Japanese children aren’t taught about the Ainu because their presence—and language—contradict standard Japanese history.

Music in this episode by Tonality Star, Podington Bear, Circus Marcus and Blue Dot Sessions. Photo of Ainu language activists Maki and Kenji Sekine by Patrick Cox. More on Anna Bugaeva’s research here. Read a transcript of the episode here.

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Episode 29