Sociolinguistics in Japanese Contexts

By Tetsuya Kunihiro; Fumio Inoue et al. | Go to book overview

15. Place names as evidence of Japanese settlement in
Ainu Areas

0. Introductory notes by the editors

This work deals with a language indigenous to the Japanese Islands: Ainu. Bilingualism in Japan has not been treated seriously by Japanese sociolinguists until recently, partly because bilingualism was not a great problem among ethnic groups in Japan, and partly because the study of languages other than Japanese in Japan was too politically sensitive a topic. This paper represents one of the rare exceptions to this.

Here Dr. Sibata treats place names as a kind of artifact left by the Ainu people. As he writes in this paper, Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, was settled mostly in modern times, following the Meiji Restoration (in 1868). Most of the place names in the inland areas of Hokkaido have been fixed since the 19th century. Japanese people tried to use Sino-Japanese kanji characters (hereafter referred to as “Chinese characters”) to represent the pronunciation of Ainu place names. Hence place names in Hokkaido are notoriously difficult to read for Japanese people. It is common knowledge throughout Japan that the place names of Hokkaido originated from the Ainu language. But no one seems to have paid enough attention to the fact that recently these place names are being replaced by Japanese names. The significance of this paper is that it shows tangible evidence of areal distribution in place names, and discusses their relation to rice production.

There are some people who further maintain that place names (especially names relating to rivers) on the Northern tip of Honshu Island (just south of Hokkaido) also derive from the Ainu language, but this paper deals with only reliable evidence and avoids this precarious claim.

This paper was originally read in the XIV International Congress of Onomastic Sciences, held at Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA August 24–28, 1981. It was co-presented with Mr. Kôichi Shirono (a teacher at Kita-Hiroshima High School, Hokkaido). The Chinese characters for place names are not given here because they are not relevant to the discussion.


1. Introduction

The settlement of Japanese in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan and the last area of Ainu residence, began around the 15th century (Figure 15–1). However this settlement was confined largely to the southern coastal area until around 1880 when the Japanese government drew up plans to resettle Japanese people throughout the island.

The place names given on a national map (1/50,000 scale) edited in 1896, including for example Obihiro City, central Hokkaido (Figure 15–2), were all given in the Ainu language. However comparing this with a national map of the

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