Japanese on the Mariana Islands

Happy (solar) new year! After the traditional unannounced No-sword holiday, it's a bit late for special new-year content (let alone year's-end content), so I'm going to write about a book I read last week called Mariana Shotō ni zanzon suru Nihongo マリアナ諸島に残存する日本語 ("The Japanese [language] that has survived on the Mariana Islands"), by Daniel Long and Arai Masato 新井正人.

The book begins with a quick overview of the period between WWI and WWII when Japan had control of the islands (as "mandate territories" previously part of the German Protectorate of New Guinea). The islands were soon home to thousands of Japanese immigrants, mostly from Okinawa and western Japan (but with a sizeable minority of Tokyoites), and by 1938 the population was more than 50% Japanese. This meant Japanese neighbors, Japanese bosses, and Japanese schooling.

The specifics of how Japanese was taught and used at the time are the focus of the next part of the book, an oral history based on interviews conducted in 2004-2006 with informants who experienced the interwar educational system. The schools the islanders generally attended (as opposed to the separate schools for Japanese children) were called 公学校, a word meaning something like "public schools" or "general schools". Some informants who attended these public schools report teachers who spoke in local languages, but on the whole it seems that classes were conducted by Japanese teachers in Japanese, with other languages forbidden, and reading/writing meant kana and kanji. The general Japanocentricity of the curriculum is illustrated by the fact that one informant was still able to recite the opening of the Imperial Rescript on Education, but top-down imposition wasn't the only way that knowledge of Japanese spread; apparently it wasn't uncommon for children to already know some Japanese when they began school, having picked it up playing with Japanese children living in their neighborhood.

This oral history makes great reading, and some parts are very affecting.

R: 負けたけどね、ま、勝てないね、戦争。要するに、アメリカか日本が来て、戦争、戦争したでしょう、ね。 [うん] それで戦争して、もう、われわれんとこ、island、we didn't invite them to come to our island ね to fight, came to our island、戦争してさ、家ぶっこわしてさ。ばあっと帰るでしょ。 [うん] われわれ「どうするんだろう?」。「知らない」日本人は「アメリカ人だから」。アメリカ行ったら「知らない。日本人だったから」。

R: We lost, you know. Well, we can't win, not a war. It's like, America or Japan turns up and fights, fights a war, right? [Interviewer: Mm.] They fight a war, but our, our island, we didn't invite them to come to our island, you know? To fight, [they] came to our island, they fought a war, destroyed our houses. Then they clear out. [Interviewer: Mm.] We asked "What should we do?" "Don't ask us." The Japanese said: "That's for the Americans [to handle]." We go to the Americans, [they say] "Don't ask us. That was the Japanese."

"You can not do anything, because us, you have no power, no identification," says the same informant later (in English). "Just a bunch of dog みたいなね。 I love you people, I love American, I love Japanese ね、but, since ね、あったからな [It happened, you know?]"

The final part of the book examines a few interesting characteristics of the actual Japanese spoken by the islanders. Good reading, but not great blog post material: relative percentages of various types of errors and so on. There's also a list of Japanese loanwords in Carolinian, culled from a dictionary and confirmed (or not) with an informant. As you might expect, this looks a lot like Joel at Far Outliers' lists of Japanese loanwords in Pohnpeian and Palauan. Here are a few interesting items not on Joel's list:

  • ambwooli - -li is apparently a suffix deriving verbs from nouns, and this verb means "to carry someone on one's back," so it is presumably derived from (a loaned version of) the Japanese word ombu (piggyback).
  • zanbara - From chambara, specifically the sense of kids staging pretend sword-fights and other battles
  • ne - The Japanese sentence-ending particle, adopted as-is into Carolinian.

Great book, and available at a non-ridiculous price! It's actually part of a series on Japanese outside Japan; the first book was about Taiwan, and the next about Sakhalin.

Popularity factor: 15

Paul D.:

I visited Saipan on a cheap HIS travel package (from Japan) a few years ago. I found that I could use Japanese nearly as much as English in the shops and restaurants.


「知らない」日本人は「アメリカ人だから」。アメリカ行ったら「知らない。日本人だったから」。This is the usual vague Japanese that's can be so hard to put into English.

Could it be interpreted as:
'Don't ask us, you're American'. We ask the Americans and they say 'Don't ask us, you were Japanese'.


Nice find! I've read quite a bit of Danny Long's work about the Bonins. Good to see he's branching out to Micronesia. He prefers to do fieldwork near good scuba-diving sites!

Here is another long post on Japanese and other loanwords in Palauan.


Paul: Yeah, IIRC a few of the informants reported still using it as a lingua franca with others in their generation, and of course tourism has been another huge incentive to learn the language for, what, 20-30 years?

Bathrobe: I struggled with that very issue! I agree with your proposef alternative. It could even go both ways: "Don't look at us, that's the Americans' job now." "Don't blame us, you were Japanese." In the end I decided that if "You are/were X" were intended, "That's X's the safe side.

Joel: Thanks! I'll add that link too. By the way, from memory, your blog was where I first learned of the use of Japanese on these islands.


Er, ... "that's X's responsibility/fault" would at least be implied, so I went with the weaker statement to stay onthe safe side.


And Portuguese has <i>ne</i> too, thanks to a famous coincidence (it’s a contraction of <i>não é?</i> “isn’t it”, and it’s used pretty much just like the Japanese particle). <i>ne</i> will one day conquer the world!

This part is so poignant—

> I love you people, I love American, I love Japanese ね、but, since ね、あったからな

I often feel like this due to my interest in both Japanese and Chinese culture. It's always hard to explain to Chinese why I study <i>shūfǎ</i> calligraphy without kwowing Mandarin (“the thing is, I'm a student of Japanese…” <i>glare</i>)… The other day this scene played out with an elderly lady in a restaurant, and she pointed to an even elderlier lady and say, “oh, mom here can speak Japanese very well, can’t you mom”, and she just looked and I realized she must have lived through occupation. Awkward…


Re: Could it be interpreted as:
'Don't ask us, you're American'. We ask the Americans and they say 'Don't ask us, you were Japanese'

Yeah..that's what I thought..! Aren't the Japanese absolving themselves of any responsibility by saying 'You are Americans now..( and implying -so you should go ask them not us for help)'?


When I was in Yap, Micronesia, during the fall of 1974, older Yapese still spoke conversational Japanese but I was never sure how well they understood some of the polite forms I tried to use with them.

In Papua New Guinea in 1976, I met one man who remembered two phrases of Japanese from his time carrying cargo for them during WWII: 'imo kuu ka?' and 'kairou'! The village I did fieldwork in was on the front lines (near Salamaua and Lae) during the war and I collected a couple of very interesting narratives about the war experiences of two older men. One of them met a starving Japanese straggler who asked him for food with, 'ah, banana sabisu?' A Japanese officer also used to lend him his rifle to hunt birds for him.


One of the early grad students of the Univ. of Hawai‘i linguistics dept did fieldwork on Ulithi during the 1960s. He had been born and educated in Korea, and did much of his elicitation from Ulithian elders in Japanese.

Petrus Petrus Teaspoon:

Thanks for the very interesting post and links. I have been using Daniel Long's work on Ogasawara in several courses, and the series on Japanese outside Japan you mention sounds good. I will have to search it down.


Glad to be of service, and please do! The info is good, and the publisher deserves to reap the rewards of their sensible pricing scheme.

Petrus Petrus Teaspoon:

Indeed, very sensible! I wish I noticed them when I was in Japan last week, and not now when I am not.


They are not just water proof it has functions that can serve as your TV, ineenrtt access, media players, camera, and even buy stuff with it through scanner and some have finger print readers for security reasons.Japanese phones are so far ahead it is ridiculous, of course the fee is more expensive, but Japanese culture rely on cellphones extensively.


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Oh, that second home w/ the pool and the views is weunorfdl! I live in a neighborhood of modern colonial homes which is very New England. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a loft in the city or a cottage in the english countryside. As long as I had the means to deck the house out right I think I could be happy in any setting. xo

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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