Human Journey

Reaching the Last Speakers of Japan’s Ancient Languages

There are roughly 7 billion humans alive today, speaking more than 7,000 different languages. Most of them have never been recorded, and as older generations pass on, their knowledge of these languages and the information they hold about the world and how to relate to it disappear forever.

K. David Harrison has dedicated his life to helping traditional cultures to record, preserve, and revive their ancient tongues, and with them the unique stories, songs, and knowledge they contain. He does this through the Living Tongues Institute and the National Geographic Enduring Voices project. He’s also told his story and the story of other researchers, preservationists, and elders who remember the old languages in his book “The Last Speakers.”

This week, “The Last Speakers” was published in Japanese for the first time. Here’s what Dr. Harrison had to say about it:

In any language, K. David Harrison’s “The Last Speakers” is a moving story of the struggle to preserve the diversity of human voices. (Photo courtesy Hara Shobo)

What went in to getting this translation made?

NG Books licensed it to Japanese publisher Hara Shobo, and I was contacted by the translator, Yoko Shimada, who really went to great lengths to check with me on some of the nuances of the translation. She did an excellent job, I think.

What are the specific challenges or strengths in Japan regarding the preservation of indigenous languages?

There is a vibrant Linguistics community in Japan, and also considerable interest in endangered languages, including the famous case of Ainu, an ancient indigenous tongue unrelated to any other language on earth. Ainu was formerly spoken on Sakhalin Island, Russia, where it is now extinct, and still spoken in Japan on Hokkaido and Kuril islands. Ainu is nearly extinct, with possibly only 10 or fewer remaining speakers, reportedly all over age 80, but there are some community efforts to revitalize it.

What do the enduring voices of Japan tell us about the islands’ ancient history?

Japan is thought of as having relatively little language diversity, but that’s not true. First of all there are regional dialects of Japanese, and some are now being replaced by standard Japanese. Second there is the famous case of Ainu, mentioned above. Thirdly, there are the 11 Ryukyuan languages (Amami, Kunigami, Miyako, etc.), spoken on Japan’s southernmost islands, and not mutually comprehensible with Japanese (or with each other) though considered dialects by some. This group includes the 8 languages of the Okinawan islands, ranging from as few as 7 speakers to as high as 900,000 speakers, but all undergoing a shift and under threat of being entirely supplanted by Japanese. So, Japan is home to nearly a million speakers of a dozen endangered languages, which is quite remarkable. All these languages contain ancient knowledge about the sea, the environment, culture, mythology, and human relations, knowledge that cannot be replaced or recreated if lost. This knowledge base is part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage.

What do you hope will be the results of having this new translation available?

The Last Speakers features personal narratives of “language warriors” from around the world, who are taking heroic measures to save their languages. I hope that the endangered language communities and allies in Japan will find these stories inspiring, and know that they are not alone in their efforts, but are part of a global grassroots movement to save language diversity.

NEXT: Explore the Enduring Voices Project in Photos, Sound Clips, and More


More From “The Last Speakers”

Read an Excerpt in English

Order the English Edition

Order the Japanese Edition




Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • Rechkabo Kakuhoningen

    Ancient Ainu were able to predict earthquakes. If you find this interesting, please contact me.

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