Sayonara, Japanese? Despite dramatic decrease of speakers in Hawaii, some vow to keep it alive

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On Friday evening, dozens of youngsters lined up for their graduation ceremony, where they presented a special program to their parents featuring all they’d learned during the year.


On Friday evening, dozens of youngsters lined up for their graduation ceremony, where they presented a special program to their parents featuring all they’d learned during the year.

Every day after school, the students would arrive at Honpa Hongwanji Hilo Betsuin and head up to the second floor of the classroom building at the back of the campus for Japanese language class. They wrote “hiragana” on chalkboards and painted “kanji” on sheets of paper. At the end of the 40 minutes, they bowed to their sensei: “Arigato gozaimasu.”

The students are some of the youngest learners of Japanese in Hilo. Many have at least one parent who is Japanese or part Japanese.

Their new skills, however, had to be translated into English at the graduation ceremony: Most of their parents don’t know Japanese, said instructor Solveig Nordwall.

In Hawaii, Japanese is a language in transition.

It was at one point the most common non-English language spoken at home, according to a report published last month by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. In 1980, there were about 80,000 speakers.

U.S. Census Bureau data from 2010-2014 found there are now 45,000 Japanese speakers statewide, a fall of nearly half from the earlier numbers.

Arnold Hiura, executive director of the Hawaii Japanese Center in Hilo, said although he was not a sociologist who tracked such trends, the decline did not surprise him.

“On the contrary, it seems like quite a natural progression,” Hiura wrote in an e-mail.

First- and second-generation Japanese grew up speaking their language at home. Schools such as Hilo Hongwanji’s were set up because the first Japanese immigrants did not intend to stay in Hawaii and wanted to make sure their children could learn the language and be prepared for a return to Japan, said University of Hawaii at Hilo sociology professor Alton Okinaka.

But most people did not return.

“The second generation — they had to speak English because they had to go to school here, but they also had to speak Japanese because they had to speak to their parents,” Nordwall said. Later generations did not have such as strong linguistic connection

The decline from the 1980s most likely was a result of the second generation passing away or discontinuing the use of Japanese at home, Okinaka said.

There have been other shifts since then, such as the decline of the Japanese-language media. There is only one Japanese-language daily newspaper now, Hiura said. Most existing media outlets are located on Oahu.

“The only way to keep up a second language is to make sure you have access to it,” Nordwall said. The generational gap results in a loss.

“I was talking to someone last week — she was Filipino and she had not studied her parents’ language,” Nordwall said. “She couldn’t talk to her grandparents. That’s a huge one, and that’s all in the course of two generations. That’s all it takes.

“All the information that her grandparents would have wanted to give her granddaughter — they cannot,” she said. “It’s a real issue, that one there.”

But newer generations are taking on the challenge.

When Hilo High teacher Aya Shehata asked her students recently why they had taken up studying Japanese, they cited everything from interest in J-pop, anime and manga to communicating with their families.

Enrollment in Japanese classes at Hilo High has varied between 118 and 134 students since 2013.

Part of junior Bradley Hatayama’s reasoning was increased career opportunities, he said during a recent afternoon class of Level 3/4 Japanese. But part of it is because 16 generations of his family have spoken Japanese, and he doesn’t want to be the one who ends that line.

“It leaves off with me, or else no one else will,” Hatayama said. His grandmother and mother both spoke the language, he said, but neither does anymore.

“It skipped a generation,” said Hilo High senior Teyah Modjeska of her own family’s experience (Modjeska started studying Japanese so she could watch one of her favorite TV shows in its original language).

“My grandma knew, but she didn’t teach my mom.”

Some students in the class said older generations in their family had stopped speaking Japanese because of World War II tensions. Others said their parents hadn’t been interested in learning when they had the chance.

Junior Elena “Aki” Yamamoto is Filipino and Japanese, and practices speaking Japanese with her great-aunt, who lives in New York.

“She’ll say, ‘You have to learn how to say this before you visit,’” Yamamoto said.

And studying Japanese is also a way to study Hawaii itself.

“You see it everywhere in Hawaii, and it doesn’t connect (that it’s from Japan). It’s just part of the culture here,” said Hilo senior Iris McPherson. Last year, she traveled to Japan with the school’s Japan Club.

“You go there and you see stuff you recognize. Bentos, the games you played as a kid that were plantation games,” McPherson said.


Parents who enroll their students at the Hilo Hongwanji school “know that of all the second languages necessary here, it’s Japanese,” Nordwall said. “It’s not Chinese, it’s not Spanish.”

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune

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