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Sociolingüística internacional
Autumn 2002

The Sociolinguistic Situation of English in Japan, by Nobuyuki Tukahara

In Japan, the overwhelming majority of the population (it is said up to 98%) has Japanese as main language. Nevertheless, several proposals have been raised up in order to declare also English as the official language of the State. The first one was suggested in 1872 by Arinori Mori. The last which had some social response was submitted in a report drafted in 2000 by the advisory board of Prime Minister Obuti. The common feature of both proposals lies in their approach insofar as they use the language as a tool for State strategy and are lacking therefore of a linguistic rights background. We should argue this feature reflects a linguistic ideology deeply rooted into the Japanese society and strengthened during the process of modernization, which considers the language as a mere instrument. This very same ideology should also explain the minorization of the autochtonous languages other than Japanese (Ainu and the language of Okinawa).

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1. Introduction

2. The situation of English in Japan
2.1. Linguistic proficiency in English
2.2. Learning
2.3. Use of English

3. Linguistic ideology

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Japanese is a de facto official language in Japan. This is the case because, although it has a wide-spread social use, there is no legislation defining it as an official language. For everyday life, there is no need to know any language other than Japanese. However, this does not mean that Japan is an entirely monolingual state. We will now turn to look at the linguistic structure of Japan.

Japanese is spoken by some 125,000,000 individuals, and is the ninth most spoken language in the world, after Portuguese (170,000,000 speakers). Japan also has at least two other native languages, in addition to Japanese: Ainu and the language of Okinawa. The number of speakers of these two languages is uncertain, but it is believed that Ainu has tens of hundreds and that the language of Okinawa has hundreds of thousands. In addition to these native languages, foreign languages such as Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, Philippine, Spanish, English, Thai, etc. are also spoken. We do not know exactly how many individuals speak these languages, but we can use the numbers of foreigners on record as a reference.

Table 1. Number of Foreigners Registered in Japan (Year 2000)



Korean (North and South)










North-American (United States)










Source: Own work based on data taken from the official website of  the Ministry of Justice (1)

Overall, there were 1,686,444 foreigners registered in Japan in the year 2000. In all probability, therefore, the language of the vast majority of the Japanese population is indeed Japanese, since the sum of the speakers of these native and foreign languages barely reaches 2% of the total population. Moreover, almost all speakers of Ainu and the language of Okinawa, and the majority of Korean speakers are bilingual with Japanese.

If we consider that languages other than Japanese are not required in everyday life and that the speakers of these languages are few in number, it seems logical that there is no official language legislation. However, the fact is that a number of proposals to legislate the language have been made. The latest proposal with a certain social impact was published in the year 2000 in a report drawn up by the advisory committee of the Prime Minister, Obuti (2) which called for the promotion of English as a national strategy, with a view to equipping it with official status in the long-term. Subsequently, Youichi Funabashi, journalist and member of this committee, published a paper in which he proposed a language act to define Japanese as the first official language and English as the second (Funabashi : 2000).

Why have these seemingly illogical proposals been made? What has been their social impact? Reflection and analysis of this phenomenon may offer us a vision of the sociolinguistic situation of English in Japan. We will now, therefore, turn to the main details of this subject.

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