Losing your language

On April 20, 2006, a long-lost former Japanese army soldier who was stationed on Russia’s Sakhalin island when World War II ended, finally visited his native Iwate Prefecture and was reunited with his kin for the first time since 63 years ago when he went to war in 1943.

It had been such a long time that he was pronounced officially dead in 2000 and his name was engraved on the family gravestone. For decades, his family in Japan never received any word of his whereabouts until now. His name is Ishinosuke Uwano, now 83 years old and still healthy looking. His younger brother and sisters are still alive and it was certainly a tearful and happy reunion.

Turns out that he had married a Ukrainian and is now living in Ukraine where his wife is from. He has three children and his son accompanied him to Japan.

I just cannot imagine something like this to happen in my family. But the Japanese government estimates that there are still some 400 former Japanese soldiers living in the former Soviet Union. They’ve identified only about 40 of them. It must be really agonizing for the families in Japan to still have a missing brother or relative and not knowing whether he is still alive or not.

What actually surprised me more was Mr. Uwano’s inability to speak Japanese. At the press conference, he could only speak Russian and spoke through an interpreter. He had lost his native language of Japanese. I’m sure his family doesn’t care what language he speaks, as long as they can erase his name from the tombstone. But it must be totally weird to hear him speak a foreign language instead of Japanese.

Mr. Uwano’s case proves something which I have always thought to be impossible: Losing your native language. To be sure, language is one of those “use it or lose it” things. This is especially true in the case of a foreign-language or second language.

While living in Japan all these years, I’m also well aware that we can sometimes forget certain words or phrases in our native language, especially when there are things which we can express better in Japanese.

But I have never believed that you can actually forget your entire native language even after living in a foreign country for many years. The language you learn and grow up with during the first 20 years of your life supposed to remain with you for life. It’s almost like a hereditary trait, something that you cannot change for life. Or so I thought.

I’ve always regarded one’s native language as an inherent and inseparable part of one’s identity. Until now, I have never heard of anyone to have totally lost his or her native language after living in a foreign country. Uwano’s case reminded us of former Japanese soldier Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi who was discovered still hiding on Guam in 1972 thinking the war was not yet over. And also Lt. Hiroo Onoda who was found in the jungle of the Philippines in 1974. Both had lived in the jungles for almost 30 years. But they came back to Japan and still spoke Japanese. They did have war comrades for a time to whom they could speak Japanese. But after their comrades were caught or killed, they lived alone for a good number of years. Still, they never forgot their native language.

Another case is the Japanese abductees in North Korea who returned to Japan in 2002 for the first time after living in North Korea for well over 20 years. One of them, Mrs. Hitomi Soga married to a former American soldier, had trouble speaking Japanese at first. But she soon got back into the groove and her Japanese language ability returned naturally. I knew this would happen since you simply don’t lose your native language. Or so I thought.

Now Mr. Uwano’s case is apparently much more extreme. He’s been away for over 60 years. Probably has had no contact with other Japanese during the past decades.  He probably decided to shed his native identity in order to adapt to his adopted country. He seems to have adapted well to his adopted country. His Russian sounds perfect. I guess with a Ukrainian wife and children, that would do it. After he spends 10 days in Japan (that’s how long he’ll stay here), I’d like to see another press conference and listen if he has recalled any of his native language.

For me, losing my native or second language ability would be traumatic and devastating. I have become so used to being able to read about and access two different worlds and cultures through English and Japanese that losing either would mean that half my world would be gone.

I’m also happy to note that being from Hawaii, where they speak a dialect called pidgin, I have never ever lost my pidgin English. I do have friends from Hawaii in Japan. My sisters (also born in Hawaii) in Japan can also speak/understand pidgin. They all help me exercise my beloved native language. And I’m always happy to hear from a non-Hawaiian foreign friend in Japan or elsewhere telling me that they recently saw a TV program about Hawaii and thought all those people spoke just like me. Of course, I speak standard English to my non-Hawaiian, non-Japanese friends, but they are still able to distinguish my accent as being different from a Californian or New Yorker.

Well, if you live in a foreign country and don’t want to lose your native language, make friends having the same native language as you. Of course, I have no problems with this and the vast majority for foreigners living in Japan do not have this problem either.

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