In How Many Countries is Japanese an Official Language?
In how many countries is Japanese an official language?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is 1 country.
Yes, it’s Palau.
Japan technically does not have an official language.
From the Legislative Bureau House of Councilors:
A: Then, are there any laws that set the official language just like the national flag or national anthem?
B: No, there aren’t such laws. Nothing says that Japan’s National Language is Japanese or the Official Language is Japanese. However, there are uses of the word ”kokugo” (National Language) in law, and it can be understood that such parts are addressing the Japanese language.
Japanese is the de facto official language, but it’s not set by law.
We should note that Japanese is not an official language for the entire country of Palau, but just for the state of Angaur. I believe this is table is accurate:
|Japan||Not Official (De facto Official)|
The question in the beginning was ”In how many countries is Japanese an official language?” not “How many countries have Japanese as an official language?” so everything should technically be correct, though this was a subtle difference I created in an attempt to write a more interesting hook.
What this means though, is that a state in a country outside of Japan is apparently the only place where Japanese is an official language by law.
Why in Palau?
Palau is “an island country in the western Pacific” (Wikipedia) near the Philippines and Indonesia
Location of Palau by Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Their flag also happens to be similar to Japan and Bangladesh: Flags of Bangladesh, Japan and Palau
Both are island nations, but Palau has a much smaller population compared to Japan.
Source: Population, Total
The surface area is smaller as well.
Surface area is a country’s total area, including areas under inland bodies of water and some coastal waterways.
Source: Surface area (sq. km)
Japanese is an official language in Angaur as a result of Palau being under Japanese rule for a few decades.
From the BBC:
1914 - After Germany’s defeat in World War I, Japan seizes Palau. The main town, Koror, is developed and becomes the administrative centre for Japan’s regional possessions. The Japanese civilian population in Palau peaks at 26,000.
Siddarth Shrikanth explains on the Financial Times that after Japan assumed control of Palau in 1920, it “established a comprehensive network of schools, assertively promoting Japanese language and culture.” There were many immigrants from Japan, and today an estimated 25% of Palauans have Japanese ancestry.
Japanese Influences on Palauan Language
The Japanese language had an influence on the Palauan language as well.
From the abstract of the paper The Changes in the Use of Japanese Loanwords in Palauan (2017) by Keisuke Imamura:
The Japanese occupation of Palau from 1914 to the end of World War II generated inevitable social change which impacted the Palauan people and their language. During this time over 850 Japanese loanwords were adopted into Palauan. Now, seventy years after the end of the Japanese rule, Japanese loanwords still constitute a considerable fraction of the Palauan language.
The results suggested that the use of Japanese loanwords has been decreasing across generations, but they’re still used by people every day.
The paper Japanese-origin Loanwords used in Palauan by Daniel Long, Keita Saito, and Masaharu Tmodrang includes a table of words used in Palau along with English translations. If the word has a circle in the 3rd column, it is commonly used in every generation.
The Japanese occupation had a large impact on life in Palau. From the former president of Palau, Thomas Remengesau Jr., on Nippon.com:
We’ve retained many Japanese words that are now ingrained in our language. There are a lot of Japanese terms used when it comes to cooking, as Japanese food is part of our everyday diet. Japanese culture has become deeply intertwined with Palau’s and that cultural legacy is understood by second-, third-, and even fourth-generation Palauans, if we take the first generation to be those from before the war.
A lot of words have to do with being scolded (laughs). Other things like shōganai, “it can’t be helped,” or naoranai, as in an “incurable” habit. We use oishii as a word for “delicious” quite a bit. Also tsukareta for “tired,” denwa for “telephone,” and, when it comes to government, terms like senkyo for “election” and daitōryō for “president.” I’ve heard that Palauan has over 3,000 Japanese loan words.
The Embassy of Japan in Palau has a video that goes over loan words. There are also some words listed on this Palau Embassy in Japan post, the Japanese Wikipedia page on Palau, and this Nippon.com article.
Here are some interesting ones:
|Palauan||Japanese||Literal Japanese Meaning||English|
|tskarenaos||疲れ直す||Fix Fatigue||Drink Beer/Take a Break|
These sound a bit awkward—at least in modern Japanese, which adds to the charm.
Japanese Twitter accounts related to Pacific Islands are interesting.
This is the Embassy of Japan in Palau.
Their airport tweets in English and Japanese.
Their tourism account has 4000 followers.
They still have a lot of catching up to do to the other Pacific Ocean Tourism Accounts squad:
Nauru is just really good with social media.
“Nauru Island” in Animal Crossing:
【ナウル島🏝夢番地プレオープン】— ナウル共和国政府観光局🇳🇷 (@nauru_japan) May 5, 2021
Stealing good tweets from the Solomon Islands:
コロナ収束後には、日本からの観光客数、年間50人くらい目指したいなぁ🌟（パクツイ） https://t.co/V0U5cSC0Ju— ナウル共和国政府観光局🇳🇷 (@nauru_japan) May 3, 2021
The Solomon Islands and Nauru accounts note in their profile that they will follow you back, though they note that it will take some time.
A random fact is that Palau is one of the 4 UN member states without Interpol membership.