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In How Many Countries is Japanese an Official Language?

The Japanese language may be an official language in a place you wouldn't expect.

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In How Many Countries is Japanese an Official Language?

Question: In how many countries is Japanese an official language?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is 1 country.

But do you know which country it is?

As you may have guessed, it's Palau.


Not Japan?

Japan technically does not have an official language.

From the Legislative Bureau House of Councilors:

A:それでは、国旗や国歌のように、国語を定めた法律はありますか

B:いや、そのような法律はないよ。日本の国語は日本語であるとか、公用語は日本語であるなどと定める条文はないんだ。ただ、法律上「国語」という用例はあるし、そのような条文は日本語のことを国語といっているのだと理解できるよ。

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.

Where is Palau and Why/How is Japanese an Official Language?

Before proceeding, 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:

Location Status
Japan Not Official (De facto Official)
Palau Not Official
Angaur, Palau Official

In the beginning I asked "In how many countries is Japanese an official language?" not "How many countries have Japanese as an official language?" so I believe I'm not wrong. I do admit that this was a subtle difference I created in an attempt to make the post more interesting.

What this means though, is that a state in a country outside of Japan is the only place where Japanese is an official language by law, unless I missed some other place.


From Wikipedia:

Palau (/pəˈlaʊ/), officially the Republic of Palau (Palauan: Beluu er a Belau) and historically Belau, Palaos or Pelew, is an island country in the western Pacific.

It's 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 - Cyber Kingdom of Russell John
Two flags similar to the flag of Bangladesh, the key difference is that the disc on Palau’s flag represents the moon, while it means the sun on other two.

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 Palau 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

Japanese 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.

What do the people of Palau say about this? From the former president of Palau, Thomas Remengesau Jr., on Nipppon.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.

I also found this post (unfortunately only Japanese) interesting.

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 and the Japanese Wikipedia page on Palau.

Here are some of my favorites1:

Palauan Japanese Literal Japanese Meaning English
tskarenaos 疲れ直す Fix Fatigue Drink Beer/Take a Break
ajidaijohbu 味だいじょうぶ Taste OK Delicious
atamaguruguru 頭グルグル Head Spinning Confused

I like these because they're a bit awkward—at least in modern Japanese.

I also read that they say "aiko desho" when you're playing rock paper scissors and there is a draw.

Twitter

Japanese Twitter accounts related to Pacific Islands are interesting.

This is the Embassy of Japan in Palau.

@OfPalau

Their airport tweets in English and Japanese.

@palau_airport

Their tourism account has 4000 followers.

@palau_va_japan

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:

Stealing good tweets from the Solomon Islands:

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 I found is that Palau is one of the 4 UN member states without Interpol membership.

Footnotes

1: A different spelling may be commonly used in Palauan. I'm also not familiar with the Palauan language, but these phrases were listed in multiple places, so I believe these are correct.

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