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The Colombian Nikkei and the Narration of Selves - Part 2 of 4

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3. Learning a foreign language

One of the most challenging issues for Japanese learners of Spanish is the usage of articles. What do I mean by the word “articles”? These are words like the and a. Among other differences between Japanese and Spanish, Japanese lacks articles, while Spanish has a system of articles that differs in gender (masculine and feminine) and number (singular and plural). Table 2 presents a summary of the Spanish articles:

Table 2: Spanish articles.









Definite (the)





Indefinite (a/some)





What do these words really mean? That is a difficult question for the speakers of languages without articles, and for researchers too. I do not attempt to provide an answer, but I can briefly state that articles do not have a real meaning. In other words, we cannot think of a meaning such as for the word “dog,” which means a four-legged member of the canine family. Articles have a very abstract meaning, or stated differently, they have a grammatical function. Their function is to accompany words like “dog”, “table”, “computer” or “person,” which are nouns. When a speaker uses a definite article (the) to accompany a noun, the speaker thinks that the hearer already knows the thing referred to. When a speaker uses an indefinite article (a), the speaker thinks that the hearer does not know the thing referred to.

I will explain how the people of different groups show differences in how they use Spanish articles, while giving examples of how the interviewees use articles. In the examples, I am using a type of translation very common in linguistic papers that is called a “gloss.” I provide the example in Spanish, and below there is a literal translation of the sentence, word by word, in order to show the structure in the original language. Then, I write an approximate translation to better convey meaning.

4. Social identity and language

4.1 First group of Issei, childhood arrival

When recruiting potential interviewees among the Nikkei, I would ask Japanese from the Association about potential participants for my study. Some would say: “You should interview X, she is Issei, third-wave, and she knows a lot about the Japanese community.” This value of knowledge attributed to the first immigrants has to do with a narrative construction of their origins as a community. In fact, in the facilities of the Association, one can see a large plate with the names of the first settlers that honors them as the founders of the Japanese colony in Colombia. The Association also edited a book about the history of the Japanese migration: Los pasos de 70 años. Historia de la inmigración japonesa a Colombia (1979), in English ‘The steps of 70 years: History of the Japanese immigration to Colombia.’ In this book, there is a special mention to the names and the life stories of the people who arrived between 1929 and 1935.

I interviewed three third-wave participants. At the time of arrival, they were children. They arrived first at a traditional plantation in the Southwest called El Jagual to join immigrants from the previous waves. In my field notes, I observed that most Nikkei express their admiration for the first settlers because of the great effort they had to do to adapt the place for their living. The houses were made of a local palm called iraca. In their attempts to cultivate the land, they frequently were infected with nigua, a parasite that penetrates the nails producing an uncomfortable sensation of itchiness. Their emphasis on the hard conditions of this early environment reflects the Japanese value of perseverance.

The older Japanese created a school for their children in 1936, called Hikarien. The children used to live in a relative isolation; their most frequent interactions were with the peers from that school. The first community, in fact, lived together in the plantation of El Jagual, having little contact with the Colombian society. However, with the start of World War II, their living conditions changed dramatically. The Colombian authorities started to limit the activities of the Japanese. All of them had to leave the plantation and live in widely diffused towns in the region. 

This dispersal created two types of new situations: first, an increasing contact with the Colombian, rural communities; second, as a reaction to the danger of losing ties as a community, older immigrants arranged marriages with Japanese individuals for their children. Interviewee 24 provides a humorous narration about her wedding. She married her husband through picture of him when he was still in Japan. The wedding occurred when she was in Colombia and he was still in Japan because his parents would not allow him to move without being married. The ceremony was performed in Colombia between her and a picture of him, and between him and a picture of her in Japan. This idea was so bizarre that the story appeared in the local newspaper. She has a framed copy of the news posted on a wall in her living room. 

The isolation of these individuals during their childhood produced an interesting phenomenon for the linguistic research in the field. As a linguist, I expected a native-like usage of Spanish since they arrived in Colombia very young. However, this is not the case. Even though they feel more confident speaking Spanish than Japanese, they reveal some Japanized features in their Spanish. Indeed, they report that other people tell them that they speak “strangely.” 

This first group of Issei shows some omissions of articles in cases where a native speaker of Spanish would use an article as in (1):

Ellos    llegaron  a    una   familia   a    ayudar   a   (meaning ‘en’)
They    arrived   to   a        family    to   help      to   (meaning ‘in’)

(el)    trabajo   (de)   (la)     agricultura.
(the)   work      (of)   (the)    agriculture.

‘They came to a family in order to help them in the work of agriculture’

In example (1), the speaker had already mentioned the word “agricultura” in her interview, and also, Spanish usually selects definite articles for “agricultura” since it is an area of practice that everybody can recognize. However, the speaker does not use the article in this case. Since she arrived as child to Colombia, it is unusual that they show this Japanized feature. 

With respect to the Japanese language, they report using an older variety of Japanese that was a fossilized version of the one spoken in the Northern Province of Fukuoka at the time they left Japan. The World War II truncated ties with Japan for many years, and they were not exposed to innovations until the age they became married after the 1950’s. They did not adapt their speech to the innovative varieties brought by their spouses, producing some conflicts between them. Interviewee 6, a woman who arrived in 1964, told me that her husband was a Nisei who spoke this old dialect. When he heard her talking, he complained that she was not speaking Japanese, which disappointed her. 

Part 3 >>

© 2012 Ana María Díaz Collazos

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