When Japanese Met Atayal — Yilan Creole Japanese

In 1895, Qing China ceded Taiwan to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki after the first Sino-Japanese War. This began the five decades of Japanese rule of Taiwan. Although the administrative rule ended 75 years ago, the influence of Japanese culture on Taiwan still survives today. In Taiwanese Mandarin, Japanese loanwords are found, such as 達人 (dárén, Japanese tatsujin), to describe a very talented or highly skilled person at something. This accounted for some of the regional variation between Taiwanese Mandarin and Mainland Chinese Mandarin. However, what if I told you, that there is a Japanese Creole, in Taiwan, still used by some people today?

The 1930s saw the interaction between the Japanese and the indigenous Atayal and Seediq peoples, resulting in a need for communication between these languages and cultures. Even so, this creole is not comprehensible by native speakers of Japanese and Atayal. A blend of 65% Japanese, 25% Atayal and Seediq, and 10% Mandarin and other Sinitic languages, this curious creole sparks intrigue to linguists, to assess the range and status of the creole, as well as understanding how the creole works. Today, it could very well be the only Japanese-based creole that currently exists in the world.

We do not know how many people speak Yilan Creole Japanese (YCJ), but what we can be certain about is that this number ranges in the dozens to thousands. While largely unknown, this creole was identified in 2006 by linguists, and in 2015, it was proposed that the use of Mandarin as the official language of Taiwan threatened the use of YCJ over time.

The sounds of YCJ appear to be a blend of Japanese and Atayal, such as Atayal-exclusive sounds like the /x/ and the schwa, and Japanese-exclusive sounds like /b/, /d/ and /g/. This gives the creole a total of 22 consonants and 6 vowels. Interestingly, some overlapping sounds generally follow the Atayal pronunciation, such as the use of Atayal rounded /u/ instead of the Japanese unrounded /ɯ/ as the sound represented by “u”. Long consonants and vowels from Japanese are quite often shortened in YCJ, making words like “gakkô” (school) in Japanese sound like “gako” in YCJ. As with the Atayal language, or more precisely, dialect cluster, the stress patterns in the words generally falls on the last syllable.

While the general word order of YCJ resembles that of Japanese, a verb-final word order (subject-object-verb), there has been observations in the youth who use a more Mandarin-based word order, which is the subject-verb-object word order. Even so, there are many aspects who make YCJ almost unintelligible to native Japanese speakers. For instance, tense is expressed through affixes and temporal adverbs. This gives sentences like:

  • wasi kino nomanay.
    I did not drink yesterday.
  • wasi ima nomanay.
    I am not drinking now.
  • wasi kyo nomang.
    I am not drinking today.
  • kyo walaxsang rasye.
    I heard it will rain today.

Word formation takes interesting avenues. While many forms of pronouns and demonstrative pronouns are derived from Japanese, adverbs and adjectives have sources from both languages. Colours and subjective feelings and emotions are among the adjectives generally derived from Atayal, for example. However, unlike Japanese, these adjectives do not inflect based on any case, and the tense, like verbs, is reflected through the use of temporal adverbs, like “kino” and “ima”. Interestingly, the adverb can be formed from the adjectives in YCJ. This is through the use of adjectives to modify the verb in a sentence. For example, the word lokah ‘good, strong’ functions as an adjective when describing anta ‘you’ in the phrase lokah anta ‘ you (are) strong’, while lokah functions as an adverb as in lokah benkyo ‘to study hard’.

Among the suffixes used in YCJ, one of the most often used one is “-suru”, or the verb to do in Japanese. Unlike in Japanese, where this verb can be used as a standalone, in YCJ, this suffix can only be used as part of a generally larger expressions. “-Suru” can be attached to nouns, adjectives and verbs, although the elder generations generally prefer not to attach the verb with “-suru”. This makes sentences like this possible:

  • unro-tara he bla-suru.
    Exercise is good (for the body). (lit. exercise does good)

Compound words in YCJ are formed from four combinations, divided into types:

  • Type 1: Atayal-derived word + Atayal-derived word (e.g., hopala’i)
  • Type 2: Atayal-derived word + Japanese-derived word (e.g., hopatenki)
  • Type 3: Japanese-derived word + Atayal-derived word (e.g., nakalukuskakobalay)
  • Type 4: Japanese-derived word + Japanese-derived word (e.g., nakapangcyuunmezyoto)

Even though Type 1 compound words have some occurrences and use in Atayal, there seems to be no Type 4 compound words with occurrences and use in Japanese, leading linguists to suggest that these types of compound words are creations of YCJ.

Compound words comparison between YCJ, Japanese and Atayal. The YCJ word for “wear” appears to be derived from Japanese “haku”, in “zubon wo haku” and “kutsu wo haku”.

YCJ indeed, stands as one of the most unique creoles in the world, being one of the only Japanese creoles known to be used today, even though its existence is still being assessed. With special methods of constructing words and expressions, taking into account the two vastly unrelated source languages, it certainly is amazing how such a creole was created to serve as communication means between the indigenous Atayal and Seediq, and the Japanese. It survives in obscurity today, often marked as one of the Japanese influences left on Taiwan.


Writing this piece has been refreshing, as I do not cover creoles all that often here. Probably the last time a creole was written about was the short post on Kristang, about three years back. Departing from the lusophone sphere, I found this creole to be among the most interesting ones, alongside Tok Pisin and Ndyuka. Looking up how word formation occurs and other grammatical patterns was quite challenging, since most of these resources are more readily available in Japanese as compared to English and Mandarin. Sample videos on YouTube are available, with translations in Japanese and English. One of them is found here: https://youtu.be/Ndmrifw1Hy8

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