The Japanese Language

Society Culture

What does the international dominance of English mean for “minor” languages like Japanese? Novelist and critic Mizumura Minae discusses the development of Japanese as a national language and its prospects for survival in an age of English-language hegemony. (Interviewed by Kōno Michikazu.)

Mizumura Minae

Mizumura Minae was born in Tokyo and moved with her family to Long Island, New York, when she was twelve. She studied French literature at Yale College and Yale Graduate School. Her latest novel, Honkaku shōsetsu (A Real Novel), won the Yomiuri Prize, and her autobiographical novel Shishōsetsu: from left to right (An I Novel from Left to Right) won the Noma New Author Award. She has taught at Princeton, the University of Michigan, and Stanford. She is now based in Tokyo.

KŌNO MICHIKAZU There’s a lot of buzz over your full-length critical work Nihongo ga horobiru toki—Eigo no seiki no naka de [The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English]. Some of that attention has centered on the provocative title and on the final chapter, in which you make a strong call for reforming language education in Japan. In regard to the teaching of English, you suggest that instead of aiming for a universal but half-baked bilingualism, schools should focus on nurturing a small bilingual elite. And in regard to the teaching of Japanese language arts, you argue that the main priority should be making students read the classics of modern Japanese literature rather than getting them to write their own compositions. I think your readers have been impressed by your obvious love of the Japanese language and deep concern over its plight.

MIZUMURA MINAE To be honest, I never imagined this book would be so widely read. The reaction from the mainstream media has been generally favorable, but it also seems to have elicited some backlash on the Internet, filling some blogs with heated arguments. I’m told that the main thrust of the attacks against my book is that I’ve ignored the worthwhile works that can be found in contemporary Japanese literature.

What I wanted to do was consider how we can and should go about protecting the Japanese language—or any national language, for that matter—at a time when English is consolidating its monopoly as the universal language.

My family moved to the United States when I was twelve years old because of my father’s job, and I lived in the English-speaking world for twenty years, after which I moved back to Japan. Living here, I became more and more acutely aware that a critical disparity had emerged in the quality and quantity of information circulating in these two languages. Consider, for example, the growing percentage of foreign students in American graduate schools. The intellectual elite from all over the world is being sucked into the United States. And the spread of the Internet has accelerated this trend. A vast English-language library of knowledge is being built using the Internet. As a result, one no longer has to attend an American university to draw on these resources. An extraordinary number of people are reading English and making use of this vast English-language library regardless of whether they live in English-speaking societies themselves.

English is on track to become the most universal language in the history of humankind. And if we just sit back and watch it happen, then the chasm between English and other languages can only widen—because people involved in intellectual endeavors are being naturally drawn into the world of English, and it’s no longer even possible to stem that tide. In other words, we’re now facing the possibility that at some point down the road, languages other than English will be reduced to the status of local vernaculars used only in daily conversation and popular literature. My belief is that all non-English languages are now left standing at a crossroads.

KŌNO What are your feelings regarding the current state of the Japanese language?

MIZUMURA I think one way to measure a country’s cultural caliber is the amount of good writing in circulation. But the average shelf life of books here has become so short that unless a work is a bestseller, it quickly becomes unavailable in bookshops and goes out of print. Books are too easily published, and more and more of them are sophomoric in content.

I think we’re seeing the full extent of the damage that’s been done by the Japanese education system since World War II, a distorted version of American-style democratic education in which ease of comprehension has been valued above all else. Over the years postwar Japanese education has moved in the direction of assigning fewer and fewer classroom hours to Japanese language and literature, deemphasizing the classics of modern Japanese literature in favor of simple texts on a par with what the students might write themselves.

People need to be exposed as much as possible to dense and interesting writing from an early age. But because of the way the Japanese language has been taught in schools, people today expect nothing but easy reading, and even modern literature written a hundred years ago has virtually gone out of circulation.

Of course, when I try to explain the crisis facing the Japanese language to people from other countries, it’s difficult to convince them. They know Japan as a strange country where people are highly educated but astoundingly bad at English. So how could the Japanese language be in trouble? It’s very hard to convey a real sense of the problem to a non-Japanese, unless it’s someone like Ian Hideo Levy, an American novelist writing in Japanese—in other words, someone with such a command of the Japanese language that he can read the classics of modern Japanese literature with complete confidence. Still, if I explain it carefully, I can usually get them to understand it on a theoretical level. And I can also get them to see that it’s a problem facing all non-English languages.

Product of a Unique History

KŌNO Your book also traces the development of written Japanese in considerable detail. Historically, Japan grew up in the shadow of China, a great civilization that regarded itself as the center of the universe, but by a lucky accident of geography, it avoided becoming a tributary state of China. The Japanese developed a system of translating Chinese texts into Japanese, and they invented their own kana syllabaries, using which they cultivated a unique and distinguished literary tradition of their own. Japanese was able to emerge as a national language in a process paralleling the birth of Japan as a modern nation-state in the Meiji era [1868–1912]. You give a very lucid explanation of this process.

MIZUMURA Another element to keep in mind is the capitalist economy that emerged during the Edo period [1603–1868]. Not only did Japan have access to book-printing technology during this period, it also had very active trade between the shogunate and the provincial domains and also among the domains, allowing the capitalist economy to become highly developed—something quite unusual for a non-Western country in those days. These developments contributed to the spread of literacy, with the result that Japan boasted one of the highest literacy rates in the world at the time of the Meiji Restoration [1868]. These were the historical conditions that allowed a national language to emerge so rapidly in Japan.

But the Japanese people take their language for granted. They don’t understand the unique history that produced it, so they can’t really appreciate what a fortunate thing it was, at that early date, for a non-Western country like Japan to have a national language it could use for scholarship and for writing modern literature. Maybe it sounds presumptuous, but it seems to me that Japan could provide a model for non-Western countries that are struggling to establish their own national languages, and also foster a sense of solidarity with other countries struggling to maintain the national language they already have.

KŌNO Your book divides languages into three functional categories. First of all there’s “local language.” This is fundamentally spoken language used by the people of a particular area. Then there’s “universal language,” language that can communicate universal knowledge and ideas. Latin was such a language in the Middle Ages. At one time French was a universal language, too. But today English is consolidating its hegemony as the world’s overwhelmingly dominant universal language. Third comes “national language.” A national language emerges when the local vernacular is developed into a written language, usually through the efforts of bilingual people to bridge the gap between their local language and a universal language. I think that’s your classification in a nutshell. Your view as I understand it is that the reason modern Japanese literature produced so many masterpieces is that Japanese was upgraded into such a rich national language.

MIZUMURA Outstanding writers always appear around the time a national language emerges. The great women writers of the Heian period [794–1185] came on the scene just as hiragana literature was developing, and something similar happened in the Meiji era. At the time of the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese we know didn’t exist. If Japan hadn’t escaped colonization, the language of a Western colonial power would have taken over as a universal language and Japanese would have been relegated to the role of a local language. But Japan kept its independence, and with the help of translations by Fukuzawa Yukichi and many other bilingual scholars, Japanese metamorphosed into a language worthy of a modern nation-state, a language that allowed the Japanese to think about the same things their contemporaries in other parts of the world were contemplating. It matured into a national language that was also international in scope. Furthermore, by maturing into a national language that seems to give voice to the Japanese spirit itself, it enabled Sōseki and other modern Japanese writers to produce one masterpiece after another. I see the emergence of modern Japanese literature in this world more than a hundred years ago as a kind of miracle.

Lost in Translation

KŌNO I’ve heard it said that the writing of your favorite author, Sōseki, is impossible to translate.

MIZUMURA It’s really difficult. Sōseki’s novels bring the Japanese society of that time to life so vividly that you can savor and cherish it, and they’re also filled with truths that can only be conveyed in Japanese. They’re bursting with questions regarding Japan’s place in the world. Those passages strike a powerful chord in Japanese readers even today. But those are the very passages that are untranslatable. I doubt that it’s possible to translate Sōseki in such a way that he can be fully appreciated by non-Japanese readers.

KŌNO In recent years writers of non-Japanese origin have burst on the Japanese literary scene. The American-born writer Ian Hideo Levy blazed the way, and more recently the Chinese novelist Yang Yi won the Akutagawa Prize for her Japanese-language novel. What do you think about this trend?

MIZUMURA It’s wonderful that they find the Japanese language rewarding enough that they would want to enter this arena. But, contrary to what foreigners are liable to think, Japanese is actually an easy language to write. And it’s that much easier now that we have computers and software that convert phonetically keyed input into kanji and kana. You can produce something fairly readable just by stringing together short sentences in a purely conversational style. So, if possible, the kind of non-Japanese writers I would most like to see writing in Japanese are those who have read widely in their own language and have studied Japanese literature extensively as well.

Confronting Asymmetry

KŌNO You left the world of Japanese when you were twelve years old and lived in an English-speaking society for many years. But you returned to the world of Japanese to write your novels. What was the biggest reason?

MIZUMURA Since childhood my great love had been modern Japanese literature. It was my dream to write in that language and take part in that world.

It’s very ironic, but right around the time I was finishing my first novel, Zoku meian [Light and Darkness Continued], I began to be acutely aware of the fact that Japanese was a minor language, and as that awareness grew, I started to regret that I hadn’t become an English-language writer myself. That said, if you look around the world, the vast majority of people don’t claim English as their mother tongue or their first language. So, I’ve renewed my resolve to live my life as a writer on the non-English side of the fence. But I’m never without mixed feelings about this.

To return to what I was talking about earlier, I do think that the tendency for the best and the brightest from around the world to be drawn into the world of English is going to intensify. Wherever people live, they will increasingly use English for reading and writing, and the linguistic brain drain will accelerate. One hundred years into such an era, can we expect that people who have gone along with this brain drain will want to return to reading and writing in Japanese, or that the Japanese language will continue to circulate at the level of a century earlier? I’m not optimistic.

What I’d particularly like to stress is the need for our education system to nurture strong readers. Sōseki, for example, lived in England for a while, but he was able to return to the world of Japanese literature in confidence that there were intellects who could fully understand what he was writing.

We Japanese people are fortunate in that there’s no need for us to go all the way back to the eleventh-century Genji monogatari [Tale of Genji] to find literary classics in our language. Of course, it’s wonderful that we have classics like Genji, but because the Japanese language has changed so dramatically over the intervening centuries, particularly in the Meiji era, Genji is difficult for anyone but a scholar to read nowadays. But in Japan we also have modern literature. The literary works of the Meiji, Taishō [1912–26], and early Shōwa [1926–89] eras are accessible classics in terms of both their language and their world view, and it only takes a little bit of effort to read them. Among the non-Western countries of the world, Japan is truly fortunate to have such a body of literary classics.

KŌNO When you speak of your resolve to live your life as a non-English writer, what does that mean?

MIZUMURA I often find myself wondering whether the Japanese people today actually see Japan. Maybe it’s because postwar Japanese society has been slanted toward a rejection of our past, but I get the feeling that, as far as the Japanese psyche is concerned, this country is little more than a tributary nation of the United States. It seems to me that our novels are structurally American novels with a thin Japanese veneer. I wonder if the Japanese people see the asymmetry between these two vastly different countries, Japan and the United States. To me, having to spend my life as a writer in the Japanese language means confronting this asymmetry head-on, doing my best to grasp this reality that most Japanese do not even seem to see.

It’s also important to offer a non-English, local perspective as an alternative to the reality presented by English-language writing. The films of Ozu Yasujirō are a good example. He didn’t make his films with the idea that they would be appreciated by foreigners. But they offer a vibrant image of Japanese life, making them interesting to non-Japanese viewers, who watch them and see a world that they didn’t know existed. One can’t talk about literature in the same terms as film, but my point is that it’s important to use the Japanese language to portray the reality that is specific to Japan.

In any case, the important thing is not to be blinded by globalization but to use the Japanese language to capture the reality of Japanese life through the Japanese language. That, it seems to me, is our mission as Japanese writers—people who have been blessed from an early date with a national language of our own.

(Translated from an interview conducted in Japanese in January, 2009. Interviewer Kōno Michikazu is former editor in chief of Chūō Kōron.)

Japanese language literature Meiji Natsume Soseki Fukuzawa Yukichi translation