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The Japanese Language
An Endangered Heritage

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 MinaeMizumura 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.

  • [2011.10.03]
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