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Japan: Japanese Language in the Age of English


The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English [ja], the latest book by Japanese novelist and essayist Minae Mizumura [水村美苗] [en], roused debate among many Japanese bloggers recently over the fate of their national language. In this book, the writer, who had the opportunity to live and receive an education both in Japan and in the U.S., examines the role and future of the Japanese language. Mizumura contextualizes her discussion of this language, used for centuries by many literates and intellectuals to produce works of great literary value, in a modern age in which English is invading all fields of knowledge, to the point of becoming a universal written language used by everyone across the world to communicate.

The first blogger who wrote about the book in enthusiastic terms was Mochio Umeda, who expresses his hope that the work becomes the basis for any future debate over the relationship between English and Japanese. At his blog My Life Between Silicon Valley and Japan, Umeda-san writes:

この本は今、すべての日本人が読むべき本だと思う。「すべての」と言えば言いすぎであれば、知的生産を志す人、あるいは勉学途上の中学生、高校生、大学生、大学院生(専門はいっさい問わない)、これから先言葉で何かを表現したいと考えている人、何にせよ教育に関わる人、子供を持つ親、そんな人たちは絶対に読むべきだと思う。

Every Japanese person should read this book now. Maybe “every [person]” is an exaggeration, but what I mean to say is every person who wishes to produce something intellectual, every secondary, high school, graduate or postgraduate student (no matter their specialization), and also people who are thinking of expressing their thoughts in the future through the use of language, and finally people involved in education and parents with children. These people should absolutely read [this book].

一言だけいえば、これから私たちは「英語の世紀」を生きる。ビジネス上英語が必要だからとかそういうレベルの話ではない。英語がかつてのラテン語のように、「書き言葉」として人類の叡智を集積・蓄積していく「普遍語」になる時代を私たちはこれから生きるのだ、と水村は喝破する。そして、そういう時代の英語以外の言葉の未来、日本語の未来、日本人の未来、言語という観点からのインターネットの意味、日本語教育や英語教育の在り方について、本書で思考を続けていく。

[Summing up this book] in one word, [the idea is that] from now on, we will be living in the “century of the English language”, limited not only to the use of English in business. Mizumura proclaims that we are going to live in an era in which the English language, like Latin was in the past, will become the “universal language” used for storing and maintaining mankind's wisdom in the form of a “written language”. This book also continues [discussion of] ideas regarding the future of other languages besides English in this age, as well as the future of the Japanese language, and of the Japanese people, and touches on the meaning of the Internet from the point of view of languages, as well as the condition of Japanese language education and English language education.

少女時代から漱石に耽溺し「続明暗」でデビューした水村の問題提起は、「たとえば今日、2008年11月7日、漱石と同じくらいの天賦の才能を持った子供が日本人として生を受けたとして、その子が知的に成長した将来、果たして日本語で書くでしょうか。自然に英語で書くのではないですか」ということである。放っておけば日本語は、「話し言葉」としては残っても、叡智を刻む「書き言葉」としてはその輝きを失っていくのではないか。「英語の世紀」とはそういう暴力的な時代なのだと皆が認識し、いま私たちが何をすべきか考えなければならない。

A fan Sôseki [Natsume Sôseki [en], one of the most influential Japanese novelists of the modern era] since she was a little girl, Mizumura, who made her debut with Zoku Meian (続明暗) [lit. “Lightness and Darkness Continued ”; “Lightness and Darkness” [en] is among Sôseki's unfinished works], raises the following question: “If today, on the 7th of November, 2008, a Japanese child was born with the same innate talent as Sôseki, would this child write in Japanese once they became intellectually mature? Wouldn't they instead naturally write in English?” If this [issue] is left unaddressed, then although the Japanese language may remain as a “spoken language”, will it not lose the radiance typical of the “written languages” used to inscribe [human] knowledge? Everyone recognizes that the “century of the English language” is in this sense a violent age, and we must as such think carefully about what we should do [in this situation].

Disagreeing with the author of the essay, blogger id:fromdusktildawn attributes the fall of the Japanese language to the poverty of contents that have been transmitted over the past few years in Japanese, especially by the mass media. He stresses, moreover, that more so than studying Japanese literature, it would be useful if Japanese studied economics, in order to gain the basic knowledge necessary to acquire political awareness:

今後、世界中の、あらゆる価値ある知識は英語で生産され、英語で流通する。
インターネットの普及が、その流れをますます加速している。
世界中の知的にパワフルな人々は、ますます母国語よりも英語で読み、英語で書き、
英語で議論しながら、価値ある学術的成果・文化・商品・サービスを創り上げていくだろう。
[…]

Now and in the future, all over the world, all knowledge of value will be produced in English, will circulate in English. The diffusion of the Internet has increasingly accelerated this trend.
It would seem that all over the world, intellectually influential people will read, write and debate in English, rather than using their mother-tongue, and in this way they will create scientific results, culture, products and services of great value.

そうして、日本語圏は、三流芸人が軽薄にバカ騒ぎするバラエティー番組や
スポーツマンや芸能人の下半身の話題をさも重大事件のように扱うゴシップ雑誌、
知性のかけらもない動物的で脊髄反射的なネット書き込みばかりがあふれる言論空間に堕ちていく。
書店の本も、ネット上の文章も、日本語のものは、ますます知的に貧弱になり、
英語圏のものは、ますます豊かで豊饒で活力に満ちたものになっていくだろう。

In areas where Japanese is spoken, the level of discussion has deteriorated to a state where third-class performers appear on TV shows with their frivolous and ridiculous attitudes, magazines treat gossip about the sex lives of sportsmen and actors as matters of great importance, and online threads inundate the web with off-the-cuff comments that have not a trace of intellectual reasoning. While the intellectual quality of books in libraries, articles on the net and everything written in Japanese is becoming worse and worse, productions in English in contrast would appear to be becoming richer and richer, full of intellectual energy and vitality.

[…]

日本近代文学大好きな小説家である彼女は、以下のような主旨のことを主張する。
「国語」としての日本語の衰退を防ぐために、
日本の学校教育の国語の時間数を増やし、
全ての学生に日本近代文学を読み継がせることを
日本の国語授業の主眼にすべきだ。

The writer [Minae Mizumura], an admirer of Japanese modern literature, makes a claim of the following kind:
In order to avoid the decline of the Japanese language as a “national language”, the number of hours of Japanese language lessons at school should be increased, all students should be made to continue reading Japanese modern literature texts, and class work on Japanese language should be treated as the central aim.

[…]

文化のために個々のリアルな人間が存在するのではなく、
個々のリアルな人間の生を豊かにするために文化が存在するのだ。
個々の人間のリアルな生が輝くのなら、日本文化など亡んでもかまわない。
[…]

Real people do not exist for literature's sake, rather it is the literature which exists to enrich real people's lives. As long as the individual shines in their own life, the fact that Japanese literature perishes is not a problem.

そもそも、現在の多くの日本国民は、
有権者としての最低限の知識すら身につけていない。
どの政治家に投票すれば、自分たちの暮らしが良くなるのかを
判断するための基礎知識が決定的に欠落しているのだ。
どの政治家に投票すれば暮らしが良くなるのかを知るには、
夏目漱石や芥川龍之介を読むより、
現代経済学の教科書を読む方が、何百倍も効果的だ。

In the first place, many Japanese citizens nowadays don't even have the minimal level of knowledge [needed] as electors. There is no question that they are lacking the basic ability to judge which politician to vote for in order to improve their own life. In acquiring the knowledge needed to know who to vote for in order to improve your life, it is a hundred times more effective to read books about modern economics than it is to read Natsume Sôseki or Akutagawa Ryûnosuke [en].

Another blogger, id:repon, disagrees with Mochio Umeda (the first blogger introduced in this article), explaining that he doesn't feel the same sense of crisis about the Japanese language reported by Umeda-san and also described by [ja] blogger Dan Kogai:

僕には、id:umedamochioさんやid:dankogaiさんが「日本語が危ない」と「危機感」を持つ、その危機感とやらがさっぱりわかりません。
英語は道具、日本語は「国語」。そうなっていくだけのことですよ。
それは危機でも何でもありません。
英語は「国語」にはなりませんよ。

When bloggers umedamochio and dankogai say that they feel that “Japanese is in danger” or [that they feel] “a sense of crisis”, I don't understand what they mean.
English is a tool, Japanese is our “national language”. Simple as that.
This is not a crisis. And English will not become the “national language”.

「国民とはイメージとして心に描かれた想像の政治共同体である」とベネディクト・アンダーソンはその主著「想像の共同体」で述べています。
国民という概念は近代になって創造されたものなんですよね。
その「国民」概念を支えているのが、共通言語として作られた「国語」なんです。
「国語」は、簡単には衰退しませんよ。
グローバリズムが簡単に国民国家や民族や宗教を駆逐するどころか、かえって強化したように。

Benedict Anderson in “Imagined Communities” says that “[The concept of] Nation is an imagined political community sketched in one's heart as an image.” The concept of “nation” has been created in the modern era and what is supporting that concept is the [concept] of “national language”, created as a common language. A “national language” doesn't disappear so easily.
And globalism, rather than simply destroying nations, peoples or religions, would seem to actually strengthen them.

Blogger id:essa (Taku Nakajima) agrees at with id:repon in the belief that the Japanese language, if it were to face a crisis, would come up against a centripetal force that works to conserve language as a symbol of the nation:

確かに、グローバリズムに対抗する形で、民族や宗教の力は強まっている。でも、基本的にはその力は国民国家を解体する方向へ作用すると見るべきだと思う。どこの国でも、国民国家は内と外に引き裂かれて消滅しようとしている。

In fact, the strength of a people or of a religion acquires power when then they are in a situation where they must resist globalism. However, I think that we have to see if that power is working in the direction of dismantling the nation. In every country, nation states are being pulled apart from the inside and the outside, about to be destroyed.

[…]

日本という国は、明治以降になってから明確に外国の存在を意識して人為的に作られた国であり、江戸以前の日本とは別の国だ。夏目漱石は自分が生まれた頃に新しく作られた、その近代日本という国において、どういう言語を使ったらいいかということを生涯のテーマとした人だ。
[…]

Japan is a country that, from the Meiji era on, after it became aware of the existence of foreigners, has been artificially created, and it is a different country from pre-Edo era Japan. Natsume Sôseki lived in a country, modern Japan, that had just been created when he was born, and dedicated his whole life to thinking about which language would be most appropriate [for this nation].

だから、明治維新で作られた近代的な国民国家としての日本が消滅した時に、何が出てくるか予想つかない。それがイメージできない分だけ私にも実感がわかない所もあるが、国民国家としての日本は消えつつあり、漱石に象徴される一つの言語が亡びつつあるのだと思う。
そういう意味で、「あたし彼女」はやはり象徴的だ。あれは、夏目漱石の使った言葉とは違う言語だけど、枕草子には接続できるような気がする。

So if this Japan, which emerged as a modern nation through the Meiji Restoration, was to disappear, I cannot imagine what would come next. Given that I cannot imagine this, it doesn't seem real to me, but I do believe that Japan, as a nation, is actually disappearing, and that the singular language of which Sôseki is a symbol will perish with it.
For this reason, I think that “Atashi kanojo” [lit. “I, the girlfriend”, a popular keitai shosetsu] is symbolic. It uses a different language from the one used by Natsume Sôseki, but I feel that it can somehow be linked to “Makura no Soshi” [en] [“The Pillow Book” a Japanese masterwork written in the last period of the 10th century by a court lady].

16 comments

  • The End of Japanese Language?…

    Will the Japanese language disappear under the pressure from globalization and the growth of English as a global lingua franca? A recent book entitled The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English by Japanese author Minae Mizumura has sparked…

  • What I find bizarre about this whole debate is that English has made no serious inroads into Japan, when compared to other countries. When you usually read about “language death,” there is some new language that everyone uses, causing the older language to go unused outside the home. If Japanese is dying, it’s just committing suicide with no foreign attacker. I don’t think English ad copy counts.

    Not only do the Japanese not speak much English — at least the global standard — I don’t even get the sense that many people realize how high that standard has gotten in the rest of the world.

  • […] language in the age of english: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/11/17/japan-japanese-language-in-the-age-of-english/ « előző | következő » planetdamage — 2008. 11. 17. […]

  • I think you’re absolutely right that English as a language has not made serious inroads into the Japanese language (apart from increasing numbers of borrowed words, which take on a life of their own once they are coined). On the other hand, my sense in talking to many people here is that the approach to English teaching (drill it into children’s heads at the youngest age possible) has had an impact on the level of Japanese spoken and in particular written by young people today. Maybe that’s “adaptation”, but it’s really unfortunate in my view.

    I am very strongly of the belief that in order to learn a language — any language — well, a person needs to know their own native language first. That native language should be tied to your culture, history, etc., so to me there is no question that it is best for Japanese to hold on to their language and if anything increase the level and depth of teaching, which in the long run would actually help them in learning English later in life. (The myth, incidentally, that people cannot learn a language at a later stage in life is just that, a myth.)

  • RiQ

    I agree with the person who made the first comment, when he says that “English has made no serious inroads into Japan, when compared to other countries”. The writer of this book should come and see the situation in India. After 2 centuries of British colonial rule and a few decades of globalization, the people of India have developed a unique balance between English and the numerous indigenous languages. I am saying this to prove, that the two can co-exist without one gobbling up the other.

  • “While the intellectual quality of books in libraries, articles on the net and everything written in Japanese is becoming worse and worse, productions in English in contrast would appear to be becoming richer and richer, full of intellectual energy and vitality.”

    You only have to watch a few minutes of American television or pick up a magazine at a grocery store to realize that not everything in English is “full of intellectual energy and vitality.” ;-)

    • I believe this should be taken in the context of Mizumura’s question cited above. There she compares the content written by Japanese authors in the two languages.

      Looking at the available content irrespective of the authors’ nationality, you must also keep in mind that the examples you refer to are representative of neither the quality or availability of “good” content.

      Should intellectual, thought-provoking books only be available to Americans in a foreign language, say Latin, the nation would surely suffer for it. Bringing ideas closer to people which making them readily available in their native tongue is both good for the individual and society as a whole.

      Whether English poses a threat to other languages is an interesting and ongoing debate.

  • […] Japanese declining in “the age of English“? I’m skeptical. People have been complaining about linguistic decay since the […]

  • English is the language of business and more often spoken between members of same business spread all over the globe.

  • javier

    As a japanese learner I have to say that japanese is getting overwhelmed by english. From the news on internet we could see many words usually made by foreign language.

    It’s globlization effect definitely, and also we could see this part via japan’s history since the Meiji restoration. Sometime I wrote with chinese thinking behind that my japanese friend would correct my sentence with their loanword, not to use those present the same meaning in native. Hard to remember all of them.

  • A language does not have to disappear to be considered in danger. It is simply enough for it to lose its status and some of the domains it used to occupy. We have to sound the alarm before the fire destroys the house.

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