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:


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].


[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.


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:


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.


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.



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.



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.


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:


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”.


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:


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.



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].


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].


  • 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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