Monday, January 12, 2015


The publication of an English translation of Japanese author Minae Mizumura's book THE FALL OF LANGUAGE IN THE AGE OF ENGLISH higlights a trend in recent Japanese non-fiction, a warning shot fired over the supposed worldwide supremacy of the English language, but it also brings to mind how important language is not only to narrative, but also to our most private and personal sense of ourselves and our place.

I haven't read the book, but Mizumura, a novelist and academic, seems to be arguing we should be vigilant in protecting our own native tongues against English's constant spread -- not only for the sake of preserving one's own language itself, but also for purely artistic and aesthetic purposes. Her caution is replicated, to varying degrees, and for different purposes, in bookstores across Japan.

I've got two paperback Japanese books that I hope to start reading fairly soon, both proclaiming the importance of the Japanese language to Japan; one's title translates as 'The Theory Of Why English Conversation Is Unnecessary'(more or less), while the other proclaims 'In The Japanese Language, Our Good Fortune Lives (according to my undoubtedly clumsy translation).

From my casual, completely non-scientific browsing through bookstores over the past couple of years, these types of pro-Japanese-language (or anti-English education) books seem to be steadily on the rise, probably because of the fact that a) the ability of the Japanese to speak conversational English remains abysmally low, especially when compared to their Asian counterparts in nearby countries, and b) the Japanese government is steadily increasing the frequency and age at which young students first encounter English in school. (Although, even with these improvements, there is no real effort to close the linguistic gap with Korea or China.) Japan is falling behind in English, steadily, almost intentionally, and more than a few Japanese scholars think all that's just fine.

Why are so many so afraid of English over here? Ostensibly, one reason might be that the Japanese language is so difficult to learn that children should get a good grasp of its basics before moving on to other separate tongues. This is true, but only to an extent; children in general are remarkably, even bewilderingly good at learning two languages simultaneously (while also chewing gum at the same time), and any adjustments to the Japanese school schedule would not significantly detract from Japanese language education.

There is also a corporate, strictly-business-related consideration in avoiding anything English. Yes, the world is getting smaller, and yes, more and more companies are globalized, which makes English fluency paramount to international success, but Japan is also so strong as an economic power (currently number three in the world) that the urgent need to radically transform their way of conducting trade and commerce is not exactly keenly felt.

Another, seemingly minor but actually sort-of-significant explanation for the less-than-stellar enthusiasm for English in some quarters is a purely practical one -- namely, who's going to teach it? I mean, REALLY teach it. It's now beginning to be taught in junior high school, often with the aid of native speakers from overseas, but most Japanese teachers can't speak the language much at all, resulting in some pretty staid classes. The style is similar to the way young Canadians (attempt to) learn French in Ontario public schools -- a lot of rote memorization, with few opportunities for natural conversation. It's hard to transform one's English-education system when the scholastic culture itself can't meet the demand with a qualified supply. (The obvious answer would be to support a massive influx of even more native-English speakers to teach junior high school-level classes, but the resulting loss of jobs for Japanese educators makes this less than ideal.)

A slightly more plausible reason for this resistance to early English education in many vocal segments of the Japanese intelligentsia is due to the role that the Japanese language plays in one's sense of patriotic self. Indeed, Japanese students study the rudiments of Japanese language, grammar, narrative and poetry in a course called 'kokugo', which literally translates as 'national language'. (The word 'Nihongo' is mostly used to refer to the teaching of Japanese as a foreign language to outsiders.) If you think about the word 'English', there's no nationality attached to the composition of the word; it is what it is -- a language that's learned by everyone all over the word. Yet 'kokugo', as a word, explicitly links itself to the country itself, the state and its structure. Other than old-timers who learned the language in wartime colonial outposts, Japanese is restricted to one people and place, its study and usage almost exclusively limited to either natives or foreigners who wish to live in that country. Unlike English, the language derives and sustains its texture in a specific locale. To degrade it by diminshing its significance, to lessen its importance, or even abandon the tongue altogether (which was seriously suggested by some Japanese reformers over a century-and-a-half ago, when the country first opened up) is, in a very real, potentially painful sense, to tarnish the Japanese people's own conception of themselves.

For without language, what are we? Immersed in English from the get-go, native speakers rarely have to question its place in our heads because we don't often allow nany (or any) other languages to sneak in. Only when confronted by cultures where English is of secondary important does one start to realize that it is but one tongue of many, with its own assess and faults. Many Japanese people, especially older ones, view the Japanese language as a rich source of inspiration, a unique celebration of a specific sense of humanity; English is an intrusion, and a rather clunky one at that. In a group culture like Japan, it's obviously the language that binds the individual to another, and it separates this racial group from all others, letting it attain a uniquely distinct status. To be Japanese, is to speak Japanese, is to become Japanese. (All others need not apply.)

In essence, the Japanese language is the narrative of the Japanese people, just as native speakers of English use its idiosyncrasies to narrate the story of our lives. I want to explore this notion of 'language as narrative/narrative as life' in another blog post, but I think it's not unfair to state that who we are in our heads, the stories we tell to get by, achieves concrete form in the world soley through language written down or uttered. To even contemplate another language achieving primacy in the culture is to risk speculation of what might be lost from oneself over time, if only obliquely.
Such a loss of living-texture-via-language might be (inadvertently) hinted at in a stray comment from Katy Waldman, reviewing Mizumura's book in a recent SLATE magazine column. Coommenting upon a puzzlingly vague passage in the book, Waldman writes: "...I have no idea why Mizumura airdrops this quoted anecdote into her book — the sentence ends and she never remarks on it again. Still, its striking..."

This confusion on Waldman's part (and I'm purely speculating here) seems to me an affirmation of a particular Japanese style of thought. The Japanese language is known for its diversions and by-ways; much is left unexplained, up for you to decipher. Walmdan hints at this quality in the first part of her quote, but then goes on to admit that its very inclusion is certainly 'striking'. She wants to know more, understand more, and perhaps it's the very odd and open-ended insertion of the passage that feels distinctly Japanese. (In Japanese, I might add; an English version of the same text necessarily morphs what works in one language into an oddity in the other.)

Even in translation, we can see how a fragment of Mizumura's distinctly 'Japanese' way of thought and composition -- in both the linguistic and cultural sense of the word 'Japanese' -- can't help but be maintained. In terms of resolving how best to protect one language from another, even while welcoming another voice to the table, Mizumura's 'striking', if puzzling, composition choice in that passage seems to prove that the very essence of a person and a place can survive the Pacific gulf between language itself, and perhaps that simple idea in the end is a good place to start.