Ah, Nihongo. Of all foreign languages, this is the one that keeps you on your toes. An Occidental beginner might suspect that the Japanese did it on purpose — sowed their language with mines and pitfalls to thwart non-native penetration. To 16th-century European missionaries, Japanese was the devil’s language, impossible to learn, Satan’s fiendish device for depriving this otherwise promising island race of Christian salvation.
The Japanese take pride in the difficulty of their language. Even today, when Japanese-speaking foreigners are commonplace, the view persists that real Japanese can only be spoken by real Japanese. English is for everyone — anyone can master it. Perhaps this good-natured contempt explains in part the conspicuous Japanese failure to do so. (Hopefully the introduction next month of English instruction in elementary schools will help remedy that.) Japanese, on the other hand, with its nuances, studied ambiguities and pregnant silences, is more than a language, it’s an art, conferring on its native speakers the distinction of being born artists.
Artists, devils — or neither? “No,” writes Harvard Japanese-literature professor Jay Rubin in his book “Making Sense of Japanese,” “Japanese is not the language of the infinite. Japanese is not even vague. The people of Sony and Nissan and Toyota did not get where they are today by wafting incense back and forth. The Japanese speak and write to each other as other literate peoples do.”
Do they? And does successful industrialization prove it? Well into the 20th century, the prevailing view was that they didn’t.
“The ideas of this people,” wrote Lafcadio Hearn in 1904 — before he married a samurai’s daughter and took Japanese citizenship — “are not our ideas; their sentiments are not our sentiments; their ethical life represents for us regions of thought and emotion yet unexplored, or perhaps long forgotten.” Anthropologist Ruth Benedict, writing in 1946, noted the language’s relentlessly hierarchical quality: “Every greeting, every contact, must indicate the kind and degree of social distance between men” — still more between men and women.
“Could you learn all the words in the Japanese dictionary,” Hearn continued, “your acquisition would not help you in the least to make yourself understood in speaking, unless you had learned to think like a Japanese — that is to say, to think backward, to think upside down and inside out, to think in directions totally foreign to Aryan habit.”
Does that reflect the true state of the language, or merely the befuddlement of an imperfect speaker? Japanese, it is often said, is an “ambiguous” language, favoring the delicate hint over the plain fact, poetic allusion over scientific precision. If that sort of thing appeals to you, you say Japanese is “rich in ambiguity.” If it doesn’t, you throw up your hands like Hearn, consigning the language and its people to the unexplored regions.
Bastard child of ponderous complexity and surreal simplicity, Japanese is masterable as a foreign language, but not hospitable. Its writing system — which requires thousands of characters to do what the English alphabet does with 26 — will cow all but the most dedicated students (including Japanese students — kanji illiteracy is a serious problem in high schools). The grammar, on the other hand — unspecific as to tense, mute as to singular-plural distinction, reticent as to sentence subject, shy regarding personal names — is simple to a fault. Precision is not beyond it, but not native to it either.
Edward Seidensticker, translator of the 10th-century literary diary known in English as “The Gossamer Years,” introduces a certain lady as the diarist’s sister, but adds in a footnote: “Whether this is the sister who left for the provinces on page 55, or the sister who left the author’s house on page 39, or neither, or both, is not clear. In fact it is not even clear whether it is a sister or a brother.”
The greatest failure
Centuries of linguistic evolution separate us from that ancient personage, whoever he or she was, and yet in the year 2000, in a book advocating the adoption of English as the second official language, Asahi Shimbun diplomatic correspondent Yoichi Funabashi identified what he sees as Japan’s greatest 20th-century failure. It was, he said, a failure of communication.
“Japan,” says Funabashi, “sealed itself off from the world for centuries. During its long seclusion, it was spared the intricacy of interaction with other cultures.”
The ancient court described in “The Gossamer Years” was so closed, so tight a circle that the breathiest allusion sufficed to convey worlds of meaning lost on outsiders. The Japan of the Edo Period (1603-1867) was vastly different, and yet here too isolation was the defining element. The language evolved fenced in, its peculiarities unchallenged, effortlessly comprehensible only within the narrowest boundaries. It was in that condition that Nihongo rose to greet modern times.
Could the Pacific War have been avoided, given a more seasoned Japanese approach to dialogue? It’s not impossible. And it’s certain that crossed signals late in the war and after it were consequential, sometimes monumentally so. The Japanese response to the Potsdam Declaration’s demand for unconditional surrender was the equivocal verb mokusatsu suru — literally, “to kill with silence” — whose dictionary definitions range from “take no notice of” to “remain in wise and masterly inactivity.” The New York Times had no time for such elusive nuances; there was a paper to get out and its headline on July 30, 1945, read: “Japan Officially Turns Down Allied Surrender Ultimatum.” Within 10 days, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were radioactive rubble.
So it is no mere academic problem Funabashi addresses when he cites Japan’s failure in the art of dialogue.
Though shocking to some, his proposal to give English official status has a far more radical precedent. In the first flush of modernism more than a century ago, it was proposed that the Japanese language be scrapped altogether — in favor of English. The leading proponent was Education Minister Arinori Mori, and the arguments he produced in 1873 sound almost current today: (1) English is the language of international commerce; (2) it is the language of science; (3) the Japanese vocabulary is inadequate for the modern world.
Funabashi has no desire to scrap Japanese, though some of his critics fear that’s where his plan would inevitably lead. His goal, he says, is for 30 percent of Japan’s people, and 50 percent of its central government officials, to be bilingual within 30 years.
A casual remark launched the campaign three or four years ago. “I was being interviewed by a Japanese magazine,” Funabashi recalls, “and I spoke of my deep concern over the pathetic state of English education in Japan. I said we needed a more radical approach. I suggested a couple of measures. One was making English a second official language. Other magazines picked that up — rather sensationally — and it took on a life of its own.”
Indeed it did. In January 2000, Funabashi’s suggestion emerged as a recommendation in a report by an advisory panel to then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The panel’s assignment was to plot a general course for Japan through the new century. Funabashi was one of 16 panelists. Obuchi’s death in April that year put matters in limbo, but English as a second language — if not yet a policy — is now solidly entrenched as a topic of public discourse.
The debate arouses strong passions and strong arguments, for and against. “This is not simply a foreign-language education problem,” Funabashi writes in his book “Aete Eigo Koyogo Ron (English as an Official Language).” “It’s a strategic problem.” What Mori noticed when Japan first emerged from its cramped seclusion is equally unmistakable today, as the country confronts globalization: English is the language that takes you beyond your national borders. It is the language of “global literacy.” Global networking is impossible without English, and Funabashi argues that it’s on global networking that full participation in the 21st-century economy depends.
Might foreign investment have propped up some corporations that have gone bankrupt under “big bang” deregulation since the 1990s? “It’s possible,” says Funabashi, “but the English-speaking personnel needed to conduct the relevant negotiations were lacking, and firms collapsed.”
Diplomacy, too, withers behind a language barrier. Japanese diplomacy, never suave, has scarcely improved of late — witness the nation’s blundering struggle to crawl out from under the cloud of World War II. Diplomats and politicians throughout Asia switch effortlessly into English when the occasion requires it. Exceptions: China and Japan.
Moreover, in an age of mass travel and casual global contact, diplomacy is no longer the exclusive province of diplomats. Every traveler abroad , every surfer online, becomes part of an ongoing international dialogue — an overwhelmingly English dialogue. Japan, Funabashi fears, is on the road back to economic, diplomatic and cultural isolation.
To share his concern is not necessarily to agree with his solution. Some of his opponents contributed essays to a book published last year titled “Ronso: Eigo ga Koyogo ni naru Hi (Controversy: The Day English Becomes an Official Language).” There are four problems with the idea, writes Seijo University professor Kei Nakamura. First, it assumes, perhaps wrongly, that English is here to stay as the world’s lingua franca. Second, it is vague as to precisely what “second official language” means. Third, it fails to acknowledge the major cultural disruption that so fundamental a change would generate. Fourth — as if Japanese isn’t already awash in corrupt, agrammatical, mispronounced English!
Harassed English-speaking foreigners, weary of the sport so casually made of their language by the army of katakana sloganeers, cannot but sigh in sympathy. The Obuchi panel’s report, notes Nakamura, is itself studded with semi-comprehensible katakana anglicisms.
The second objection, that of vagueness, can be countered. A Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto) committee has published (in “Ronso”) an interim report defining the aim as a “bilingual society,” and stressing intensified English classroom instruction, more English instruction in the community outside the classroom, and a wider range of bilingual radio and TV programming.
Nakamura is far from arguing that diplomats and business leaders should not be fluent in the language. He does, however, question the need for the population as a whole to be. Not everyone, he points out, has an aptitude for, or an interest in, foreign-language study. Besides, is it necessarily a cause for shame, he asks, if the Japanese are — as Funabashi charges and TOEFL test scores tend to show — among the worst English speakers in Asia? Perhaps, Nakamura suggests, it’s a cause for pride; testimony to Japan’s unviolated independence during the years when many of today’s better English-speaking countries were under British or U.S. control.
And why, demands researcher Hiromichi Moteki in another essay in “Ronso,” why should English be considered the only window on the world? Why not Japanese?
The instinctive surprise stems from “a big misunderstanding,” writes Moteki. Contrary to popular belief, he says, Japanese is not confined to these islands. Some 2 million people worldwide are studying the language, and in the United States alone, roughly 600 universities offer Japanese-language courses. “In some ways,” he argues, “Japanese is the most international language of all. That might sound strange but it’s true.” More of the world’s important books, he claims, have been translated into Japanese than into English.
“If you can read Japanese,” he adds, quoting a Vietnamese friend, “you can read anything.” If you can read Japanese! A daunting “if.” And 2 million foreign students do not an international language make.
By way of comparison — as of 2000, English was spoken fluently by 750 million non-native speakers, and at various levels by a billion students. In fact, non-native English speakers now outnumber native ones.
Undoubtedly the numbers seem to favor Funabashi’s side of the argument. But Nakamura’s and Moteki’s concerns are not frivolous. Can Japanese survive, sharing official status with English? Long term, does any language have a chance against the irresistible wave that English has become? Supposing not. Supposing that in 100, 200, 500 years’ time the whole world speaks English and all other languages have vanished. Will the gain in mutual comprehensibility outweigh the loss of linguistic diversity?
“It’ll never happen,” insists Funabashi. Then again, think of how his proposal began — with a casual remark that, in his words, “took on a life of its own.”
These things do.