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Shaping the future:the politics of language

by Florian Coulmas

LANGUAGE PLANNING AND LANGUAGE CHANGE IN JAPAN, by Tessa Carroll, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 276 pp., 40.00 British pounds (cloth)

Most countries consider their official language to be an area of state responsibility requiring “planning” by government agencies or special institutions. Language, from this point of view, is seen as a collective good whose development can, and should, be controlled. Typical language-planning activities are aimed at fending off contaminating influences from other languages, protecting the norm against decay, or steering the language in a desired direction.

The Japanese government’s deliberate intervention in linguistic development amounted to language planning by the time of the Meiji Era, although the term itself didn’t come into currency until the 1950s. Tessa Carroll’s book provides an overview of activities and attitudes pertaining to language planning in Japan as well as a state-of-the-art account of the Japanese language and society. Although not much original research is reported, the book covers a wider scope than several other English-language books about language planning in Japan.

To Carroll, language planning is not a field limited to the technicalities of spelling, grammar or pronunciation. Language planning, she argues, is at the heart of the formation of all political entities. Although she reaches back to the Meiji Era and sometimes earlier, her main focus is on the final two decades of the 20th century — when planning schemes served as a means of “projecting a self-image for Japan for the 21st century” for both internal and external consumption.

As an object of ideological debate and political concern, the Japanese language has been variously viewed as incorporating the spirit of the nation, a manifestation of proper social conduct, an indication of the seat of political power, a criterion of inclusion and exclusion, and a means of effective communication.

From the mid-Meiji years until the end of Japan’s brief experience as a colonial power, promotion of the Japanese language was closely linked with assimilationist policies, both in Japan, vis-a-vis the Ainu and the Ryukyuans, and in overseas territories, especially in Taiwan and on the Korean Peninsula. Contemporary government efforts to promote the Japanese language through the Japan Foundation and other agencies carefully avoid any hint of those efforts to establish Japanese as a leading world language, at the expense of other languages. Instead, making Japanese more accessible to outsiders and improving communication between Japan and the rest of the world are projected as the rationale for promoting Japanese as a foreign language.

In considerable detail, Carroll deals not with language planning in a narrow sense but with the state of the Japanese language’s relationship with other languages spoken inside and outside Japan, especially Ainu, Korean, Chinese and English.

Carroll reviews current debates concerning honorific language, male and female speech, young people’s speech, loan words, and Chinese character usage and their limitations, with a view to noticeable changes that are either welcomed or criticized by the media or other observers. She discusses criticisms of Japanese officialese. For example, “hairyo shimasu,” which means “we will consider it,” must be understood as “I’ll leave it piled up on my desk.” She points out that “the Japanese bureaucracy is by no means unique in employing such euphemistic evasions.”

She tries to relate language planning in Japan to efforts elsewhere, examining similarities and differences between the BBC and NHK with respect to their role in serving as a model of, and promoting, a linguistic standard. Language standardization as a policy objective in Japan took a particular form in the first half of the 20th century.

Experience tells us that languages change, no matter what. Does language planning make a difference? Or is it just a manifestation of people’s questionable belief in their ability to take their future into their own hands? To the extent that this book doesn’t offer a clear-cut answer or a theory, it doesn’t differ from other case studies of language planning, but some general lessons can be learned. In Japan, as elsewhere, language planning is more effective and more easily measurable for the written than for the spoken language, although the Japanese writing system does not allow easy comparison with other languages.

For a long time the Japanese writing system was at the center of language planning. In its present form, it is largely the result of conscious design. Of late, however, Carroll argues, more attention is being paid to the spoken language, as the importance of oral communication skills is gaining recognition in school curricula.

There is also a shift from emphasizing the symbolic to the instrumental value of language. The significance of the Japanese language as an icon of Japan’s uniqueness of spirit in Nihonjin-ron discourse seems to recede into the background behind its functional properties as a modern language fully adjusted to all forms of electronic communication.

Furthermore, the notion of linguistic homogeneity is de-emphasized. Active discrimination against regional dialects, still practiced in the 1960s, has given way to a more tolerant policy of encouraging the use of both the standard language and dialects, in their proper domains. Carroll argues that linguistic diversity is more positively viewed today than only two decades ago. But this is only true for diversity within the Japanese language as there is no indication of state support for minority languages. Dialects can be presented as a link with the past and hence a part of Japanese identity.

Official attitudes toward minority languages, too, can change. Whether or when this will happen remains a question of continuing interest. As Carroll shows, Japanese language planning is evolving as new issues arise, playing a major role in Japan’s linguistic culture.