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Hold the SOS call on the Japanese language

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — Will the Japanese language die, crushed by the onslaught of English? This question has set off some heated talk in Japan recently because of a book suggesting that it may. First, a friend of mine in Tokyo, a member of a small reading club, told me about it. Then another friend wrote to say the book became the rage in academia. So I bought and read it.

Nihongo ga horobiru toki: Eigo no seiki no naka de’‘ (Chikuma Shobo, 2008) by Minae Mizumura turns out to be a collection of essays on language with no real focus. Some have suggested that its eschatological title is a publishing gimmick, and they’re right. What strikes me is the author’s relationship to English.

Mizumura was transplanted from Japan to New York at age 12 because her father was assigned to the city in the early 1960s. Perhaps because Japanese employers still did not have the wherewithal to rotate their overseas assignees every three or four years, Mizumura received not just a full secondary education in a New York suburb, but a full postsecondary education as well, in the end living in the U.S. for 20 years.

Yet she kept “her back stubbornly turned on English,” she writes. To be put off by an alien language suddenly foisted upon her may be natural for a 12-year-old girl for a while. But Mizumura kept up her resistance. At Yale University she chose French for her major, and went on to receive a Ph.D. in it. In fact, the second chapter of “Nihongo” is largely a translation of the talk she gave in French in Paris, in 1998.

The book’s opening chapter, for that matter, is a description of her halfhearted participation in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa after she became a prizewinning author in Japan. She tells us that one realization she had there, amid writers from disparate countries, was that she had never become “used either to America or to English” during her earlier two-decade-long stay in this country.

Mizumura’s second book, an “autobiographical novel” written mixing Japanese and English, may explain the reasons for her antipathy and ambivalence. “Nihongo,” at any rate, is a book of discontent. Mizumura is dissatisfied with the possibility that English will overwhelm Japanese; her compatriots’ failure (in her judgment) to produce worthy writings in the language she cherishes; and the Japanese inability to manipulate English well.

Her fear of English as a lingual juggernaut is based on her reading of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities.” I haven’t read this famous analysis of the origins of nationalism, but Mizumura’s fear that Japanese may become a “local language” as English becomes the “universal language” strikes me as misplaced.

As she points out, in Anderson’s taxonomy of languages, Chinese was the universal language in East Asia for most of the region’s history and Japanese a local language. But that did not prevent Japanese from growing with resilience.

Mizumura’s plaint that fellow writers today are not turning out worthy literature is, I’m afraid, of a perennial variety, offered in any age. The special ax she has to grind here is a body of Japanese literature her father happened to bring to New York that she avidly read as a teenager: a collection of works of writers from the Meiji to Taisho eras (1868-1925), published from 1926 onward. Indeed, Mizumura’s first book was a sequel to “Meian,” the novel that Soseki Natsume, one of the greats from that period, left unfinished when he died, in 1916.

The trouble is that, coming from Mizumura, the verdict on her fellow writers sounds unnecessarily snooty. After all, she won a weighty prize for her “sequel,” as she did for the “autobiographical novel” and for the third. The book I am talking about here is her fourth.

Mizumura’s other point — that the Japanese are singularly incompetent in mastering English — also comes with a dose of condescension. It is unfortunate that she should quote Edwin O. Reischauer, the U.S. ambassador to Japan from 1961 to 1966, from his 1977 book, “The Japanese”: “Of the many dozens of Cabinet ministers I have known in Japan over the past two decades, I can think of only three who could conduct a truly serious intellectual discussion in English.”

The famed Japanologist here was talking about English as an instrument in international discourse, so I shouldn’t be too snarly about it, but I can’t help asking: How many U.S. Cabinet officers could carry out intellectual discussions in Japanese at the time — or today?

Mizumura, instead, could have quoted Reischauer from a little later in the same book. Reischauer conceded that he was “writing basically about the older generation and their problems. Young Japanese are often quite different. They seem almost a new breed.”

I have known many of the new breed in this city. They may retain some old- fashioned Japanese mannerisms such as deference to others, which I hope they don’t lose, but their English competency doesn’t strike me as too inferior to that of people of other nationalities.

Will the Japanese language “die” or fall to a secondary, local language status with English as the universal language? Die it will someday, but not anytime soon.

Mizumura, without giving a source, cites an estimate that more than 80 percent of the existing 6,000 languages will disappear by the end of the 21st century. That may be an exaggeration.

About the time I read “Nihongo,” UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Program announced that half of the 6,700 languages spoken today may become extinct before this century ends. Whether you take Mizumura’s figure or UNESCO’s, the estimate concerns languages that actually die out, not those that shift in power status.

When it comes to a shift in power status, Japanese has been a “local language” since the outset, as noted. So what’s the worry?

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.