Books / Reviews

Novelist Mizumura fights to arrest fall of Japanese literature

by Sophie Knight

Special To The Japan Times

The abiding belief among some native English speakers in Japan is that Japanese people need to use more English instead of sheltering in the comfort of a mother tongue barely spoken beyond their archipelago.

The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by Minae Mizumura, Translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter.
Colombia University Press, Nonfiction.

Many Japanese people seem to feel the same, fretting about their low English proficiency and inability to communicate with foreigners. Commentators bemoan the failure of the country’s education system to create competent English speakers and blame it for Japan losing international competitiveness and geopolitical relevance.

Novelist Minae Mizumura sees things differently. In “The Fall of Language in the Age of English,” she argues that Japanese people should spend less time worrying about their poor English skills and more time reading classic texts penned in their own language to arrest the fall of Japanese literature. The Japanese edition, whose title referred specifically to the perishing of the Japanese language (“Nihongo ga Horobiru Toki: Eigo no Seiki no Naka de”), caused a storm of controversy when it was published in 2008, sparking accusations of nationalism, elitism and anti-globalization. But even activists deleting favorable Amazon reviews could not repress the popularity of the book, which had sold 65,000 hardcover copies as of April 2014.

Why the vitriol? To Mizumura, it was proof that Japanese people are not proud enough of their written language to feel they should preserve it. She notes many domestic intellectuals are left-wing liberals uneasy about the championing of a language they associate with the country’s colonial efforts to force its native tongue onto its subjects.

Mizumura says this unease doesn’t justify a cavalier attitude, prevalent in Japan, that the national language will survive without any interference as long as Japanese people are around. Such hubris and apathy, she says, have debased the country’s written language and will cause the great body of classic domestic literature to increasingly go unread and unappreciated — and leave fewer people capable of writing fine prose in Japanese.

She has cause for concern. Currently, Japanese children can get through high school without reading a single novel, as the curriculum only requires them to read a textbook featuring mere snippets of domestic literary classics by Mori Ogai or Natsume Soseki. Countless government officials have tried to make English an official language, or else to strip Japanese of its kanji ideograms. The latter move would make the language almost completely nonsensical, given the number of homonyms in Japanese — seikou can mean both “success” or “sex,” for example, and can be differentiated in its written form only with kanji.

Mizumura contends that more of the school curriculum should be devoted to reading and analyzing the Japanese literary canon, and less time spent learning English, which she considers a futile endeavor for the majority of students, who are simply not interested. Her suggestion that only a select group of students who show interest in English should be taught the language beyond the basics raised cries of elitism from the book’s critics. To me, it’s puzzling that she states English lessons are useless for the masses without addressing how English teaching methods might be made more effective by emphasizing real-life communication over learning antiquated grammar by rote.

Of course, it’s hard to argue against her statement that most Anglophones suffer from “the virtually unfathomable naivete of those whose mother tongue is English.” Many native English speakers are arrogant enough to assume that the rise of English as a global common language is an unqualifiedly positive phenomenon.

Mizumura thinks otherwise, of course. While she acknowledges the global supremacy of English is convenient for the transfer of knowledge, she warns it will eventually degrade other national languages into mere “local languages” used for everyday conversations and perhaps poetry or plays, while English is increasingly used for literature, academic papers and intellectual discussions.

The shift is already underway. Scholars are under increasing pressure to produce academic work in English, or else risk obscurity. The Internet, whose most basic framework and functions are described by almost universal English words — website, email, byte — has made short work of Anglicizing the online world, but wider access to English information threatens to create greater inequality between those who understand the language and those who can’t.

As a result, Mizumura says, the rich and diverse worldviews produced by national literatures over the past few hundred years will be lost. For her, “the tyranny of a single logos” will lead to a narrow, bleak world in which people erroneously believe there is only one kind of truth: the kind expressed by the English language. As Mizumura points out, a rich cultural nuance is lost when Proust’s “Maman” is translated into “Mom.” Given the difference in cultural history between the Anglophone world and Japan, the gap between the rather bland word “rice” and “ine,” which encapsulates the sacredness of the grain in Japanese culture, is yet wider still.

Although Mizumura focuses mostly on Japanese, she also gives a rich history of European written languages and unpicks the relationship between the print industry and the rise of nationhood. But while the book emphasizes the importance of the written word in forming one’s identity, accusations of nationalism from its detractors are misplaced. Mizumura’s motives are more artistic than political: essentially, she wishes more people today were acquainted with the pleasures of a good read. Her treatise is also a call to arms for everyone: for all non-native English speakers to embrace and champion literature in their own languages, and for English speakers to be that little less arrogant in their use of their mother tongue, which just happens to have become the world’s universal language.