Novelist Mizumura fights to arrest fall of Japanese literature


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.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Important book.

  • Jay

    While no expert in this field, as an educator I would hazard a guess that the real culprit is not the invasion of the English language–which has been underway for 150 years–but the total takeover of culture by the internet, especially its mobile usage. Students I know these days are bent over their “smart” phones constantly; some cannot concentrate in a class but need to sneak peeks at the latest updates on their phones. Many know less about Japanese literature than I do, and I have even occasionally corrected a student’s Japanese. But young people all over the world, not just in Japan, no longer seriously read, as internet and social media take up all their free time.

    • cieleste

      Trust me, the problem isn’t with smartphones, it’s just the students’ exposure to literature and how much society values it. If the education system actually reinforced and introduced literature as a subject, sure, maybe 90% of the students might hate it, but at least they have some background knowledge and understanding of the texts. Of course if you hate Japanese literature so much as a student you could refuse to study it, choosing to fail and get retained too :)

      Heck, there are even “super-science” high schools in Japan, wonder what would happen if there were high schools specializing in the humanities eh? Although the latter probably wouldn’t have many students vying for a place, because of the type of technological society that Japan is.

      I’m a student, and thanks to the internet, I get to read stuff like Shakespeare’s plays for free, oodles of poems, etc. That said, I still have time to surf the internet and use social media, and admittedly, I check my phone rather often for updates.

      To a certain extent, it probably is an invasion of the English language. I can’t imagine myself reading Chinese literature, even though I am Chinese (Singaporean), probably due to the upbringing I have had. But still, an interest in the arts can be nurtured, and if earning loads of money isn’t your goal in life.

      Also, many students know less Japanese literature than you, for the simple reason that none of the Japanese students actually care much about it, and you took the effort to read up on it because you find the culture interesting.

    • Santa

      Reading has increased among youth. My generation reads more than any previous generation. It’s just not the same type of reading older generations did. No more do we sit for a year to read some Russian guys mega novel. The style and content have changed. Quantity and perhaps quality, not so much.

  • Thomas DiMattia

    She is correct.

    HOWEVER. . .

    The country as a whole needs to place getting foreigners to learn Japanese in a much higher need than they do.

    One of the HUGE mistakes is in the myth that the Kanji is hard to learn.

    They have been shooting themselves in the foot on this for some time now.

    As being a disciple of the greatest teacher on this issue, I offer up my services, and am willing to quit my currect job and fly anywhere free of charge, just to get the greatest language in the world, JAPANESE, to be read by as many students as we can reach.

    I have completely revised Joseph DeRoo’s famous book, but have gotten sidetracked, mainly because I have been stuck in Wichita, Kansas working other jobs 65 hours a week. . . .

    I had talked to a former columnist on Kanji in the Japan Times, the one who died of cancer, and her columns and our private conversations both backed up my position.

    • Michael Radcliffe

      “One of the huge mistakes is in the myth that the Kanji is hard to learn”
      Uh-huh. Must be different to the kanji I know about.

  • GBR48

    In the anglophone West, complaints that students don’t read classic literature, enough literature or pretty much anything other than magazines and web pages are legion. ‘Harry Potter’-inspired bookishness may have gone some way to change the percentages in the last decade, but the transitionary period of internet development is going to create mass panic amongst those with a preference for earlier forms of media for some time yet (as did radio and TV). Things are likely to settle down when the internet becomes a part of our cultural DNA (or when our governments ban us from accessing most of it).

    I think there is certainly an issue with attention spans, longer ones being required for reading novels, shorter ones being fostered by pointing and clicking online.

    There is no inherently nationalist element to wanting Japanese children to read more classic Japanese literature, but there is no reason why this should replace English language lessons in schools. I’m quite shocked that Japanese school children read as little of their own literature as this article suggests they do. Most non-anglophone Western schools would require some classic vernacular literature to be read, and wouldn’t think that it got in the way of learning English. The school day in Japan must be rather short if they cannot squeeze both in. And adding government-mandated lessons in nationalist ethics will simply make matters worse.

    A nation that requires widespread bilingual ability for its future economic well-being in a global marketplace should be capable of starting English language lessons from the first day of school without skimping on the reading of vernacular literature. Many non-anglophone nations embrace bilingual (and sometimes trilingual) abilities as an economic necessity, without any damage to their national culture.

    Deleting reviews on Amazon is just childish. You know who you are and you should be ashamed of yourselves. Grow up.

    The issue of teaching Japanese children English is more complicated, and it is a common nationalist theme to want the nation to turn away from the English language as a part of rebuilding the walls against globalising influences. That may or may not be why Mizumura makes her suggestions.

    Perhaps more Japanese people could be fluent English speakers, to the benefit of their CVs and their future earnings potential, as well as for the national economy, if Japanese teachers were themselves fluently bilingual across the board: something that has never been fully addressed. This is important as many industries and much academic research is now global: Coverage and influence count, and unfairly as it may be, this can best be achieved in English.

    There may well be a lack of a perceived need for English amongst the young people of Japan fostered by growing up in a comfortable developed country, national insularity, maybe a little xenophobia and a general feeling of having everything they need to hand in Japanese, so why bother? The long term consequences of this should raise a red flag for the government. It isn’t surprising that the numbers of English-speaking Korean- and Chinese-Americans are rising, increasing the status and influence of Korea and China abroad, whilst the numbers of Japanese-Americans are declining. If the people retreat behind the Great Wall of Kana and bring down the linguistic and cultural shutters, Japan’s economy and international presence will ultimately suffer.

    For children that really do struggle, rather than writing them off in an elitest manner, a working knowledge of English words and phrases (an extended English language equivalent of ‘tourist Japanese’) may be taught, that will allow them to cope when confronted with English in their adult lives. On-going English language tuition should be widely and freely available for all through Government schemes to allow those who wish to improve their skill-set after school, to do so. Some children just find school difficult and do better after they leave. Many people regret not making the most of their school years-learning languages particularly, as it only gets harder the older you get. But it’s tough being young, and I’m sure we all have regrets regarding the choices we made.

    Certainly all of Japan’s schoolchildren should surely be reading some classic Japanese literature as part of their education.

    On a technical note, although contextual subtleties are often ‘lost in translation’, Mizumura might rest easier in the knowledge that although different languages work in different ways, each has its own extensive range and complexity. Whilst translating often blunts or alters this, whatever language we speak or write in, we all have the potential for considerable range and depth, even if we have trouble communicating it across the linguistic divide, in a second language.

    Although there is nothing wrong with being famous within the borders of your own land, more extensive English language tuition in Japan may also lead to more and better translations of Japanese works, by bilingual Japanese scholars.

    On a side note, I’m guessing that by classics, Mizumura means Japanese-language literature, and not the earlier stuff that was written (by Japanese writers) in classical Chinese with Japanese reading marks. That probably now has the same status as Latin and Greek works in the West, read only at university, unless it has been translated into the modern vernacular.

    Languages and their use both evolve. Trying to freeze them or prevent them from developing is usually a bad idea.

    And yes, Japanese is very difficult to learn for the average Westerner. This is not a myth, so anyone who found it easy, pat yourselves on the back. Telling people it is easy will get you nowhere.

    As for the ‘English’ internet. It started off that way, but the amount of non-English content apparent on it increases every day. To quote Wikipedia, “The use of English online increased by around 281% from 2001 to 2011, a lower rate of growth than that of Spanish (743%), Chinese (1,277%), Russian (1,826%) or Arabic (2,501%) over the same period.” Certainly most Japanese websites are in the vernacular, often without an English alternative.

  • rossdorn

    “Mizumura’s motives are more artistic than political….”

    Yeah, sure… Seems these people haven no understanding at all of what goes on.

    Jesus… the more I learn about this country, the less I manage to believe it…

  • Andrew A

    Its pretty frightening that Japanese students can get through school without reading a single novel. I thought my public schooling was a joke but yikes.

    So basically they’re teaching English poorly and they can’t even get their own language right?Don’t they have separate teachers for different classes? Doesn’t each class get an equal amount of time per day? I don’t understand how poor English suddenly correlates that now their Japanese classes are taking a hit. It seems like they’re pinning the blame on something foreign rather than looking at they’re current education system as a whole.

  • Ned Kelly

    The Japanese writing system is beautiful and full of nuanced meanings. It has something which the alphabetic English language lacks. The study of kanji leads one to many beautiful fields of culture and knowledge. As Thomas says below, Japan also needs to get more foreigners to learn Japanese. Ms Mizumura has produced an important work which hopefully will lead to more informed discussion.