In times of transition, when the need for reform is felt more keenly than usual, there is heightened openness to bold suggestions. Japan is in the middle of such a period. Public debt exceeds 100 percent of GDP. The social-welfare system needs a drastic overhaul. Unemployment is at an all-time high. The school system is deteriorating. When, if ever, economic recovery will be accomplished is anybody’s guess. The state is steadily weakening, as the recognition gains ground that the government cannot be responsible for everything. It is no longer trusted, as the guarantor of the public good. Radical proposals are in order.

Earlier this year, the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi made just such a suggestion when he called for English to be established as Japan’s second official language.

Why talk about language at such a crucial juncture? The answer is that language has economic, political and cultural implications, as well as a strong emotional aspect. When we talk about language, we talk about ourselves.

Language tends to become a focus of discussion in Japan whenever crisis looms. In the early Meiji years, Japan’s intellectuals experienced an unprecedented language crisis. They found it difficult to express everything they wanted, especially things Western. Education Minister Mori Arinori was therefore prompted to advance the rather bizarre idea of replacing Japanese with English as Japan’s national language.

The defeat in the Pacific War was another moment of national crisis about language. Shiga Naoya, a celebrated novelist, in a widely discussed 1946 article on “the national language problem” revived Mori’s suggestion, although he argued for adopting French rather than the victor’s language.

Shiga’s proposal, like Mori’s, is remembered as an intellectual oddity, and Obuchi’s call for a second official language will likely suffer the same fate. But recommendations to change the language regime are not meaningless.

On the contrary, they have profound symbolic significance. Just now, they articulate a persistent feeling of isolation in Japan, which, in this age of globalization, is rightly regarded as a serious problem. They also indicate that language is considered important and a sense that altering the language regime may be part of the solution to nonlinguistic problems.

Japan is not proficient at English. Some political and economic leaders see this as a competitive disadvantage that weakens Japan’s international position. The world’s No. 1 aid donor and second-largest contributor to the United Nations’ ordinary budget, Japan is badly underrepresented in major international agencies. In other areas where globalization is advancing, particularly international finance, e-commerce, science and technology, this deficit is painfully felt.

It isn’t clear that assigning English official status would be the solution, but the idea nevertheless serves a useful purpose by provoking debate.

At issue is not just Japan’s global clout, that is, the ability of Japanese politicians, diplomats, and managers to express themselves convincingly in international settings. These elites are usually well-trained or can use interpreters. At least as important is the ability of Tanaka-san in the street — or on the Internet — to converse freely in the dominant language of global mobility.

There are two sides to Japan’s language regime, an external and a domestic one. Both need to be reconsidered. At issue is communication rather than language. Society at large must be enabled to meet contemporary communication requirements.

In the June edition of Monthly Keidanren, Keidanren President Takashi Imai pointed out that it “is indispensable for this country to keep a leadership position in the global community. It is also hoped that the government will take up a serious review of immigration policy soon, with a view to securing adequate manpower in new growth sectors to prepare for an inevitable decline in Japan’s population in the coming decades.”

Like it or not, Japan will have to accommodate more labor migrants and their dependents. If “adequate manpower” is to be secured, fluency in Japanese can hardly be taken for granted. Communities with limited Japanese proficiency are springing up in a society that so far has operated under monolingual assumptions. Obuchi’s proposal is highly relevant in this connection.

There are already many signs of change.

Several major universities have changed the names of their Japanese departments. Departments of “national literature and language” were renamed departments of “Japanese literature and language.”

It will be some time before the Ministry of Education follows this example, but even at lower levels more accommodating attitudes are apparent.

Many local governments have recently adopted a flexible and pragmatic stance in dealing with non-Japanese residents and their communication requirements. City halls and ward offices have established interpretation and counseling services in several languages besides English, including Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, Tagalog, Indonesian and Farsi.

Local governments are far ahead of the national government, and understandably so, because this is the level at which community issues have to be dealt with. The national government, despite paying repeated lip service to internationalization and globalization, frequently relapses into an isolationist mentality.

Time and again, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Home Affairs feel compelled to execute organized deportation campaigns, because illegal immigrants pose new problems for the government: work injuries without insurance, legal conflicts among foreign nationals, sham marriages and so on. The government would prefer to eliminate these problems rather than deal with them. But they won’t go away. Japan’s growing diversity is irreversible.

Linguistic diversity calls for an active language policy that makes room for languages other than Japanese. There is no need to question the predominant position of Japanese, but the fact that there is a resident population of speakers of a variety of other languages ought to be acknowledged.

This is particularly important at the elementary-school level. Right now, there are students in Japan who are falling through the cracks. Compulsory education applies to Japanese nationals only. As a result, there are children of refugees and labor migrants who are growing up without attending school because the state’s responsibility does not extend to them. At the same time, their parents lack the time and the financial resources to make sure that they receive at least basic education. Many of them are incapable of guiding their children through the Japanese educational system even if they wanted to.

These problems have been acknowledged by local school administrations and confronted by informal circles and a number of NGOs, but the national government has been slow to acknowledge them. The compulsory-education regulation will have to be updated sooner or later.

The government’s decision last year to suspend its policy of refusing to grant Korean-run schools official status — thus making Korean senior high school students eligible to sit for entrance exams of national universities — was an important step. Others must follow.

The authorities still find it hard to officially depart from the idea of Japan’s alleged ethnolinguistic uniformity. Yet the traditional self-image of Japan as a closed, homogeneous society has begun to break down, and the push for a more pluralistic Japan is welcomed and supported by many Japanese.

People’s attitudes have changed because socioeconomic conditions have changed and because international currents of political thinking have changed. The monoethnic nation state is out of fashion, at least in advanced countries that can afford to be generous with their minorities. Japan cannot afford to be an exception. This is the real significance of the call for a second official language.

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