So, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has gone out on a limb and suggested that Japanese lawmakers engaging in debate in the Diet should speak in Japanese. Last week he reportedly chided an opposition member for asking a question sprinkled with English-language terms. On the one hand, that seems reasonable. What are languages for, if not to be honored and protected on their home turf? Where did the lawmaker think he was — at the United Nations? On the other hand, it also seems a tad quixotic. All the scolding in the world will not stop languages rubbing shoulders in an increasingly borderless world, even in staid old Kasumigaseki.
According to reports, Mr. Koizumi scored all the easy points in last week’s incident, prompting laughter and cheers in the Diet when he told the linguistically ambitious opposition legislator to “use words that people can understand.”
“Who understands words like ‘compliance’ and ‘governance’ “? the prime minister asked. “Some members know English. I’ve studied a bit. But debates shouldn’t be limited to those who understand English. Debates are for everyone.”
As is so often the case in the fun house that is politics, Mr. Koizumi is right and wrong at the same time. Let’s examine that last sentence first, because it is not quite the argument-quenching truism it appears to be.
Yes, of course, debates should be for everyone — that is, accessible to all participants. Hence the army of simultaneous interpreters employed by such towers of Babel as the U.N. and the European Union. But unfortunately, debates are not usually for everyone, especially in a parliamentary body. That is because any parliamentary debater worth his salt is not trying to inform so much as to persuade.
To that end, he or she will use all kinds of rhetorical tricks to jolt listeners into acquiescence: puffing things up, playing things down, larding arguments with statistics and even occasionally using that dreaded tool, a foreign word, to lend a sheen of erudition to an otherwise dull and unconvincing line of reasoning.
That is presumably all that the poor opposition legislator was trying to do last week. He no doubt thought he was obfuscating like a pro and wondered why he drew a public scolding instead of applause. It also probably never occurred to him that some listeners might not understand him: English has penetrated Japanese culture so deeply that many people never realize how many everyday words are actually English, or derived from English.
The reverse is also true: English has seamlessly assimilated hundreds of Japanese words, from “anime” to “Zen,” as well as words from numerous other languages. The difference is that English is seen right now as the juggernaut, rolling roughshod over less widely spoken tongues, and that is why it causes such consternation when it pops up in places such as non-English-speaking countries’ national legislatures. But in a globalized world, there are no barriers to the trade in words.
And here’s the funny part: This incident was not really about English, anyway. The English words the prime minister pilloried the lawmaker for using in the Diet would glaze just as many eyes in an English-speaking body. You don’t have to be Japanese to not know what “governance” means in the real world or to be put to sleep instantly by the word “compliance.” Those words are part of a vocabulary that almost amounts to a separate language. Let’s call it Political Boilerplate.
Plain old boilerplate simply means standardized words or phrases that can be used over and over: “Do not disturb” is boilerplate, and so is “some assembly required” or “slippery when wet” or “standard text-messaging rates apply.” It obviously has its uses.
Political Boilerplate is a bit more complex, involving words or phrases that are used over and over even when people really don’t have a clue what they mean: “war on terror,” “unity government,” that perennial classic “reforms” and, yes, “governance,” a word most often found hopefully paired with “good.”
Mr. Koizumi is right to zero in on governance as a word nobody understands, but he is wrong to think they don’t understand it because it’s in English. It is the idea that is obscure, not the language.
In short, the prime minister might be barking up the wrong tree to criticize the use of an English word here and there in the Diet — at least if his goal is to encourage debates that everyone can follow and take part in. He would be better off declaring war on received ideas, cliches, slogans and all the other forms of foggy rhetoric that substitute for clear thinking — in every language under the sun.
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