Last month, on May 21 to be exact, something caught my eye in the English-language IHT/Asahi Shimbun newspaper. In an article headlined “Holistic patriotic education still missing,” Professor Nobukatsu Fujioka of Takushoku University in Tokyo made an impassioned plea for Japanese children to be imbued in the classroom with the love of country.

This comes as no surprise from a man who has spearheaded the movement to eliminate what he calls “the masochistic view of history” from Japan’s school textbooks. According to Fujioka, Japanese children should not be taught about “comfort women” (wartime sex slaves of the Japanese military) or the Nanking Massacre that spanned December-January, 1937-38 . . . because it will just make them weak.

But what struck me most about that article was Fujioka’s notion of the Japanese language. In support of his patrio-linguistic theories, he quoted author Masahiko Fujiwara: “One’s motherland is one’s mother tongue.” Clearly, he regards the study of Japanese in schools as a patriotic duty.

This, actually, represents a view of language that is highly specious and hopelessly outdated. The Japanese language is not an exclusive code used by the Japanese people alone, and its propagation in the 21st century has nothing whatsoever to do with nation-building and patriotism. It once did, however, and it is worth looking back for a moment to see where Fujioka’s theories of language as a patriotic tool have their origins.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), local dialects were the norm all over the country. Each han, or fiefdom, had its own dialect, and these were considered vital components of provincial pride.

However, with the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor as head of state in 1868, the Japanese government became intent on uniting the country as an imperial power. As a key part of this process, the concept of a homogenized form of Japanese — known as kokugo (national language) — gained sway.

Vehicle for expansion

One of the prime movers in the launch of a Japanese kokugo was Mansaku Ueda, who, in a speech in January 1895 titled “For a National Language,” emphasized the need for “the centralization of power (shukenshugi) in the question of language.” There’s the patriotic rub.

Please recall that in 1895 Japan was fighting a war in China. An empire needed a single language, according to this way of thinking, as a vehicle for expansion. If all Japanese spoke the same language, then they would speak with one powerful voice. Thereafter, the use of dialects, once part of the rich and variegated fabric of Japanese society, was officially frowned upon; and gradually the notion arose that all Japanese were linguistically and culturally the same. That, of course, was a great myth harnessed to unite a population in a time of imperial adventurism.

Not much changed in this respect after World War II. Children were still taught kokugo in their classrooms. The Japanese continued to think of their language as a mode of expression tied to race. Again, perhaps, it might serve to bring together a nation then so rent asunder and demoralized in defeat.

But in recent years, many Japanese people have begun to regard their language in a different light. The barricade of linguistic homogeneity erected in the Meiji Era is finally dismantling. The Kokugo Gakkai, an organization established in 1944 to promote the Japanese language, changed its name in January 2004 to the Nihongo Gakkai (The Society for Japanese Linguistics). In other words, “national language” (kokugo) has been replaced by “Japanese” (Nihongo). This may appear to be mere semantics, but it is not. It represents a significant mind shift away from the notion of the language spoken by most people in Japan as being a national tool for unification.

Another change has been the gradual acceptance of the term bogo, which literally means “mother tongue,” over bokokugo, which means “language of the motherland.” Of course, many people still use the term bokokugo, but I definitely sense that Japanese people are coming around to the realization that it is not only the Japanese who speak Japanese — and that for the children of mixed marriages in Japan, for example, it is more appropriate to refer to Japanese as being one of their bogo. Similarly, for the hundreds of thousands of foreign residents and non-Japanese overseas who speak Japanese, the language may be neither their kokugo, bokokugo or bogo — it is simply Nihongo, one of around 6,000 languages in use around the world. Its users may or may not be Japanese.

However, it is not only Japan that grapples with the complexities of nationality and language. Italian may be the official language of Italy, but Sardinian, for example, is deemed an “official minority language.” Article 8 of the Irish constitution specifies Irish as the country’s “first official language,” with English “a second official language.” Even so, far fewer than 10 percent of Irish people use their first official language for daily communication.

Linguistic melting pot

In the United States, meanwhile, a movement toward making English the official national language has gained momentum, even though that country has hundreds of languages melting together in its linguistic pot. One of the leading proponents of this movement is Sen. James Mountain “Jim” Inhofe (R., Oklahoma). You may know Sen. Inhofe from his reputation as being the Senate’s biggest skeptic on global warming — which he has called “a hoax” — and as a staunch defender of guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Of course, such moves in the U.S. to make English the official national language are akin to those in Japan aiming to stress the use of “the tongue of the motherland” as a strategy in the battle for a patriotic education. Certainly there will always be super-patriots wishing to hoist language up a flagpole of pride and empire. In reality, though, the study of and love for a language do not belong anywhere near a flagpole.

What of the estimated 18,000 non-Japanese children attending public school in Japan today? To them the Japanese language is a medium through which they can express themselves and learn about the culture — ancient, modern and contemporary — of this country. Must they pledge allegiance to it in the process?

Equating the motherland to the mother tongue naturally excludes and alienates such children. It also gives Japanese children a warped notion of their own traditions and history. At worst, it can help rekindle an era when Japanese viewed their language as a high-flying emblem of nationalistic pride.

Japan is a different country now from what it was in 1895 or 1944. If Japanese people wish the outside world to understand them and the words they speak, then it is no time to again hoist the language up a flagpole. Japanese belongs down on earth, where we all stand and speak to each other as equals.

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