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Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009

COUNTERPOINT

Though elusive to all, the language of Japan surely merits a break


When I was staying in a pension in Seoul for a month in the autumn of 1967, I tried to speak some Japanese, our only common language, with its 80-year-old Korean proprietor. He refused outright until about a week into my stay, when he gave in and said, "I haven't spoken Japanese since the war and I vowed never to do so again. But you're not a Japanese, so I guess it's all right."

From then on we spent so much time conversing that when I returned to Japan I was speaking Japanese with a Korean accent.

When one country conquers another, as in the case of Japan's colonization of Korea (present-day North and South Korea) in 1910, and then exploits its resources, most of the subject population is deprived of an independent livelihood for at least a generation. If, however, the occupiers also impose their language in place of the native one(s), the subject population may be totally demoralized and deprived of an independent future for generations to come.

During much of the 35-year long Japanese occupation of Korea, use of the Korean language was curtailed, and penalties were dealt out to students who used it in schools.

The British, French and Spanish, whose dominion over their colonies lasted far longer than that of the Japanese, also attempted to kill off or sideline local languages, well aware that linguistic imperialism is the sine qua non of manipulation. This generally also ensured that the alien language, which the colonizers regarded as superior, would remain in use there long after its troops were gone.

Due to the brutal oppression it once wrought throughout the Asia-Pacific region, however, Japan lost its only chance to spread the use of its language beyond its own shores. To many Japanese and non-Japanese alike, particularly people in Asia, the spread of the Japanese language outside the country is inexorably tied to sinister motives. But, given Japan's cooperative foreign policy and commitment to peace since the end of World War II in 1945, there is no reason today why the suggestion of widespread use of Japanese overseas should not be considered in a positive light.

Enter sociolinguist Takao Suzuki, who last month published, in a Shincho Shinsho edition, a collection of essays that had run over two years in Shincho 45 magazine under the title "Nihongokyo no Susume." "Nihongokyo" is his coinage, and it means something like "the religion of the Japanese language." Perhaps a suitable English rendition of the title would be, "My Japanese Language Mission."

Suzuki has been on a personal crusade for years to up the status of Japanese as one of the world's great languages. This would not be necessary if it weren't for the fact that many Japanese people have a self-deprecation complex regarding their language — if not a sense of outright inferiority. In large part this stems from them believing it is difficult to read (which it is) and arcane (which it isn't). Many also doubt seriously if any foreigner can really communicate in their native tongue, let alone master its purportedly ambiguous codes.

Suzuki wants to change this, and sees a world in which millions of non-Japanese people know Japanese.

"All I want," he writes in a chapter titled "Let's Change Our Thinking on Japanese," "is to strive to decrease by even one the number of people who, having taken great pains to come into this world, go out of it empty-handed, without having known the wonderful Japanese language."

If people around the world learn Japanese, he writes, "and are able to read Japanese newspapers, periodicals and every variety of book, it is certain that the number of misunderstandings and the amount of friction between Japan and other countries will diminish. . . . I am asking Japan to use its power to unlock its international linguistic closed-door isolation."

He also elaborates on the other side of the coin, so to speak — the reason why Japanese people have appeared to be such inferior learners of other languages. He cites two main reasons for this.

First, they are not even very adept at speaking with other Japanese who are strangers. The Japanese language is an extremely subtle vehicle for expressing the nuances of intimacy, but perhaps not so smoothly running as a vehicle for addressing outsiders — outsiders here meaning people from beyond the categories of relatives, acquaintances or colleagues.

For one thing, it is not easy to know the correct pronoun to use for "you" in everyday exchanges with strangers. Out of the four most common forms, for instance, you can't use anata very easily as it may sound rude; kimi is much too informal; and both sochira and otaku may be too stiff.

Second, as island-dwellers, ordinary Japanese people have, historically, had little contact with foreigners compared with their continental neighbors. Also, over the centuries the number of foreign wars waged by Japan has been insignificant compared with those fought by European states, for instance.

Suzuki points out that the typical Japanese attitude to studying a foreign language is therefore similar to that of studying one that's dead. The Japanese read and decipher foreign texts, not expecting ever to have to stand in front of a native speaker of the language they are studying and actually express themselves.

Certainly, this situation is now in major flux; and perhaps being forced to stand and deliver will bring out some dormant talent in the Japanese.

The flexibility of Japanese, with its use of kanji (Chinese characters) and two kana syllabaries, has allowed the language to borrow, assimilate and recreate expressions as the need has arisen. Over the last 150 years, this adaptability has no doubt helped in the vigorous modernization of Japan.

Suzuki's book ranges wide, on words for colors, on Japanese usages for parts of the body, on the existence of homonyms, and — in one of the more instructive parts — on the use of personal pronouns inside and outside the family. Some of his explanations are anecdotal; and, in general, he relies too much on comparisons with a few European languages, picking out his points to prove them.

But "Nihongokyo no Susume" offers a thought-provoking read, challenging Japanese people and anyone intrigued by their language to think again about the role in the world of any one language.

I don't foresee Japan becoming a colonial power in Asia again, but closing that chapter frees us to open a new one; and I admit to being not a Japanese-language missionary like Suzuki, but a Japanese-language imperialist. I would like to see nothing more than people all over the world brushing up their kanji and cracking their kana. Yes, Japanese is difficult; but, if you have nothing better to do for the next 15 years, why don't you take it up?

I lost my Korean accent 42 years ago, but the experience of speaking in Japanese with my elderly host in Seoul was priceless. I learned much more about life than if I had been speaking with him merely in English.



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