12. Linguistic ideologies in Japan

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Makiko Fukuda
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, UAB


The Myth of Monolingualism

Japan’s monolingualism has been deeply rooted in Japanese society for many centuries and today it is still preserved, both explicitly and implicitly. In 1986, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japanese prime minister then, publicly stated that “Japan is a monoethnic country and therefore minorities do not exist.” His words were controversial and organisations defending the Ainu nation (Japan’s indigenous people) protested furiously against the prime minister. Later, politicians who see Japan as a monocultural, monolingual and monoethnic country repeated similar arguments, as though there were no linguistic diversity in Japan. This view is underpinned by the firm belief that Japan’s linguistic problem is not politicised, although the truth of this view has been called into question over the last decade.

The three basic concepts: ‘kokugo, nihongo and bokokugo’

We can observe this traditional view of monolingualism in several ways. Firstly, we focus on the various names used for the Japanese language: ‘kokugo, nihongo and bokokugo’. The term ‘kokugo’, which literally means “the State language” ―often translated as the “national language” ― appeared when the modern Japanese nation state was established in the late 19th century and has functioned as a synonym for the Japanese language up to the present day. The second term, ‘nihongo’, is normally used to refer to Japanese as a second language for foreigners in a more neutral way, although the concept originated in the historic sense of Japan’s colonial policy for Taiwan and Korea during the Second World War. This term was put in place to preserve the national symbolic and sacred nature of the ‘kokugo’, as applying the same idea of ‘kokugo’ to inhabitants of the colonies was felt to be unsuitable.

The term ‘kokugo’ refers to Japanese as a school subject. The ‘Encyclopedia for Studying the Teaching of Kokugo’ by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics defines the teaching of ‘kokugo’ on the assumption that all Japanese people speak Japanese as their mother tongue. Here we find another key concept, that of ‘mother tongue’. The two translations normally made of this term, ‘bogo’ and ‘bokokugo’, are used interchangeably without a very clear criterion. The fact that the ‘Iwanami Kokugo Dictionary’ defines ‘bogo’ as a synonym of ‘bokokugo’ confirms the confusion between these two terms. The use of the term ‘bogo’, meaning “mother tongue” is not at all normal in Japan, so it is rarely listed in the dictionaries. On the other hand, ‘bokokugo’, which literally means ‘the language of the home country’, is much more familiar to the Japanese. This term evidences the coherence between state, people and language.

All in all, Japanese enjoys the status of being the country’s sole language, which can be demonstrated by the fact that the concept of ‘official language’ is not used in Japan. Neither is there any legal ruling on the Japanese language declaring its status as official language, except for article 74 of the ‘Saibansho hô’ law on the administration of justice, which states that Japanese must be used in the country’s courts of law.

The ‘Kikokushijo‘: reflection of Japan’s ideology

One example that clearly reflects the predominant ideology in Japan that places nationality on a par with the Japanese people’s language is the name ‘kikokushijos’ used for children. ‘Kikoku’ means ‘returning to their country ’ and ‘shijo’ means ‘children’ . These are Japanese children who were born and/or lived abroad because of their parents’ jobs and who have returned to Japan. Depending on factors such as the country they were living in, the type of school they went to, their interpersonal relationships and so on, these children had different experiences in each country and their language skills can also vary. Equally, it is assumed that these children are fluent in the foreign language — which is presumed to be English — and their schoolmates in Japan typically demand that they ‘say something in English’. This phenomenon illustrates the fact that the image of a bilingual person in Japan is often thought of as someone who is fluent in English. Plus, these children are also presumed to have a much lower level of Japanese, which leads to them being seen as “Japanese strangers”, “half Japanese” and even gaijin (“foreigners”). This means that having a standard level in this language serves as a criterion for “being Japanese”.

These children have had a major impact as, up until a few decades ago, living abroad was not at all common in Japan, and the return of Japanese children with the experience of having lived in a foreign country was regarded as a threat. Instead of accepting heterogeneity, Japanese society makes ‘kikokushijo’ give up everything they have acquired abroad, including their foreign language skills, as this is incompatible with Japanese society and they are under pressure to re-adapt. This ungenerous attitude to heterogeneity comes from ‘Nihonjinron’ (Japanese identity theory), an ideology that values Japan’s homogeneity and distinctive nature. There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Deru kui wa utareru” (“The stake that sticks up gets hammered down”); it is difficult to stand out with a “different” way of behaving as this breaks harmony and uniformity. This means that ‘kikokushijo’ often prefer to blend into Japanese society rather than keep up their fluency in other languages in order to protect themselves, as being bilingual or multilingual is incompatible with Japanese society’s preference for uniformity. Despite this, in the 1980s, when the Japanese government began using the concept of ‘internationalisation’ more frequently, the negative view of ‘kikokushijo’ ceased to be predominant and these children went from being a discriminated minority to becoming a symbol of internationalisation and even objects of admiration.

‘Hyôjungo, kyôtsûgo and hôgen’

Japanese society’s huge respect for uniformity can also be seen in the Japanese language itself. In the 19th century, with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan embarked on a period of modernisation, which gave rise to a new government. To form a sufficiently strong nation state that could compete with other countries, the people had to be united. The unification of the language was one measure, as up to then, Japan’s linguistic diversity had been huge, and the country was divided into two hundred and fifty-six ‘Han’ (domains governed by a feudal lord who paid taxes to the central government) with very little contact between them and with such a different range of variants spoken that it was impossible for people from different ‘Han’ to communicate with each other. Plus, differences between social classes also contributed to this linguistic diversity.

To achieve ‘a uniform language’, the variant spoken in the high area of Tokyo was chosen as the standard (‘hyōjungo’). The standard language is also called ‘common language’ (‘kyôtsûgo’), and started being used in 1951, as set out in the regulations governing teaching in schools, as opposed to regional dialects, since the standard could be understood all over Japan.

Other regional variants were given the status of dialect (‘hōgen’); they began to be regarded as “bad” habits to be corrected or excluded. In Okinawa, for example, the islands in the south of Japan, they even adopted a punishment system known as ‘Hōgen-fuda’ (dialect label). Regional variants were simply seen as an ‘accent’ of standard Japanese and were not usually written down. We can see this treatment of regional variants in the guidelines for teaching ‘kokugo’ up to the late 1950s, intended to correct accents and promote the standard language.

This meant that teaching ‘kokugo’ prompted a hierarchical relationship to be set up, with the variant spoken in Tokyo at the top and all the other variants below it. As a result, people who could only speak their own dialect started to feel inferior. Plus, the speakers of each dialect were given a stereotyped image, often negative (so, the people speaking the northern Japan variant were viewed as simple and rustic; speakers of the Osaka variant were seen as funny, tight-fisted, vulgar; speakers of the southern Japan variant were regarded as masculine, abrupt, etc.). But the situation gradually changed; not only did the speakers of regional dialects begin to master the standard language thanks to a mass media campaign, but social attitudes to regional variants started being more positive. Lately, these variants have even become ‘trendy’ with the younger generation, with the media often discussing the dialects issue; dialect conversation guides are available to buy, and ‘famous’ young men and women who would never have dreamt of speaking their dialect to the media twenty years ago are doing it now. In fact, some words or expressions from the various dialects ― especially those spoken in Osaka because of the success of the comedy culture there ― are being used by the younger generation to communicate with each other, even though they may not be speakers of these variants. So, dialects have become a kind of entertainment in which people choose a particular one according on the image assigned to it and ‘virtually transform themselves’ by speaking it. We do need to remember, though, that these words or expressions used by young people are not necessarily based on those that have become part of real everyday life, but that they frequently contain ‘virtual dialects’, in other words, dialects associated with their images. Yukari Tanaka, a Japanese dialectologist, has called this phenomenon ‘hōgen cosupure’ (costume play of dialects), meaning that these young people dress up in the dialect rather than in clothing. The ones who do not have their own dialect ― especially people from Tokyo or the surrounding areas where the difference in dialect is barely noticeable ― are envious of the ‘native’  dialect speakers and often become ‘false speakers’ of the dialect they like. As a consequence, regional variants have left their inferiority complex behind and acquired a kind of prestige with added value.

As we have seen, Japan’s linguistic diversity was not accepted because of the huge respect for uniformity and an ungenerous attitude towards heterogeneity. It is quite ironic that both ‘kikokushijo’ and speakers of regional variants have gone from being objects of disdain to being objects of admiration.

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