Idea - Japanese Language

International Japanese
The Past, Present, and Future of a Hybrid Language

Nicholas Allen Freeman
December, 1993

What is Japanese?
What is the history of Japanese?
What is Kana?
What is Kanji?
What is Japanese Today?
What is Proper Literacy?
Why Japanese?

The Greek alphabet was democratizing in the sense that it was easy for everybody to learn. It was also internationalizing in that it provided a way of processing even foreign tongues. This Greek achievement in abstractly analyzing the elusive world of sound into visual equivalents (not perfectly, of course, but in effect fully) both presaged and implemented their further analytic exploits... Kerckhove (1981) has suggested that, more than other writing systems, the completely phonetic alphabet favors left-hemisphere activity in the brain, and thus on neurophysiological grounds fosters abstract, analytic thought. (Ong, p. 90-1)

In languages where a phonetically based script is used to record language, writing does not add any new information to language itself.....But there is a language in which more information than is contained in the sound is carried by its written forms. In this language a lot of linguistic, in particular lexical information, is often carried conjointly by the written and spoken forms in much the same way as in television, where we get information as a combination of visual and auditory impressions. In this language, a considerable part of writing is no longer mere memory tags or secondary appendages but itself an integral part of language per se , just as in television the pictures and the voice are both indispensable part and parcel of the whole system. The name of this peculiar language is Japanese...(Suzuki, p. 5)

If "the medium is the message", as has been suggested by McLuhan,then what do our various forms of visually representing language tell us? Does one procedure, be it pictographic, ideographic, phonetic, or a combination of such means, necessarily provide a stronger forum for commentary, a better way to represent thoughts and words, maximizing their transmission and comprehension? This has necessarily been a point of linguistic contention ever since individuals encountered languages foreign to their mother tongues, and usually those in political and sociological power found justification for the primacy of their language through their position in relation to others. The increasing stature of Indo-European languages, particularly English, has caused an outcry of sorts, contesting the worth of thought systems that, while perhaps supportable on "neurophisiological grounds", nevertheless leave a lot to be desired. One "alternative" language that is fighting for its linguistic stature is Japanese, and though a careful analysis of it history, structure, and relation to other languages, it should become clear that while English may be becoming a working Esperanto - an international language supposedly accessible to all - there will always be alternatives that offer different avenues of thought, and of expression.

What is Japanese?

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To begin, a definition of sorts is necessary for those not familiar with the Japanese language. The most striking thing to Indo-European eyes is that is does not use an alphabet, let alone word elements which resemble the letters that we know. Instead, the written aspect consists of a syllabary of 52 sounds, each character of which can be written two ways (in Hiragana and katakana, to be discussed in more detail later), along with an pictographic/ideographic element borrowed from the Chinese that has been adapted to fit with the native Japanese language. Presently, there are approximately 3000 characters in daily use, which each speaker must know in order to be literate. These characters, known as kanji, can be represented by the syllabary (made up of consonant-vowel pairs), but in practice are written symbolically in a nod both to tradition and the utility in representing complex ideas in a small, unique characters. Thus, Japanese can be considered a "hybrid" language, made up of characters that represent things and ideas as well as signs that correspond to sound blocks.

This difference is significant in itself, but other aspects are also important to note. Japanese, unlike most western languages, uses a subject-object-verb format, opposed to the subject-verb-object grammatical form found in English. This, while seeming innocuous, allows for a large difference in the formulation of thoughts, and taking into consideration the complicated Japanese use of self-signifiers ("personal pronouns" and the like), as well as the lack of a necessary grammatical person ("I", "you", etc.), language constructions made in Japanese stem from a significantly different mindset that those produced in the majority if not all of the Indo-European languages. These differences are not just curiosities for linguists, but indicate a larger rift between Japan and other cultures that is essential to understand in order for strong relations to continue.

Japanese also has a large body of "loan words" borrowed from mostly European and American sources. These words are filtered through the syllabary, thereby changing in pronunciation, and often times are not only truncated but changed in meaning entirely. This tendency to produce and embrace "neologisms" such as masu-komi (mass communication) and sukinshippu ("skinship" or body contact like that between a parent and child) suggests a flexibility in Japanese which is rarely found in other languages.

By studying these and other aspects of the Japanese language in greater depth, we will have a firm background to face those who prioritize the Neo-Grecian structure found in English that promotes "higher thought", and that regards Eastern languages largely as anachronisms, waiting to be "romanized". A good place to begin is with the origins of Japanese both as a spoken and written language.

What is the history of Japanese?

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First, it is important to stress Japan's geographic placement in relation to its neighboring countries. Japan is an island chain consisting predominately of a large island (Honshu) and two medium-sized islands to the north and south of the main land mass (Hokkaido and Kyushu, respectively), as well as smaller islands in-between and farther out to sea. Isolated from mainland Asia, particularly China - the dominant culture of that end of the Pacific Ocean - native Japanese culture developed its own language, seemingly influenced by Uralo-Altaic languages such as Hungarian, which share striking similarities to Japanese.[1] This language, also sharing affinities with Korean (the Korean peninsula neighbors Kyushu), suggests a linguistic migration traveling through continental Asia previous to the introduction of writing in China (traced back as far as 1300 BC during the Shang Dynasty), spreading through Korea and into Japan. This necessarily being a speculation, evidence nevertheless exists for the origin of "Old Japanese" to be influenced by various outside sources. Interestingly enough, China did not have any hand in this early development, but this situation would quickly change during the first millennium AD.

Even though the aforementioned similarities existed between Japanese and outside languages, any existing forms of script were not carried along with the Japanese language precursors. Solely an oral language, Old Japanese nevertheless developed a strong grammar and vocabulary, much of which still exists today either in an unaltered form or changed only slightly. However, since no texts exist composed in this tongue, all evidence of its existence is found through secondary sources (such as linguistic inference), as well as the texts created with characters borrowed from the Chinese.

As accounted in both the [Kojiki] and [Nihon shoki], the oldest two works in Japanese still surviving, writing was introduced to Japan by Wani and Atiki, two Korean ambassadors from the kingdom of Paekche. Although the accounts of this event differ between the texts, still the concordance of evidence points to the fact that in the beginning of the fifth century, Chinese writing was introduced to Japan through Korea[2] . The fact that at this time "large numbers of immigrants from the Korean peninsula (including some of Chinese origin) were entering Japan in search of refuge from political upheavals"[3] supports this hypothesis, as does the following quote from [A History of Writing in Japan]:

The form of writing that was brought over to Japan at this period was Chinese, that is to say, Chinese characters arranged according to the conventions of classical Chinese syntax. For the Japanese themselves to have made an abrupt transition from the stage of not even understanding what writing was to the stage of reading and writing in the difficult literary variety of what was for them a foreign language (and one which, moreover, used a highly complex script) would have been virtually impossible. For this reason, they relied initially at least on persons from the continent, such as Wani, to read and compose texts.(p. 6)

In other words, the Japanese were assisted in their transition to using the Chinese script by skilled Korean scholars, and the resulting written language was initially little more than proper Chinese. This Chinese eventually took on conventions of Japanese grammar and usage, but not without going through many intermediate stages.

The first of these was writing in the "Chinese style", which followed Chinese syntactical conventions exactly. Examples of such texts can be found as early as 700 AD; kinsekibun, or writing upon durable objects such as metal or stone, consisted of inscriptions in the Chinese style which paralleled those on Chinese artifacts introduced to Japan (see endnote [2]). Although errors and variations abound, artifacts such as the Inariyama Burial Mound Sword and the inscription upon it provide clear evidence of this tentative script style. Furthermore, such texts exhibit structural elements associated with Korean texts, strengthening the aforementioned hypothesis of Chinese traveling to Japan through Korea.

The second stage in the transition from the Chinese style of writing Japanese to what is in use today was a Hybrid style which fluctuated between the Chinese style and a Japanese style of writing, although all three still used Chinese characters. Texts created in the Hybrid style usually exhibited "a degree of Japanese-influenced word-order, and overt representation of Japanese elements"[4] such as the object-verb order used in Japanese which differs with Chinese. The Japanese style took this to the extreme, by trying to "represent Japanese directly in writing"[5]. Such texts appeared Chinese only in the characters that were used; the syntax and grammar differed enough from the Chinese style to be distinctly Japanese. This move to the Japanese style was the first step on the road to an uniquely Japanese script, but it did not come without opposition.

Language was not the only thing to come from China to Japan; cultural aspects such as government and religion soon found their way to the island nation, and by the late seventh century both a Chinese-style centralized state (created by the Taika Reform) and a popular desire to obtain Buddhist teachings had emerged. Each in its own way called for increased skills in writing - writing in the Chinese style, that is; the government needed its codes and documents, and the scholars needed accessible copies of the major Buddhist texts. So it should come as no surprise that the officialdom eagerly sought to recruit a literate public, that followed the proper, Chinese way of writing.

However, not everyone thought the Chinese way to be "proper". The [Kojiki], although containing a preface in the Chinese style, was nevertheless constructed in a Hybrid style, in order to aid the Japanese public in comprehension. Yasumaro, a scholar who rewrote and formatted a great deal of the [Kojiki], had this to say about his interpretation of previous texts for the purposes of the new volume:

In antiquity words and meanings were unsophisticated, and it was difficult to represent sentences and phrases in writing. If written entirely in characters used for their meanings, the words do not correspond to the sense; if written completely in characters used for their sound value, the text becomes much longer. For this reason, in some cases passages have been written by means of characters employed sometimes for their sound value and sometimes for their meaning, while in other cases the meanings only have been employed.[6]

In other words, Yasumaro wanted to make sure that the meaning was transmitted to his readers despite the inherent difference between Chinese and Japanese. The Hybrid style he employed as designed to literally sound out words in certain parts, when logograms (characters representing meaning rather than sound) could potentially cause confusion after they were filtered through the Japanese mind. The text also included various Japanese songs, which were transcribed entirely by phonograms (symbols associated with a certain sound reading); although many characters could represent the same sound, this was a necessary precursor to the fixed syllabary that would be derived from the Chinese kanji and based exclusively on sound.

As for the [Nihon Shoki], it was written predominately in Chinese style, with a few passages in Hybrid style. Like the [Kojiki] included songs were represented with phonograms, suggesting that the desire to accurately transcribe spoken Japanese correctly was not an isolated phenomenon. The [Man'yoshu], a collection of about 4500 poems, further supports this assertion, through its presentation of native Japanese poetry using the Japanese and Hybrid styles, with Chinese style support texts. These poems not only utilize the on (Chinese) readings of characters, but a small amount of kun (Japanese) readings associated with the characters, an important step which, along with the increased use of the Japanese style, set the stage for the massive transformation of the Japanese language that was known, innocuously enough, as kana.

What is Kana?

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As the Japanese style of writing became more prevalent (although still less than the Chinese and Hybrid styles), the need arose to make the process of writing simpler, for the Chinese characters utilized could become quite complex. A "simplified phonogram script based on Chinese characters"[7], or kana became widely used from the ninth century onwards, providing "shorthand" ways to write phonetically, like what was done previously with kanji to transcribe poems in the [Kojiki] and [Nihon shoki], as well as to represent proper nouns. However, unlike past phonograms, kana were constructed for their simplicity rather than any logical meaning (for all Chinese characters have a past related to logograms), and although initially borrowed from kanji phonograms, through processes of isolation, cursivization, simplification and standardization, uniquely Japanese characters came into being (more Japanese than Chinese, that is, for affinities still existed).

Presently there are two kana syllabaries: hiragana, a cursive script form, and katakana, a more angular, utilitarian character set. The history of both, particularly katakana, can be traced in part back to kuntenbon, or texts with notes added to them to aid in translation, such as Chinese Buddhist texts. These notes were a first little more than reading aids, that helped in the mental shuffling of the texts from Chinese to Japanese style. In time, they evolved into phonetic aids which provided kun (Japanese) readings, as well as okototen (diacritics) which represented particles, inflections and similar objects. In 828 AD, the earliest known use of kuntenbon, three-fourths of the ten (marks) in one document were similar to katakana (13) and one fourth were hiragana-like. This can be attributed to the fact that proto-katakana, largely derived from isolating parts of kanji , promoted quicker writing as well as future comprehension due to its simplicity, and therefore was utilized more and more by scholars to take notes upon texts during lectures. This association of katakana with study only grew stronger, to the point that hiragana-type characters were largely excluded from kutenbon, not being functional enough.

Hiragana, unlike it scholarly counterpart, seems to have evolved from cursivized forms of whole phonograms. Manuscripts of works such as [Genji monogatari] (The Tale of Genji) were produced in a hiragana-like script, most likely because they followed the tradition of writing utilizing Chinese characters, and such characters appeared quite cursive when written by hand, and became understandably simplified over time, in order to aid in writing. It took only a little step for such writing to be transformed by Japanese scribes into an unique script, sharing affinities to the kanji, but different both from it and katakana in significant aspects, save for the phonetic readings.

Over time, partially due to its association with literature and partially due to its more "aesthetic" nature, hiragana, also known as onna-de (woman hand) due to its use by women, became the script of choice for the upper classes. This does not mean to say the use of kanji was necessarily declining; hiragana remained restricted in use to letters, poems, fiction - original Japanese style texts. katakana retained its association with kutenbon and similar scholarly works, such as dictionaries. The majority of texts were still produced in kanji, both because of traditional aspects as well as benefits due to their logographic nature. However, the use of ten soon spread to other forms of writing, utilizing both forms of kana. Hiragana in particular, because of its simplified relation to standard kanji, became widely used in "mixed character-kana orthography"[8]; in other words, kana and kanji were used in tandem to give the best of both worlds - the logical and phonetic elements from China, combined with the Japanese phonetic characters. This situation, albeit more evolved at the present, has continued for over a millennium.

Significant milestones in the development of kana were the development of an orthography, or procedure of usage, which consolidated many variant characters into a defacto kana -sound correspondence. An example of this was the Iroha poem produced in the middle to late 11th century; it consisted of a poem in which each character/sound appeared only once, sort of an upscale version of "the quick brown fox...". This construction became quite popular, and served as a fairly strong standard, representing the consensus of the time. Others, such as Fujiwara Teika, expressed influential opinions about the construction of words using such characters, using old documents and the kana spellings within as a basis for his preferences. The net result of such thought and research was that kana orthography, through a gradual evolution through reformers such as Keichu in the late 17th century, and eventual consensus leading to the modern system instituted in 1946, was finalized as a viable and consistent system. kanji reform and eventual usage, however, is a different story entirely.

What is Kanji?

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As mentioned earlier, kanji are the pictographic, ideographic and phonetic characters borrowed from China. Once kana were extracted from the thousands of kanji used by the Japanese, there still remained the problem of multiple kanji combinations and readings representing the same concept. For example, sasayaku, the verb meaning "to whisper", one time could have been written as many as ten ways logographically[9] Furthermore, since most kanji have both an kun (Japanese) and on (Chinese) reading, the same word can sound two or more different ways. Such confusion still exists today, but only in a truncated form predicated upon the historical uses.

Most of the kanji borrowed by the Japanese was taken along with Chinese vocabulary, adapted somewhat to fit the Japanese tongue. Japanese tango (vocabulary) was written both by sound and meaning correspondences, and gaps in either were filled by new kanji compounds not known to the Chinese, kana, and sometimes new kanji altogether. During the Meiji restoration of the mid to late 19th century, the lexical influx from other countries, particularly England, America and European nations, spawned either kanji interpretations of the new terms - as precedented by the Chinese - or katakana renderings. Still somewhat associated with academia, but nevertheless used by the masses (albeit to a smaller degree than hiragana ), katakana was the script of choice for many loan words, phonetically filtered into Japanese.

Even though the Japanese system of kanji was far less complex than that utilized by the Chinese, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries many Japanese were calling for a massive reworking of their written system. Some, such as Maejima Hisoka, wanted to get rid of kanji altogether, adopting instead an entirely kana system. Thinking that such a system would significantly shorten the education period once used to memorize kanji, in 1873 he went so far as to publish a daily newspaper entirely in hiragana.[10] Even though his venture failed, others were of a like mind, but squabbles in what sort of pronunciation should be used with the kana quelled any organized efforts. Similarly, in 1885, a Romanization Club (wanting to adopt a Roman script as used in English) was formed, but debate over such items as what system of Romanization to use cause the initial campaign to fail.[11]

Another route of simplification, the one which was actually taken, was to reduce the number of kanji in use to a manageable amount, generally agreed to be about 3000 characters. Later discussion and proposed character list standards had this number fluctuating from 1134 characters for general usage through an interim list of 1850 characters (in 1946), which remained somewhat of a standard until the 1970's. Throughout such debate the worth of the kanji system was not questioned over and above the aforementioned reform kana and romanization movements, and by nearly all accounts the end results were quite positive. Newspapers and textbooks, not to mention education on the whole, were greatly simplified by use of the standardized and reduced set of characters. Variants were catalogued and preferred versions offered, and differentiation was made between essential and supplementary characters. Despite this reform, over 3000 characters are presently in use by newspapers and the like, the extra characters used in proper names and other historically accepted compounds. Nevertheless, the situation is far improved for all parties involved, and if further simplification in the script is to come in the future, such standardized lists of usage are a good starting point for change.

What is Japanese Today?

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Presently, due in no small part to the economic success of the Japanese, the hybrid that is the Japanese language is moving increasingly over the waters to countries all across the world. More and more people are making the commitment to study it over a period of time; the conception of its difficulty, due in no small part to the number of kanji used as well as the peculiarities of its grammar, has existed in the Western mind ever since missionaries intruded onto its shores. Conversely, all Japanese students are required to study English and other foreign languages during their secondary schooling, and the conception of many is that western languages are equally hard. This difference can be explained only by exploring the present Japanese usage, contrasting it with the present language of power - English. Is it the case that the ascendancy of Japanese will be as dependent upon the success of Japan as English was upon England (and the US.), or is their some inherent element that will prevent Japanese from gaining a strong footing overbroad, above and beyond the circles of immigrants?

Takao Suzuki, in his work entitled [Reflections on Japanese Language and Culture], not only discusses the intricacies of the Japanese language as compared to Western languages, particularly English, but offers a sort of defense of Japanese, calling in the end for an attempt to raise Japanese to the "international level" now held by Indo-European cognates. He begins by discussing the aforementioned nature of kanji and kana as compared to languages that are solely phonetic in their script. Since Japanese only has a little over 100 syllables, it is understandable that many homophonic compounds would appear in its tango (vocabulary). He explains this by noting that

in Japanese (and to a far lesser extent in Chinese), a lot of extra information is carried by the written form of the language. The result is that two linguistic forms having similar or related meanings can be differentiated by the speaker and the hearer even if these have exactly the same sound, if and only if they are customarily written separately. So in their speech the Japanese are heavily dependent on the graphic image of the word that is stored in their minds. This means that unless the Japanese know how the word is written it is often difficult for them to understand what is said.[12]

In other words, the graphic image of the character - almost always ideographic in form - is essential to navigate from the present spoken language. This stems from the fact that much of the homophonic compounds were created from the on -readings of the Chinese characters, and therefore were textually based from the beginning. He also states that

In this language [Japanese] a lot of linguistic, in particular lexical information, is often carried conjointly by the written and spoken forms in much the same way as in television, where we get information as a combination of visual and auditory impressions. [13]

The upshot of being dependent upon images of the written script - images laced with meaning - is that when examining a written text, the Japanese do not necessarily have to "sound out" the words to get the meaning, and can instead merely comprehend the text as a sort of logical code which follows the syntax of the language. Japanese becomes a sort of "television" language in the sense that its "bandwidth" allows for phonological and ideographical information to be transmitted using the same system. Suzuki goes on to use the example of words created in English from Greek and Latin components, "Polynesia" being a prime example. Since the meaning is inherent in kanji, one could tell by just looking that "Polynesia" meant "many islands". Conversely, if someone wanted to know a complex term, it could simply be constructed from the logographic elements, and read by using the on-readings (or the kun-readings for a semantically transparently-Japanese compound). The use of kanji in Japanese, and their dual readings, promotes understanding more so than in purely phonetic languages.

Another prime difference between Japanese and Western languages such as English is that in Japanese there is little to no need for self-signifiers in everyday life, and when they are used, their form changes with the characteristics of the listener. For example, in Japanese certain statements in reference to the speaker require no personal pronoun to be understood. The Japanese equivalent of "I want to go to the store" ("mise e ikitai") does not require a personal pronoun such as watashi (equivalent to "I") in this situation because the verb stem tai implies the speaker. The statement "I am going to the store" ("mise e ikimasu") contains no grammatical reference to the speaker, and therefore is understood solely in context. Different intonations could imply that the listener is the subject in question, or even some third party. This difference alone indicates that there is much more flexibility and economy in the Japanese language, because of the lack of a requirement for self-identification through pronouns.

However, there is a strong notion of who is speaking and their relation to the listener in Japanese, which Suzuki focuses upon. Language, including the type of self-signifier, varies according to the social and familiar situation, on a grammatical, lexical and syntactical level. For example, he offers a situation in which it is supposed that if

that same man who calls himself "papa" to his children is, let us say, a schoolteacher, then he will probably call himself sensei (teacher) when he is talking to his pupils in school. And should he find a lost child crying by the roadside, he will like as not call himself ojisan (uncle; general term for male adults when addressed by children), and say something like, "Stop crying, now. Ojisan will see that you get home all right."[14]

Thus, this man referred to himself in at least 3 different ways all during the course of the day, all of which were role signifiers. This sort of situation can become far more complex and the family, work, and social spheres interpenetrate, but the element in common is that the self is referred to in Japanese according to the situation, not simply by a grammatical point that one refers to one self as "I". Since the positions of the addressee and the addressed is tantamount in Japanese - to the point that it is rude not to consider them and speak accordingly - the identity of the individual as an autonomous subject matters less than that individual is in relations with others. This situation also applies with references to others - Tanaka-san can be referred to by name, kinship terms, by his social status, or other criteria well disseminated in Japanese culture. In summary, Japanese allows for the removal of the self in name, but never in presentation to others. This should be quite alien to Western languages with their constant subjective focus.

Suzuki also discusses how it is common in Japanese to use self-specifiers that are seemingly not designed for the job, such as hito (person) for the self, Otaku (honorable house) for the second person when the listener's position in relation to the speaker is uncertain, and Kare (he) and Kanojo (she) to refer to male and female listeners. In each case the usage is predicated upon psychological relations between the speaker and listener, the persons shifting back and forth as situations dictate. For example, hito is used to distance the speaker from the listener during self-reference, a move that is not possible with such brevity in English. All of these self and other signifiers point to inherent differences between Japanese and most other languages, that can be thought to either add flexibility in usage, or difficulty to those trying to learn it.

Irrespective of the peculiarities of the Japanese language, which have be frankly only hinted at, the issue remains as to how Japanese is and will be presented to the world, and whether such presentation should be designed to elevate it's status in the international community of languages, and thereby cultures. To examine this issue, we must approach it from two directions: that of the Japanese, and of the Indo-European community which fails to see the need for another player on their linguistic game board.

What is Proper Literacy?

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In today's world, literacy is essential to become a part of the economic and linguistic commerce; the dollar is the word is the electron, and in order to pay the bill of existence it is necessary to be able to read the fine print, and addend what is disagreeable. Walter Ong, in his work entitled [Orality and Literacy], chronicles not only the differences between an oral and written language, but how he seems convinced that literate cultures that use an alphabetic script tied to sound necessarily have an advantage of their counterparts such as Chinese and Japanese, which still cling to a grain of meaning in every syllable. On the topic of kanji, he states that

All pictographic systems, even with ideographs and rebuses, require a dismaying number of symbols...Few Chinese who write can write all of the spoken Chinese words that they can understand. To become significantly learned in the Chinese writing system normally takes some twenty years. Such a script is basically time-consuming and elitist. There can be no doubt that the characters will be replaced by the roman alphabet as soon as all the people in the People's Republic of China master the same Chinese language ('dialect')[15]

This passage is indicative of Ong's larger argument; that when it comes to scripts the "simpler" the better, and a system with a great deal of characters can't help but be inadequate. Instead, written language should mirror its spoken counterpart as much as possible in the most concise system possible, like an alphabet or even a syllabary would. The only "problem" he sees in the way for "reform" of Chinese, (and Japanese by deduction), would be to convert to the roman alphabet as soon everyone learns the standard dialect.

Besides Ong's roman alphabetical penchant (if an alphabet was that important, then why couldn't the Chinese be allowed to make their own, as the Koreans did?) many problems are apparent in his view. First, the assumption is made that by divorcing meaning from the script something is gained rather than lost; actually the "difficulty" present in kanji due to their multitude will only be replaced by an increased vocabulary that is semantically opaque, that requires meaning to be apprehended separately from sound. The success of the Chinese system rests upon the fact that meaning is married to sound and to script, and the Japanese Hybrid only highlights this. In Japanese the increased choice in representation of meaning through kanji and kana allows for more avenues of thought than typical Western languages and their scripts; when brevity is need then kanji can be used, when the point is an accurate representation of sound then kana are appropriate, and when flexibility is required then a mixed script - what is in use today - becomes the perfect solution. The only elitism in such a system is its depth; much like in other aspects of life, it takes time as well as practice to master it properly, but once it is grasped then nothing stands in the way of present and future comprehension.

Just as scripts are either complex or simple, so too are their syntaxes and grammars. Both qualities of language stem from the culture that they support and are in turn supported by; Japan has been influenced both by long periods of isolation and well as periodic influxes of both physical and intellectual material that cultivate growth, and its language reflects that both in its structural borrowing from Korea, China, Europe and other sources as well as its wide variety of hyogen (dialects) and quirks that reflect the uniqueness of its people. English has similar qualities, with similar causes and effects, but that does not necessarily make it better. This fact does not stop it from being a de facto international language, and now becomes essential to ask why Japanese can or cannot take on a similar role, be it with a similar scope or not.

Suzuki desires the elevation of Japanese upon the world stage; however, he understands the reality of the present situation, where International English is becoming more and more prevalent during meetings of non-European countries, such as those on the Pacific Rim. He feels that "the English language is simply not made for Japanese to say things Japanese"[16] but nevertheless feels that

It is extremely important that we should realize that to be made to use English as a means of international communication due to deplorable lack of a better substitute is a necessary evil, and a very harmful one at that.[17]

In other words, Suzuki utilizes English more for its rough utility than its adequate expression of his thoughts and feelings that are necessarily influenced by his native tongue, Japanese. Furthermore, as a student of a language that is native to many, International English users must face prejudice from those who see English more their own "property" than that of outsiders utilizing it; native English speakers will try to dictate the future shape of the language that is now in the hands of the world, complaining if things don't turn out as expected. For, language is a highly adaptable tool, and as soon as one tongue is mastered it starts to evolve to suit its users. This is already happening to English, and would necessarily happen to Japanese if it took on a similar role. But would such an event be possible; can the near-oppressive force of English be quelled by an upstart hybrid, two thousand years of contiguous usage or not?

Suzuki reacts to the fact that the Japanese must "conduct all international affairs in someone else's language" by promoting a new strategy,

the international dissemination of the Japanese language. We must promote a comprehensive policy that includes the upgrading of Japanese cultural and information centers, reception of foreign students, international broadcasts, and overseas Japanese-language instruction, all areas in which Japan's efforts fall sadly short of those of other developed countries in both terms of both funds and personnel. But the main focus of a policy of international dissemination of Japanese must be to have Japanese made an official language of the United Nations.[18]

Basically, Suzuki is calling for the active promotion of a language that, while different from the European languages that make up the accepted cannon of "official" languages, nevertheless has a lot to offer. For Japan to become a player beyond the economic sphere it will be necessary either for International English to be utilized, or for Japanese to be effectively transplanted into other countries, so that a linguistic foothold will exist. Unfortunately, although Japan has always been open to outside intellectual influence, the fact remains that up until this point other countries, even those within the Pacific rim, have not exactly embraced Japanese with open arms.

This could be because of its aforementioned "difficulty", or the "inherent" weakness of non-alphabetic scripts, which Ong relates as being uncondusive to "abstract, analytic thought." The reality is far more complex and much less biased towards the Japanese script per se; with the opening of the Japanese borders little over 300 years ago to the west, many strides have been made in elevating the status of Japan, but only recently has its economic strength and control of various information channels been great enough for the intellectual flow to reverse directions somewhat, with the showcasing of Japanese to the world. However, it may be the case that Japanese is largely made just for the Japanese, and will not be adopted on a large scale except by necessity or force. Japan is no longer the sort of country to impose itself heavily upon others (due to provisions in its US-made constitution) and so the only feasible avenue of adoption seems to be through an economically-spurred effort by other countries of the world to both get on Japan's good side, as well as to comprehend the masses of innovation taking place daily in both artistic and scientific fields.

Another avenue for the acceptance of Japanese as a semi-international language would be for it to change from within, adding elements from other languages to make it more palatable. This has and is already happening, with the initial case of kanji and present additions due to foreign katakana renditions. Popular media such as television and fashion magazines use foreign "loan-words" extensively, to the point that "many elderly people complain that they cannot understand what they hear on radio and TV, that they are bombarded with too many new words."[19] Once the generation that lived through World War Two looses its prominence, then this infusion of foreignness into Japanese will probably continue at an even larger clip. Unlike English, which presently has a defined language base, and little use for massive innovation, Japanese has always been open to productive change, for importing new shades of meaning, and adapting them for its purposes. This tendency of such a flexible, hybrid language will most likely become the future strong point of Japanese in relation to other languages. Although some of the imported words and structures cause confusion, over time the language necessarily becomes richer. Purity should not be a concern to a language who's present shape is inextricably tied to external sources.

Why Japanese?

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It should be apparent by now that the uniqueness of Japanese is its greatest strong point; by having an inextricable penchant for innovation and borrowing it is necessarily an international language to the core. More so than other languages, Japanese allows for and almost infinite flexibility in thought, due in no small part to the ideographic, logographic and phonectic elements of its script, as well as its particular grammatical structures that allow for different concepts of the self - that of a social being by definition. In today's complex world, linguistic tolerance is the key to amicable relations between countries, and Japan has done more than it's share of learning from and adapting to other dominant tongues. Now, as the 21st century approaches, it is high time for other countries to give Japanese more of a linguistical chance, rather than ignoring it due to its "difficulty" and "non-analytic" nature.

This work has been intended to offer a somewhat detailed introduction to the Japanese language, so that others may comprehend its worth. Other areas that require further study are the oral nature of the underlying Japanese language that has remained fairly contiguous for the past two millennia; a more comprehensive notion of the benefits of using characters such as kanji in a script; and whether the transformation of the script into a western alphabet - a task that has been suggested from the inside as well as the outside - would be a mistake or an unimaginable boon. Being a serious student of Nihongo (Japanese Language) I am necessarily biased towards its promotion, but I hope that my careful detailing of the history of Japanese and the present debate over its future will spur similar feelings of admiration.

If "the medium is the message", then perhaps Japanese is a call for tolerance, and of mutual understanding. What remains to be determined are the qualities of the receiver.


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[1] "In this work the author points out many common characteristics of Japanese and the Uralic as well as the Altaic languages. I mention a few of these characteristics: all of these languages are agglutinative; that is the roots of the words do not change, only endings, suffixes, prefixes, particles are added to the roots. The adverbs are placed before the verbs. Dependent clauses are placed before the main clause. The genetive precedes the possessum (in Japanese, Hungarian, Finish, etc.)" Quote from Laszlo Szabo's "On the Origin of Japanese", collected in [Origins of the Japanese Language], edited by Kazuo Mabuchi, 1985, page 156. The quote is in reference to Wilhem Prohle's [The Outlines of a Comparative Syntax of the Uralo-Altaic Languages particularly with Regard to the Japanese Language].
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[2] In earlier periods ceremonial mirrors and swords were introduced to Japan, incribed with Chinese characters. Evidence suggests that the messages were taken initially to be mere ornamentation, at least until the Chinese script was properly introduced. Information from Seely, Christopher. [A History of Writing in Japan]. E.J. Brill. New York. 1991, Chapter 1. Information on the [Kojiki] and [Nihon shoki] also stem from this source.
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[3] Seely, Christopher. [A History of Writing in Japan]. E.J. Brill. New York. 1991, p 6.
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[4] Seely, Christopher. [A History of Writing in Japan]. E.J. Brill. New York. 1991, p. 28
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[5] Seely, Christopher. [A History of Writing in Japan]. E.J. Brill. New York. 1991, p. 30
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[6] Seely, Christopher. [A History of Writing in Japan]. E.J. Brill. New York. 1991, p. 44
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[7] Seely, Christopher. [A History of Writing in Japan]. E.J. Brill. New York. 1991, p. 59
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[8] Seely, Christopher. [A History of Writing in Japan]. E.J. Brill. New York. 1991, p. 90
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[9] Seely, Christopher. [A History of Writing in Japan]. E.J. Brill. New York. 1991, p. 132
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[10] Seely, Christopher. [A History of Writing in Japan]. E.J. Brill. New York. 1991, p. 138-9
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[11] The system used in this work is Hepburn romanisation, adapted in 1886 from the work of the Romanization Club and presently the de facto standard.
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[12] Suzuki, Takao. [Reflections on Japanese Language and Culture]. Tokyo Printing Co. Tokyo. 1987, p. 16
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[13] Suzuki, Takao. [Reflections on Japanese Language and Culture]. Tokyo Printing Co. Tokyo. 1987, p. 5.
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[14] Suzuki, Takao. [Reflections on Japanese Language and Culture]. Tokyo Printing Co. Tokyo. 1987, p. 42.
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[15] Ong, Walter. [Orality and Literacy]. Routledge. New York. 1988. P. 87
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[16] Suzuki, Takao. [Reflections on Japanese Language and Culture]. Tokyo Printing Co. Tokyo. 1987, p 114.
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[17] Suzuki, Takao. [Reflections on Japanese Language and Culture]. Tokyo Printing Co. Tokyo. 1987, p. 114
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[18] Suzuki, Takao. [Reflections on Japanese Language and Culture]. Tokyo Printing Co. Tokyo. 1987, p. 126
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[19]Suzuki, Takao. [Reflections on Japanese Language and Culture]. Tokyo Printing Co. Tokyo. 1987, p. 131.
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