Simple Japanese

The politics of language education

By William Wetherall

Drafted 10 April 1988
First posted 18 September 2006
Last updated 18 September 2006

The following note I wrote while living in Nagareyama, on the eve of my move to Abiko in 1988. It was written in response to materials and questions sent me by Frank Baldwin, for whom I had been sub-translating news articles.

To facilitate easier reading on the web, I have broken up some of the longer paragraphs and inserted a few subheads. Otherwise, the content is as I wrote it in 1988.

10 April 1988
William Wetherall

Dear Frank:

Your note about "Simple Japanese" came just as I was typing a file label for my own clippings on this -- including Shukan Asahi article and Japan Times articles.

I'm not sure just how much comment you want, but here goes.

My reaction to the first report in the Asahi was the same as that expressed by a Rondan contributor a few days later -- that it is totally unnecessary to create an artificial language that would further separate Japanese and others.

Japanese just another language

I feel that there is nothing linguistically (or socially or culturally) special about the Japanese language. It is a human language which serves the needs of a human culture. It lexically and grammatically codifies status forms more mechanically than English, because status difference is outwardly more important in Japanese society, whereas English keigo is more subtle, more likely a question of style, which makes it more difficult to learn and use.

Because Japanese is just another language, it can be taught, and learned, like any other language. This leaves one with a great number of choices as far as teaching/learning methods are concerned. "Simple Japanese" could be one of them, just as "Basic English" is one approach to English.

"Basic" and "Simple" unnatural

I recall having seen some examples of Basic English applied to situations which were beyond its lexical and grammatical capacity. The result was not what would be called "natural" English, but the intended message was somehow conveyed. Certainly such English would have been better than none at all.

Similarly, some of the examples of Nomoto's Simple Japanese are jarring to the "natural" ear, as they overuse "masu" and "desu" forms, especially in attributive position (which is possible, of course, but rare even in polite written style).

Japanese, of course, will never cease being the property of Japanese, because it is not now -- and never was -- the property of its native speakers. No language -- no element of culture -- can be a property, though some groups attempt to control cultural elements for political reasons.

Education bureaucrats

The Japanese government is perfectly capable of regulating the domestic use of Japanese, if it had a will to do so and if the population was willing (both were the case during the period of militarization). Today the government is diving straight into the "boom" in teaching and learning Japanese as a "foreign" language.

Education bureaucrats who want to control the teaching of Japanese will succeed to the extent that they are able to establish a recognized testing system for students and a credential system for teachers. But none of this will have much effect on the way real people will learn and use the language in real society.

There is probably an argument for limiting the introduction level to simple forms, but they need not be purposefully "simplified" forms. Sophisticated content (including sex manga and yakuza movies) will motivate students to deal with all forms of the language.

Kanji take time . . . but no big deal

Although I have not really "mastered" Japanese, I do not feel that it is a difficult language. One can learn it to the extent that one has a survival need to learn it, comes into contact with it, tries to learn it, uses it, and (perhaps most importantly) has an aptitude for language learning and retention.

The writing system takes a bit of time in the beginning, for anyone who has not already learned kanji. Some people may have an easier time with kanji (as I did) because they don't view them as difficult and/or are graphically oriented.

But I have always had, and continue to have, retention problems with English vocabulary and spelling, and I had these same problems with Spanish and Chinese and Korean (which I have entirely forgotten), and now with Japanese (which I lose if I don't constantly use it). For some reason I forget almost everything I study if I don't use it, including music; I cannot read notes, despite many years of piano lessons in my youth.

Japanese as a global language

There is nothing that makes Japanese unsuitable as a global language. I have sometimes used Japanese in Japan when speaking with other non-native speakers among whom Japanese happened to be the most generally shared second language.

Any language can serve as a tool for any application. Whatever it may lack in certain provisions can be made up for.

Japanese not more complex than English

Most of what Japan Times staff writer Miki claims that Nomoto said about the Japanese language, in comparison with English, is wrong. Japanese is certainly not more complex than English, taken as a whole. English grammar has in no sense been "naturally simplified" as the language "in the process of internationalization"; the language has always been changing for a variety of social and political reasons.

Gender change in nouns has, if anything, increased the complexity of English, because the change has not, and will probably never be, complete. Press stylebooks stress genderfree style, but the living, unregulated language has not fully accommodated this standard. Even if it did, the older standard would survive in books and other archival forms, and so real mastery of English would require learning to recognize and differentiate both gendered and genderless usage.

Japanese flexibility

Japanese, too, has accommodated pidginized forms. If anything, Japanese is even more "flexible" than English in terms of how it adopts and adapts forms from other languages. One could even say that, for many younger speakers of the language, it has been pidgin by katakana forms.

Of course, language change has nothing to do with language -- any language -- per se. Change is determined only by attitudes of language users.

Editors in all countries are, it seems, linguistically more conservative than the general population. But editors work within societies of people, and people are bearers of cultures.

Language is like water

In Japan today, the main political control of the language is the limiting of kanji use for official purposes, including education. Such controls guide, but do not legislate, press styles, which vary widely. And nothing but whim seems to guide the colloquial language, which tends to be reproduced verbatim in print.

The Japanese language will be learned by anyone who thinks it is worth learning. Today more non-native speakers are motivated to learn Japanese for social, economic, and political rather than academic reasons. This is because Japan has come to be seen as an important, influential, powerful, interesting country, as a place to come to work, study, learn, borrow and steal from, live and die in.

People, like water and air and electricity, flow toward lower pressure areas. Japan is today becoming such an area. And the people coming to Japan are learning the language for a variety of personal reasons that are not easily regulated. Their learning is a very organic, human process. If there is any "transformation" of the Japanese language because such learners increase, it will come in ways that cannot be politically controlled, so why worry about it?

If Japanese cannot control even their own use of the language, what makes Nomoto think that its use by foreigners can be controlled?

Whether more foreigners learn Japanese or not will have nothing to do with the Japanese language, especially how it is taught. Nothing Nomoto would do in the classroom would "help" anyone learn the language. Those who want, and need, to learn it will do so, Nomoto's "Simple Japanese" or not.

Social and political factors

Social and political factors, however, can change the population of those interested in learning Japanese. If well-sponsored foreign businessmen are encouraged to live in gaijin ghettos, serviced by English-speaking Japanese, then there is no need for them to study Japanese, Nomoto's or any other form.

The Filipino bar girl or Bangladesh laborer, who lives in another kind of gaijin ghetto, may get a starter in a school somewhere, but they will probably pick up most of their Japanese while working and living, i.e., naturally.

Nomoto is not the only person who would like to "control" the process of learning Japanese. Much of this effort in Japan may be inspired by the constantly changing example being set by those who attempt to professionalize the teaching of English as a foreign or second language. Like quality control in automobile manufacturing, the Japanese may take this alien "professional language teaching" idea and develop it to an obsessive-compulsive Japanese extreme.

Control freak TA at Berkeley

Twenty years ago I was studying elementary Japanese at the University of California at Berkeley. One of the Japanese graduate students who was working as a teaching assistant to the professor in charge tried to hold us students to the "masu" and "desu" form used throughout the British textbook we were using.

Most of us had contact with native speakers on campus, though, and we knew that the real world was bigger, and more interesting, than the world the TA would confine us to. But the he insisted that, as foreigners, we would not be expected to speak real Japanese, so why waste our time trying to speak the language like our native friends? Needless to say, none of us liked him very much, and we were glad when he went on to another job and vacated the post for TA with a broader mind.

Query about "minzoku"

Have I rambled enough?

Now I have a favor to ask of you. I am writing a piece on the translation of "minzoku" (as used in expressions like "Yamato minzoku" and "Nippon minzoku") for The Journal of Japanese Studies. It is partly inspired by Ben-Ami Shillony's review of John Dower's War Without Mercy (see most recent, Winter 1988 issue).

I have been following the word minzoku since the mid 1970s when I first realized that it is a key word in the racialistic undercurrent. And I have insisted on translating it as "ethnic group" or "race" in the above mentioned (Nippon/Yamato) contexts. Translators of Nakasone's speeches either do not translate the word or use "people" -- which they also use for kokumin.

I think it is highly misleading not to make a clear distinction in English when translating kokumin and minzoku -- especially when both words are used in the same text or speech.

What do you feel about this? And do you have any interesting anecdotes concerning the translating of this word, or the editing of such translations? Or examples of how the word has been translated? Any you could offer would add to my collection, and would be fully credited should I want to cite them in the article.

I suspect that there are a number of translators and editors, including non-Japanese, who purposefully "soften" translations of problematical words like minzoku, or translate around them. Any comments on this? Anecdotes?

I am moving to Abiko -- into a place large enough to house all my books and clipping files so I can use them more effectively. I'll get a new address and phone number to you before I move.

Take care.