Clear talk wins a nation's votes

Language Planning and Language Change in Japan
February 15, 2002

Tessa Carroll's study of language planning and language change in late 20th-century Japan makes engrossing reading for anyone interested in the ways in which a major world power deals with the relationship between language and changing domestic and international social factors. The book extends the discussion of Japan's language policy beyond the emphasis of previous literature on orthography reform into the domain of the spoken language, in line with the renewed interest in wider language issues taken by Japan's National Language Council after the cycle of re-evaluation of the postwar script reforms ended in 1991.

Many things happened in Japan during the late 1980s and 1990s that made this a significant period of social change: fluctuating economic fortunes, the rise of a new nationalism, and the periods of national reflection occasioned by the death of Emperor Showa and the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. Carroll's investigation ranges over political issues that informed language planning during this period, highlighting the role the choice of language-planning activities has played in the production of Japan's contemporary self-image.

Is language a mirror of the state of the nation? Does "disorder" in language, as evidenced particul-arly in young people's language and perceptions of declining politeness in speech, indicate moral turpitude? Letters to the editor, in Japan as elsewhere, often claim so. One chapter traces the history and present status of these moral and social concerns over language, from the perspective of the author's overall concern with the link between language planning and the formation of national identity.

Language as a barometer of the relationship between the state and the people of Japan forms another important theme. "Officialese" is the subject here: what does it mean for the relationship between local administrations and their communities when those administrations simplify the language in which they address the public? To Carroll, this indicates an active desire on the part of local government to build a better relationship with the public. Citizens' groups campaigning for improvements in the language used by politicians in the 1990s also homed in on officialese as symptomatic of the divide between the administration and the people, making it a two-way process.

Why did the focus of language planning in Japan mostly shift away from the script and back to the spoken language in the 1990s? The influence of globalisation and the concept of internationalisation have meant a lot to Japan in language terms, particularly in the development of spoken language skills that have ramifications on the international scene. Carroll also examines the change in pol-icy regarding regional dialects, once officially suppressed but now enjoying a resurgence.

The book builds a case for language as an important component of Japan's self-image and identity at the end of the 20th century. I recommend it to anyone interested in how language planning functions in Japan today.

Nanette Gottlieb is reader in Japanese, University of Queensland, Australia.

Language Planning and Language Change in Japan

Author - Tessa Carroll
ISBN - 0 7007 1383 2
Publisher - RoutledgeCurzon
Price - £40.00
Pages - 6

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