The speech of pariahs

Diversity in Japanese Culture and Language
August 25, 1995

This collection of conference papers, essays, and personal stories explores the cultural and linguistic boundaries that separate the majority of Japanese from such minorities as resident Koreans, the deaf, Japanese youngsters returning from overseas, Ainu, and the "outcastes" or burakumin. The editors and their collaborators use anecdotes, surveys, and historical research to question the well-known picture of a culturally and linguistically homogeneous Japan, and to emphasise the political origins of Japanese notions of national unity and uniqueness. These are important points given Japan's global economic importance, changing political scene, and increasingly numerous foreign workers. But the chapters are uneven in quality, and one is left wondering how much these diverse minorities really have in common apart from being in Japan.

The strongest contributions are M. William Steele's study of Yanagi Soetsu and the folk art or mingei movement, Richard Siddle's short history of Japanese perceptions of the Ainu, and the chapter on the sign language of deaf Japanese by Honna Nobuyuki and Kato Mihoko. The personal testimonials and interviews often make for compelling reading.

But the book also contains many scholarly and editorial gaffes for which the passion of the contributors does not compensate. References are omitted, sometimes through oversight and sometimes because the authors do not seem to know earlier studies (such as Hiroshi Wagatsuma and George DeVos's 30-year-old but still valuable study Japan's Invisible Race). The editors would have done better to give more attention to accuracy and less to intellectual theory.

For example, John C. Maher opens his essay "The Right Stuff: Towards an Environmental Linguistics" with the famous line from Antonio de Nebrixa's Castilian grammar of 1492, siempre la lengua fue companera del imperio. He says this means, "language is always accompanied by power," and continues, "The controversy over whether or not to teach Japanese to the Ainu provides an interesting illustration of the 'Nebrixa principle.'" In the early 19th century, Maher explains, the Edo government, spurred by Russian encroachments, reversed the policy of not teaching Japanese to the Ainu. "A vigorous language policy was pursued whereby Ainu children were taught Japanese writing . . . (t)his powerful equation of competency in Japanese with loyalty to the state increased the demise of the Ainu language" (emphasis added). But as historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki has recently observed, the shogunate's efforts were late, half-hearted, and relatively ineffectual; systematic instruction in Japanese began in earnest after the Russo-Japanese War under the Meiji government, which was advised by anthropologist Nakanome Akira that the Ainu should be taught only spoken Japanese. Though this advice was not followed, the government's primary goal was to turn the Ainu into exploitable labourers, not fully assimilated Japanese. The Ainu had to struggle for basic civil rights, which they were granted only in the 1930s. Anyway, what Nebrixa actually said was "language has ever been the companion of empire". Empire leads, language follows in its wake. Jose Ortega y Gasset understood this perfectly: "Spain is not a national state today because Spanish is spoken throughout the country" - Castilian reigned supreme because Isabella did. Because Maher gets both the historical emphasis and the translation backwards, perhaps what happened to the Ainu does illustrate some kind of "Nebrixa principle" after all. But is this tortuous excursion into postmodernist reasoning really necessary?

Such lapses are perhaps inevitable in first attempts; the careful reader will spot and avoid them. Though too unreliable to recommend as an introductory text, Diversity in Japanese Culture and Language is a thought-provoking volume that serious students of Japan will find of value.

J. Marshall Unger is professor of Japanese, University of Maryland.

Diversity in Japanese Culture and Language

Editor - John C. Maher and Gaynor MacDonald
ISBN - 0 7103 0477 3
Publisher - Kegan Paul
Price - £45.00
Pages - 3

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