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Replacing Japanese with English? Why not?

When many Americans descended on Japan after World War II to temporarily govern the country, many of them found it an attractive place to settle down for a number of years, or even for the rest of their lives. But when it came to learning the language, a good number of them never went further than acquiring some speaking ability, even though this condemned them, of course, to perpetual illiteracy, not an enviable situation for someone settling down in a foreign country for an extended period.

In fact, one still finds lovers of most things Japanese who loudly complain of the burden of learning the language, and they sometimes pose this question: why don’t the Japanese just jettison that impossible language and replace it with another one which would ease relationships between Japan and the rest of the world immensely? Preferably – naturally – English.

Hardly any Japanese people themselves would agree with this, since they are life-long immersion students of their language and therefore find it no more difficult to handle than we native English speakers find ours. But it is true, oddly enough, that a few Japanese people have advocated doing just that: abandoning Japanese for a Western language, especially English or, occasionally, another one such as French.

For example, in the early years of the Meiji Era, the period of Japanese history from 1868 to 1912 when the country established extensive relations with the West for the first time, Mori Arinori (1847–1889), the first ambassador to the U.S., suggested exchanging the Japanese language with English. Mori was one of the first strong advocates of Western-oriented social change, including freedom of religion, equal rights for women (except women’s suffrage), and other areas (he was also the first Minister of Education in the early Meiji Era).

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Ozaki Yukio (1858–1954) was similarly convinced that the only way for Japan to progress was to adopt Western institutions. As a twenty-five-term member of the Diet, the Japanese parliament, and mayor of Tokyo, he also pressed for reforms such as expanded voting rights.Like Mori, he thought that Japanese should give way to English in order to thoroughly reform the tradition-mired militaristic society.

Another post-war reformer, the writer Shiga Naoya (1883-1971), published an essay questioning the country’s language, “The Question of the National Language,” in 1946, but he advocated French as the replacement.

Throwing out the nation’s entire traditional language would of course be a monumental and completely impractical task: cutting people’s link with their whole past unless all of their historical records were to be translated into the new language (a tremendous employment opportunity for an army of translators!). And it would probably require a highly dictatorial governmental campaign, or a generations-long evolution of the society. The absorption of a considerable chunk of French vocabulary into our language after the Norman Conquest took a very long time to spread from the nobility down to the whole English population, and did not affect the basic structure of the language. Nor did the change in the language reform the society; history made social change in its usual, snails-pace, bumbling way.

All in all, I would suggest that the way to tackle the problems foreign students have with Japanese is to sit down and learn it. 頑張って!

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