Feature: KANJI War / Kanji as Cultural Mechanism

Radio Languages and TV Languages

KATSURA--I would like to ask about your phrase, that "Japanese is a TV language," which I understood as being a reference to the extraordinary visual complexity of symbolic representation in the Japanese language--a complexity which is often mentioned when speaking of our present "multimedia era"--and yet I don't believe that we have a sufficient theoretical basis for understanding the Japanese language's many interrelated audio and visual aspects.

SUZUKI--When I say Japanese is a "TV language," what I mean is that it's a language that communicates meaning always carrying visual information of hieroglyph, and therein differs from "radio languages" that can rely solely on distinctions in the spoken word. One reason that Japanese had to become a "TV language" is that Japanese has such a small number of phonemes available to it--even within the set of all languages worldwide. French, for example, has 36 phonemes, German 39, and English 45. Japanese has only 23. This becomes a real impediment when it comes to composing a lot of different short words. And to make matters worse, the number of possible phonetic combinations is even more limited--broadly speaking, only one consonant/one vowel combinations. In other languages, vowels and consonants can be compiled in more complex configurations, or made into very compact and easy-to-use words. But in Japanese, there is too little room for freedom for combinations in short words, and they become homonyms.
In all of the languages of the world, Japanese is the only one with numerous, sometimes as many as 80 different meanings for the exact same sound. We're both native speakers of Japanese. Try to imagine what I mean when I say "kou." There are 80 different meanings--ko-1, ko-2, ko-3, ko-4, ko-5, etc.--for one pronunciation. The average Japanese can probably give thirty or forty meanings for this pronunciation right off of the top of their head, and all of them are entrusted to the vocalization "kou," taking away any possibility for its having a singular meaning. Only through the mnemonic attachment of its written counterpart that meaning is fixed to the pronunciation. In a dictionary for a European language you will find no more than five such polysemic homonyms. For example, the word "bay" in English, or "sot," "seau" and "saut" in French, which all have the same sound [o].
This is probably one of the reasons for the low illiteracy rates in Japan. Without a comprehension of the written language, daily life would be near impossible. In Europe, literacy is something for the educated, while daily life takes place in the spoken word. In short, they can survive with just the "radio" on. The Japanese need "TV." I'm not making qualitative judgment about one or the other, but TV has more component elements by an order of magnitude. Information is fully contained in written European. There is virtually no overflow or loss in its transference to sound. With Japanese, on the other hand, only a fraction of the information comes from the aural aspect of the language. The written language is required to clarify the vagaries of its polysemics. When learning foreign languages, Japanese students, who have the habit on relying on visual linguistic stimuli from their formative years, tend to ask how words are spelled more than students from other linguistic cultures. That's also why teachers who rely on non-literate oral teaching methods of language instruction always have problems with Japanese students.

KATSURA--I've heard that Japanese foreign exchange students studying in the US often ask during listening exercises how things are spelled! (Laughs)

SUZUKI--I'm sure that is the result of cultural conditioning. It's not that it's an inherent trait of the Japanese, but from their early years, their training has been so focused to think in terms of how language is visually represented that even when dealing with foreign language, whether it be English or Korean, they first want to see it written. The problem is that foreign language teachers are often reluctant to spend that much time on all of the spellings, because it takes time away from practicing "the living language." And for this reason, Japanese is said to occupy rather a unique position among world's languages. Whether for good or bad, they must confront these basic realities.

Japanese Language Research for Native Japanese by Non-Japanese

KATSURA--Now I would like to consider Japanese and kanji issues in terms of changes in society. For example, Japan is presently an ageing society (kourei-ka) which will continue to need to rely on an increasing supply of foreign labor. Obviously this necessitates a demographic shift, in order to avoid a hollowing out of industry. The Japanese language will not pass through this phenomenon unscathed. As a work force not raised within the language come to manage their lives in Japan, we can expect that the percentage of the population unfamiliar with kanji should increase, and propose a challenge to the ways in which we deal with issues of "correct" or "beautiful" Japanese.

SUZUKI--I'd have to agree. If we really wanted to preserve the purity of our national language then we would need to stop propagating Japanese abroad. Otherwise, it would soon be contaminated by nonnative speakers.
English is a good example of this. In Shakespeare's time there were only about four million native English speakers in the world. Then, by the time that there were four billion, it had become a language that the British were questioning the validity of, in some sectors. I guess that when you finally let your darling little girl out of the house, you really don't know what kinds of questionable creatures are likely to begin showing up at your door. But then if you lock her away she may just pass her prime without ever learning to test her wings and leave the nest. (Laughs)
Gaining international currency may have its merits, but it seems unavoidable that you also have to tolerate a lot that is aesthetically distasteful along the way. The Japanese language will continue to be popular as long as the Japanese economy is robust. And it will receive some rough trimmings at the hands of foreigners in the process, but we need to be aware of the potential for nonnative speakers to effect both qualitative and quantitative changes in our language.

Then again it may just be that it is the foreigners who produce the interesting results in researching our language. At present, it is common to consider foreigners' research into Japanese as preoccupation of postgraduate students doing basic explorations. But again, if we take the example of English, it was historically the fact that English language research on continental Europe was superior to that at home, and this is what got the British serious about researching their own language. Foreigners are able to bring valuable new perspectives into their research, and in some cases these may be improvements on our own methods. This is why I believe that, while there are things that only we can really resolve, we should at least be more open and encouraging of nonnative researchers into Japanese. The first thing that we need to work on is the common preconception that Japanese is a cult language inaccessible to foreigners, because, besides being nonsense, it engenders ill will.

KATSURA--There are a lot of foreigners doing brilliant research in Japanese literature.

SUZUKI--There really are. And yet their work is not seen as relevant by most of those working in the national language institute or even among the literati. Donald Keene's work on the history of Japanese literature is only one example of an essential project that no Japanese has ever attempted. This is not surprising when one considers the example of how European language research developed--an excellent book on the history of French literature has been written in Britain, and the French researchers are some of the best on the British language.

KATSURA--The character code problems I mentioned when we began talking are only one example of ways that Japanese is already being infringed upon by internationalization. And this makes right now an excellent time to ask tough questions about kanji, and the nature of the Japanese language today.
Before even the living legions of foreign workers destined to come work in Japan, the very nature of networked computer communications such as the internet are urging a rationalization of Japanese through an encoding system. And this actuality is a rationalization of the Japanese language which far exceeds the strictures of traditional Japanese studies.
In the long term, computers are creating an environment for foreigners to research the nature of Japanese, and its coexistent writing systems. Of course it would be nice if not too non-linguist laymen like myself are sacrificed along the way. (Laughs)

SUZUKI--Well, I'm just a conservative old man, but even I don't believe in trying to preserve forever the ancient beauties of our language. It would only mean locking it away in a box. And yet, even without the ravages of internationalism, there are generational issues, and reasons like inadequate education for passing down culture which will create gaps all on their own, so it will change, even without the help of exterior influences--even if these outside influences cause the changes more instantaneously. In either event, it is futile to fear such changes. There is nothing immutable in this world.
Japanese is historically a relatively stable language. Ancient English is indecipherable to most contemporary scholars, to the extent that one barely senses cultural continuity in it. A Japanese person can, for example, read a text for the first time, whether it be an article or the earliest classic texts such as the Manyo poetry collection and still recognize it as his own culture, whereas a British person reading a text written before 14th century England might as well be reading something from another country. The fundamentals of British culture have been drastically reconsolidated four times in England. In pre-Christian times there it was unified as part of the Roman empire under Caesar. Next the invasions of migrating Germanic tribes pushed the indigenous Celts into Wales, or across the water to Ireland. Next came the second wave of Germanic people, through Scandinavia, and then with the Norman Conquest the British Isles were occupied for 300 years under France. That's why English is a hodgepodge of languages.

KATSURA--My hopes are with the potential for foreign researchers into Japanese's coexistent writing systems.

SUZUKI--Well, it's something that I'd obviously love to see attempted, though I believe, as I mentioned before, that the graphical composition of the language is an issue plagued by being considered something outside of the realm of linguistics, so it may be a difficult aspiration to achieve. Especially in a place like the US. Maybe there is a better chance in France? They have a history of researching Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Perhaps it is something that interested young researchers in Germany or France could collaborate with Japanese scholars on. Then again, if I may digress for a moment, Japanese language research is apparently considered cursed in France, with a reputation for young linguists being alienated, committing suicide or becoming neurotic. Whatever the reason, Japanese culture does not seem to get a fair hearing. The French are usually so good at researching other cultures. There are some Japanophiles in France, but their knowledge is not really in demand. Japanese literature doesn't sell well, and so they have trouble employing their knowledge, and remain, more or less in obscurity.

KATSURA--Perhaps their shot at notoriety is a media theory approach as you mentioned earlier, such as "TV Language."

SUZUKI--And we Japanese should be more sympathetic to, and supportive of, their plight. But then you get the mid-50s bureaucrats and educators who are afraid that such an active move might be criticized as "cultural invasion" and shrink away, taking the position that it's all good and fine for nonnative speakers to research Japanese, but nothing that should be any too heartily encouraged.
In any case, financial support is imperative. If books are in need to be shipped from Japan, the Japan Foundation should pay for it. The real difference will be felt simply if such agencies would extend financial support to those who are engaged in the struggle, instead of just administering by rote.

This is the problem with Japanese bureaucracy; they have too little awareness of where Japanese culture can make positive contributions to global culture. They're only focusing on flower arrangement, tea ceremony, Origami, at best Kabuki and Sumo wrestling.....

KATSURA--Reverse Orientalism strikes again! (Laughs)

SUZUKI--In other words, the Japanese bureaucrats would support culture that may embellish life-styles but wouldn't really affect the root of things. And yet, when Japan decided to open its doors to the west, it reformed from the roots up. And in the aftermath of the War in the Pacific, it was again transformed under America's influence. In fact Japan is amazingly resilient in the face of the affects of foreign influence, whereas foreign cultures wouldn't recognize nor allow mutual influence from Japan. And changing this point, in short, working to have Euro-American cultures influenced in whatever small degree by Japanese culture is probably the greatest issue we face. Just as Japan has already made its contribution felt in economic and technical terms, it needs to have its language and contemporary culture find just appreciation.

[This discussion was held on October 1st, 1998 at InerCommunication Center.]

Sociolinguist. Professor Emeritus at Keio University. Writings include Kotoba to Bunka [Language and Culture], Nihongo to Gaikokugo [Japanese and Foreign Languages], Kyouyou toshiteno Gengogaku [Refinements such as Linguistics] (all Iwanami Shinsho), Tozasareta Gengo--Nihongo no Sekai [The Shut-in Language: The World of Japanese] (Shinchou Sensho) and Nihongo wa Kokusai-go ni nariuruka [Can Japanese Become an International Language?] (Koudansha Gakujutsu-bunko).
Information Scientist. Associate Professor at Tokyo Zokei University. Writings include Interactive Mind (Iwanami Shoten) and Mediaron-teki shikou [Media Theory Thought] (Seikyuusha). Edited works include 20-seiki no Media 3--Maruchimedia no Shosou to Media Poritikusu [20th Century Media, Volume 3: Multimedia and Media Politics] (Just System).
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