Language and society in Japan. By Nanette Gottlieb. (Contemporary Japanese society.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. ix, 169. ISBN 0521532841. $27.99.
Reviewed by Lea Cyrus, University of Münster
This book explores from various angles the ways in which language and identity in Japan are intertwined. Its main focus is on present-day Japan, but historical developments are always taken into account to explain the present situation.
In the first chapter (1–17), Gottlieb explores the notion of ‘Japanese language’, taking as her starting point the simplistic but widely held Nihonjinron view that Japanese is a homogeneous, unique, and unchanging entity, and also impossible to grasp for nonnatives. She goes on to describe the development of standard Japanese since the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1867) and then briefly touches on various diversifying factors, such as dialects, influences by other languages, and differences in male and female speech.
Ch. 2 (18–38) deals with language diversity in Japan. G discusses minority languages, such as Ainu, Okinawan, Korean, and Chinese, and describes the various roles they have played in constructing a Japanese identity. The Japanese attitude to foreign language studies, in particular with respect to English, is also mentioned.
Ch. 3 (39–54) identifies ideological connections between language and national identity in Japan since the Meiji Restoration. The Japanese writing system has played a crucial role in this respect: attempts at creating a standardized form based on contemporary spoken language rather than on classical Chinese were seen either as an assault on national values or as a necessity for and a symbol of a modernized Japan.
Ch. 4 (55–77) focuses on various language policy issues. With respect to Japanese itself, these were mostly concerned with script reforms—the list of 1,945 ‘Characters of general use’ (Jōyō Kanji) being one major result—and recently also with the issue of English loanwords. Furthermore, language policies regarding minority languages like indigenous Ainu, the teaching of English in Japan, and the teaching of Japanese as a foreign language are also presented.
In Ch. 5 (78–99), G first introduces the Japanese writing system with its three scripts (kanji, hiragana, and katakana) and then discusses the way kanji are taught at schools. This includes a list of those kanji that are learned during the six years of elementary school. The remainder of this chapter deals with issues like dyslexia and literacy, and also with reading habits in Japan.
Ch. 6 (100–119) covers discriminatory language and linguistic stereotyping directed at various groups of people, such as women, people with mental or physical disabilities, and ethnic minorities (e.g. Koreans and Ainu, or, very particular to Japan, the so-called burakumin, that is, descendants of people with occupations that used to be associated with impurity).
Ch. 7 (120–36) assesses the social and cultural consequences of the development of character-capable software, such as the rise of a Japanese presence on the internet. In addition, the new technology has brought about changes in kanji usage: there has been an increase in the use of complex characters in printed texts, while at the same time the ability to write even the simpler characters by hand has decreased.
The last chapter (137–45) provides a short summary and gives an outlook by investigating whether Japanese has the potential to become a global language.
This book is clearly written and does not assume any previous knowledge of Japanese. It will be of benefit for linguists and sociologists alike, or indeed for anyone interested in Japan and Japanese society.