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Language Policy in Japan: The Challenge of Change (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 221-225 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0004

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In 2000, Nanette Gottlieb wrote that Japanese word-processing (JWP) technology had “put paid to any remaining hopes of romanisation by solving the hitherto stubborn input-output problem”; romanization was a “dead issue.”1 There were no foreseeable circumstances in which it could gain official acceptance; all the essential difficulties of reading and writing Japanese on electronic equipment had been overcome. I was skeptical of both claims.2

Japan now has a significant immigrant population that urgently needs effective Japanese as a Second Language (JSL) education. The ever-growing variety and use of JWP devices has strongly influenced what Japanese choose to read and how they write. National language policy has failed to keep pace. These developments are this book’s raison d’être, but, in the end, we do not learn many specifics of how national language policy should change or what role technology should play. Chapter 4, “Technology and Language Policy Change,” was included, it seems, only because policy-makers claim that excessive time online causes good language usage to deteriorate. Gottlieb rejects this, arguing instead that declining usage is an illusion created by the centrality of kanji in Japan’s longstanding language ideology and that gradual changes in other, non-kanji elements of the ideology will lead to a breakthrough in JSL education. The first claim is, I think, obvious—language corruption is a prescientific concept—the second, mostly wishful thinking.

Despite this weakness, the book has merits. Gottlieb has combed through numerous government reports, surveys, newspaper and journal articles, and books in both Japanese and English; she intelligently discusses, if only briefly, a broad range of topics related to JSL education, technology, and language policy. They include the adoption of in-house English by some companies in Japan, the current state of non-English foreign-language teaching, community efforts to accommodate immigrants, changes in pertinent laws and regulations, newcomer versus “oldcomer” communities, and so on.3 The book is thus an informative guide to widely scattered materials, and I recommend the Kindle edition for use as a reference.4

In Gottlieb’s view, “the provision of JSL learning opportunities at [the] national level and the expansion of opportunities to learn languages other than English are the most important language policy matters facing Japan today” (p. 161). To address these urgent priorities, there must be a fundamental change in the kanji-fixated language ideology fostered by the national bureaucracy. The candid description of this ideology (pp. 1–16) shows Gottlieb’s evolution as an investigator of Japanese language policy, but when it comes time to grasp the nettle, she offers only an anemic entreaty:

The national government has in recent years taken policy action on concerns affecting mainstream Japanese citizens, exemplified by the recent revision of the kanji policy and the push to establish English as a curriculum subject in elementary schools. It should be noted here that the kanji policy is important not only to Japanese citizens but also to all the other non-Japanese children whose literacy education will be based on the classroom implementation of that policy, who need to be able to read and write properly, who use mobile phones and want to be able to e-mail in Japanese. True kanji literacy should no longer be considered out of their reach: as potential future citizens, they need JSL education in schools which will enable them to deal with the ordinary written curriculum studied by their Japanese classmates.

(pp. 165–66)

How, one wonders, will “true kanji literacy” be put within the “reach” of immigrant JSL learners as long as “true” is defined by those bureaucrats, teachers, and littérateurs who frame the national language ideology and reinforce it through the schools? These were the people who, in 1981, turned what had been an upper limit on the number of kanji in general use into a minimal educational requirement and increased the number of approved kanji then and again in 2010. It is they who scorn the ubiquitous furigana of manga and deplore the self-consciously transgressive online writing of bloggers, e-mailers, texters, kogyaru,5 and lately the occasional bestselling author.6

To understand the logic of Gottlieb’s plea, one must...

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