- The Ideology of Kokugo: Nationalizing Language in Modern Japan
Following its publication in Japan in 1996, Lee Yeounsuk’s Kokugo to iu shisō quickly became a must-read for anyone with an interest in the relationship between language, national identity, and imperialism in the context of modern East Asia, and its enduring relevance makes it an excellent choice for translation into English. A rigorous and richly documented study of the history of linguistic consciousness in modern Japan, Kokugo to iu shisō spotlights the relationship between language and politics in a way that radically undermines widespread assumptions of a natural connection between “Japanese” as a language, “Japanese” as a national identity, and “Japan” as a state.
From the perspective of literary studies, these assumptions have been challenged in recent years by the emergent concept of Nihongo-bungaku (Japanese-language literature), which calls attention to writers of literature in Japanese for whom the language is neither a native tongue nor an ethnic inheritance. As a Korean national writing in Japanese, Lee contributed to this historic shift from a different angle: by deconstructing the modern Japanese concept of language from within the very academic discourse by which it was constituted. The implications of her painstaking historical research extend far beyond the contemporary Japanese literary scene to expose the contradictions and instabilities at the root of the concept of “Japanese” as a national language.
As Lee points out, the modern Japanese language contains a peculiar duality in the nomenclature by which it refers to itself. While the term kokugo is used to name the language for native speakers, the term Nihongo [End Page 377] is typically reserved for addressing its relationship to nonnative speakers. How the term kokugo—which one might be tempted to translate literally as “national language”—came to have such an exclusive and exceptionalist ring is one of the primary questions addressed by Lee’s study. It is no doubt for this reason that Mariko Hirano Hubbard chose to leave the term as is in her English translation of the book.
Lee’s study traces the continual transformations and debates over the meaning of kokugo from its inception in the late nineteenth century to its applications in state policy through the era of Japanese empire, and finally to the language reforms that were instated after Japan’s defeat in World War II. During the first two decades of the Meiji period, the two-character compound could be read as either kokugo or kunikotoba, and could refer to either “language” at the lexical level or “the whole of a language.” It was not until the third decade of the Meiji era, the years capped by the Sino-Japanese War, that the word kokugo became tied specifically to the language of Japan. It was during this time, Lee argues, that the word was first invested with ideological and symbolic value. Scholars such as Ochiai Naobumi, Sekine Masanao, and, most important, Ueda Kazutoshi now began to draw a line connecting language directly to the nation and state. Within this ideological framework, the major divides were related to the priority given to written or spoken language, tradition or the present state of the language. In both cases, those who embraced the methods of modern Western linguistics insisted that the present state of the spoken language constituted the true form of kokugo. Tension between the linguists and the traditionalists reached its zenith during the 1930s and 1940s, with intense competition over the form, status, and meaning of kokugo in the context of Japanese empire. It was not until the postwar era that many of the reforms originally developed and advocated in the context of colonial rule were actually implemented—a fact that in itself opens up many avenues of inquiry into our understanding of modern “Japanese.”
Today, there are very few Japanese-speaking Americans who would dispute the notion that the language known to us as “Nihongo” can be taught to nonnative speakers. Indeed, all of us are indebted to some form...