The Meiji Government Language Reform Cultural Studies Essay

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Language is a tool which uses to communicate a common set of symbols, expressions and processing rules. Symbols can be delivered by visual, sound or tactile ways. The purpose to have a language is people want to exchanging concepts, opinions and thoughts between them. Furthermore, language is an almighty symbol of identity, belonging and shared culture roots, and also national image. (Carroll 1997)

Japanese is the language spoken in Japanese archipelago by the Japanese people, which is the official language of Japan. For the formation of Japanese, Clarke argues that 'it has a hybrid vocabulary made up of native Japanese words, loanwords from Chinese, English and other languages and a large number of Sino-Japanese neologisms, many created in Japan, fashioned to translate terms denoting Western ideas and technology.' Japanese language has changed a lot from ancient to modern times; the most significant language policy was in 19th century, with the reform of the late Meiji. The government intended to modernize the Japanese Language - the establishment and codification of a standard national language, and the unification of written and spoken Japanese. (Clarke 2009) This essay will analyze the Meiji government language reforms and its impacts on the Japanese language, also the Japanese concepts of nationhood and identity in contemporary Japan through the reforms.

In the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the major language reforms began in many areas of Japan. Language reforms are needed because the new Meiji government wanted to build a national unity. The second reason is the government wanted to modernize and industrialize Japan to catch up with other countries. (Carroll 2001) In order to create a unified modern state, Gottlieb argues the required infrastructure includes a lot of things, such as 'a modern press, an education system, a postal system, an army, transport and communications systems such as railways and telegraphs, and much, much more.' For the new infrastructure, a standard form of both spoken and written Japanese was needed for the communication between citizens from different regions as they only spoke their own dialects. The Meiji government intended to create a 'standard language'. (Gottlieb 2005)

The Japanese Language Investigative Committee which set up in 1902 was in charge of selecting the standard language. In Language Planning and Language Change in Japan, Carroll states that the proposal of the standard language covered the following issues: 'investigation of Japanese dialects with a view to selecting an official standard; research into the possibilities of abolishing Chinese characters and replacing them with a phonetic script (kana [Japanese syllabaries] or rōmaji [roman alphabet]); the written style favoured by the genbun itchi [unification of written and spoken language] movement; and the phonetic system of Japanese.' After a large number of surveys and reports, they selected Yamanote dialect as the standard. The Ministry of Education used Tokyo dialect as the 'common language', with the genbun itchi movement. The new textbooks were written in the 'correct national language', which made a great influence on grammar and integrated the common terms. (Carroll 2001)

While the standard language is promoted over the country, the use of non-standard dialects or other languages, such as the Ainu language, was obstructed, even banned and punished in schools. All region dialects needed to replace by Japanese. (Clarke 2009) Other than the minorities of Japan, the overseas colonies - Hokkaido and Okinawa suffered the same fate by the policy of linguistic assimilation.

The government wanted the colonists see Japanese as a national language instead of a foreign language and imperial Japan as their nation. Taiwan, which was a colony of Japan, was being the first place that used Japanese as a national language and taught Japanese outside Japan. In Nihon no gengo-seisaku no kenkyû (1973), Shioda notes that the word 'kokugo' started being used in the Meiji period to represent 'national language' in its modern sense. Carroll states 'guidelines issued by the Education Department of the Government-General of Taiwan in 1900 declared that the aim of kokugo teaching in state schools was to enable the children to talk and read 'the language of our Empire.'' From 1913, all lessons in school were taught only in Japanese. There were strong promotion of Japanese in Taiwan, for instance, families whose members call spoke Japanese could have a special approbation. From 1937, speaking Japanese turned to enforcement from encouragement, regulation such as all of the new civil servants should be able to speak Japanese; their own dialects, Taiwanese dialects, were proscribed in the workplace and schools. Also, people who speak fluent Japanese could have privileges in employment and education. (Carroll 2001)

Genbun itchi movement is the unification of spoken and written language. Before Meiji reform, the estrangement between spoken and written language was wide, grammar and lexis in written form were more classical comparing to contemporary spoken form. Since the estrangement could be the obstacle to education and economic development, an establishment of a uniform colloquial style of writing based on the grammar and vocabulary of a standard form of the spoken language was needed. Therefore, the genbun itchi movement arose. (Coulmas 2002)

Reforming the complex written system is the next thing Meiji government wanted to do after established a standard language and narrowed the gap between spoken and written form. They tended to reduce the number of kanji, the Chinese characters. There were some suggestions of replacing all kanji by the a phonetic system, which is mixed of kana and romaji, the original Japanese characters, (Clarke 2009) However, this did not put into practice, partly because Japanese required a quantity of characters for Chinese place and personal names that were not common in Japan. The other reason is the military's predilection for kango (Sino-Japanese vocabulary and difficult characters). At last, the kanji was not being replaced but reduced. (Carroll 1997)

The language reforms in Meiji period had various impacts on the Japanese language. When standardizing the written language, it had an influence on the spoken language. Referring to the example in Language Planning and Language Change in Japan, the kinship terms were unified from various terms, because the school textbooks were the immediate means. Carroll states that 'the official sanctioning of a vernacular standard written language made it possible for linguistic assimilation to become the dominant language ideology.' The genbun itchi movement had overcome the gap between needs and linguistic resources. It made the standard language of Japanese an efficient tool for communication in both written and spoken form. (Carroll 2001) During the Japanese economic of the 1980s, Japanese became one of the top foreign languages of choice for students who wanted to work in a Japan-related business either in Japan or other countries. The standardization of Japanese helped foreigners to learn Japanese easier and more foreigners tended to learn Japanese. (Gottlieb 2005)

A national language is not only one tool for communication; it is also a symbol of the nation and a key term of nationalism. Since a common national language was one of the features of a modern nation state in Europe, Japan established a standard national language under modernization. Ueda Kazutoshi, a Japanese who had studied linguistics and advocated linguistic nationalism in Germany, then entered the Ministry o Education later, had argued that the nation language was be cultivated as a critical element of the nation heritage. (Coulmas 2002) Standardizing the language has made all regions of Japan abandoned their own dialects and all started using the Tokyo dialect the standard language of Japan. In contemporary Japan, the standard Japanese is spoken and understood throughout the whole country, the number of people that speaking Japanese in Japan is around 126.5 million. They all share the same kind of language belonging to the nation Japan, the self-identification of this is nationalism (Gottlieb 2005)

Language is also a key factor of both national and personal identity formation. A person's view of a language is depending on the nature of that person's interaction with it. Gottlieb points out that 'to a Japanese person living in Japan the Japanese language will be the native language spoken from childhood and used daily; exactly with 'the Japanese language" means in this context, however, is open to discussion and needs to be viewed in the context of local variation and national policy on language standards.' (Gottlieb 2005) The Meiji language reforms has enhanced the Japanese people their consciousness of identity in contemporary Japan. On the other hand, the minorities of Japan have once forced to learn Japanese and forbidden the use of their own Ainu language. Some modern Ainu people do not speak Ainu language, even do not realize themselves are Ainu. The language reform made the minorities groups lose their identity. (Clarke 2009)

This essay had analyzed the Meiji language reform, which contained three parts: establishment of a standard language, genbun itchi movement (unification of spoken and written language) and reform of the complex written system. The standardization has formed a common national language for Japan, Japanese lived in different regions could communicate after adopted the national language. The genbun itchi movement had overcome the gap between needs and linguistic resources. Nationalism has arose when all Japanese had a self-identification belong to a nation because the establishment of standard language. The language reform enhanced the Japanese people their consciousness of identity, but made the minority groups lost their own identity. There were good and bad impacts due to the Meiji language reform. Overall, it helped Japan to be modernized and caught up with the Western countries.