Review of Multilingual Japan

by Steve McCarty

Original print publication, shortened: JALT Journal, 19 (1), 138-142 (May 1997).

MULTILINGUAL JAPAN. Edited by John C. Maher and Kyoko Yashiro. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters Ltd, 1995. 164 pp. 4,500 (distributed in Japan by Kinokuniya Shoten).

This collection of papers demonstrating the actual linguistic diversity of Japan is a special issue of the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development (1995) in book form. It fills a great gap for readers of English, although a previous collection of papers in Japanese edited by Maher and Yashiro (1994) similarly described Japan as a pluralistic society. Building on their experience withNihon no Bairingarizumu, the same editors then proceeded to compile a work even more comprehensive in scope and more representative in content.

Multilingual Japan is a deceptively thin volume dense with background information, linguistic data, insights, and references for further exploration. Its ambitious topic can be considered broadly covered, provided frequent mention will suffice of the diversity of dialects within the Japanese language itself, and a full account of every language heard in this country is not expected. What Multilingual Japan does include is an introduction and papers on the Ryukyuan, Ainu, Korean, and Chinese languages, English loanwords, returnees, and bilingualism in international families. Moreover, the Japanese language is involved in some way with all the rest.

In "Multilingual Japan: An Introduction," John Maher and Kyoko Yashiro disclose that Japan has always been linguistically diverse, but to publicly admit this is to open the door to a more dangerous recognition of cultural diversity. Nevertheless, the authors take aim at the political ideologies suppressing minority aspirations and discouraging objective linguistic research. They first argue that the inhabitants of the archipelago must be seen anew as just people, without the overlay of myths and stereotypes from second-hand accounts. Later they debunk the structural notion of 'the Japanese,' and it becomes clear that people inside and outside of these islands alike find it convenient to believe the categories that substitute for reality.

The ideology of monolingual-monocultural homogeneity is also deconstructed as an invented tradition. The Meiji administration's drive to nationhood included standardizing the Tokyo dialect and devaluing all the others, later made more palatable by the notion of a 'common language' among legitimate dialects. 19th-20th Century statism has thwarted the sociolinguistic frameworks through which language diversity could be investigated. Nakasone's denial that minorities exist in Japan was an extreme symptom. The study of diverse languages has been minimal because it challenges the monocultural ideology. The Japanese language serves to symbolize isolation, so the linguistic label of 'isolate' must be viewed with caution. Japanese has been linked to various language groups and families, but inconclusively. Relatively few studies have been done on language loss, shift, maintenance, or individual bilingualism. Any discussion of class stratification as influencing language variation is moreover taboo under the present egalitarian public opinion. It is as if racial and social equality have been achieved by not mentioning discrimination against minorities. The populous burakumin about whom people only whisper are another exception, though they are physiologically identical to the mainstream.

Though not unique to Japan, the claim to singularity has spawned a huge genre of Nihonjinron with vast generalizations such as 'Westerners' and 'we Japanese.' Special properties are attributed to the Japanese brain, social customs and language which, if they are so hard to fathom by natives, how could foreigners understand? On the other hand, individualists and internationalists questioning this self-imposed isolation are gradually increasing.

The authors discuss the Wartime legacy shared by minorities and the mainstream alike, condescension toward Okinawans, the travails of haafu individuals, and various community languages that are not treated elsewhere in the volume. But aside from socially acceptable variations such as Japanese Sign Language, manifestations of difference each conflict with the invented tradition of harmony. This ideology begun in Meiji state-building later served to quell labor unrest and perhaps led to the uncomplaining employees we see today. This harmony then extended to the Japanese language, marginalizing linguistic diversity as disorder in conflict with unity, a threat to state control.

A non-immigration policy helped thwart diversity until the only alternative for the economy was to call upon foreign workers. Immigration has always been the way peoples and languages mix, and the demands of the Japanese economy may finally produce this unintended outcome.

The first paper on a specific language is "Ryukyuan: Past, Present and Future," by Akiko Matsumori, with references to research that has been done on the topic in Japanese. "Ryukyuan" is preferred to describe the language group spoken in the formerly independent kingdom called Ryukyu or Ryuchu, from Chinese, today's Okinawa Prefecture and islands belonging to Kagoshima Prefecture. The Ryukyuan dialects are related to Japanese and have provided some diachronic clues in reconstructing the elusive history of Japanese.

Yet Ryukyuan and Japanese are as mutually unintelligible as English and German, so Ryukyuan has to be considered a different group of dialects rather than a branch of mainland Japanese. Matsumori further points out that Ryukyuan is commonly called the Okinawan dialect of Japanese for political rather than linguistic reasons.

In a typical case of language shift, Okinawans below about age 40 are losing their Ryukyuan fluency and almost everyone speaks standard Japanese or rather interdialects resulting from interference during accomodation. This is a transitional bilingualism that signals the demise of Ryukyuan and leads to monolingualism in Japanese except for other languages learned by individuals.

Matsumori continues with far more than can be done justice in this limited space, recounting the history and geography of the Ryukyus, analyzing the relationship between Ryukyuan and Japanese, where for example hama is pamaa in Ryukyuan as in ancient Japanese.

But a larger issue she raises is that Okinawans themselves have embraced language standardization, to the detriment of their local dialects, while schools have been most draconian in stigmatizing non-standard Japanese usage. Ryukyuans have often been forced to change their social identity, to emphasize their common heritage with mainland Japan if only in preference to American rule, or for economic reasons.

"English in Japanese Society: Language within Language," by Nobuyuki Honna, introduces the sociolinguistic context of loanwords from English into Japanese. English has made more inroads into the Japanese language than is English itself used in this country, and the former fact alarms many people. About 10% of the lexicon is now loanwords, mostly from English. But these account for 13% of words used in daily speech. Of neologisms, moreover, in annually revised dictionaries, 60-70% are from English.

Much as the authorities would like to stem this increasing influx, new concepts such as "informed consent" cannot readily be assigned Chinese characters, while loanwords such as "silver seat" are welcomed for their euphemistic value. As this book was published in Britain, the authors cannot assume readers' familiarity with Japan or its language, so many of these fundamentals are well-known here, but EFL teachers need a strategy toward the variety of English students were raised with.

Semanitically well-defined English words such as for physical things, social developments and scientific discoveries tend to retain their meanings although written and pronounced in Japanese. However, there are at least seven types of borrowing patterns involving semantic and structural changes:

1) Semantic narrowing and shift, where "human" comes to mean "friendly to human beings" as in "human electronics." The full range of meanings are not carried over but narrowed in such words as "essay" or "image." "Loose" refers only to such behavior. 2) Japanese phrasings of English create words like "nighter" or "skinship," "base-up" or "image-down," which may or may not be transparent to a native speaker of English. 3) Tail abbreviations are for example irasuto (illustration [confined to art]) or rosu (Los Angeles). 4) Acronyms use English capital letters, as in JR or PKO. 5) Abbreviations of compounds follow a traditional Japanese rule, as inToudai , to produce compounds like sekuhara and pasokon. 6) Japanese words combined with English loans are exemplified in kanji-katakana combinations like ha-burashi or kara-oke. English loanwords also turn into stems of adjectives or verbs, and the tendency to often add -suru has influenced Japanese coinages like ocha-suru that some consider weird. 7) Word play, when loans and vernacular words are homophonous, can give a double meaning, for example in advertising to associate "ski" with the likeable notion of suki. Why set a digital alarm clock for 6 a.m. when 5:55 can be read as "go, go, go"?

Honna expounds upon the role of loanwords, especially as euphemisms, and factors prompting their influx, including compulsory English education. He concludes that kanji policy and the inability to use English systematically have led to describing new things chiefly with English loanwords. This paper was inconsistent in italicizing Romanized expressions, but contributed the idea that English education has borne fruit in facilitating the enrichment of the Japanese language.

"Bilingualism in International Families," by JALT Bilingualism N-SIG co-founder Masayo Yamamoto, presents findings of her surveys along with 55 references. She examines language use patterns among family members, a vital part of the linguistic environment surrounding children of international families in Japan.

She first sets the stage for readers elsewhere with a taxonomy of research on bilingualism in Japan. Besides international families the categories are nikkeijin emigrants, kikoku shijo returnees, FL/SL--mostly English--students, and ethnic minorities. Papers in this volume touch upon all these areas except overseas Japanese emigrants and less numerous linguistic minorities.

Research findings elsewhere in the world would predict that the prestige of English in Japan would aid its acquisition. "Bilingual" had a positive image to college students surveyed here, but their definition of it was so idealized as to exclude nearly 90% of them. Moreover, 84% had simply assumed that "bilingual" referred to Japanese and English.

Data in this paper is confined to families with one English and one Japanese native-speaking parent. Between such spouses, the most common pattern found in several surveys was for both to use English mainly or exclusively. The choice of English may be explained by the greater proficiency in most cases of the native Japanese speakers in English than their spouse's proficiency in Japanese.

From parents to children, the main possible choices are: 1) one-person/one-language, each parent using predominantly their L1, 2) one-person/two languages, where at least one parent uses both languages, 3) both use only the societal language (Japanese), and 4) both parents use only the minority language (English). More generally than between spouses, parents tend to use their L1 with their children, for emotional bonding and sometimes in a conscious attempt to impart their L1.

The resulting communication patterns between parents and children are more complex, however, and not always as the parents wish. The force of the community language is such that more Japanese is heard from the children than is spoken by the parents to them. Availability of the language, i.e., fluency, is the main issue for children, along with the language of their school or friends, so Japanese is used more often than English among siblings in international families. The language of instruction at school seems to correlate strongly with the language used among siblings.

Another study, however, found that if if at least one parent used the minority language exclusively at home, all the children were considered by their parents to be either active or receptive bilinguals, with at least good listening comprehension in English. Other findings point to the minority language parent sticking to English as a necessary but not sufficient condition for bilingual development, yet nevertheless an approach to be recommended.

Problems facing international families include the desirability but difficulty of biliteracy, with bedtime reading by the minority language parent again perhaps a necessary but not sufficient condition. Physical or linguistic conspicuousness in Japan can also result in children resisting English to minimize their differences from the norm. But those who do become bilingual are generally admired.

Turning from the conspicuous to the partly submerged minorities, John Maher and Yumiko Kawanishi co-author "On Being There: Koreans in Japan." Their presence in large numbers began with forced labor in Japan during the annexation of Korea. After the War it was difficult to go back, but by 1947 the 647,006 remaining were obliged to register as fingerprinted aliens, close 525 fledgling Korean-medium schools and send their children to public schools. Now there are about a million of Korean heritage, including those naturalized as Japanese.

With this inauspicious start in terms of their bilingual and bicultural options, Korean language proficiency among second, third and fourth generations is rapidly declining. Today the Soren [North Korea-affiliated] and Mindan [ROK-affiliated] organizations run school systems with a bilingual curriculum in Korean and Japanese, including their own textbooks on Korean language and history.

As Korean schools are not accredited, 86% of Korean students attend Japanese schools to have any chance to attend the [inexpensive yet most prestigious] national universities. However, the authors present an example of a Mindan textbook (Zainichi Kankoku Kokumin Kyokasho) bilingual in Korean and Japanese aimed at students who do not attend Korean schools. These ethnic

education (minjok kyoyuk) passages lovingly portray the culture of the homeland. The introduction exhorts all Koreans in Japan to have ethnic consciousness, to live in dignity, and to be true internationalists. In this last term also we can note the linguistic similarity of Korean to Japanese (kuk'chae'in = kokusaijin).

Here the authors add by contrast that Soren textbooks tend to be more ideological, singing the praises of the North Korean leaders. They also observe that Korean textbooks in Japan simplify the six registers of Korean to the peer and subordinate styles prevalent in a classroom. Furthermore, Japanese grammar influences Korean usage to an extent, while Tokyo or Osaka dialects govern their intonation patterns.

The authors further discuss local initiatives to support the preservation of Korean culture through its language, and the increasing public recognition of the value of Korean as a foreign language. Korea itself is growing more prominent along with distinct Koreatowns in Japan. The contentious issue remains, however, of changing Korean names to Japanese style. By a 1940 deadline all had chosen Japanese readings of the same Chinese characters or else made up other combinations, although some changed back after 1945. Their descendants are nowhere near a consensus to maintain Korean names in face of deru kugi (protruding nail) attitudes in the surrounding society.

In "The Current State of the Ainu Language," Joseph DeChicchis shows with 164 references in several languages that he and others have done extensive research on this partly-submerged minority and its language, both termed 'Ainu.' And yet, there is a distinction between the declining number of ethnic Ainu who maintain the language and the increasing number of non-natives who study it.

DeChicchis offers no easy answers as to the locus of the homeland Ainu Moshir, except that the Ainu have their own notion of it, implying that we should avoid reifying it into a familiar social construct. In traditional communities Japanese and Russian are heard along with Ainu, while the homeland has been brought to Tokyo and Osaka with Ainu speakers. A growing scholastic community of young adults interested in Ainu traditions and language revival is reflected in an increasing number of publications about or in the language.

The number of officially registered Ainu is only 24,000, but there has been a pattern of denial resulting from historical experience as a downtrodden and partially assimilated minority. The actual number is probably over twice the above figure but cannot be determined since Ainu and Wajin cannot be reliably distinguished physiologically. DeChicchis is silent on whether they were racially distinguishable in the past or not, perhaps because he regards race as an immeasurable social construct along with ethnicity.

The former extent of the Ainu speech community included southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands along with Hokkaido. The author makes the reader reflect on the reassurance felt when he finally links the Ainu unequivocally with Hokkaido. Examining the historical evidence, he goes only so far as to say that the Ainu language has distant roots on the Asian continent.

European writers had considered Hokkaido Ainu territory, but Japanese and Russian expansion quelled Ainu culture by the end of the 19th Century. The last armed resistance against the Shogunate was in 1789. The Northern Islands dispute shows that the two world powers have not yet finished carving up the Ainu Moshir.

Today there is no primarily Ainu speech community, but the language is not dead if language community is more broadly defined to include the various manifestations of increased interest in Ainu. That said, DeChicchis still provides a taxonomy of Ainu speakers: 1) archival, native speakers for generations, few of whom remain, 2) old Ainu-Japanese bilinguals, 3) token Ainu speakers, who typically value the language but feel all the more marginalized by not having fluency in it, and 4) second language learners of Ainu, whose study groups have in turn encouraged more young Ainu to use the language.

In this decade Ainu representatives have petitioned to the United Nations that they are an indigenous minority treated unjustly. This led to a bizarre government statement that the Ainu were Japanese. There has been a similar tendency for scholars domestically to embrace Ainu-Japanese linguistic similarities. On the other hand, early reports creating the image of Ainu as Caucasian were also exaggerated. Greater cooperation between Altaicists and Japanese philologists is needed to confirm the hypothesis that Ainu, Japanese and Korean together form a sub-group of the Altaic family. DeChicchis speculates that Ainu may prove to be non-Altaic but with a large stock of Altaic vocabulary, eventually with borrowings from Japanese and the northern Asian languages of peoples they contacted.

DeChicchis concludes that Ainu is liable to survive as a vehicle of ritual and historical study. Formerly banned customs performed in Ainu are being revived, while Ainu linguistic and territorial claims countering the government version of history are reaching a wider audience through televised documentaries.

John Maher then sheds some light on "The Kakyo: Chinese in Japan." The diaspora of overseas Chinese has resulted in at least 50,000 stable residents of mostly inner-city communities using Cantonese and some Mandarin along with JSL. In the second to fourth generations there is a trend toward dominance in Japanese. Post-War Shin-Kakyo tend to start with Taiwanese or other dialects. These well-established communities are found in Tokyo-Yokohama, Kansai, and parts of southern Kyushu, with several Chinese-Japanese bilingual schools for the children of the post-War generations.

Another nearly 50,000 speakers of Chinese are not well-established nor are they called Kakyo. Since 1980 there has been an influx of Mandarin-speaking students and laborers speaking various dialects, JSL and pidgin. In addition, there are the returnees from China, those who were left behind when the Japanese soldiers retreated. Although speaking Japanese as a second language if at all, some of them and their descendants or Chinese spouses have wished to be repatriated with their Japanese families or to claim permanent residency in Japan. The author details the historical legacy from China to Japan, but this seems only distantly related to the stated theme of Kakyo and to their actual lives. Nothing is said about contemporary China or about the dark side, such as when would-be returnees are recognized by their relatives yet go unclaimed.

Maher does take up examples of particular schools for Hua-chi'iao (Kakyo). Such schools exist in the port cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe and Nagasaki. The one in Yokohama has 300 pupils from kindergarten through middle school. Instruction is in Chinese and Japanese by mostly Japan-born Chinese. The children include some from Mainland China returnee families as well as Japanese children, analogous to those sent to international schools. The writer's tone seems to welcome this sign of the future vitality of the Chinese language in Japan.

At the Tokyo Chinese School, from primary school English further augments Mandarin Chinese and Japanese instruction. For fourth and fifth generation Chinese students, however, Mandarin has to be taught from the beginning as a second language. Chinese children are sent there for ethnic solidarity, and in one of the few quotations from a minority individual in this book, a schoolteacher explains the pride in being Chinese as transcending nationalities.

The elementary school offers Japanese writing as at mainstream schools, including Romanization of Chinese Han-ji, of which 3,000 are taught by the sixth grade, the number recommended for daily use in China. Furthermore, Chinese schools generally have supplement al exchange programs, with local schools for Japanese reading proficiency, and with schools in mainland China or Taiwan for programs such as summer stays.

Maher concludes that in the post-Tienanmen era there is little motivation to learn Chinese in Japan, but he regards the Chinese schools as a model for bilingual education in Japan, including English started in elementary school. He predicts that the Chinese language will prosper not because of the proximity of China or nostalgia for its culture but rather because Chinese residents contribute to the prosperity of their urban areas. It could be added that the multicultural ambience is an attraction that would be lost were the minority to assimilate.

In "Japan's Returnees," Kyoko Yashiro points out that so-called third culture kids are a widespread phenomenon, but only in Japan through the 70's were they considered problem children in need of re-acculturation. But with the trend to value internationalization, Japan's returnees have come to be regarded as a valuable resource and are expected to share their experience with fellow students. Various government and private sector organizations support them or their networking among each other.

In 1991 412,207 Japanese nationals were living abroad for over three months, with 50,773 in primary or middle schools abroad, and about 13,000 returning to Japan that year. Kikokushijo are categorized by the Mombusho as elementary to high school students who have spent one to three years abroad. This is to keep data while placing students in schools with special programs and quotas. The Mombusho thus counted 31,446 such returnees in 1992. Of course there are many outside this category, but their needs must be met by the private sector. 4,457 returnees of similar age from China are in a separate category, and many must be taught Japanese from scratch. Maintenance of native languages other than Japanese in general is a neglected issue that Yashiro treats elsewhere.

University-age returnees are privileged with special quotas at many prestigious universities, 269 in all offering them special entrance exams. About 8,000 applied in 1993, but 1,674 were actually accepted. Returnees also have an advantage over other young people in being hired by big businesses that send employees abroad.

Yashiro also counts as returnees adult professionals who are influential in promoting international understanding. In sum, there is a much greater variety of returnees than the stereotype of English-speaking, Westernized schoolchildren. Some have neither an international outlook nor L2 profiency because they stuck with fellow Japanese while living abroad.

Japanese students tend to be diligent and try to adapt to the U.S. and European countries, with mixed results as to their L2 acquisition. In other countries, however, most go to Japanese schools and do not acquire the local language, though such schools do have courses in the host language and culture. Similarly, businessmen in Asia and Africa tend to use Japanese or English.

As sojourners average four years abroad, maintenance of their Japanese language and culture is an important issue. Children's Japanese reading and writing does deteriorate rapidly, even speaking if Japanese is not heard, so L1 maintenance is necessary with a view to their eventual return. The younger the child, the more rapidly language ability can shift, and catching up in schools after returning is very difficult. Thus for L1 maintenance there are 87 Japanese schools and 159 weekend schools abroad with financial aid from the Mombusho. They follow the domestic curriculum and are not able to admit non-Japanese. Very few returnees now have serious problems of linguistic or cultural readjustment.

64% of primary and middle school returnees attended host country schools and are presumed by Yashiro to have become bilingual to some extent. But then the problem shifts to maintaining their L2, for which no official programs exist. Adult returnees have greater opportunities to use their L2, but schoolchildren tend to be preoccupied with catching up in school and readjusting socially. The relatively few whose L1 did deteriorate can find special classes, and progress has been made in ensuring that returnees are welcomed in regular schools, but public schools in particular have dodged the issue of L2 maintenance.

Yashiro refutes each rationalization put forward for neglecting languages other than Japanese. She states that Japan is a multilingual country and that people have the right to maintain their L2 or L1 other than Nihongo. Her surveys of kikokushijo showed that over 90% wanted to maintain their L2, virtually all who had anything significant to maintain, and this included languages not valorized in Japan. Parents also showed positive attitudes toward L2 maintenance, with only 8% believing readjustment should come first and none believing L2 maintenance was detrimental to readjustment.

Yashiro also surveyed maintenance activities and found that particularly those who had attended host country schools were engaged in some form of L2 maintenance. Of the 85% in such a study, 68% attended private sector L2 classes, 35% wrote to friends abroad, 32% read L2 books and magazines, 20% used AV materials, 6% associated with students who could speak the same L2, 5% had L2 native-speaking tutors, and 3% associated with native speakers of their L2.

Returnees have tended to become prominent in the media and in education. Returnee women have formed volunteer organizations to help others moving abroad and returning. Yashiro concludes that returnees are agents of internationalization active in promoting linguistic and cultural diversity in Japanese society.

A weakness of this collection is the apparent lack of final editing, for which the publisher must bear some responsibility. The introduction is strident in tone and a bit disorganized in its laudable attempt to cover disparate areas not treated in the other papers. The typos may discourage readers from continuing to papers by non-native writers of English, but the latter present relatively few obstacles to understanding.

Specialists on languages other than the official one in Japan will need this collection of papers. The writers have tried to avoid overgeneralizations, so a summary like the above can hardly but oversimplify their rigor. Terms like "(the) Japanese" are difficult to avoid using even when we realize that they are misleading confirmations of stereotypes.

In conclusion to this review, the lives of minorities such as these in Japan seem to have in common a road over generations, from exclusion or travail to eventual acceptance or assimilation. There is an ominous tendency to language shift toward the dominant language, while individuals aspire to a cultural and linguistic identity of their own choosing. This book upholds their aspirations by scholarship showing that, despite prevailing ideologies and other myths convenient for Japanese and non-Japanese alike to believe, "Japan" is not a monolith but already a pluralistic society of diverse individuals.


Maher, J. & K. Yashiro (eds.) (1995). Multilingual Japan. Special issue of the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 16 (1&2).

Maher, J. & K. Yashiro (eds.) (1995). Nihon no Bairingarizumu. Tokyo: Kenkyusha.

Updated on 12 December 2002

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