The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura (trans Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter). $35.00, 240 pp. Columbia University Press.
For those more interested in controversy than careful reading, The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura offers arguments to oversimplify and potentially unpopular claims to take out of context. The book stirred up debate upon its publication in Japan in 2008, and it’s possible it will do so in the U.S. with its arrival in Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation. In their introduction, Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter, point out that Japanese reviewers accused Mizumura of being a jingoist, an elitist, and a “hopeless reactionary.” Some attacks on the book seemed to be based solely on its title, and others focused only on the last chapter, which lays out recommendations for change. Even for careful, conscientious readers, there may be much to disagree with, particularly in the later sections of the book. But Mizumura makes a compelling case for paying attention to the current state of Japanese and other languages and for considering their future. Debate in the U.S.—hopefully a reasoned one—would be a good thing, since one of Mizumura’s main points is that English-language writers have little idea of the challenges faced by those who write in other languages. Heated conversation about this book could help to change that.
Mizumura’s thesis is sweeping: contemporary Japanese literature is “juvenile,” and changes in written Japanese and the lack of attention to the great works of Japanese literature may lead to its “fall.” At times, it’s not always clear what she means by “fall,” but eventually we come to understand she means that while the Japanese language and even its literature will not disappear, its quality will continue to drop. More and more, Japanese writers will turn to the language that will get them more attention and allow them to participate in literary conversations worldwide: English. What is true in Japan is true in many other non-Anglophone countries as well. For why would an ambitious writer want to write in a language that has a limited audience, when writing in English can give him or her access to readers around the globe? Mizumura acknowledges that many non-Anglophone writers are happily writing in their own languages, but they are in danger of limiting their reach. This is the bind Mizumura describes brilliantly: given today’s circumstances, it’s an advantage to write in English if one wishes to be read by as many people as possible, but for non-native speakers, writing in English requires great effort. This is particularly true for those whose languages (such as Japanese) are very different from English. Translation is possible, of course, but not only are few works translated into English but translations often don’t get the attention they deserve. They do not tend to become, as Mizumura puts it, “texts to read,” or parts of the canon. So the pressure to write in English will only increase for writers who want to take a place on the world’s stage, which puts their own native languages in further danger.
The book is not solely straightforward argument: Mizumura opens with a chapter-long description of her personal experiences at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her descriptions of her fellow participants and her mild disappointments with the program are entertaining and engaging. The upshot of this section is the observation that:
all kinds of writers were writing in their own language. It made no difference whether a writer’s language had hundreds of millions of potential readers or a few hundred thousand; either way, they wrote in their own language, as if to do so were the most natural act imaginable—as if people had always done so, ever since the human race came into being. Of course, that is far from the truth. (emphasis in original)
From this starting point, she launches into the history of language development to show that “only in the modern era did the act of writing come to mean writing in one’s own language.” She looks at the concepts of universal, national, and local languages in Europe and in Japan and argues that other accounts of language development neglect the importance of universal language. In particular, Benedict Anderson in his influential book Imagined Communities is guilty of this,and also of neglecting the importance of translation in language development. A universal language, Mizumura argues, is not the language spoken by the most people, which would make the current universal language Chinese; rather, it is the language used “by the greatest number of nonnative speakers in the world,” which makes it English. Crucially, the universal language is the most efficient language to use to pursue knowledge. Those who wish to be heard as widely as possible will be powerfully drawn toward using it.
In contrast to universal languages are local languages, which are spoken by smaller communities and may or may not have a writing system. National languages are elevated forms of the local language that become identified with national identity and which may be used by people with different local languages. It is translation that creates national languages: they develop when texts get translated from the universal language into the local one, thus strengthening, elevating, codifying, and dispersing it.
With this conceptual framework in place, Mizumura turns to Japan’s unique linguistic history. Japanese developed as a national language through its relationship to Chinese, once the universal language of the region. Again, translation is central here; it was through the complexity of adapting the Chinese writing system to capture spoken Japanese that it was transformed from a local language into a rich national one. It is this language that writers put to splendid use in the fiction they wrote after Japan began opening up to Western influence in the mid-nineteenth century. Mizumura calls this “the miracle of modern Japanese literature,” which includes writers such as Natsume Sōseki, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, Kawabata Yasunari, and many, many others. Mizumura’s praise for modern Japanese literature is lavish:
I know of no Western literature that has mixed such a diverse array of writing systems and literary traditions and, moreover, so clearly retained the historical marks of each of them, so that layers of different heritage are visible on almost every page.
Her overview of the development of Japanese literature justifies this praise and makes her laments at its potential “fall” more sympathetic.
What has led to this fall, or if you prefer, “fall”? There are a number of causes, among them poor Japanese-language education, a lack of interest in reading modern (as opposed to contemporary) Japanese literature, and relatively recent changes in written Japanese that make reading works from even 150 years ago more challenging. She identifies a problem with both overconfidence and a lack of confidence: the feeling that Japanese will be just fine and so no measures need to be taken to “save” it, and at the same time a worry that Japanese literature isn’t worthy to stand up with works from the West. Unsurprisingly, Mizumura argues for a return to the close study of Japanese literature in the schools. She also takes a stance that may seem paradoxical to some: if English is truly the new universal language, then one might argue universal bilingualism should be the goal, but Mizumura sees this as a dangerously inefficient use of educational resources. Instead, she argues that only those with interest and aptitude should receive advanced training in English, so that these people can take their places in the globalized world. Since English is so difficult to learn, all others would be better off focusing on their native language. It is not surprising that these arguments earned Mizumura accusations of elitism, merited or not.
In her opening chapters, Mizumura grounds her ideas in her own experience and shows the personal origins of her intellectual arguments. She undercuts her more general claims by acknowledging her biases. While she believes contemporary Japanese literature is juvenile, she recognizes she may be missing something: “Perhaps [my friend] and I belong to a generation so thoroughly imbued with the classics of modern Japanese literature we don’t know how to appreciate newer writing.” This willingness to accept uncertainty is refreshing. As the book moves on, though, the personal voice drops out and her claims become broader and less convincing. Chapter 6 opens with the argument that:
The phrase “the end of literature” is now a cliché. And it has been a cliché, not only in Japan but all over the world, for half a century if not longer. Yet in recent years, voices bewailing the end of literature are gaining new urgency. Fewer and fewer people read literature deserving of the name; even the classics, novels once considered must-reads, are increasingly shunned.
This may well be true, but how can we know for sure? And is such a broad claim covering many different countries and cultures meaningful in any way? Mizumura’s distress at the current state of language is clear. What is not so clear is the extent to which this distress is warranted. More research into contemporary reading habits might help make the argument stronger, but research is not Mizumura’s interest. There are very few footnotes on offer here. But this does not mean that her concerns don’t need to be addressed, and it does not detract from her persuasive, elegantly written account of how written languages evolve and how Japan developed its uniquely complex writing system. This book covers a lot of territory, and, almost by necessity, not all of it is as thorough as it could be. But it is highly deserving of attention, from English and Japanese speakers alike, as well as from anyone concerned about literature’s past and future.
Rebecca Hussey is a professor and critic. She teaches English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut and blogs at Of Books and Bicycles.
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