Skip to navigation – Site map
Meiji Japan: A Shift in the Minds

Language, script and modernity

Pascal Griolet

Abstracts

The Japanese writing system was the target of criticism and reform during the latter half of the 19th century. In order to implement a coherent education, some like Mori Arinori suggested adopting English; others like Nanbu Yoshikazu proposed the adoption of the Latin alphabet and the abolition of Chinese characters. This paper shows that, contrary to the image that everything has changed in Japan within a few years around the Meiji Restoration (1868), from the initial debates of the late-Edo, it has taken over forty years to see the Japanese language unshackled from Chinese, yet without being destroyed and transformed into English, and for the building blocks of a “national language” (kokugo) to emerge.

Top of page

Editor’s note

Original release: Pascal Griolet, « Langue, écriture et modernité », Cipango — Cahiers d’études japonaises, special issue « Mutations de la conscience dans le Japon moderne », 2002, p. 121-192.

Full text

In remembrance of Mori Arimasa and Mori Toshiko

  • 1 This paper is a revised and expanded version of a speech given on 8 June 1998 at the French Senate (...)

1Both vehicle and evidence of a long and tumultuous history, the Japanese writing system found itself suddenly the target of criticism and reform during the latter half of the nineteenth century as it took a battering from the demands of “modernisation” (kindaika 近代化), which in this case consisted of the sudden emergence of western culture in Asia.1

  • 2 The archives of Heijōkyō 平城京, more commonly known as Nara 奈良, the Japanese capital from 710 to 794, (...)
  • 3 For information on the French language, see Bernard Traimond’s remarkable study: Une cause national (...)

2In a country which, since the founding of the State in the seventh century, and as in China, had consistently attached great importance to the written word,2 teaching traditions – and in particular the teaching of reading and writing – were based on different principles to those developed within the modern education systems of the West. Whereas in France dictation became popular at the beginning of the nineteenth century, establishing itself as the main method of teaching French orthography and syntax, in Japan correspondence had long predominated, with models of letters used for reading or copying, in addition to vocabulary lists.3

  • 4 Ueda (1867-1937) also called himself Mannen, the Sino-Japanese reading of the two Chinese character (...)

3Japan’s elite, under pressure and keen to adopt the modus operandi of western societies, struggled to implement a coherent education and language policy as well as define a “national language” (kokugo 国語) capable of ensuring Japan’s independence, unity and identity. This ideal was expressed in 1895 by Ueda Kazutoshi 上田万年, the great promoter of kokugo, in the famous slogan:4

  • 5 In Kokugo no tame 国語のため (The National Language Cause), Fuzanbō 冨山房, 1895, quoted in Hirai Masao 平井昌 (...)

Kokugo is the protective fence of the Imperial Household; the nurturing mother of the nation.
Kokugo wa teishitsu no hanpei nari, kokugo wa kokumin no jibo nari.
国語は帝室の藩屏なり、国語は国民の慈母なり。5

  • 6 Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology), Éditions de minuit (« Critique » collection (...)

4This period of change and cultural upheaval during the latter half of the nineteenth century was one of radical debate. Thus during bursts of enthusiasm in which fantasy was given free rein, the Japanese language, its script and the relationship between the spoken and written language all came under scrutiny. This coincided with the appearance of a variety of new forms of graphic communication in the alphabet-using world: telegraphy, printing, shorthand, stenotypy, typewriting, Braille and sign language, for example, new tools which all tended to “rationalise” writing, in other words to organise language – and thus the world – in a phonetic or, to use the term coined by Jacques Derrida, logocentric manner.6

Language under the spotlight: Mori Arinori and Baba Tatsui

5The government that took the helm of Japan’s modernisation in 1868 decided to establish a new education system. Its aim was for every citizen – irrespective of class and sex – to acquire the scientific knowledge and technical expertise that were the keys to Japan’s independence and power. The government thus abandoned the model of the former education system, which was deemed to be unproductive and a pure waste of time.

  • 7 Proposition put forward in a report written by the committee on “Japan’s Goals in the 21st Century” (...)

6It was just as this new education system was being implemented, in 1872, that Mori Arinori 森有礼 (1847-1889), a young chargé d’affaires within Japan’s diplomatic mission to Washington – Japan’s highest-level representative in the United States at that time – suggested adopting English as the future language of education. Much ink has been spilt over this proposal. Though admittedly utopian, it nonetheless continues to be topical today: on the one hand there is currently talk of making English Japan’s official second language;7 and on the other globalisation has meant that certain major companies, both in Japan and elsewhere, are adopting English as their working language, not only for written documents but also, to a certain extent, for oral communication; finally, the growth of the internet has established English as a global standard and introduced bilingualism for all major Japanese websites.

  • 8 This letter, which is held at Yale College, appears in Mori Arinori zenshū 森有禮全集 (The Complete Work (...)
  • 9 Certain Edo-period scholars, such as Arai Hakuseki 新井白石 (1627-1725) and Honda Toshiaki 本田利明 (1744-1 (...)

7Mori Arinori formulated his proposal on 21 May 1872 in a letter addressed to a Yale University linguistics professor named William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894), a specialist in Sanskrit and comparative philology, in order to request his opinion on the subject.8 In it Mori drew an extremely bleak picture of the Japanese language, which led him to advocate adopting English. He also wanted to see English simplified in order to facilitate its acquisition in schools. In practical terms, he envisaged simplifying its orthography and syntax, in particular for irregular verbs.9

8The first part of the letter dealing with the Japanese language (the second part focuses on English) reads as follows:

Dear Sir,
The fact that a high rank is awarded to you in the fields of Science and Literature has induced me respectfully to request your opinion on a project I have in contemplation, connected with the introduction of the English language into the Japanese Empire.
The spoken language of Japan being inadequate to the growing necessities of the people of that Empire, and too poor to be made, by a phonetic alphabet, sufficiently useful as a written language, the idea prevails among us that, if we would keep pace with the age, we must adopt a copious and expanding European language. The necessity for this arises mainly out of the fact that Japan is a commercial nation; and also that, if we do not adopt a language like that of the English, which is quite predominant in Asia, as well as elsewhere in the commercial world, the progress of Japanese civilization is evidently impossible. Indeed a new language is demanded by the whole Empire. It having been found that the Japanese language is insufficient even for the wants of the Japanese themselves, the demand for the new language is irresistibly imperative, in view of our rapidly increasing intercourse with the world at large. All the schools the Empire has had, for many centuries, have been Chinese; and, strange to state, we have had no schools nor books, in our own language for education purposes. These Chinese schools, being now regarded not only as useless,
but as a great drawback to our progress, are in the steady progress of extinction. Schools for the Japanese language are found to be greatly needed, and yet there are neither teachers nor books for them. The only course to be taken, to secure the desired end, is to start anew, by first turning the spoken language into a properly written form, based on a pure phonetic principle. It is contemplated that Roman letters should be adopted. Under such circumstances, it is very important that the alphabets of the two languages under consideration–Japanese and English–be as nearly alike as possible, in sound and powers of the letters. It may be well to add, in this connection, that the written language now in use in Japan, has little or no relation to the spoken language, but is mainly hieroglyphic–a deranged Chinese, blended in Japanese, all the proportion of the letters of which are themselves of Chinese origin. […]

9Such was Mori’s proposal to adopt English as the language of Japan’s new education system in order to replace the Chinese of old. The term “Chinese” used by Mori is as ambiguous as its Japanese equivalent kanbun 漢文, a term that refers both to the classical Chinese texts studied in Japan since antiquity and to the texts produced by Japanese in imitation of them, but whose syntax at times differed considerably from Chinese (furthermore, the pronunciation of the characters had become completely different and the Japanese read this “Chinese” by translating it into Japanese, a language with an entirely different word order). This written language lost its raison d’être when Japan embarked upon the studying and mastering of Western learning, whereas China, Japan’s defeated foe, seemed no longer to hold any secrets. The main medium of modern learning was English. In Mori’s eyes it seemed both complicated and futile to go to the effort of translating this learning into Chinese and impossible to translate it into “Japanese”.

  • 10 The term appears in the Genji monogatari with a meaning similar to waka 和歌, literally “Japanese son (...)
  • 11 The Japanese language dictionary Nihon kokugo daijitten 日本国語大辞典 (Shōgakukan, 1976, 20 volumes) give (...)
  • 12 These days the term wago refers above all to native Japanese words, as opposed to kango 漢語, or Sino (...)
  • 13 The term gengo 言語, which now refers to “language” and is used in terms such as gengogaku 言語学 (lingu (...)

10The term “Japanese language” is also misleading since it refers here to both the vernacular purged of all Chinese borrowings – that aristocratic language referred to as Yamato kotoba 大和言葉 (the language of Yamato)10 – and the Japanese language in its entirety and diversity, including vocabulary borrowed from or modelled on Chinese. However, there was no word at the time to refer to this linguistic entity. Admittedly the term Nihongo 日本語 (Japanese) was already attested but it was not part of everyday language: this term reflected an outside view of Japanese as it was a translation of the words used by Westerners to refer to the Japanese language.11 There was also the word wago 和語, used in Japan’s neighbouring countries to refer to the language of its inhabitants.12 Finally, I must point out the existence of an extremely common word that knows nothing of borders or nations: kotoba 言葉, which depending on the context can be translated as either “language” or “word”.13

11Be that as it may, in Mori’s eyes the “Chinese” lexicon was not only useless but also a barrier to modernity. On the other hand, the pure vernacular was too impoverished to be used to disseminate the new knowledge that must be promoted to the Japanese people if the country was to end its inferiority in the fields of science and technology.

  • 14 Kokushi daijiten henshū iin-kai 国史大辞典編集委員会, Kokushi daijiten 国史大辞典 (Dictionary of National History) (...)

12Mori pointed out to Whitney that for centuries all of Japan’s schools had used Chinese and that no Japanese-language schools or textbooks existed. What he states here is inaccurate, or at least misleading. When he employed the word “school” he no doubt had in mind the official institutions set up by the majority of domains to train their elites. In 1867 there were 219 such establishments located across Japan.14 Instruction in these schools was indeed based on the Chinese classics.

  • 15 Kokushi daijiten henshū iinkai, op. cit., vol. 9, 1988, p. 919. See also Christian Galan, op.cit., (...)
  • 16 The many Edo-period textbooks for young girls were always written in kana (although everyday Chines (...)
  • 17 Rather than being a completely different language to that spoken by men, the term nyōbō kotoba refe (...)

13Did Mori also take into account the many small private schools open to both boys and girls from large sections of society? And yet these schools did not ascribe supreme importance to the study of Chinese classics. But perhaps in Mori’s eyes these schools were not places of “education”. The number of these private schools was initially estimated at 15,000, but by including the remote mountain and seaside villages their number is now put at 30, or even 40,000, though these estimations continue to be the subject of debate.15 Admittedly instruction at these schools usually focused on the ability to read and write the basic Chinese characters needed in everyday life. From this point of view they could be considered to teach “Chinese”, though the characters in question generally represented extremely common Japanese words (or Chinese words that had been fully assimilated into everyday language). However, if the identity of a language is determined by its script, only texts written in kana should be taken into consideration for the “Japanese language”, texts which in the world of education were reserved for women.16 In this respect, “Japanese” is a women’s and children’s language, hence Mori does not take it into account. Or perhaps, on the contrary, it is precisely because he considered this language feminine and childish that he described it as “poor”. In fact, throughout the Edo era Yamato kotoba, considered to be the native Japanese language, was often synonymous with nyōbō kotoba 女房ことば, a term which denoted the language of court ladies, and by extension, the language of women.17

  • 18 See in particular Kawasumi Tetsuo 川澄哲夫 and Suzuki Takao 鈴木孝夫 (eds.), Shiryō nihon eigakushi, 2 eigo (...)

14On the other hand, in addition to developing the education system and unifying language use within Japan, Mori considered the dissemination of English – a language he described as “copious and expanding” – to be necessary for the “progress of Japanese civilisation” in order to facilitate trade with the outside world. In this instance, civilisation and trade appear to be inextricably linked. All those who, throughout modern history, would champion the opening up of Japan to the outside world, all the while opposing the upsurges of nationalism, also advocated devoting more hours to teaching English rather than classical literary studies, which in their eyes were pointless or of minor importance.18

  • 19 Tanaka Katsuhiko 田中克彦, Kokkago wo koete 国家語をこえて (Beyond a State Language), Chikuma shobō 筑摩書房 (Chik (...)

15As underlined by Tanaka Katsuhiko,19 by proposing to simplify English orthography and reorganise its syntax Mori was following in the footsteps of those who promoted a “constructed language” intended to be universal. He advocated turning English into a kind of Esperanto, the “international language” invented by Lazarus Ludwig Zamenhof (1859-1917) in Warsaw around ten years later, in 1887.

16Finally, Mori did not entirely condemn this “impoverished” Japanese language in his letter, for he seemed equally to envisage creating schools where it would be used and written with the aid of the alphabet. This would solve the apparently central lexical issue. The use of Roman letters would make it possible to gradually abandon Chinese lexical units and directly adopt English loanwords.

  • 20 Published by Appleton in New York.
  • 21 In 660 BC, after having pacified the country, the mythical emperor Jinmu 神武 founded the Japanese im (...)
  • 22 Mori Arinori zenshū, op. cit., vol. 3, pp. 211-465 (volume 3 of Mori Arinori’s Complete Works is de (...)

17Nevertheless, Mori had a complete change of heart one year later. He expressed an even more radical point of view in a book published in 1873, Education in Japan: a series of letters addressed by prominent Americans to Arinori Mori.20 In his introduction dated 1 January 2533 (the year 1873 appears in brackets),21 he begins with a brief overview of Japanese civilisation and history which opens as follows:22

18“The history proper of the Japanese Empire stretches over 2532 years and begins with the year of ascension to the throne of Emperor Zinmu […]”. At the end of the introduction he devotes a few lines to the Japanese language which are quoted in full below. They begin with a somewhat confused presentation of Japanese phonology:

[…] An allusion to the subject of the Japanese language bears a most direct relation to the contents of this book. In the style of expression, the spoken language of Japan differs considerably from the written, though in their structure they are both mainly the same. In the written language there are fourteen elementary sounds, including five vowels. They are a, i, u, e, o, h, k, m, n, r, s, t, w, y. G, z, d, b, are represented by k, s, t, h, with two dots on their right hand side, while p is sometimes represented by h, with a little cipher in the place of the dots. The sound t is not well separated from that of ch; f from that of h or wh; g from either d, j, or z, n from ng. L, v, and th, are hardly known in Japan.
The vowel-sounds are each defined and all short. The style of the written language is like the Chinese. In all our institutions of learning the Chinese classics have been used. There are four different methods of writing a character, and all of them are of Chinese origin. These methods differ in the degree of their complexity, and are graded according to their simplification of the Chinese character. The words in common use are very few in number, and most of them are of Chinese origin. There are some efforts being made to do away with the use of Chinese characters by reducing them to simple phonetics, but the words familiar through the organ of the eye are so many, that to change them into those of the ear would cause too great an inconvenience, and be quite impracticable. Without the aid of the Chinese, our language has never been taught or used for any purpose of communication. This shows its poverty. The march of modern civilization in Japan has already reached the heart of the nation – the English language following it suppresses the use of both Japanese and Chinese. The commercial power of the English-speaking race which now rules the world drives our people into some knowledge of their commercial ways and habits. The absolute necessity of mastering the English language is thus forced upon us. It is a requisite of the maintenance of our independence in the community of nations. Under the circumstances, our meagre language, which can never be of any use outside of our islands, is doomed to yield to the domination of
the English tongue, especially when the power of steam and electricity shall have pervaded the land. Our intelligent race, eager in the pursuit of knowledge, cannot depend upon a weak and uncertain medium of communication in its endeavour to grasp the principal truths from the precious treasury of Western science and art and religion. The laws of state can never be preserved in the language of Japan. All reasons suggest its disuse.

19Romanising the language and doing away with Chinese characters would not be enough; the Japanese language itself must be abandoned, for without Chinese characters Japanese would be without a framework. So many words relied on sight, in other words they assumed and required knowledge of Chinese characters to be understood, that without the visual clues they provided a Japanese language reliant merely “on the organ of the ear” would lose all force, all vitality.

20The beginning of this passage on phonetics is confused in that Mori presents the five basic vowels in the order of the “table of fifty sounds” (gojūon-zu 五十音図), into which Japanese syllables are organised, while for the consonants he follows alphabetical order. Mori then reverts to the Japanese order to present the graphic distinction between voiced and unvoiced consonants. He continues by explaining that t is pronounced ch [t∫] before the vowel i and that h is pronounced [f] before the vowel u, or wh [w] when it appears within a word. From an educational standpoint this presentation is hardly a model of clarity. However, the crux of Mori’s argument resides in the conclusion of this passage, which is also the conclusion of the text, and thus of the book’s introduction: Japanese must be abandoned. Whereas the letter we saw earlier merely suggested adopting English, this one introduces the more radical option of abandoning the supposedly “meagre” Japanese language altogether.

  • 23 Mori Arinori zenshū, op. cit, vol. 3, pp. 414-423; as well as Kawasumi Tetsuo and Suzuki Takao (eds (...)

21The appendices of this book, Education in Japan, include Whitney’s reply from 29 June 1872, in other words before Mori wrote the aforementioned introduction.23 The great American linguist was in favour of simplifying English orthography but was more reserved about the idea of simplifying its syntax. Above all, while he fully supported the Romanisation of Japanese, he rejected Mori’s proposal to abandon the language altogether, which is not surprising at a time when each nation was asserting its own language as part of its national identity. And yet, despite being fully aware of this, Mori maintained his position and became even more radical.

22Whitney was permanent secretary of the American Oriental Society and president of the American Philological Association, which he had founded himself and created within it a Simplified Spelling Board. This no doubt explains why Mori contacted him, despite apparently not having known him personally. He did so through the physicist Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a fairly close acquaintance of his whom he had convinced of his plan’s validity.

  • 24 Mori Arinori zenshū, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 93.
  • 25 Overseas once again, Mori’s suggestion was mentioned and ridiculed by the orientalist Archibal Henr (...)

23Mori’s letter (as well as Whitney’s reply) was published in Japan a year later, on 1 May 1873, in an English-language newspaper published in Yokohama, The Japan Weekly Mail. It was also published that same year in the United States, in the Tribune. As early as December 1872 the evening edition of the Washington Star had covered the story of this Japanese diplomat who wanted to abandon “Chinese” in favour of English and who, in addition to the language, wanted his compatriots to adopt the American lifestyle and customs.24 In Japan, the editorials of the Japan Weekly Mail from 19 July to 9 August 1873 criticised and mocked Mori’s stance.25

  • 26 Mori Arinori zenshū, op. cit., pp. 7-15.

24Also in 1873, but this time on the other side of the Atlantic, Baba Tatsui 馬場辰猪 (1850-1888), a 24-year-old Japanese man living in Great Britain, heard of Mori’s proposal and refuted it vigorously. The preface to his Japanese language textbook for foreigners,26 Elementary Grammar of the Japanese Language, with Easy Progressive Exercises, published by Trübner in London, began as follows:

We have two objects in publishing this book – the first, to give a general idea of the Japanese language as it is spoken; and the second, to protest against a prevalent opinion entertained by many of our countrymen, as well as foreigners who take some interest in our country, and to show the reasons why we do so. It is affirmed that our language is so imperfect that we cannot establish a regular and systematical course of education by means of it; and that the best way is to exterminate the Japanese language altogether, and to substitute the English language for it. Those who maintain this opinion ought to have examined the language and proved its imperfection as a medium of intellectual thought and expression, but so far as we are aware they have not done so. […]

  • 27 Baba’s grammar of Japanese as a foreign language was one of the first of the modern era. An overvie (...)

25The strong language used to evoke the abolition of the Japanese language, “exterminate the Japanese language altogether”, eloquently conveys the author’s indignation. Baba rejected the idea, pointing out that European languages also borrowed words from Latin and Greek when they lacked an equivalent. From this point of view the Japanese language was in no way unique. Above all, he refuted the idea that Japanese was a particularly impoverished language and strove to prove the opposite by pointing to its coherent grammar (although the categories he presented were borrowed from English and on occasions – for example gender and number – were not relevant to Japanese).27

26This nascent controversy was no doubt the result of a series of misunderstandings. Both Mori Arinori and Baba Tatsui were examining their language from an external point of view. Mori’s proposal was presented in English while he was living in the United States. It was refuted a year later, once again in English, by Baba, who was living in Great Britain at the time.

  • 28 Hayashi Shihei (1738-1793), an economist and geographer concerned by Russia’s advance into the isla (...)
  • 29 On the 21st day of the 8th month of Bunkyū 文久2 (1862) in the village of Namamugi near Yokohama, fou (...)
  • 30 Inuzuka Takaaki 犬塚孝明, Mori Arinori, Yoshikawa kōbunkan 吉川弘文館 (Jinbutsu sōsho 人物叢書 collection), 1996 (...)

27Since the age of eighteen Mori Arinori had lived most of his life outside of Japan. This man, who was twenty-five years old in 1872, came from the Satsuma domain (modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture), located on the southern tip of the island of Kyūshū. He initially received the classical education traditionally given to children from elite families at the domain’s school, the Zōshikan 造士館 (founded in 1773), an education which consisted in studying the Chinese classics and mastering this written language. In 1860, at a time when Western domination had become impossible to ignore, he was driven to study English by the discovery of a book by Hayashi Shihei 林子平,28 who evoked the strength of western countries and the danger they posed for Japan. He was just fifteen at the time. History began to gather pace when in 1863 English warships entered Kagoshima Bay and bombarded the city in retaliation for the Namamugi Incident (Namamugi jiken 生麦事件).29 Witnesses to the disaster realised the overwhelming superiority of the western powers and the futility of resistance. In 1864 Mori entered the School for Western Studies, which had recently been founded by the Satsuma authorities in imitation of the Edo school, the Kaiseijo 開成所. A year later, in 1865, and unbeknownst to the Edo government, he was sent to study in Great Britain with ten or so other young Satsuma students. He studied chemistry, maths and physics in London before staying briefly in Russia. As he discovered first hand a West that took him from one surprise to another, he began to take an increasing interest in the way society there was organised. In 1867 he travelled to the United States with a group of young compatriots to join a communitarian sect (the Brotherhood of the New Life) which combined visionary Christianity with the mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). This sect proposed to put the world to rights by returning to an authentic practice of the Christian faith and requiring total devotion from its followers. Mori stayed with the sect from July 1867 to April 1868 and abode by the community’s strict rules.30

  • 31 Morikawa Terumichi 森川輝紀, Kyōiku chokugo e no michi 教育勅語への道 (The Road to the Imperial Rescript on Ed (...)

28Upon his return to Japan, numerous high-responsibility positions were conferred on him by the new government. According to one historian of education, Mori was perceived as a foreigner by contemporary Japanese and he himself felt like a stranger in a foreign land. For his own safety he was advised to abandon western dress and once again wear a kimono31. It should be stressed that prior to going abroad he had never left his southern domain. The former shogunate capital and the language spoken there must have added to his unease.

29It was on his initiative that the “parliament” (Kōgisho 公議所) was founded, the creation of which had been announced in the founding text of the Meiji Government, the Charter Oath (Gokajō no seimon 五箇条の誓文), on the 14th day of the 3rd month of Keiō 4 (1868). Mori was also appointed to head this first parliament composed of representatives appointed by the various domains. There, he brushed custom aside by advocating monogamy and the abolition of the distinctive samurai practice of sword-wearing. This latter proposal came up against violent widespread opposition that led Mori to resign. He consequently returned to his domain and founded a small English school. In 1871 he was then recalled by the government and sent as a diplomat to the United States to represent Japan. In addition to his official responsibilities he published the English books Religious Freedom in Japan and Education in Japan, publications which earned him a reputation as both a diplomat and man of culture. He returned to Japan in 1873 and alongside his official position at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, immediately founded an intellectual society known as the Meiji 6 Society (Meirokusha 明六社), which went on to be highly influential. It notably broke new ground by introducing the art of public speaking (enzetsu 演説) on a scientific or political issue. Mori then went down in history as the greatest education minister in modern Japan.

30As for Baba Tatsui, he came from the Tosa Domain on the southernmost tip of the island of Shikoku. He received a similar education to Mori in his domain’s official school, known as the Bunbukan 文武館, which he entered in 1863. Sent to Edo by the authorities of his domain to study steam engines, in 1866 he entered a completely new type of school, the Keiō Gijuku (慶応義塾), which had recently been founded by Fukuzawa Yukichi 福澤諭吉 (1834-1901). Three years later, in 1870, he was sent to London where he lived until 1874, and then again from 1875 to 1878. He went on to become one of the historical figures of the Liberal Party (Jiyū-tō 自由党) and the opposition against the ruling government. He was imprisoned at the end of 1885 for violating the rules regulating explosives. A year later, after having been found innocent, he left Japan for the United States where he attempted to teach the Americans about Japan.

  • 32 Lee Yeounsuk [I Yonsuku] イ・ヨンスク, Kokugo to iu shiso – kindai nihon no gengo ninshiki「国語」という思想: 近代日本 (...)

31In her acclaimed book, Lee Yeounsuk stresses that these two men were the first to have understood the necessity of constructing a “national language”, although they were both extremely sceptical as to the possibility of unifying the language.32 Lee highlights the fact that Mori was a native of the Satsuma Domain, whose language was reputedly difficult to understand for those not from the region. For his part, Baba, when he left Tosa to study at the Keiō Gijuku, complained of not being able to communicate with his fellow students due to linguistic differences and sought to meet other people from his domain. Both Mori and Baba came from highly distinctive domains that were contemporary centres of unrest

  • 33 Lee Yeounsuk, op. cit., p. 21, quoting Hagiwara Nobutoshi 萩原延壽, Baba Tatsui 馬場辰猪, Chūō kōronsha 中央公 (...)

32Another paradox emphasised by Lee is that while he may have given many speeches in Japanese, which were then published in Japanese magazines and newspapers, and had an extensive journalistic activity, Baba Tatsui, the great defender of the Japanese language, wrote the majority of his work in English!33 Furthermore, the Japanese language he presented in his 1873 grammar – “Japanese as it is spoken” – was not his own language from southern Shikoku but a model Japanese based on the language of Edo, a language that had been foreign to him initially.

33Japan’s linguistic situation at that point in time thus appears to have been extremely complex. Oral communication was characterised by significant regional differences that had been exacerbated politically by the borders established by the various domains between their lands. Accounts abound of the near impossibility for people from different regions, in particular the remote regions of Japan, to communicate: a man from the north of the main island could not communicate orally with a man from the south of Kyūshū. However, the shogunate capital acted as a linguistic crossroads in that representatives from every region were constantly present.

  • 34 By way of example, see the list of styles that are mentioned in the document quoted on page 44 of t (...)
  • 35 The printed books known as ōraimono (correspondence textbooks) disseminated a range of useful and n (...)
  • 36 Yasuda Toshiaki 安田敏朗 has studied usage of the word kokugo during the Edo period, when it appears to (...)
  • 37 The term kokuji has three accepted meanings: a) it appeared during the Edo period, in particular in (...)

34In terms of the written language, besides classical Chinese and Japanese, a range of intermediary styles between the two coexisted, not to mention works written in the vernacular language, known as zokubun 俗文 (colloquial style).34 However, Sino-Japanese texts and classical Japanese texts written in kana were read the length and breadth of Japan and helped to unify language usage. Thanks to the rapid growth of print technology and the dissemination of books, “correspondence textbooks” known as ōraimono (往来物)35 spread a written language throughout the country. Despite this, none of the writing styles of the time seemed equal to meeting the challenge of modern education. This lack of a “national language” (kokugo 国語),36 “national script” (kokuji 国字)37 or “national style” (kokubun 国文) was sorely felt. Their norms would be codified only gradually, over the final decades of the nineteenth century. The fact remains that Mori Arinori considered the Latin alphabet and English to be signs of modernity.

35Fifteen years later, on 25 April 1888, the Education Minister Mori Arinori delivered a speech to lecturers at the Imperial University. His point of view had changed. During the course of his presentation he touched on the issue of foreign languages:

[...] These days, in the majority of schools, and in universities in particular, it is standard practice to teach using foreign languages. This is unavoidable. Although this is a long-standing practice it will undoubtedly not last forever. The advantages and disadvantages, merits and demerits of teaching in a foreign language are a thorny issue […].

  • 38 Speech published in Kawasumi Tetsuo and Suzuki Takao, op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 94-96.

抑今日ニ於テハ諸学校大邸特ニ大學ニ於テハ外国語ヲ以テ教授スルヲ常トスル習慣ナリ、外国語ヲ以テ教授スルハ止ヲ得サルコトナリ、後来ト雖モ永續スルコトナラン、然ルニ此外国語ヲ以テ教授スルノ利害得喪ニ至テハ實ニ困難ナル問題ナリ38

  • 39 Satō Seijitsu 佐藤誠実, Nihon kyōikushi 日本教育史 (The History of Education in Japan), published by Naka Ar (...)

36In his speech, Mori recommended limiting foreign languages, as far as possible, to one single language, thereby making himself the eulogist of English language domination. It should be pointed out that at this point in time certain classes were indeed taught in foreign languages, in particular those of the foreign professors invited to Japan. These professors, of which there were around 100 in the middle of the 1880s,39 were paid a king’s ransom by the Japanese government. As for Japanese teachers, it is difficult to imagine them really teaching their classes in English, French or German; however, textbooks, working documents and research material, on the other hand, were written in foreign languages. It is possible to think that they might have spoken in Japanese but peppered their speech with so many western words that they gave the impression of speaking in a foreign tongue. Even if some Japanese teachers were bilingual, were students really capable of following lessons without a Japanese translation?

  • 40 Fukuzawa Yukichi 福澤諭吉, Fukuō jiden 福翁自伝 (The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa), Iwanami shoten 岩波書 (...)

37On this point, which merits further investigation, it is worth quoting Fukuzawa Yukichi 福澤諭吉 (1835-1901). In his autobiography he talks of the school (modern-day Keiō University) he founded on the eve of the Meiji period:40

Instruction focused solely on English; students were pushed only to study and understand texts written in this language, without the slightest importance attached to the Chinese studies traditionally taught in Japan; students thus proved themselves to be incapable of reading Chinese texts. Since they could only read English and did not know Chinese, some students were unable to understand Japanese correspondence.

  • 41 In the journal Gakusei 学生, January 1911, quoted in Satō Kiyoji 佐藤喜代治 (ed.), Kokugogaku kenkyū jiten(...)

38The writer Natsume Sōseki 夏目漱石 (1867-1916) also gave an account of his years as a student in the 1880s:41

During our studies we worked in English for all of the standard subjects: geography, history, maths, zoology and botany. Furthermore, all subjects had to be studied using foreign-language books.

  • 42 See Céline Nicolas, Construire un homme nouveau, la Restauration du corps par l’éducation physique (...)

39Nonetheless, by 1888 Mori had ceased to mention the “poor” Japanese language, but a little later on in his speech he spoke of the “poverty” and “weakness” of Japan (hinjaku na kunigara 貧弱な国柄). His focus was thus no longer the language but rather the country and inhabitants themselves. This betrays Mori’s constant feeling of belonging to a profoundly weak and impoverished country compared to the tall and powerful men of the West. This was one of his reasons for adding military-style training and intensive physical education classes to the Japanese curriculum.42

  • 43 Tatsui Baba, An Elementary Grammar of the Japanese Language, with Easy Progressive Exercises, Secon (...)

40In the second edition of Baba Tatsui’s Japanese grammar, published in June 1888,43 the author shortened his preface from a dozen or so pages to a dozen or so lines, merely pointing out that the publication of the book in 1873:

[…] aimed primarily at protesting against the idea entertained by some of my compatriots that the Japanese language was imperfect and consequently should be abolished. This idea, however, showed itself to be completely absurd and extravagant.

41By 1888 the idea of adopting English for the purpose of studying had lost its relevance and it was no longer necessary to make a case against it. It is worth noting that this second edition was published both in London by Trübner and in New York by Appleton, the publishing house responsible for publishing Mori Arinori’s book on Japanese education. In it Baba Tatsui presents his indignant refutation of the opinion once expressed by Mori as being the book’s main objective, whereas in the first edition it was merely a secondary objective. Coincidentally, Mori was at that time the minister for education and was expediting all manner of reforms. Could this be why Baba singled him out for attack? Mori was stabbed a year later – at home whilst wearing ceremonial dress as he prepared to attend the ceremonies for the promulgation of the Constitution of the Japanese Empire – by a fanatic no doubt inspired by the traditionalist schools of thought which saw Mori as a worshipper of the West and a traitor to his own country. One may wonder if, intentionally or unintentionally, Baba might not have lent support to Mori Arinori’s enemies by presenting him as the man keen to “abolish” a Japanese language that others, unlike him, regarded as sacred.

42Baba Tatsui’s book was simply a grammar for foreigners published in a foreign country. It is difficult to imagine it having had repercussions in Japan. Baba had left his country several years earlier and subsequently sunk into oblivion. That same year, in 1888, he fell ill and died in Philadelphia.

  • 44 Ibid., pp. 269-270.

43It was not until 1935 that these two Meiji-period figures were brought together and compared by the linguist Yamada Yoshio 山田孝雄 (1875-1958). Yamada, a great defender of the “spirituality” (seishinsei 精神性) of the Japanese language, gave glowing praise to this first major book on Japanese grammar and, more than anything, admired Baba’s speech in defence of the Japanese language.44 Throughout the controversies that have continued to dog Japan’s language policy even to this day, Mori Arinori would be used as a deterrent by those opposing the reforms.

The alphabet to the rescue of language: Nanbu Yoshikazu

  • 45 Essay translated in P. Griolet, op. cit., pp. 50-60. All forty-three issues of the journal, which r (...)

44The debate on the Japanese language and script was brought into the public arena by a journal whose influence at the beginning of the Meiji period is indisputable and which was founded by Mori Arinori in March 1874: Meiroku Zasshi 明六雑誌. The first issue was devoted entirely to this topic and featured, in particular, a famous essay by Nishi Amane 西周 (1829-1897), who evoked the prospect of the alphabet being adopted and weighed up the pros and cons.45

  • 46 Text sent to the head of the newly founded Daigaku during the fifth month of Meiji 2 (1869), follow (...)
  • 47 Prior to the Restoration, Yamauchi Yōdō 山内容堂 (1827-1872) was lord of the Tosa Domain. After some he (...)
  • 48 I am very grateful to Professor Andō Takahiro 安藤隆弘 from the university Kawamura gakuen joshi daigak (...)

45Historically, however, and before it was recommended by Mori, the possibility of a change in language had been suggested by another less well known person, and this time not in English but in classical Chinese. That person was the sinologist Nanbu Yoshikazu 南部義籌 (1840-1917) who, like Baba Tatsui, his junior by ten years, came from the Tosa Domain. Given the anarchic situation of the Japanese language and the resulting impossibility of studying, in 1869 he suggested adopting a foreign language.46 No sooner had he proposed the idea than he promptly rejected it in favour of adopting the Latin alphabet to enable the Japanese to “master the national language” (Shū-kokugo ron 脩国語論). This was the title of a presentation he made to the head of Daigaku Nankō, Yamauchi Yōdō 山内容堂.47 Nanbu was also one of the first to use the term kokugo (“national language”), the language called upon to unify linguistic usage throughout the country and enable western knowledge to be translated and then mastered. Let us begin by examining the following document:48

  • 49 Nanbu uses the term wagaku 和学 (Japanese studies) to refer to the language style that scholars in th (...)
  • 50 The compound word bunmeikoku 文明国 (civilised country) can also be translated as “modern country”. On (...)

On mastering the national language
The path of study is easy in Western countries; it is difficult in our Empire, as it is in China. Moreover, it is especially difficult in our country. In Europe, all one need do in order to study is learn twenty-six letters, understand the grammatical rules and
then any text can be read. This is what makes it easy to study. The same cannot be said of countries such as China, where one must read hundreds of books and master thousands of characters. This is what makes it difficult to study. However, in China there is only one principle, whereas the written language of our Empire also makes use of classical Japanese,49 as well as the various colloquial styles that must be learnt. This is what makes it particularly difficult to study. The development of the arts and letters depends fundamentally on this issue. If we want to train men of worth, is this not a great obstacle? Currently those engaged in study, whether in the field of sinology or that of western studies, neglect the content in order to focus their efforts on the form. Consequently, rare are those who understand the national language and have mastered our classics. This situation is not the fault of those who study; it is the responsibility of the government. It is in man’s nature to neglect the pointless and concentrate on the worthwhile, just like water runs downwards. Who can prevent this? Ever since Japan adopted China’s institutions in ancient times, the wording of decrees and edicts has continued to draw on the power of Chinese classics, which must therefore be mastered. This type of text is also recurrent in everyday documents. This means that it is impossible to conduct one’s affairs successfully without knowledge of the Chinese classics. Furthermore, studying Western learning is now a necessity. Finally, regarding Japanese studies, they bear no relevance to modern-day activities and are virtually useless outside of poetry composition. This is a political error. Is it not regrettable that students have no command of the national language? Consequently, the national language is being increasingly forgotten, words differ throughout the land and our language makes it virtually impossible to communicate. This is due to our ignorance of language study. Can we then call ourselves a civilised nation?50 Unless we end this situation a radical change of language may be envisaged in favour of Chinese, English, French or Dutch, leading to indescribable chaos. Is this not regrettable? If we think about it carefully, it is clear that we must make it easier to study and that means first taking steps to make mastering national studies possible. If we really want to achieve this, there is no other solution but to borrow the western alphabet in order to acquire mastery of the national language. No doubt those attached to old habits will argue that this is impossible carry out. However, if we think about it calmly, it is clear that this is the most logical solution. It is thus most certainly advisable that we adopt the alphabet.

Through study and careful thinking we will acquire mastery of the historical classics of our country and, in terms of Chinese and Western books, we will choose those that may be useful to the governance of our country, in addition to astronomy and geography books. They will be translated and taught to students in this form. By learning this way, students will not be dependent on foreign learning; they will improve their knowledge of the principles that govern the world and become acquainted with the situation in all countries. Is it not a case of changing the difficult in order to achieve the easy? If rescripts, edicts and everyday texts employ this national language, no one will be ignorant of national learning. Consequently, the same words will be used throughout the land and our difficulties in communicating will disappear. In this way, the inhabitants of the entire country will perfectly command first national learning and then, depending on their interests, Chinese or Western learning. And through solid foundations they will be able to achieve their objectives. Training men of worth and developing the arts and letters must be implemented today, without delay. Thus, the current priority is to train men of worth. Can this be ignored?

  • 51 In many cases the term kokutai 国体, literally “national body”, corresponds to the word “nation” as i (...)

Some people will say: your argument is admirable but would not adopting the western alphabet wound the body politic?51 To this I would reply: in what way would it wound it? From the Empire’s point of view, China and the West are both foreign entities, so why favour one or the other? Being able to master the national language thanks to borrowing a foreign script, compared to the disappearance of the Empire’s own language, is it not as different as heaven and earth? That is why this matter must be put right at all costs; there is no doubt about it.

46While in its English translation this text can be read and understood (disregarding any awkwardness in the translation), the original is virtually illegible for a Japanese person today, for it is written in kanbun, the “Chinese” that Mori Arinori spoke of and suggested abolishing.

47The Japanese method of reading texts originally intended to be read in Chinese is not linear but requires the reader to constantly jump back and forth in order to recreate the Japanese sentence structure. In other words, the text cannot be read exactly in the order presented but requires the reader to constantly skip certain words and return to them later. These movements back and forth may be indicated, as in Nanbu’s text, using small marks placed between the Chinese characters in the bottom left-hand corner.

  • 52 This symbol was also called a karigane-ten 雁点 (wild goose mark) because prior to resembling a hook (...)
  • 53 For an in-depth analysis in French, see Jean-Noël Robert, Lectures élémentaires en style sino-japon (...)

48It is important to consider how this type of text was read if we are to clearly understand the depth of the issue being raised when the men of this era spoke of reforming the language and script. The first symbol we come across in Nanbu’s text is known as a re-ten レ点,52 indicating that the preceding character must be read after the one that immediately follows it, meaning that the reading order of two successive characters is reversed. If several follow each other, the entire series of characters must be read backwards from the last to the first (in Nanbu’s text there are never more than four in each series). This means that for a short time the text must be read in reverse order. For characters that do not immediately follow each other, the reading order in Japanese is indicated by the numerals three (san ), two (ni ) and one (ichi ): as soon as the numeral “three” appears, one must “remember” which character has been marked, read on until “two” appears and again “remember” this character, and it is only when “one” is reached that, after reading it, one works back to “two” and then “three”. The two systems – the re-ten marker for reversing two successive characters and the numerals – can be combined. At a higher level the characters for bottom (ge ), middle (chū ), and top () are used; at an even higher level the first three Heavenly Stems of the Chinese calendar are used: third (hei ), second (otsu ) and first (); and finally, if necessary, “man” (jin ), “earth” (chi ) and “heaven” (ten ).53 The ancestral art of reading Chinese in Japanese, often referred to as yomikudashi 読み下し, and the art of placing these markers, which curiously are used in threes, merit their own in-depth study.

49This punctuation system (kunten 訓点), which facilitates the understanding and translation of the text, appears in the published version of Nanbu Yoshikazu’s text. This was justified by its being aimed at an unspecified audience; however, the letter sent to the university head (which apparently was not conserved) probably lacked any such indications. It would have been impolite to place such markers in a text addressed to a high-ranking individual (which would have implied considering him to be a simpleton to whom the reading of a Chinese text must be explained).

50The passage in the text that most interests us here appeared and must be “read” as follows:

如レ此而不レ止則堂々皇国之語或変為レ漢或為レ英為レ仏為レ蘭混雑摩滅将レ至レ不レ可二分弁一
Kaku no gotokushite yamazunba, sunawachi dōdō-taru kōkoku no kotoba mo aruiwa hen-jite kara to nari, aruiwa ei to nari, futsu to nari, ran to nari, konzatsu mametsu, masa ni bunbetsu subekarazaru ni itaran.
If this situation continues, there is talk of radically changing the Empire’s language and adopting Chinese, English, French or Dutch, leading to indescribable chaos.

51The author mentions some of the ideas that were topical at the time. In this respect, Mori Arinori’s proposal was not an entirely isolated point of view. In 1869, all those confronting the challenge of modernity through study had to learn a foreign language, usually English – which thus superseded Dutch as well as Chinese and other languages –, in order to acquire theoretical knowledge of the world.

52The fact remains that in both cases the idea of a potential change of language was mentioned. At the end of his text Nanbu once again touches on the possible “disappearance of the empire’s native language” (失中皇国固有之語上 Kōkoku koyū no kotoba wo ushinau), something which in his eyes could only be avoided by adopting the Latin alphabet. This would free the Japanese language from the shackles of Chinese notation.

53The “mastery” of the national language, which he considered to be the aim of Romanisation, can be understood both as a personal “mastery” – studying and deepening one’s knowledge – of the national language, as well as its “mastery” by the State, in other words as a linguistic policy that looks after the national language. The character shū in the term shū-kokugo 脩国語, which appears in the text’s title, allows for these two meanings. The Japanese translation of this character, the verb osameru, means both “to assimilate through study” and “to rule, to pursue a policy”. Furthermore, the author saw the situation he described and deplored as the consequence of “a political error” and did not consider the fault to lie with the scholars of each discipline. The “mastery” of the language to which he alluded could thus only result from a political act.

54The text opens with the term gakumon 学問, or “learning”, which was thus fundamental to the language debate. As with Mori Arinori four years later, the focus here was the “language of learning”. Remember that one of the fundamental books of this period was entitled Gakumon no susume 学問のすすめ (An Encouragement to Learning) and was published in 1872 by Fukuzawa Yukichi. Such reflections on the language illustrate the importance attached to study, the desire to cultivate learning and the national commitment to meeting the challenge of modernity. However, in Japan studying was dependent on acquiring a foreign language: Chinese in one case, and Western languages in the other. Nanbu saw this as neglecting content in favour of form.

55In Japan, wrote Nanbu, in addition to Chinese there was a native Japanese study tradition (wagaku 和学) as well as the colloquial style (zokugo 俗語). By wagaku he was referring to what is often called kokugaku (national studies). Perhaps wagaku refers more specifically to classical Japanese poetry and the rules governing the classical language and traditional poetry. He thus considered the situation at that time wasteful because students also had to learn all of those other languages. Far from scorning “national studies” – which, rightly or wrongly, sinologists were often considered to do – Nanbu also expressed his attachment to Japanese learning, and while critical of the direction it was taking at the time, hoped to see the situation rectified. He stressed the need to establish a Japanese grammar by means of bunten no gi 文典之義 (grammatical rules). This would involve abandoning the Chinese script, precisely because it did not represent the grammatical components of the Japanese vernacular.

56Thus, this particular sinologist challenged the traditions of his own discipline and advocated clearly distinguishing Chinese from Japanese. The former should be studied as a foreign language, while the latter should be extricated – through the use of a phonetic script – from the language in which it was imprisoned. Nanbu was himself one of the heirs to the tradition of Japanese sinology and in this sense his stance seems suicidal, for he was criticising his own field of study. Chinese studies were undoubtedly undergoing the most painful moments in their Japanese history.

57Nanbu reiterated his suggestion on several occasions. The oldest document found appeared in the journal Yōyōsha-dan洋々社談 (Society of the High Seas, no. 7, November 1875) in which, following an essay by the linguist Ōtsuki Fumihiko 大槻文彦 (1847-1928) on the need to establish a Japanese grammar, Nanbu published a paper entitled “On Changing the Script” (Monji wo kaikan-suru gi 文字ヲ改換スル議). The text was subdivided into the following three sections:

  • 1.Correcting pronunciation and choosing the written characters;

  • 2.Breaking down sentences and establishing word categories;

  • 3.Compiling grammar books and dictionaries, and creating textbooks to help children read.

58In 1874 he published, in alphabetical form, the first volume of a Japanese grammar book: a Nippon Bunten uhi-manabi hazime no maki / 横文字綴日本文典初学第一巻. The title differed slightly depending on whether it was written in letters or Chinese characters. The title in Chinese characters specified that the text was written in “horizontal writing”, in other words using the alphabet. The title in letters contained – within a Japanese utterance – the English indefinite article “a”. In a way, Nanbu had switched directly from the classical Chinese wording to alphabetical wording.

  • 54 The symbols used for reading Chinese in the Japanese order are indicated in this title.

59His concern was no doubt to build a “national language”, a written language based on phonetic principles, in other words, abandoning the logographic system of Chinese and moving closer towards the rules governing Western languages. Moreover, Nanbu suggested reading Chinese as a foreign language by abandoning the traditional reading technique and respecting the contemporary pronunciation of the language. He expounded this idea in issues 59 and 60 (1879) of the same journal, Yōyōsha-dan, using a title written – paradoxically – in Sino-Japanese, Rōmaji wo motte kokugo wo utsusu narabi ni seisoku kanbun wo sakan ni suru no ron 以羅馬字写国語並盛正則漢学論,54 (Transcribing the National Language using Roman Letters and Promoting Orthodox Chinese Studies). Nanbu thus revealed the crisis being experienced by traditional Chinese studies at that time, the split within this discipline, and the new sinology set to emerge, one that looked towards contemporary China.

For the abolition of Chinese characters: Maejima Hisoka

60Others advocated abandoning Chinese characters entirely and writing with kana. Such was the argument of Maejima Hisoka 前島密 (1835-1919), who in the 12th month of Keiō 2 (1866) submitted a petition to the shogun that began as follows:

  • 55 A full translation in French is available in P. Griolet, op. cit., pp. 16-22. The original text can (...)

If the State is built on the education of its citizens, it is important to extend it to all, regardless of class, and thus to use a script and written language that are as simple as possible. Furthermore, every discipline, the noblest or most profound, must abandon the dry and tortuous study method that requires characters to be learnt before the things themselves are understood. Knowledge should always enable the principle of things to be understood. For this reason learning should be disseminated as in western countries using phonetic symbols - kana - and the use of Chinese characters in everyday texts, both public and private, should be abolished.55

61This petition, entitled Kanji go-haishi no gi 漢字御廃止之儀 (On the Abolition of Chinese Characters), is often cited as being the starting point of the “Movement to Unify Spoken and Written Language” (genbun itchi undo 言文一致運動), which was instrumental in modernising the written language, in particular the literary style. The following passage is frequently quoted in this regard:

All languages evolve over time. However, it is important to ensure that a perceptible gap does not arise between the written and spoken forms.
言語は時代に就て變轉するは中外皆然るかと奉存候 但口舌にすれは談話となり筆書にすれは文章となり口談筆記の両般の趣を異にせさる様には仕度事に奉存候

62Although he had a lifelong appreciation of the Chinese poetry he wrote, Maejima felt that the minds of the Japanese had been “poisoned” by the Sino-Japanese language and Chinese characters. He believed that they should be banished from the field of education.

  • 56 Channing Moore Williams (1829-1910), an American missionary who lived in China for several years be (...)

Allow me to quote the opinion of an American by the name of Williams.56 He travelled to China as a Christian missionary in order to spread his faith in Asia. There he studied Chinese until the end of the 1850s; he then came to Nagasaki where he has recently been studying our language. Shortly after his arrival in China, he was passing by the door of a house when he was surprised to hear children shouting. He went through the door and looked around. The house was a school and the children were raising their voices in order to read. When he enquired as to the reason for such a racket, he was told that there was no need for alarm: the students were only trying to pronounce the written characters without understanding the content of the texts and they put all their effort into learning by rote how to write and pronounce the characters. The books they were using were the Chinese classics, the complexity of which bewildered even the old Confucian scholars. If China, a vastly populated empire with a huge territory, has sunk into its current predicament, if its population has descended into barbarism and is held in contempt by the West, it is due to the harmful effects of these pictograms and the inability to implement an education for all.

63Maejima is hiding here behind the words of an American missionary, but it is clear that in his eyes modernity implied leaving behind China and its “archaisms”. However, for Maejima and many of his contemporaries, modernity was also inseparable from the idea of nationhood. He went on to describe the traditional curriculum:

The higher level generally begins with pronunciation exercises from the Four Books and the Five Classics, and covers Chinese history, including its major works and institutions as well as its hours of glory and peace, troubles and decline. Our own history and classics are not covered and are generally passed over in silence. The harmful effects of revering others and disparaging oneself soon spread to the minds of the young and wound their national pride. […] The young must be taught to love what is native to Japan and respect themselves. To teach foreign learning before our own is to confuse priorities and seriously endanger our traditions and customs.

  • 57 This institution was founded during Ansei 安政 3 (1856) at Kudanzaka, close to the Imperial Palace, a (...)

64When he sent this letter to the shogun, Maejima had recently been hired as a writer-translator (hon’yaku hikki-gata 反訳筆記方) at the Kaiseijo, the Edo institute of research and documentation on the western world.57 The following year he would attain the position of mathematics professor. This was of course western mathematics, a discipline whose influence on the Japanese script debate cannot be ignored due to the spatial arrangement it implies, the Arabic signs it requires and the horizontal writing style with which it is associated.

  • 58 Hirai Masao 平井昌夫, Kokugo kokuji mondai no rekishi 国語国字問題の歴史 (History of the National Language and N (...)

65Maejima submitted other similar petitions to the new government. In the year Meiji 2 (1869), in Kokubun kyōiku no gi ni tsuki kengi 国文教育之儀ニ付建議 (Proposal for Teaching the National Style), he presented a seven-year plan to completely abolish Chinese characters. His proposal was rejected by the House of Representatives (Shūgiin 集議院, which replaced the aforementioned Kōgisho in 1869) but he wrote two further petitions in the same vein: Kokubun kyōiku shikō no hōhō 国文教育施行の方法 (Methods for Teaching the National Style) and Haikanji shikensho 廃漢字私見書 (A Personal View on the Abolition of Chinese Characters). In July 1872, one month before the Education System Order (Gakusei 学制) was promulgated, he was back on the offensive writing to the minister of the right Iwakura Tomomi 岩倉具視 (1825-1883), and the education minister (Monbukyō 文部卿) Ōki Takato 大木喬任 (1832-1899), with a “Report on my Humble Opinion that Reform of our Script should Precede the Establishment of an Education System” (Gakusei goshikō ni sakidachi kokuji kairyō ainaritaki hiken naishinsho 学制御施行ニ先立チ国字改良相成度卑見内申書). Finally, the following year he wrote to a close relation of the emperor, Prince Arisugawa-no-miya Takehito 有栖川威仁 (1862-1913), with a text entitled Kōkokubun haikanji 興国文廃漢字 (Creation of a National Style and the Abolition of Chinese Characters). He thus attempted to consult the emperor through a member of the imperial family who was in favour of disseminating a kana-based script. His audacity earned him the wrath of the authorities. One of the most powerful politicians of the time, Ōkubo Toshimichi 大久保利通 (1830-1878), is said to have sent him the following warning:58

The view that you defend is certainly a fine one, but among the supporters of Chinese characters are many high-ranking individuals, both Confucianists and sinologists. Is it not proper that those at the top, the government officials, and those at the bottom, farmers and tradesmen, conform to the established order? Do you intend to overturn it in order to revolutionise our language and literature?

  • 59 Yamaguchi Osamu 山口修, Maejima Hisoka 前島密, Yoshikawa Kōbunkan 吉川弘文館 (Jinbutsu sōsho collection 人物叢書), (...)

66Like many of his contemporaries, Maejima had been struck by the strength of western communications technology. He was fascinated with the subject and in 1870 was given the task of developing a postal system. He was instrumental in this field, establishing a government monopoly on postal delivery as well as reduced rates for newspaper companies, deciding on the creation of postal orders, setting up a postal savings bank system and helping found companies involved in land transportation (the present-day Nippon Tsūun 日本通運) and shipping (the present-day Nippon Yūsen 日本郵船). He also played a decisive role in the construction of a railway network and a telegraph and telephone network. He resigned from the government in 1881 during a political crisis in protest against the ruling authorities.59

67Having understood the educational role of the press before others, back in 1873 he had founded the first all-kana newspaper, the Mainichi Hiragana Shinbun まいにち ひらがな しんぶん, which lasted just one year. In 1882 he lent his support to the founding of a daily that would go on to become one of the most important of the era, the Yūbin Hōchi Shinbun 郵便報知新聞 (The Postal News).

68During the latter part of his life he headed several railway companies, including the one that began building the main Korean train lines in 1903. His unrelenting efforts to simplify the language and his staunch opposition to Chinese characters may seem somewhat obsessive, especially given that his public duties often required him to write Chinese poems on, for example, the wonders of electricity! However, an examination of his life and career suggests that for him the issue was part of a wide-reaching view of social communication.

  • 60 Noguchi Takehiko 野口武彦, Sanninshō no hakken made 三人称の発見まで (The Path to the Discovery of the Third Pe (...)

69Some people have questioned the existence of Maejima’s petition to the shogun.60 Indeed, the text only surfaced in Meiji 32 (1899) at a time when, following Japan’s victory over China in 1895, the plan to reform the Japanese language was beginning to take shape. It was at this time that Konishi Nobuhachi 小西信八 (1854-1938), a kana advocate and pioneer of the adaptation of braille to the Japanese language, put together – for publicity purposes – a small booklet containing Maejima’s petitions for script reform entitled Maejima Hisoka-kun kokuji kokubun kairyō kengi-sho 前島密君国字国文改良建議書.

  • 61 Yasuda Toshiaki 安田敏朗, Teikoku Nihon no gengo hensei 帝国日本の言語編制 (Language Organisation in Imperial Ja (...)
  • 62 Pages 101-105.
  • 63 Osa Shizue 長志珠絵, Kindai nihon to kokugo nashonarizumu 近代日本と国語ナショナリズム (Modern Japan and National Lan (...)

70To consider this text a complete fabrication designed to make it appear pioneering would doubtless be a step too far, and it is preferable to think that it was simply rewritten by Maejima (in principle the original sent to the shogun would have been written in classical Chinese, the most formal style, which the published version is not). Based on the suggestion of Ōtsuki Fumihiko, Yasuda Toshiaki believes that the text was revised after the Meiji Restoration.61 Regardless, what we do know for certain is that the 1866 text was first brought to the public’s knowledge in May 1900, in the journal Taiyō 太陽,62 which devoted a special issue to the founding of the National Language Investigative Committee (Kokugo Chōsa Iinkai 国語調査委員会), of which Maejima had been appointed chairman a month earlier in April 1900.63 According to Yasuda, Maejima created a shortened version based on a copy (utsushi ).

71The fact that doubts exist over the 1866 text is of no great importance since it elicited no response from the government and went unnoticed at the time. On the other hand, it was highly influential from the end of the nineteenth century when the government began its aggressive policy to rationalise the national language, the very policy called for by the various figures discussed here.

The first official decisions

72On 26 January 1900 the Imperial Education Society (Teikoku Kyōikukai 帝国教育会) presented a petition to each government minister and the speakers of both houses of the Diet to introduce a government-level reform of the “national language”, and in particular its script (Kokuji kokugo kokubun no kairyō ni kansuru seigansho 国字国語国文の改良に関する請願書). This petition gave the green light to the first attempts at political action on the issue. The full text reads as follows:

Petition for the reform of the national script, language and style
Imperial Education Society

  • 64 The italics indicate passages in the Japanese text where hiragana are replaced by katakana.

The Imperial Education Society submits the following request:
That the government undertake a prompt investigation into the ways in which to reform the national script, language and style.64

Explanatory Statement
Careful examination of the language, script and style used in our country reveals a complexity and heterogeneity that make reading and understanding particularly arduous. In order to express a single meaning in our language there may be a native Japanese term, a term of Chinese origin and a hybrid term. Using them judiciously is far from simple. The writing system includes kana and Chinese characters. There are almost fifty kana, but each syllable is further subdivided into two different sets, katakana and hiragana. Furthermore, the many variant forms of hiragana mean that there are over two hundred symbols in total. If we then add that some of these symbols have two different pronunciations, the original and the derived, it must be acknowledged that they are extremely confusing.

As for Chinese characters, there are some five thousand in everyday use, with each character having three written forms: square, semi-cursive and cursive. They are generally formed of a highly complex tangle of dots and strokes, leading to frequent errors. Most of them have two Chinese pronunciations, known as Han and Wu, to which the Tang pronunciation must often be added. Furthermore, for these two sets subtle distinctions in pronunciation, known as original, secondary and Japanese pronunciations, must be taken into account. Consequently, one single character may occasionally have over ten different pronunciations of this type. These multiple pronunciations intermingle in compound Chinese words, and above all in hybrid Sino-Japanese words, in a highly disordered and irregular fashion, creating often insurmountable ambiguity. Moreover, Chinese characters have multiple readings that correspond to their equivalent translations in Japanese. Aside from a few rare cases where there is only one Japanese equivalent, there is generally a minimum of five or six, and sometimes even dozens. These many Japanese equivalents and numerous Chinese pronunciations act as readings for the Chinese characters and are sometimes combined together, sometimes used in isolation. They have become, in a highly incoherent manner, the constituents of the spoken and written forms of our language. Writing a character correctly from memory, and recognising which of the Chinese and Japanese readings must be employed based on the context and the position of the character, is not obvious, even for an accomplished scholar.

Additionally, the written form of our language includes the classical Japanese style, the samurai chronicles style, the epistolary style, the classical Chinese style, the style translated literally from western languages and the colloquial style. Selecting one of these styles to be the norm amounts to discontinuing the others. Going deeper into this one means ignoring another. Even scholars do not know which one to base themselves on. After all, our national language has no standard spoken form and in reality is made up of dialects. These differ considerably by region and social class, whether noble or humble. Sometimes the language of one region cannot be used in another, or the language of one social class does not befit another. In particular, the desire to avoid confusing them represents a major difficulty. If we add to this the difficulty of using Japanese, Chinese and hybrid terms judiciously, it must be acknowledged that there are serious obstacles to mastering our national language. The morphological and syntactic rules, which in western countries are more or less identical, are subject to considerable differences over here. To appreciate this, one need only consult two or three grammar treatises: one is based on classical Japanese, another on the style derived from Chinese and the third on the colloquial style. Conforming to one means contradicting the others; basing oneself of this one means not complying with the rules set out in that one. The heterogeneous nature of the language and difficulty of setting it in order, the excessive number of Chinese characters and the writing errors they cause, the profusion of Chinese pronunciations and equivalent Japanese readings, as well as the chaotic way they are combined, the multiplicity of written forms and difficulty mastering them, the lack of a standard morphology and syntax on which to base oneself, such are the difficulties involved in teaching written and spoken Japanese. Some time ago a European declared that the Japanese language was the most complex in the world and that he himself had often been tempted to abandon his studies of it. An American also declared to his compatriots that Japanese students endure a hardship in learning their language that is unique in the world: not only must they master their own language and its writing system, but also the Chinese language and script, as well as a choice of English, German or French. Words fail to describe this situation! In terms of difficulty, the Chinese language that Japanese students must master is equivalent to studying five western languages. This is why Westerners consider our language to be an aberration that is unique in the world. But in this they are not alone: all those who work in public education also witness first-hand the difficulties involved in learning Japanese and relentlessly go to the greatest effort to teach it. Because of this our students and pupils waste the majority of their school life studying the language and script to the detriment of other valuable knowledge. But most of all, the futility of such a daily task impoverishes their minds and hinders their development. Great importance is currently attached to the task of educating; there is discussion of reforming the school system, increasing the number of schools and developing physical education. These projects are doubtless legitimate, but will be ineffectual as long as studying the language remains so difficult.

If we think about it carefully, the written and spoken forms of languages, as well as their script, differ in structure and orientation according to a society’s cultural advancement and complexity, the dynamism of its activities, as well as the wealth and depth of the ideas conveyed. Having entered the arena of international competition, our Empire now finds itself facing increasingly complex and varied issues that require us to constantly widen the boundaries of our knowledge. The virtues of a country’s language and script are intricately linked to the effectiveness of its education system, the culture, strength and wealth of its people, and consequently to its dynamism and power. That is why the implementation of this reform must not be delayed. One day’s delay would represent for forty million individuals a day lost for the development of their abilities and smooth running of their affairs. It would be detrimental to the prosperity and happiness of tomorrow’s citizens and hinder the advancement and success of the nation. From this point of view, it is clear that reforming the national script, style and language must not be postponed. Many initiatives have already been implemented in the past, by both individuals and private groups. Our Society has also taken action by establishing a committee for script reform. Indeed, the reform of the spoken and written language must begin with an overhaul of the writing system. With regards this issue, there are those who suggest limiting the number of Chinese characters, those who favour abandoning them entirely and using only kana, those who suggest abolishing both of these and adopting the Latin alphabet, and finally those who want to create a simpler and radically new script. While admittedly divergent, these proposals all recognise and denounce the disadvantages and futility of Chinese characters. Each has its advantages and drawbacks and deciding between them rapidly has not been possible. However, after an in-depth examination it should not be difficult to select the most appropriate.

Nonetheless, we are firmly convinced that studying and implementing a reform of our script, language and style is the responsibility of the government and should under no circumstances be left to individuals or private groups. Holland, the States of Germany and Denmark all use the alphabet, a much more convenient script than ours, and yet when spelling and pronunciation diverge, the reforms proposed by scholars and educators are adopted by their governments and successfully implemented as national priorities. Our country, which is striving to prosper and take its place among the great powers, must also undertake such a far-reaching investigation and develop similar programmes.

  • 65 Text published in Inokuchi Yūichi 井之口有一, Meiji igo no kanji seisaku 明治以後の漢字政策 (Policy on Chinese Ch (...)

It is for all these reasons that the Imperial Education Society requests that the government undertake, through a competent body, a prompt investigation into the ways in which to reform the national script, style and language of the Nation.65

73The Imperial Education Society was an influential association of teachers and education specialists. It was founded under this name in 1896, a year after Japan’s victory over China, at a time when the word teikoku 帝国 (empire) was once again in vogue. A study group on script reform, headed by none other than Maejima Hisoka, was added to the society in 1899. Based on the tone and content of the petition there is a good chance that Maejima was the author of this text, although nothing allows this to be stated with any certainty other than the similarity in views between this petition and Maejima’s early-Meiji-period texts.

  • 66 Maejima Hisoka Denki Kankōkai 前島密伝記刊行会 (ed.), Maejima Hisoka jijoden 前島密自叙伝 (Autobiography of Maeji (...)
  • 67 A professional soldier entrusted with repressing the revolts of the “Freedom and People’s Rights Mo (...)

74In his Autobiography,66 in which he devoted a large section to his fight to simplify the language, Maejima Hisoka mentions that the petition was widely distributed within the education community at the time of its drafting and that the major newspapers gave it front page space on the very day of its publication on 26 January 1900. He adds that the then education minister, Kabayama Sukenori 樺山資紀 (1837-1922),67 had previously given him permission to establish a committee to investigate the issue.

75On 8 January, at the instigation of its editor-in-chief, Nakai Nishigi 中井錦城 (1864-1924), who supported the simplification of the written language, the newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun 読売新聞 created a column where the reformers could present the different solutions envisaged.

76For his part, Hara Takashi 原敬 (1856-1921), the future prime minister who at that time was editor-in-chief of the major Kansai newspaper the Ōsaka Mainichi Shinbun 大阪毎日新聞, published a long text from 2-10 January which began as follows:

  • 68 Text published in Nishio, M., op. cit., pp. 92-110. The Chinese character used in the author’s firs (...)

My decision to support a reduction in Chinese characters does not lead me to envisage merely reducing their number: the final objective remains their complete abolition. However, this will take decades to achieve and it is practically impossible to set a date with any accuracy; I will thus content myself to championing a limitation on Chinese characters.68

77Believing that a sudden abolition of Chinese characters would risk causing too great a confusion, he recommended undertaking two initiatives in a concerted manner: Firstly, he recommended establishing a committee of specialists chosen by the Ministry for Education in order to draw up an inventory of the characters indispensable for school textbooks, decrees and the various official documents, and select substitute terms for the written forms that would be eliminated. This committee was to publish an annual report in order for its directives to be implemented at all levels. Secondly, Hara intended to raise greater awareness of these issues among the public through a stronger commitment from the major press organs:

Our newspaper, the Ōsaka Mainichi Shinbun, endeavours to use simple language and make it easier for readers to understand.

78Intense competition between the various newspapers meant that great vigilance was required in the matter. Those who worked on the paper had to instinctively pay attention to the difficulty of the language they used in order to avoid alienating readers and maintain the paper’s “easy-to-read” image. Consequently, the Imperial Education Society’s petition was given considerable coverage in the press, where educational issues were frequently debated at the time. It received a warm political reception since both Houses adopted it in February and suggested the government set up a national committee on the subject.

79However, this apparent consensus should not obscure the mistrust of some, in particular writers, with regards the excessively bureaucratic approach that was taking shape. This is how the poet Takahama Kyoshi 高浜虚子 (1874-1959) appealed to writers in an article on the unification of the spoken and written language:

  • 69  Takahama Kyoshi, “Genbun itchi”, quoted by Christophe Marquet, La revue Hototogisu et l’art du cro (...)

The mission to reform the national language and script must not be entrusted to the Investigative Committee, for in truth this task is your responsibility. The committee merely carries out its investigations by following in your footsteps and its decisions depend, in the end, on your action. This is how the future of the Japanese language and literature will be decided.69

80On 2 April 1900, the Ministry for Education made Maejima Hisoka responsible for selecting competent individuals in order to establish the committee. He began by surrounding himself with five advocates of the reform, some in favour of using kana, others the alphabet. They included Ueda Kazutoshi, Ōtsuki Fumihiko and Naka Michiyo 那珂道世 (1851-1907), a historian and high-ranking scholar who laid the foundations for the discipline tōyō-shi 東洋史 (oriental history) as something distinct from western history. As for Asahina Chisen 朝比奈知泉 (1862-1939), a prominent political journalist who worked for the daily newspaper Tōkyō Nichinichi Shinbun 東京日日新聞, he supported the principle of a phonetic script, in particular for practical reasons related to printing and telegrams. Yumoto Takehiko 湯本武比古 (1847-1925) was connected through his family to the tradition of national studies, but he had previously studied in Germany and also led a study group on “unifying the written and spoken language” which he founded that same year within the Imperial Education Society. Finally, there was Tokutomi Sohō 徳富蘇峰 (1863-1957), who founded the first major general-interest monthly magazine Kokumin no tomo 国民の友 (Friend of the People) in 1887, followed by the daily newspaper Kokumin Shinbun 国民新聞, a distant ancestor of the present-day Tōkyō Shinbun, in 1890. Having converted to Christianity at a very young age, he first defended the principles of equality and freedom before evolving towards an increasingly vehement nationalism following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, making him the target of criticism after Japan’s defeat in 1945. Despite this, the work he accomplished as a historian was significant.

  • 70 Essay that appeared in the journal Taiyō from 28 August 1895, published in Nishio, M., op. cit., pp (...)
  • 71 A major intellectual figure of the Meiji period who taught at the Bansho Torishirabejo at the end o (...)

81In what appears to have been a desire to maintain a modicum of balance, Maejima also selected someone openly opposed to the abolition of Chinese characters: Miyake Setsurei 三宅雪嶺 (1860-1945). Miyake had studied philosophy at the Tokyo Imperial University under Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (1853-1908), an American academic who was fascinated with traditional Japanese arts and had led a campaign in Japan to restore them to favour. In 1888 Miyake had helped found Seikyōsha 政教社 (Society for Politics and Religion) with the aim of highlighting national values in the face of what was judged to be excessive “westernisation”. Though he acknowledged the difficulties linked to Chinese characters, he supported their preservation, partly in the name of tradition and partly for communicating with other Asian countries.70 With the guiding principles of the committee established, Maejima and his team drew up its objectives and statutes. Yet it was another two years, on 24 March 1902, before the Imperial Rescript (chokurei 勅令) instituting the National Language Investigative Committee (Kokugo Chōsa Iinkai 国語調査委員会), chaired by Katō Hiroyuki 加藤弘之 (1836-1916),71 was promulgated. Katō set out the aims of the committee’s work in the Official Gazette of 4 July 1902:

1) To adopt a phonetic script (phonograms) and, to this end, compare kana with rōmaji.
2) To adopt a written language that is identical to the spoken one and determine its rules.
3) To study the phonetic system of the national language.
4) To study dialects and define the norms of the standard language (
hyōjungo 標準語).

  • 72 It should be noted that although a special case is made here of written correspondence, there is no (...)
  • 73  Inokuchi, Y., op. cit., p. 30.

Examining these four points was the committee’s first task. However, in order to respond to the exigencies of the public education system, it would also investigate the following issues:
1) Limiting Chinese characters.
2) Rationalising standard contemporary written language.
3) Distinctive styles such as the epistolary style.
72
4) Using
kana (kanazukai 仮名遣い) for the national language.
5) Using kana for words of Chinese origin.
6) Transcribing foreign words.
73

82The stated objective was radical and unequivocal. The word “phonogram” appears in article one and was written in katakana (fonoguramu フォノグラム). Choosing a phonetic script was thus laid down as a precondition. Was this the committee’s way of testing the waters or of launching an offensive? Was it simply a working hypothesis or the announcement of a fundamental reform? Whatever the case may be, the demands for government action made since the beginning of the modernisation process seemed finally to have been heeded. The path to implementing a bold language policy appeared to be marked out.

The first concrete measures

  • 74 Educator and education official who adopted pioneering positions and founded the experimental schoo (...)

83On 21 August 1900, an overall reform of primary school education was implemented under the leadership of education minister Kabayama, along with Sawayanagi Masatarō 沢柳政太郎 (1865-1927),74 head of public education, and Ueda Kazutoshi, head of special education. The aim was to adapt the education system to society’s needs. An increase in the number of schools was required and a greater obligation for families to send their children to school. Free education was introduced, school registration fees were scrapped and grants made available for families in need.

  • 75 In middle schools (chūgakkō 中学校), on the other hand, this new subject was known as kokugo kanbun 国語 (...)

84This reform was accompanied by an overhaul of school curricula. Notable measures included combining the different subjects relating to language, reading and writing into a new subject known as “national language” (kokugo).75

85This merging of subjects was intended to encourage more coherent educational methods and promote the teaching of the spoken language. The language previously used was judged too far removed from pupils’ everyday lives. Above all, with Japan in need of increased unity, disseminating the standard language was a pressing national necessity.

Limiting Chinese characters

86The regulations specified that from then on writing must be taught using the “square” style of calligraphy (kaisho 楷書) and possibly the gyōsho 行書 (semi-cursive) style. This break with the tradition of favouring the semi-cursive style, the most convenient for reading and handwriting, clearly resulted from the growing importance of printed characters in everyday life. However, it was above all a preliminary to fixing the form of characters rigorously, as cursive styles left too much leeway and room for improvisation. The pre-eminence of the “square” style has never been challenged since.

  • 76 Ōno Susumu 大野晋 (ed.), Kokugo kōza, Kokugo kokuji mondai 国語講座国語国字問題, 1977, Iwanami shoten, p. 271. S (...)
  • 77 Previous readers included between 1,500 and 2,000. Based on Kokuritsu Kokugo Kenkyūsho 国立国語研究所 (ed. (...)

87One article of the reform lists 1,200 Chinese characters for the four years of primary education. This measure represented the first official limitation on Chinese characters. Not all of these characters necessarily had to be taught but the stipulated upper limit was to be respected as far as possible (narubeku 成ルベク). It was understood that the names of people and places were an exception.76 In accordance with the list, the first set of government-issue readers (Jinjō shōgaku tokuhon 尋常小学読本, eight volumes), released in 1904, contained just over five hundred characters. The Ministry for Education had specified that the main objective of these readers was to unify the national language by striving to use the “language as it is spoken” (kōgo 口語) and taking middle-class Tokyo speech as “standard” (hyōjun 標準).77

  • 78 Inokuchi, Y., op. cit., pp. 393-394 and Nishio, M., op. cit., pp. 832-878.
  • 79 In fact, the 1900 instructions also specified that it was acceptable to teach common simplified for (...)
  • 80 List drawn up in 1948 (881 characters) and expanded in 1966 by the addition of 115 characters. In 1 (...)

88An analysis of this list shows – after several checks! – that in reality it only included 1,199 characters.78 If we ignore the 108 allographs, in other words simple differences in writing,79 a comparison between this list of characters and that used in primary schools since 1989 (kyōiku kanjihyō 教育漢字表, 1,006 characters taught over six years)80 provides the following results:

Characters common to both lists:       842       62%
Characters specific to the 1900 list:     357     26%
Characters specific to the 1966 list:     164     12%

89The two lists share a considerable number of core characters. The 1900 list seems to contain certain inconsistencies and omissions. For example, the characters for “wheat” () and “millet” () are included, but curiously “rice” (), a basic character by any standard, is absent, even though it is a component in many much more complicated characters. Incidentally, this arbitrariness, which always plagues such selections to some degree, would be a stumbling block for each of the subsequent lists. It provoked endless arguments over the inclusion of one character or other and the exclusion of another. In any case, it seems that abstract bureaucratic vocabulary was generally favoured over more concrete language, such as that of farmers and fishermen, and that this trend would only increase over time.

90The differences between the two lists stem in part from the selection criteria adopted. From 1946 onwards it was decided that neither plant and animal names, nor the characters reserved for adverbs, would be written with Chinese characters. Of the 357 words specific to the 1900 list, over 100 fall into these two categories.

91Furthermore, the 1900 list seems to have given priority to characters used in simple words, thus for the most part native Japanese nouns and verbs. The majority of characters specific to the modern list seem to be abstract – many of them have no Japanese reading – and were often chosen for their usefulness in forming Sino-Japanese compound words.

92Consequently, the 1900 list can be seen as demonstrating a desire to eliminate, or at least to avoid giving preference to Sino-Japanese terms. Conversely, the contemporary list enables these terms to be represented more systematically and encourages the use of kana for writing native Japanese words. The first list could thus be described as “logographic” – one character equals one word - and the second as “morphemographic” – one character equals one Sino-Japanese constituent, enabling a high number of compound words to be formed.

93However, the most important difference lies elsewhere. The list currently in use constitutes a minimum, taught in a fixed order year by year (students must be able to read and write all the characters on the list), whilst the 1900 list indicated an upper limit. This may explain why the 1900 list barely caused any controversy: it went virtually unnoticed.

94Despite the lack of information on the selection criteria and approach adopted, everything suggests that it was the work of the group headed by Maejima Hisoka.

95The Imperial Education Society was simultaneously in the midst of preparing a much more radical plan to limit Chinese characters to 436. It was never made public but the principles on which the selection was based are known:

1. Chinese characters should no longer be used for words that would be understandable written in kana, and in particular

  • 81  Inokuchi, Y., op. cit., pp. 26-27.

Verbs, adjectives, verb suffixes, adverbs, and emphatic and postpositive particles belonging to the native Japanese language.81

96The terms employed here correspond to the parts of speech defined by the linguist Ōtsuki Fumihiko, who was largely accepted to be an authority on the subject at the time. This essentially amounted to restricting the use of Chinese characters to Sino-Japanese words and, for the Japanese language, nouns.

2. Words of western origin would henceforth be written only in kana. In fact, it was in around 1900 that the practice of phonetically assigning Chinese characters to foreign words was abandoned in favour of using katakana.

3. Finally, Chinese characters that were excessively difficult to write were to be systematically eliminated, which entailed either replacing them with kana or adopting the unofficial abbreviated forms.

Simplifying the kana script and standardising written forms

97The different allographs of the kana syllabary, henceforth referred to as hentaigana, were reduced to one grapheme per syllable and the hiragana and katakana characters chosen were presented using two charts. This has been the standard convention ever since.

98In theory there could be as many as ten or more of these variants. In practice, however, there were not quite so many. Rarely seen in the printed texts of the era, they were still widely used in handwriting and considered essential to poetry and traditional Japanese calligraphy. In any case, it was not rare for certain characters to have at least two competing allographs. Curiously, there was no opposition to the abolition of these variants. The government measure no doubt merely confirmed what had already been established as standard practice by printing.

Transcribing Sino-Japanese terms using kana

  • 82 On the subject of kana orthography see P. Griolet, « L’orthographe du japonais et les ’études natio (...)

99The reform also introduced a new norm for the kana spelling of certain Sino-Japanese terms. Complete anarchy reigned at the time due to considerable discrepancy between actual pronunciations and the highly complex writing conventions upheld by both sinologists and philologists from the Japanese tradition.82 These conventions were based on the phonetic indications provided by Chinese dictionaries and “rhyme books”. However, from the fourteenth century onwards the diphthongs that had originally been frequent in these terms were increasingly pronounced as long vowels.

100The rules imposed graphically distinguishing Sino-Japanese units according to the theoretical pronunciations of classical Chinese and using the distinctive – but necessarily limited – resources of the Japanese syllabary. With its emphasis on the phonetic unification of Japanese, the reform put an end to these complex and highly confusing conventions. Thus, for example, the diphthongs written (in a form which is transliterated here) as かう (kau), かふ (kafu), こう (kou), こふ (kofu) or くわう (kuwau), were henceforth to be written in an identical fashion reflecting their standard pronunciation: こー ().

101Similarly, the written distinctions between きやう (kiyau), きよう (kyou), けう (keu) and けふ (kefu) were abolished and they were to be transcribed according to a single norm corresponding to their actual pronunciation: きょー (kyō).

102The kana transcription of these terms traditionally played a very minor role since they were systematically written with Chinese characters. It was, however, necessary for indicating the pronunciation of characters in dictionaries and readers. Furthermore, its importance had increased along with the growing use within the press of furigana 振り仮名, small syllabic characters placed above a line of text to indicate the reading of Chinese characters.

  • 83 Bunkachō 文化庁 (ed), Kokugo shirīzu 国語シリーズ, vol. 1 (Kokugo no mondai 国語の問題), pp. 146-147.

103It appeared above all indispensable with the prospect of a substantial limitation on the use of Chinese characters in school textbooks and thus the notation of Sino-Japanese words in kana. The education minister Inoue Kowashi 井上毅 (1843-1895) had already considered such a reform back in 1892. In his eyes, such subtleties could only interest sinologists and Chinese poetry enthusiasts in search of perfect rhymes and were devoid of interest in everyday language.83 However, this standardisation was above all a preliminary to the complete abolition of Chinese characters, which was now seriously under consideration, and to simplifying the orthography of Sino-Japanese terms, which it seemed impossible to eliminate overnight.

104Furthermore, long vowels were to be indicated by a vertical stroke – or “stick” – placed immediately after the kana character. The origin of this symbol is not clearly known. It was first attested very early on but had been used so rarely that it is tempting to consider it a borrowing from the Latin macron. Whatever the case may be, the introduction of its use with the two sets of kana was sufficiently shocking for the reform to be nicknamed “stick spelling” (bōbiki kanazukai 棒引仮名遣い).

105Nonetheless, this simplification only partially met the wishes of the Imperial Education Society, which in May had demanded that the government adopt a strictly phonetic orthography, not only for Sino-Japanese terms but for the entire language. Indeed, the reform did not apply to native Japanese words, which brought with them other complications, and instead cautiously limited itself to Chinese characters.

106No sooner had it appeared than this first major reform, the effects of which would only be felt in 1904 with the publication of government-issued school textbooks, was violently contested as a first step towards much more radical simplifications.

107Following the initial radical debates of the late-Edo and early-Meiji periods, it had taken over forty years to see the Japanese language unshackled from Chinese, yet without being destroyed and transformed into English, and for the building blocks of a “national language” to emerge, one intended to correspond to the Japanese Empire’s objectives and place in the world, and one whose norms were yet to be clearly defined.

Top of page

Notes

1 This paper is a revised and expanded version of a speech given on 8 June 1998 at the French Senate (Palais du Luxembourg), as part of the symposium « La naissance de la modernité au Japon » (The Birth of Modernity in Japan) organised by the Centre for Japanese Studies at Inalco.

2 The archives of Heijōkyō 平城京, more commonly known as Nara 奈良, the Japanese capital from 710 to 794, contained 12,000 paper documents, not to mention the thousands of tablets (mokkan 木簡) constantly discovered by archaeologists around the country.

3 For information on the French language, see Bernard Traimond’s remarkable study: Une cause nationale: l’orthographe française (French Spelling: a national cause), PUF (« Ethnologie » collection), 2001, and for Japanese the monumental work Ōraimono kaidai jiten 往来物解題辞典 (Analytical Dictionary of “Correspondence Textbooks”), two volumes, edited by Koizumi Yoshinaga 小泉吉永 and supervised by Ishikawa Matsutarō 石川松太郎, Ōzora-sha 大空社, 2001 (which lists exactly 3,769 woodcut textbooks). See also Christian Galan, « Le paysage scolaire à la veille de la restauration de Meiji: écoles et manuels » (Japan’s Educational Landscape on the Eve of the Meiji Restoration: Schools and Textbooks), Ebisu, no. 17, spring-summer 1998, Maison franco-japonaise, p. 5-47. .
Some of these textbooks can be viewed online on the Gakugei Daigaku university website (
https://library.u-gakugei.ac.jp/etopia/orai_list.html and http://library.u-gakugei.ac.jp/lbhome/mochi/mochi.html).

4 Ueda (1867-1937) also called himself Mannen, the Sino-Japanese reading of the two Chinese characters in his first name. Thus, he is sometimes called Ueda Kazutoshi, sometimes Ueda Mannen.

5 In Kokugo no tame 国語のため (The National Language Cause), Fuzanbō 冨山房, 1895, quoted in Hirai Masao 平井昌夫, Kokugo kokuji mondai no rekishi 国語国字問題の歴史 (History of the National Language and Script Issue), Shōrinsha 昭林社, 1948, p. 218. In this slogan the word kokumin 国民, translated as “nation”, literally means “the Japanese people”, which language must irrigate and keep alive while taking up arms to defend the imperial palace. Thus, Kokugo has a nurturing role with regards Japan and a defensive role with regards to the outside world.

6 Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology), Éditions de minuit (« Critique » collection), 1967, p. 11. Among the factors which – to an extent that remains to be evaluated – contributed to a drastic change in the Japanese script are Arabic numerals in mathematics and western music theory. I originally intended to examine each of these within this paper, as well as their links to the debate on language and writing; however, editorial deadlines forced me to cut to the chase and devote another paper to the subject. I am grateful to Claire Brisset for her thorough proofreading and numerous remarks.

7 Proposition put forward in a report written by the committee on “Japan’s Goals in the 21st Century” (Nijūisseiki nihon no kōsō 二十一世紀日本の構想), which was presented to Prime Minister Mori Yoshirō 森喜朗 in January 2000.

8 This letter, which is held at Yale College, appears in Mori Arinori zenshū 森有禮全集 (The Complete Works of Mori Arinori), edited by Ōkubo Toshiaki 大久保利謙, Senbundō shoten 宣文堂書店, 1972, vol. 1, pp. 310-305 (the page numbering is inverted to reflect the Japanese order used throughout this volume). It was also published, along with Whitney’s reply, in Yoshida Sumio 吉田澄夫 and Inokuchi Yūichi 井之口有一 (eds.) Meiji ikō kokugo mondai ronshū 明治以降国語問題論集 (Collection of Essays on the National Language Issue since the Meiji Period), Kazama shobō 風間書房, 1964, pp. 44-55. For English titles see Ivan Parker Hall, Mori Arinori, Harvard University Press, 1973.

9 Certain Edo-period scholars, such as Arai Hakuseki 新井白石 (1627-1725) and Honda Toshiaki 本田利明 (1744-1821), had already raised similar questions as to the adequacy of the Japanese language for acquiring western learning. However, their questions focused on the Chinese script and not on the Japanese language itself. For further information on the subject see P. Griolet, La Modernisation du Japon et la réforme de son écriture (The Modernisation of Japan and Reform of its Writing System), POF, 1985, p. 24.

10 The term appears in the Genji monogatari with a meaning similar to waka 和歌, literally “Japanese song”. It also appears in the same document as Yamato koto no ha.

11 The Japanese language dictionary Nihon kokugo daijitten 日本国語大辞典 (Shōgakukan, 1976, 20 volumes) gives no example of the use of this word prior to the Meiji period. Professor Okada Kesao 岡田袈裟男 was kind enough to bring to my attention, as an attestation of the word Nihongo before the Meiji period, a passage from a book entitled Yakubun hitsuyō shokubun kinnō 訳文必用属文錦嚢, a kind of translation guide for the Dutch language written by an interpreter working in Nagasaki, Yoshio Gonnosuke 吉雄権之助. This handwritten document has no exact date. Some specialists have dated it to 1822 but in-depth research by the Japanese language historian Sugimoto Tsutomu 杉本つとむ suggests the date should be 1809. The book carries the following translation of a Dutch sentence: “Orandago wo Nihongo ni yaku suru tame ni蘭語ヲ日本語ニ譯スル為ニ (in order to translate Dutch into Japanese).

12 These days the term wago refers above all to native Japanese words, as opposed to kango 漢語, or Sino-Japanese words, and gairaigo 外来語, words from “elsewhere”, in particular the West.

13 The term gengo 言語, which now refers to “language” and is used in terms such as gengogaku 言語学 (linguistics), is attested in extremely old texts. The medical treatise Ishinhō 医心方 (Essential Medical Methods), for example, which was presented to the imperial palace by Tanba no Yasuyori 丹波康頼 (912-995) in 984, devotes an entire chapter of volume 27 to the word gengo, which was no doubt pronounced gengyo at the time. This pronunciation was still in use in the 16th-century Portuguese-Japanese dictionary (Vocabulario da lingoa de iapam) translated by Léon Pagés in 1868, with an indication given as to its translation in Japanese: cotoba catarou and the translation “word”. Notice that in the medical book Yōjōkun 養生訓 (The Secret of Good Health), written by Kaibara Ekiken 貝原益軒 (1630-1714), the word appears as the verb gengyo su (to speak).
Below is a translation of chapter eight from
Ishinhō entitled “Gengyo”:
1. It is stated in the “intermediate classics” (
zhongjing 中経), according to the Yangsheng Yaoji 養生要集 (Collected Essentials on Nourishing Life), that one must take care to talk and laugh (goshō 語笑) as little as possible and not raise one’s voice. Raising the voice (声々高々) leads to discussions and quibbling, causing arguments and offensive words that must be appeased. On such occasions one must empty the heart and calm the breathing (kaki 下気). Excessively conversing and laughing damages the lungs, strains the kidneys and troubles the essence (sei ) and spirit (shin ).
2. It is said in the
Quianjinfang 千金方 (Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold) that: one may converse () on winter days but speaking is not advisable (). Speaking involves taking the initiative oneself, whereas conversing is initiated by others. If someone asks a question it must be answered.
3. It is also said that on cold winter days one must neither use harsh words (
大語) nor speak () with the mouth wide open.
4. It is also said that when conversing (
) one must speak [while making the voice resonate deeply] as if ringing a bell.
5. It is also said that one must not walk and converse at the same time. One must stand still while conversing. Conversing whilst walking causes energy to be lost (
shikki 失気).
6. It is also said that when using a resonant voice to read, or when chatting, one must always remember that the voice comes from the sea of energy (
kikai 気海), which is located beneath the navel (also known as a “cinnabar field" [tanden 丹田], a centre of vital energy).
7. It is also said that when waking in the morning one must only use auspicious words. One must not count money or goods in the morning.
8. It is also said that in the morning, when getting out of bed, one must not lose one’s temper and reprimand others or speak ill of them.
9. It is also said that one must not sigh in sorrow in the morning.
10. On chilly mornings one must always use auspicious words. Upon hearing evil words one must immediately turn in their direction and spit three times.
11. It is said that after sunset one must not speak or read out loud. If reading aloud cannot be avoided, it must be done after the hour of the tiger (4am) in order to read with care.
12. It is said that one must not converse whilst lying down. Since the five viscera hang from the body like bells or sonorous stones, they cease to hang when we lie down and this is why one must not converse.
13. It is said that one’s night-time dreams must not be explained to others. In the morning one must fill one’s mouth with water and then spit it out towards the east while saying: “Bad dream, be gone into the grasses. Good dream, be a treasure”.
14. It is said that one must not discuss the lucky or unlucky meaning of dreams.
15. It is stated in the
Yangsheng-zhi 養生志 (Treatise on Nourishing life) that when getting up in the morning one must not talk nonsense. One must not sing, hum poems or whistle. This is considered a recipe for happiness.
16. It is said in this same work that one must not utter angry words upon waking. This harms the vital energy and saps the vigour (
kiryoku 気力).
17. It is also said that one must not sing while going to sleep. Doing so would bring bad luck.
18. It is stated in the
Zhenzhongfang 枕中方 (Pillow Book of Prescriptions) that he who studies the Way must take care to keep his energy inside himself. No words must slip out. A word uttered is energy wasted. This loss of energy corresponds to three days of life.
(Tanba Yasuyori,
Ishinhō 医心方, edited and translated by Maki Sachiko 槙佐知子, vol. 27, Chikuma shobō 筑摩書房, 1993.)

14 Kokushi daijiten henshū iin-kai 国史大辞典編集委員会, Kokushi daijiten 国史大辞典 (Dictionary of National History), Yoshikawa kōbunkan 吉川弘文館, vol. 11, 1990, p. 743.

15 Kokushi daijiten henshū iinkai, op. cit., vol. 9, 1988, p. 919. See also Christian Galan, op.cit., p. 7.

16 The many Edo-period textbooks for young girls were always written in kana (although everyday Chinese characters written in the cursive style occasionally mingled with the syllabic characters), while textbooks for boys always gave priority to the systematic acquisition of Chinese characters. This does not mean that women did not know Chinese characters; however, society required them to have only a passive knowledge of these symbols. Some of the aforementioned textbooks are available online on the website of the library of the Nara women’s university’s Nara joshi daigaku.

17 Rather than being a completely different language to that spoken by men, the term nyōbō kotoba refers above all to supposedly “feminine” vocabulary and language use. The close association between Yamato kotoba and nyōbō kotoba is frequently attested in Edo-era textbooks for young girls. One book worth mentioning here is Onna chōhōki 女重宝記 (Record of Valuable Treasures for Women), a 5-volume encyclopaedia or handbook on etiquette published in 1692 (year 5 of the Genroku 元禄 era) in Osaka, Kyoto and Edo (Arima Sumiko 有馬澄子 et al., Onna chōhōki 女重宝記, Tōyoko gakuen joshi tanki Daigaku josei bunka kenkyūjo 東横学園女子短期大学女性文化研究所, 1989, 2 volumes, followed by an index volume).
The first volume of this handbook contains a chapter on the proper use of feminine language and lists those terms classed as
Yamato kotoba for, among others, clothing, food, fish and utensils. For example, the list presents as an alternative to mizu (water) the word ohiya (a term used at the court, while mizu is an everyday word), and instead of kome (rice), kugo (a term used at the Imperial Palace). The list also includes many words composed of the first syllable of the usual word followed by moji (character); tamoji for tako (octopus), imoji for ika (cuttlefish) and omoji for obi (sash). This category of words characteristic of the vocabulary of court ladies is known as moji kotoba 文字言葉.

18 See in particular Kawasumi Tetsuo 川澄哲夫 and Suzuki Takao 鈴木孝夫 (eds.), Shiryō nihon eigakushi, 2 eigo kyōiku ronsōshi, 資料日本英学史 2 英語教育論争史 (Documents on the History of English Studies in Japan, Vol. 2: History of the Controversies over English Education), Taishūkan 大修館, 1978 (1996).

19 Tanaka Katsuhiko 田中克彦, Kokkago wo koete 国家語をこえて (Beyond a State Language), Chikuma shobō 筑摩書房 (Chikuma gakugei bunko 筑摩学芸文庫 series), 1993, p. 16.

20 Published by Appleton in New York.

21 In 660 BC, after having pacified the country, the mythical emperor Jinmu 神武 founded the Japanese imperial dynasty.

22 Mori Arinori zenshū, op. cit., vol. 3, pp. 211-465 (volume 3 of Mori Arinori’s Complete Works is devoted entirely to his English-language publications and unlike the other volumes, a Western-style page numbering is used). This section of the introduction on the Japanese language also appears in Kawasumi Tetsuo and Suzuki Takao (eds.), op. cit., pp. 51-52.

23 Mori Arinori zenshū, op. cit, vol. 3, pp. 414-423; as well as Kawasumi Tetsuo and Suzuki Takao (eds.), op. cit., pp. 53-58.

24 Mori Arinori zenshū, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 93.

25 Overseas once again, Mori’s suggestion was mentioned and ridiculed by the orientalist Archibal Henry Sayce in his book Introduction to the Science of Language, published in London in 1880.

26 Mori Arinori zenshū, op. cit., pp. 7-15.

27 Baba’s grammar of Japanese as a foreign language was one of the first of the modern era. An overview of the Japanese script and grammar is followed by a second section entitled “Japanese and English exercises”, which contains some particularly interesting sentences in that they represent the state of the language at that point in time. Here are three examples:
Watakusi no tomodati wa sinsetu ni gozarimasu. [My friend is kind.]
Anata no musume wa kireini gozarimasu. [Your daughter is beautiful.]
Anata no kiodai wa watakusi no tomodati de gozarimasu. [Your brother is my friend.]
Whereas nowadays the inflectional suffix -
desu has become the norm, Baba uses either ni gozarimasu, in the case of predicate adjectives, or de gozarimasu for predicate nominals. The origins of the -desu suffix, which belongs to the polite register of spoken language and is characteristic of modern Japanese, are not clear: it may be a contraction of de gozarimasu but it functions as a contraction of de arimasu, a form that appears in the negative expression de (wa) arimasen. In the copy of this book held at the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, one reader thought it appropriate to correct – with a pencil – all the ni gozarimasu forms by crossing out the particle ni and replacing it with de. Apart from the use of the de gozarimasu form and a few other minor details, the language presented by Baba is not very different to contemporary Japanese.

28 Hayashi Shihei (1738-1793), an economist and geographer concerned by Russia’s advance into the islands of northern Japan, published two major works presenting the reality of the outside world and advocating the need for Japan to protect itself: Sangoku tsūran zusetsu 三国通覧図説 (An Illustrated Description of Three Countries, 1785), a study on Korea, the kingdom of Ryūkyū and Ezo (the book was translated into French with the title Aperçu général des trois royaumes by Julius Klaproth in 1832), and Kaikoku heidan 海国兵談 (Discussion of Military Issues for Maritime Nations, 1786), which was censored and brought its author under attack for interfering with political matters and above all for criticising the government.

29 On the 21st day of the 8th month of Bunkyū 文久2 (1862) in the village of Namamugi near Yokohama, four British subjects on horseback attempted to pass by the large retinue of the Lord of Kagoshima, who was on his way to Edo. They were attacked with swords and one of them, Charles Richardson, killed. Great Britain demanded, and received, compensation.

30 Inuzuka Takaaki 犬塚孝明, Mori Arinori, Yoshikawa kōbunkan 吉川弘文館 (Jinbutsu sōsho 人物叢書 collection), 1996, pp. 63-83.

31 Morikawa Terumichi 森川輝紀, Kyōiku chokugo e no michi 教育勅語への道 (The Road to the Imperial Rescript on Education), Sangensha 三元社, 1990, pp. 118-119.

32 Lee Yeounsuk [I Yonsuku] イ・ヨンスク, Kokugo to iu shiso – kindai nihon no gengo ninshiki「国語」という思想: 近代日本の言語認識 (The Ideology of Kokugo: Nationalizing Language in Modern Japan), Iwanami shoten 岩波書店, 1996, pp. 20-21 and p. 322.

33 Lee Yeounsuk, op. cit., p. 21, quoting Hagiwara Nobutoshi 萩原延壽, Baba Tatsui 馬場辰猪, Chūō kōronsha 中央公論社, 1978.

34 By way of example, see the list of styles that are mentioned in the document quoted on page 44 of this paper.

35 The printed books known as ōraimono (correspondence textbooks) disseminated a range of useful and necessary information, on both the world and writing, in the form of correspondence, but also in various styles of prose and occasionally poetry.

36 Yasuda Toshiaki 安田敏朗 has studied usage of the word kokugo during the Edo period, when it appears to have had a fluctuating meaning and was used by specialists of Dutch studies to refer to foreign languages. It was first used to designate the Japanese language (along with kokuji to mean the Japanese script in general) in a book published in around 1770 by the specialist in Dutch medicine Maeno Ryōtaku 前野良沢 (1723-1803), Oranda yakubun ryaku 和蘭訳文略 (reprinted in Teikoku nihon no gengo hensei 帝国日本の言語編制 [Language Organisation in Imperial Japan], Yokohama 横浜, Seori shobō 世織書房, 1997, pp. 29-32).
In order to give a complete list the word
hōgo 邦語 must be added. This also means “national language” but after enjoying a certain popularity at the beginning of the Meiji period, it was replaced by kokugo. The word appears, for example, in an essay by Shimizu Usaburō 清水卯三郎 (1830-1910), published in the first issue of the journal Meiroku Zasshi, in which he argues in favour of using the hiragana script: mata hōgo o haishite eigo ni aratamen to iu mono ari 又、邦語ヲ廃シテ英語ニ改メント云フ者アリ, “[…] Furthermore, certain people propose abandoning our language in favour of English […]”.
Finally, Emmanuel Lozerand informs me that the term
kokubun 国文 appears in a text written by Ueda Akinari 上田秋成 (1734-1809) entitled Tandai Shōshin Roku 胆大小心録 (Records of Courage and Caution, 1808). He employs the term to refer to written Japanese as opposed to the Chinese style of writing. However, it was above all at the beginning of the Meiji period, and in particular, as we shall see, in the writing of Maejima Hisoka that this word frequently appeared.

37 The term kokuji has three accepted meanings: a) it appeared during the Edo period, in particular in the work of Honda Toshiaki (see P. Griolet, op. cit., p. 27) who, arguing in favour of the alphabet, speaks of the “national script” of European countries and criticises that of China with its innumerable characters; b) it refers specifically to the Japanese script, and thus kana, as opposed to the Chinese script (this is the case, for example, when Kaibara Ekiken in the Yōjōkun states that medicine cannot be understood if one reads only the national script (meaning that one must study classical Chinese); c) the word refers – and this is its main usage today – to the Chinese characters created in Japan.

38 Speech published in Kawasumi Tetsuo and Suzuki Takao, op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 94-96.

39 Satō Seijitsu 佐藤誠実, Nihon kyōikushi 日本教育史 (The History of Education in Japan), published by Naka Arata 仲新 and Sakai Yutaka 酒井豊, Heibonsha 平凡社 (Tōyō bunko 東洋文庫 collection), 1973, vol. 2, p. 156.

40 Fukuzawa Yukichi 福澤諭吉, Fukuō jiden 福翁自伝 (The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa), Iwanami shoten 岩波書店 (Iwanami bunko 岩波文庫), 1954, p. 197.

41 In the journal Gakusei 学生, January 1911, quoted in Satō Kiyoji 佐藤喜代治 (ed.), Kokugogaku kenkyū jiten 国語学研究辞典 (Dictionary of National Language Research), Meiji shoin 明治書院, 1977, p. 834.

42 See Céline Nicolas, Construire un homme nouveau, la Restauration du corps par l’éducation physique à l’ère Meiji (Building a New Man: the Restoration of the Body through Physical Education in the Meiji Period), master’s thesis supervised by Emmanuel Lozerand, Inalco, Sept. 2001.

43 Tatsui Baba, An Elementary Grammar of the Japanese Language, with Easy Progressive Exercises, Second & Enlarged Edition, London, Trübner & Co. / New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1888, reprinted in Baba Tatsui zenshū 馬場辰猪全集 (Complete Works of Baba Tatsui), Iwanami shoten, 1987, vol. 1, p. 109.

44 Ibid., pp. 269-270.

45 Essay translated in P. Griolet, op. cit., pp. 50-60. All forty-three issues of the journal, which ran for approximately eighteen months, were translated into English by William Reynolds Braisted with the help of Adachi Yasushi and Kikuchi Yuji, in Meiroku Zasshi: Journal of the Japanese Enlightenment, University of Tokyo Press, 1976.

46 Text sent to the head of the newly founded Daigaku during the fifth month of Meiji 2 (1869), followed by the education minister during the fourth month of Meiji 5. It was first published in issue seven of the journal Yōyōsha-dan 洋々社談 in November 1875. It also appeared in Yoshida Sumio 吉田澄夫 and Inokuchi Yūichi 井之口有一, Kokuji mondai ronshū 国字問題論集 (Collection of Essays on National Language Issues), Toyama-bō 富山房, 1950, pp. 40-41.

47 Prior to the Restoration, Yamauchi Yōdō 山内容堂 (1827-1872) was lord of the Tosa Domain. After some hesitation he sided with those campaigning to overthrow the shogunate and restore the emperor to power. Above all, it must be pointed out that during this time of trouble and uncertainty, Yamauchi attached great importance to educating the young people of his domain.

48 I am very grateful to Professor Andō Takahiro 安藤隆弘 from the university Kawamura gakuen joshi daigaku 川村学園女子大学 who helped me to decipher this text.

49 Nanbu uses the term wagaku 和学 (Japanese studies) to refer to the language style that scholars in this field of study took as their reference, in other words, the native Japanese style developed during the Heian period.

50 The compound word bunmeikoku 文明国 (civilised country) can also be translated as “modern country”. One of the key terms of the period, bunmei kaika 文明開化, literally “opening up to civilisation”, can also be considered to mean “modern”.

51 In many cases the term kokutai 国体, literally “national body”, corresponds to the word “nation” as it is used in French; however, it occasionally takes on connotations of the sacredness of the Japanese nation, connotations which were heightened by the rise of nationalism and militarism. In some cases it can be translated as “national identity”. The word “nation” translates into Japanese as kokumin 国民, a somewhat ambiguous term as it literally means “the people” and is also used with a meaning similar to “citizen” when referring to the Japanese people. The word kokka 国家, literally the “national family”, is also employed frequently but is often confused with “state”. These two terms used together as kokumin kokka translate as “nation state”".

52 This symbol was also called a karigane-ten 雁点 (wild goose mark) because prior to resembling a hook and the katakana symbol re , it looked like a bird in flight.

53 For an in-depth analysis in French, see Jean-Noël Robert, Lectures élémentaires en style sino-japonais (Elementary Readings in Sino-Japanese), Université Paris VII, 1985, and Marguerite-Marie Parvulesco, Écriture, lecture et poésie – Lettrés japonais du 17e au 19e siècle (Writing, Reading and Poetry - Japanese Literati from the 17th to 19th Centuries), Publications Orientalistes de France, 1991.

54 The symbols used for reading Chinese in the Japanese order are indicated in this title.

55 A full translation in French is available in P. Griolet, op. cit., pp. 16-22. The original text can be found in Nishio Minoru 西尾実 and Hisamatsu Sen’ichi 久松潜一 (eds.), Kokugo kokuji kyōiku shiryō sōran 国語国字教育史料総覧 (Overview of Historical Documents on National Language and National Script Education), Kokugo kyōiku kenkyūkai 国語教育研究会, 1969, pp. 17-20.

56 Channing Moore Williams (1829-1910), an American missionary who lived in China for several years before moving to Japan, where he had a religious, intellectual and social activity. In particular, he founded the modern-day Rikkyō University.

57 This institution was founded during Ansei 安政 3 (1856) at Kudanzaka, close to the Imperial Palace, and was known as Bansho shirabejo 蕃書調所 (Centre for the Study of Barbarian Books). It was then renamed Yōsho shirabejo 洋書調所 (Centre for the Study of Western Books) in Bunkyū 文久 2 (1862), at a time when it had around 100 students. In Genji 元治 1 (1864), it was reorganised around the western school model with an education and research programme focused on five languages: Dutch, English, French, German and Russian. Different departments were established, such as astronomy, geography, maths and economics. It then became the Kaiseijo (“Centre for Development and Achievement”), borrowing its name from an expression in the Yiking 易経. After the Meiji Restoration it changed names successively to Kaisei Gakkō 開成学校, Daigakukō 大学校 and Daigaku Nankō 大学南校, before forming the core of the present-day Tokyo University (Kokushi daijiten henshū iinkai, op. cit., vol. 11, p. 781).

58 Hirai Masao 平井昌夫, Kokugo kokuji mondai no rekishi 国語国字問題の歴史 (History of the National Language and National Script Debate), Shōrinsha 昭林社, 1948, p. 159.

59 Yamaguchi Osamu 山口修, Maejima Hisoka 前島密, Yoshikawa Kōbunkan 吉川弘文館 (Jinbutsu sōsho collection 人物叢書), 1990.

60 Noguchi Takehiko 野口武彦, Sanninshō no hakken made 三人称の発見まで (The Path to the Discovery of the Third Person), Chikuma shobō 筑摩書房, 1994, p. 195.

61 Yasuda Toshiaki 安田敏朗, Teikoku Nihon no gengo hensei 帝国日本の言語編制 (Language Organisation in Imperial Japan), Yokohama 横浜, Seori shobō 世織書房, 1997, p. 35.

62 Pages 101-105.

63 Osa Shizue 長志珠絵, Kindai nihon to kokugo nashonarizumu 近代日本と国語ナショナリズム (Modern Japan and National Language Nationalism), 吉川弘文館 Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1998, p. 57.

64 The italics indicate passages in the Japanese text where hiragana are replaced by katakana.

65 Text published in Inokuchi Yūichi 井之口有一, Meiji igo no kanji seisaku 明治以後の漢字政策 (Policy on Chinese Characters since the Meiji Period), Nihon gakujutsu shinkōkai 日本学術振興会, 1982, pp. 22-26, and in Nishio Minoru 西尾實 and Hisamatsu Sen’ichi 久松潛一 (eds.), Kokugo kokuji kyōiku shiryō sōran 国語国字教育史料総覧 (Overview of Historical Documents on National Language and National Script Education), Kokugo kyōiku kenkyūkai 国語教育研究会, 1969, pp. 107-109. 

66 Maejima Hisoka Denki Kankōkai 前島密伝記刊行会 (ed.), Maejima Hisoka jijoden 前島密自叙伝 (Autobiography of Maejima Hisoka), 1956, pp. 178-179.

67 A professional soldier entrusted with repressing the revolts of the “Freedom and People’s Rights Movement” in 1881 and with pacifying Taiwan when he was named the island’s first Governor-General in 1895.

68 Text published in Nishio, M., op. cit., pp. 92-110. The Chinese character used in the author’s first name, Takashi, is often given the Sino-Japanese reading Kei, in particular in historical texts.

69  Takahama Kyoshi, “Genbun itchi”, quoted by Christophe Marquet, La revue Hototogisu et l’art du croquis sur le vif – 1898-1900 (The Journal Hototogisu and the Art of Sketching from Nature), unpublished master’s thesis, supervised by Jean-Jacques Origas, Inalco, 1989, p. 276.

70 Essay that appeared in the journal Taiyō from 28 August 1895, published in Nishio, M., op. cit., pp. 79-82.

71 A major intellectual figure of the Meiji period who taught at the Bansho Torishirabejo at the end of the Edo period, was a member of the Meiji 6 Society (Meirokusha) and later became the first director of education at Tokyo University.

72 It should be noted that although a special case is made here of written correspondence, there is no mention of so-called "respectful language" (sonkeigo 尊敬語), an issue that is often raised today. In fact, epistolary correspondence and respectful language are intricately linked since, as in French, it is in letters that respectful and humble expressions are crucially important and can be highly sophisticated.

73  Inokuchi, Y., op. cit., p. 30.

74 Educator and education official who adopted pioneering positions and founded the experimental school Seijō.

75 In middle schools (chūgakkō 中学校), on the other hand, this new subject was known as kokugo kanbun 国語漢文 (national language and Chinese texts), revealing the continued importance of studying the Chinese classics in higher levels of education.

76 Ōno Susumu 大野晋 (ed.), Kokugo kōza, Kokugo kokuji mondai 国語講座国語国字問題, 1977, Iwanami shoten, p. 271. Sasaki Kazuji 佐々木一二, Kokugo kyōzai no hensen 国語教材の変遷, Meiji shoin 明治書院, 1934, pp. 41-42. Watanabe Shigeru 渡辺茂, Kokugo kyōiku-shi 国語教育史, 1933, p. 31 and pp. 72-76.

77 Previous readers included between 1,500 and 2,000. Based on Kokuritsu Kokugo Kenkyūsho 国立国語研究所 (ed.), Kokutei tokuhon yōgo sōran 国定読本用語総覧, Sanseidō 三省堂, 1985, vol. 1, p. 6.

78 Inokuchi, Y., op. cit., pp. 393-394 and Nishio, M., op. cit., pp. 832-878.

79 In fact, the 1900 instructions also specified that it was acceptable to teach common simplified forms of characters.

80 List drawn up in 1948 (881 characters) and expanded in 1966 by the addition of 115 characters. In 1989 it was increased to 1,006 characters (see the comparative table in the appendix).

81  Inokuchi, Y., op. cit., pp. 26-27.

82 On the subject of kana orthography see P. Griolet, « L’orthographe du japonais et les ’études nationales’ » (Japanese Orthography and “National Studies”), Cipango, Cahier d’études japonaises, no 3, November 1994, Inalco, p. 7-36, and « L’intervention de Mori Ōgai dans le débat sur l’écriture japonaise » (The Role of Mori Ōgai in the Japanese Script Debate), Cipango, Cahier d’études japonaises, no 4, November 1995, Inalco, p. 49-83.

83 Bunkachō 文化庁 (ed), Kokugo shirīzu 国語シリーズ, vol. 1 (Kokugo no mondai 国語の問題), pp. 146-147.

Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Pascal Griolet, « Language, script and modernity  », Cipango - French Journal of Japanese Studies [Online], 2 | 2013, Online since 02 June 2013, connection on 16 February 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cjs/288 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cjs.288

Top of page

About the author

Pascal Griolet

By this author

Top of page

Copyright

Creative Commons License
Cipango – French Journal of Japanese Studies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Top of page
  • Logo Centre d’Etudes Japonaises | Inalco
  • OpenEdition Journals