Is Technology Dumbing Down Japanese?

Emily Parker – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
When I first moved to Kyoto in 1999, I knew about 50 words of Japanese. My attempts to string together a few broken phrases were met with excessive praise, and I assumed everyone was being nice. “No,” I remember my friend Yuki saying. “People mean it. They really are impressed.”
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Times Topics: Japan
She was referring to the widespread belief that Japanese, with its nuanced formal expressions and three different writing systems, is a uniquely complex language. How could a foreigner possibly learn it? Even Japanese people make mistakes. Former Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose Liberal Democratic Party’s more than half-­century in power came to a crashing end this past August, might go down in history for having publicly misread Japanese kanji, or characters. He was hardly the first native speaker to bungle the language. “Many otherwise educated people have trouble writing a logical, grammatically correct sentence,” said Michaela Komine, an Australian who spent eight years working as a Japanese-English translator in Osaka.
Now the Japanese language is being transformed by blogs, e-mail and keitai shosetsu, or cellphone novels. Americans may fret over the ways digital communications encourage sloppy grammar and spelling, but in Japan these changes are much more wrenching. A vertically written language seems to be becoming increasingly horizontal. Novels are being written and read on little screens. People have gotten so used to typing on computers that they can no longer write characters by hand. And English words continue to infiltrate the language.
So what do these changes mean for a language long defined by indirect locutions and long, leisurely sen­tences that drift from the top of the page? Is Japanese getting simpler, easier or just worse?
On one side of the debate is Minae Mizumura, whose book “The Fall of Japanese in the Age of English” made a splash when it came out in Japan last year. Mizumura contends that the dominance of English, especially with the advent of the Internet, threatens to reduce all other national languages to mere “local” languages that are not taken seriously by scholars. The education system, she argues, doesn’t spend enough time teaching Japanese. “I cannot imagine a country with a highly functioning national language that devotes less time to teaching their own language than to teaching a foreign language,” she wrote in an e-mail message.
The simplification of Japanese really began during the country’s transition to democracy after World War II, according to Mizumura. While the American occupiers did not succeed in persuading Japan to change to the Roman alphabet, Mizumura said, the “pro-phonetic” camp gained momentum, and the Japanese Ministry of Education simplified characters and limited the number of kanji used in the media. As a result, “the older generation — even those who did not go to college — are much more comfortable reading and writing Japanese than the younger generation,” she said. “The Japanese population’s literacy — that is, the capacity to read and enjoy books — slowly declined, and the written language itself accordingly became less rich.”
But other authors embrace the language’s evolution. As Haruki Murakami, Japan’s best-known living novelist, wrote via e-mail, “My personal view on the Japanese language (or any language) is, If it wants to change, let it change. Any language is alive just like a human being, just like you or me. And if it’s alive, it will change. Nobody can stop it.” There is no such thing as simplification of language, he added. “It just changes for better or worse (and nobody can tell if it is better or worse).”
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