Structo talks to Minae Mizumura

“I was fixated by Japanese literature—all I could think about was going back one day, and to write in Japanese.”

This interview first appeared in Issue 16, published February 2017.

For the novelist and writer Minae Mizumura, The Fall of Language in the Age of English is more than just an attention-grabbing title—it’s a clarion call. In the book, Mizumura examines the place of local and national languages in a world dominated by English. It was published in Japanese in 2008 to equal measures of high praise and vocal criticism, with a translation into English following in 2015. The Fall of Language a fascinating book: academic enough to make an impact, but written with the light touch of a novelist.
We talked, in English, in Kyoto. —Euan

When did the fall of Japanese begin?

That’s difficult to say, and some of the reasons behind the fall have nothing to do with the rise of English. But I need to make one thing clear. I’m not saying that the dominance of English is bad in itself, because there has to be a universal language. Every literate society had a universal language that allowed you to communicate with the outside world. There have been numerous regional universal languages in the past: Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Chinese. But as the world got this closely knit—where you can communicate with someone on the other side of the Earth in less than a second—we were bound to end up with a single universal language. It just so happens that English became that language. There was no intrinsic necessity. The reason for its predominance was purely historical: British colonial rule followed by the rise of the United States. And now all countries that use languages other than English have to cope with this situation in one way or another. On the one hand, you have countries that are very conscious of the threat of English, and on the other hand, you have those that are blissfully unthinking. Japan, I almost think, is the least conscious of all because we’ve never been exposed to linguistic invasions from the outside. We never felt the need to protect our own language and that may be one reason for the fall of Japanese.

At that far end of the scale would perhaps be a language like French, which has protections for the language enshrined into law?

French has been the lingua franca of Europe for the last three centuries, and people are still proud of the past glory of their language. They are trying what they can to maintain the level of their language at its highest. The Japanese people are the exact opposite. I’m not aware of a country which has such a long literary tradition that is as unthinking as Japan about cherishing their written language. I think this has a lot to do with Japan being an island nation in the Far East. The country was farthest removed from the Western powers and so it luckily escaped colonization. It was also pretty far from Korea and China. We never felt we needed to protect anything that’s our own. But I think now it’s crumbling down, and—

What is crumbling down?

The isolation. Geographical isolation started to crumble in the nineteenth century, but we didn’t feel it to this extent until recently. In understanding how a country shapes itself, you have to look at maritime technology of the time. The reason that England has always been so much a part of Europe… [Pause, laughter] … is that with relatively primitive maritime technology you could easily go back and forth to trade, wage wars and so on.

You make the point in the book that you could swim.

Yes, you could swim! But Japan was too distant. We just tried to learn what we could from China, the higher culture. When we opened the door to the West, we switched affiliation and tried to learn what we could from the West, the new higher culture. And then came World War II and the American occupation. Americans thought we should break away from our past which they thought was awfully medieval, and we eagerly did as told. They actually even wanted us to get rid of the Chinese characters—and we nearly did so. Even after the occupation forces left, our intellectuals, who naturally repented what we did in Asia, led people to deny everything Japanese. For a long time, you couldn’t say anything positive about Japan. If you dared talk about the importance of preserving the Japanese language or reading the Japanese classics, even the modern classics, you were labelled a reactionary. It was almost as bad as committing war crimes all over again, you know?

Did that apply across the arts as well?

The more the art form could contain a message, the more it applied. Some kabuki repertoires, for example, were banned for a while. The American occupation forces didn’t want anything that they feared might give rise to nationalism once again.

You left Japan when you were 12 years old, and spent 20 years outside of the country. Those are some very formative years.

Yes, very.

You studied French literature at university.

I first went to an art school because that required little English but I was no artist, so I decided to switch to French literature. It was a lady-like thing to learn French at that time. This was in the early 70s. I spent one year in Paris with a French family, then majored in French literature at Yale. I was already married to a Japanese man—I married very young —and he kept on teaching at the university. I had nothing else to do but to go to grad school, so I did. I don’t know if you’ve been to New Haven, but it’s a sad town. At least it was when I was there. You had to go to school, there was nothing else to do! [Laughs]

So you had a viewpoint on three languages: looking back at Japanese from the United States, looking at French from the United States, and being Japanese in an English-speaking environment. It’s interesting that you eventually decided to return to Japan. Was the reason a pragmatic one?

While I was in American high school, all I did was to read Japanese novels at home. My parents had brought tonnes of them when we moved. If I had come from a country that didn’t have such a huge corpus of literature, things might have turned out differently. I might have tried a bit harder to learn English. But that wasn’t the case. And when you can read adult stuff from age 12, it’s just so much more fun than reading what you’re given at school. Looking back, I think I had a very privileged education in Japanese literature because I had left Japan at a young age. Ever since then, I was fixated by Japanese literature—modern literature—and all I could think about was going back one day, and to write in Japanese.

Speaking of French, though, it seems like a lot of books enter translation more widely after having first been translated into French. Are readers in France just more open to the idea?

I’m sure they are. And they have government subsidies for translations. My book is out in French. Not The Fall but the one before. I was speaking to the editor, and she said that in her long career that particular book was the only one she somehow couldn’t get a subsidy for! The funding is shrinking, though, because the French economy isn’t doing so well.

You clearly make the distinction in the book between the written language and the spoken one, and how, throughout history, even if you couldn’t speak a language you might be able to read it. In the mind of many English native speakers, perhaps because international travel is so easy these days, it’s often the other way around. Speaking comes first.

When Latin was the universal language of Europe, hardly anyone spoke it. But, at some point, Europeans began translating Latin into their mother tongue. They then began writing in it. This led to the creation of what I call “national languages”. The process took a long time, let’s say, from the fourteenth to the twentieth century. As people grew used to writing in their mother tongue, the notion that writing is merely a representation of spoken language began to take root, and now, when you think of language, you first think of spoken language. This tendency is being reinforced by the new technologies—such as videos—which don’t necessarily require us to distinguish between the written and the spoken. This primacy given to speaking is called phonocentrism: we now put so much emphasis on spoken words that we often fail to examine what writing is, how profoundly it affects us humans, how it transforms us. You really have to separate the written and spoken when you think about language. Of course, pedagogically, it’s difficult to say which one should come first. If you are Dutch or Scandinavian, being exposed to spoken English from early on makes it possible for you to make a smooth transition to reading and writing in English. Their language is so close to English. And if you’re Japanese, such a smooth transition is nearly impossible.

Is English mandatory in the Japanese school system?

Yes. There was a big controversy but they now started teaching it in the elementary school, just speaking and listening. Most language specialists don’t think it would be effective with Japanese students. Having an hour of English a day for two or three days a week won’t turn them into bilinguals. It’s better for them to start at age 12 or so, because they would then have a solid foundation in their mother tongue and a better comprehension of how logic works.

Have any of your recommendations been taken up by officials in the Japanese school system?

Would any officials listen to a woman novelist? I’m afraid not. But many influential people really liked the book so we may see some changes in the future.

It takes time.

It takes time, yes.

Your second novel is called An I-Novel from Left to Right, at least partially because of the way it’s written. Can you explain a little about where that came from?

Japanese literature is still written vertically. You see books on mathematics or science written horizontally, but you hardly ever see a literary work written “from left to right”. Because my novel was a quasi-autobiographical work about my American experience, I mixed in some English, well, lots of English. It was so much trouble constantly tilting your head to read the English parts! One day someone said: just do everything horizontally!

What are you working on at the moment?

My time has perversely been taken up by English translations. [Laughs] The Fall was my second English translation, and I just handed in my third [translation]. A wonderful translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter, did the translation but I went over everything with her. Now I can finally go back to writing in Japanese. But you see, I don’t write in Japanese because I want to save the language; I do it because I enjoy it. As a fiction writer you basically don’t write in order to make the world a better place; you’re rather egotistical. If you wanted to do some good, you do something else; you work for an organisation that really helps people.

Despite having written a book whose original title is The Fall of Japanese in the Age of English, are you optimistic about the future of Japanese literature?

[Pause] We have to first ask ourselves whether we can be optimistic about the future of the Earth. The viability of Earth itself is a little bit shaky. That would come before being optimistic about Japanese literature.

Let’s say for the moment that the world will continue rotating. Do you think that in a hundred years’ time, good novels will be written in Japanese?

Well, that’s the ultimate question I keep asking myself. Today there are more women writers than male writers in Japan. Established authors still tend to be male because they are older, but from my generation and younger I think women writers have become more common. And that may not be a good sign for Japanese literature.

Why is that?

Because it means men think they have better things to do. Women are usually paid very low wages in Japan. They are not losing anything by becoming a writer. [Laughs]

And on that note! [Laughter]

But I still think that there will always be people who are destined to write. If we give Japan a hundred years, I’m sure those people would pop up. At least, I should hope so. Let’s end it with that!