Japanese literacy–an SPP reissue

Here’s another re-release from the archives of Sino-Platonic Papers: Computers and Japanese Literacy: Nihonzin no Yomikaki Nôryoku to Konpyûta, by J. Marshall Unger of the Ohio State University’s Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures. The link above is to the PDF version (1.2 MB), which reproduces the original exactly.

This is a parallel text in Japanese (in romanization) and English, so if any of you want to practice reading romaji, here’s your chance.

The English text alone is available in HTML: Computers and Japanese Literacy.

The essay touches on many of themes Unger explores in depth in his books, all of which have excerpts available here on Pinyin Info: The Fifth Generation Fallacy, Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan, and Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning.

Here is the opening, in both English and Japanese (in romanization).

Watakusi wa saikin, gendai no konpyûta siyô to Nihongo ni tuite kenkyu site orimasu. Gengogakusya mo konpyûta no nôryoku ya mondaiten ni tuite iken o happyo suru sekinin ga aru to omou kara desu. I am currently engaged in research on contemporary computer usage and the Japanese language. Linguists too, I believe, have a responsibility to present their views on the potentials and problems of computers.
Sate, Amerika no zen- Kôsei Kyôiku tyôkan, John Gardner-si no kotoba de hazimetai to omoimasu. Sore wa “aizyô nasi no hihan to hihan nasi no aizyô (Eigo de iu to, “unloving criticism and uncritical love”) to iu kotoba desu. Gardner-si wa, Amerikazin no aikokusyugi ni tuite Amerika o sukosi de mo hihan site wa ikenai to syutyô suru hito wa kangaetigai da, aizyô nasi ni syakai ya bunka no ketten o hihan bakari suru koto wa motiron warui keredo, hihan sore zitai o kiratte kokusuisyugi o susumeru koto mo syôrai no tame ni yoku nai, to iimasita. Kono koto wa bokoku igai no syakai to bunka ni tai suru baai de mo onazi de wa nai desyô ka? Gengogakusya ya rekisigakusya mo “aizyô nasi no hihan to hihan nasi no aizyô” to iu ryôkyokutan o sakeru yô ni sita hô ga ii to omou no desu. Watakusi wa Nihon no gengo to bunka o senmon ni site, Nihon ni tai site aizyô o motte orimasu kara koso, Nihongo no hyôkihô ya Nihonzin no yomikaki nôryoku ni tuite no teisetu o mondai ni site iru wake desu. Iwayuru zyôhôka syakai no zidai ni hairi, ippan no hitobito ga pasokon ya wâpuro o kozin-yô ni tukau yô ni naru ni turete, nettowâku tûsin, kyôiku-yô sohutowea, sôzôteki na puroguramingu nado ga yôkyû sarete kite iru desyô. Mosi sono konpon ni aru yomikaki nôryoku no henka to genzyô o gokai sureba, gôriteki na konpyûta siyôhô o kaihatu dekinai darô to omou kara desu. Let me begin by quoting the former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, John Gardner. I am thinking of his phrase “unloving criticism and uncritical love.” By this, he meant that it was wrong for proponents of American patriotism to oppose even the slightest criticism of the United States: although it is bad to dwell unsympathetically on finding fault with social and cultural shortcomings, it is equally bad for the future of society to advance nationalism and eschew all criticism. I think that this is also true when considering foreign societies and cultures. Linguists and historians would do well to avoid the twin extremes of “unloving criticism and uncritical love.” As someone professionally involved with the language and culture of Japan, I have an affection for the country, but for that very reason, I wish to call into question the accepted theory of Japanese script and literacy. As we enter the age of the so-called informational society, and as more and more ordinary people begin to use computers on an individual basis, demands on network communications, educational software, creative programming, and so on, will steadily increase. Unless we understand the present situation and history of literacy, which underlies all these applications, we cannot hope to develop a rational basis for computer usage.
Sate, hyôi mozi to iu kotoba wa Nihongo ni tuite no hon ni yoku dete imasu kara kokugogaku no yôgo da to itte mo ii hodo desu ga, hyôi mozi to iu mono wa zissai ni sonzai site iru desyô ka? Kyakkanteki ni kangaete miru to, dono gengo mo konponteki ni wa hanasu mono desu. Mozi wa syakaiteki, rekisiteki na men ga arimasu ga, mozi wa kotoba no imi no moto de wa arimasen. Tatoeba, itizi mo yomenai mômoku no hito de mo, hoka no syôgai ga nai kagiri, bokokugo ga kanzen ni hanaseru yô ni narimasu. Sitagatte, hanasi-kotoba to wa mattaku kankei ga nai mozi nado to iu mono wa muimi na gainen desu. Gengo no imi wa gengo no kôzô kara hassei si, mozi wa sono han’ei de sika nai wake desu. Kore wa toku ni kore kara no konpyûta o kangaeru toki ni wasurete wa ikemasen…. The term “ideographic characters” appears so often in books on the Japanese language that one might say it has become a stock phrase of Japanese linguistics. I wonder, however, whether such things as “ideographs” actually exist. When examined objectively, all languages are fundamentally speech. Characters are not the source of the meanings of words, although they do have their social and historical aspects. For example, blind people who cannot read a single character can nonetheless speak their native tongues perfectly, unless they suffer from some other handicap. The very idea of characters totally divorced from speech is therefore meaningless. For the meaning of language emerges from the structure of language, of which writing is merely a reflection. It is particularly important that we not forget this when we consider the computers of the future….

This was first published in January 1988 as issue no. 6 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

4 thoughts on “Japanese literacy–an SPP reissue

  1. The idea that Japanese software development is somehow harmed because the languages it uses are “based on English” is straight-up kooky. BASIC may borrow English words like “print” and “for”, but you still have to study programming (formally or informally) to understand how they are used, even if you’re a native English speaker.

    However, I like the distinction between data manipulation and character manipulation. 20 years later, Google has made it all the more relevant. To search for something properly, you usually have to search for it as written several ways. And god help you if the webpage author has helpfully put bracketed furigana inline, like “??????????”.

    That said, the trend has consistently been towards smarter kana/kanji algorithms rather than romaji data. I suppose Unger, though, could argue that defying his predictions like this was the reason that Japan failed to “move into the new world of computers at the same pace as the English-speaking world,” assuming that this is the case (which seems a fair assumption to me, based on anecdotal evidence and my personal experience).

  2. I wonder if he’s aware that Ruby, arguably the hottest (and one of the most advanced) programming languages in use today was created by a Japanese man. Not only that, but many of its libraries are documented only in Japanese. It’s still desirable enough that English speakers are tripping over themselves to learn it.

    It is true that desktop software has been dominated by American companies, but considering video games, cell-phone applications, and CE industries that Japan dominates, a doom and gloom attitude is ridiculous. Compared with any other country, Japan has done very well in computing.

  3. Mark, the author wrote the article in 1988, and work on Ruby started in 1993. So of course the author would have had difficulty being aware of Ruby!

    Funnily enough, in 2007, and unlike pretty much all of today’s mainstream languages, Ruby still does not support Unicode, the industry standard for representing characters from all the languages of the world. This may be the single most annoying thing about Ruby today.

  4. When I was an elementary students, there were no video games, Nintendo, or “family computers”. Most of information were through printed pages and television broadcasting.

    Now, the average Japanese juveniles are using cellularphones as personal communication tool and interactive information device. Many don’t even personal computers to access the Internet.

    Under such a changing situation, the definition of basic linguisitic skill and the appearance of language are also changing. Younger generation don’t pick up dictionaries to look for the Kanji which they don’t understand. They just give up what they have started reading, and seek alternative information source. It’s not only a matter of knowledge and proficiency of Kanji use. The vocabulary of Japanese language in younger generation is changing. The words which need “furigana” or “ruby” are discarded and eliminated from the daily use. The shrinking of the vocabulary is sensed when I try to communicate with those under 30 years old.

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