English at the Crossroads
by John Pereira

Japan's economic success is a double-edged sword. It has brought both promise and predicament to the Japanese, a normally shy and closed people who are now being expected to shoulder a greater responsibility as one of the world's economically preeminent powers. But are the Japanese up to it?

For all of Japan's technological advancement, her record of explaining her point of view to the outside world has been pathetic.

As a result, the Japanese are perceived internationally as a group of enigmatic businessmen who are better at clinching contracts and concocting electronic gadgets than becoming part of the world community.

Modern Japan dates from the end of the Second World War. The country had crumbled not only physically, but also psychologically and emotionally. In short, she was a nation reduced to zero. The only road open to recovery in 1945 was to emulate the victor, and so began the long process of Americanization.

This process, along with the tremendous importance of importing things American, had a profound effect on Japan's subsequent development. By and large, the adopted American model has proven successful in almost all areas, with one extremely prominent exception: language.

This seems somewhat of a paradox, and 37 years later the Japanese are perplexed as to why English does not work. As with the proverbial blind men floundering around the elephant, there is a multitude of explanations: the examination system, the translation methods, too much emphasis on writing, ad infinitum, The experts speak mainly in terms of methodology, but surely you do not need seven ways to teach "This is a pen." Neither are six ways needed to listen; three to repeat; and a dozen to write. On top of that, my question to the experts is "What if it isn't a pen?"

The problem may lie elsewhere. Before the war, Okakura Tenshin explained the aesthetics of Tea in a way that the West could understand and appreciate. Daisetsu Suzuki wrote of Zen for an audience nurtured on Aristotelian logic so effectively that he was able to win tolerance and respect for the Eastern approach to life. Both of these men wrote in English.

The post-war scenario has considerably changed, and I find it hard to see the emergence of another Suzuki or Okakura in the near future. Today, there is a failure to communicate mundane aspects of Japanese life and society to other nations, let alone Zen or Tea. Too many seem to wallow in meaningless labels, such as "inscrutable," "enigmatic," "unique," ad nauseum. These are poor excuses, and what is worse, Japanese wonder why they are misunderstood.

English, especially American English in this case, is out of place in Japan because its value system is Western. The idiom suits the American temperament, but not the Japanese. At best, most English speakers here are mildly ridiculous to those who have really mastered the language. The other side of the coin is that Japanese who have mastered the language are often looked at as being "odd" by their compatriots.

As an Indian who has been writing in English for many years, I feel my country has many lessons for Japan. For almost 200 years, Indians have laboriously copied classical English models and we have created a vast body of pseudo-Macaulies and pseudo-Chestertons. Ours was a love-hate relationship, involving a pure dislike of our colonial masters, but yet a burning desire to write and use their language fluently.

It has only been in the post-independence period that Indian English has reached maturity. R. K. Narayan, one of our foremost writers, writes in English and has been compared to Tolstoy, Conrad, and Henry James. In many ways, he marks the beginning of a tradition. He has buried the ghosts of imitation and self-consciousness to give Indian English a life and vibrancy all its own. There is a world of difference between "communicative" English and "imitative" English. In the case of Japan, textbooks should reflect Japanese values, situations, and characteristics. Professors should stop spending an entire semester or year teaching a single book of Milton or a half-dozen Shakespearean sonnets. Few English literature "majors" of my acquaintance know anything of current English writers of any nationality.

This will take some time. But what cannot wait is for the Japanese to develop, for reasons of communicating with the rest of the world, an English that both they and their readers can appreciate.

Courtesy of the Mainichi Daily News, October 4, 1982