What Global English Means
for World Literature

Haruo Shirane

Globalization is one of the great issues facing universities today, particularly in humanities departments. It means different things to different people, but most agree that globalization pluralizes. In the words of Jonathan Arac, globalization “opens up every local, national or regional culture to others and thereby produces ‘many worlds.’” However, this rapid pluralization is occurring in the age of English, when a single language has achieved a dominance hitherto unknown in world history. As a result, the many worlds opened up by globalization are increasingly likely to be known through that single language alone.

The combination of globalization and “Globlish” paradoxically tends to flatten foreign cultures even as it enhances their accessibility. Minae Mizumura’s recent book, The Fall of Language in the Age of English (skillfully translated from the Japanese by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter) reveals the various consequences of that flattening from the perspective of a prominent writer working in a non-European language. For those living in the Anglosphere, no barrier seems to stand between their world and the many other worlds that now appear at the push of a button. But for those outside that world, particularly in non-European countries, the literary and linguistic consequences of globalization in the age of English can often be severe.

Mizumura’s book met with fierce hostility in Japan when it first came out in 2008. The original Japanese title means literally “when the Japanese language falls: in the age of English.” Largely because of the provocative title, which suggests the imminent demise of Japanese, it caused a furor and became an Internet sensation in which legions of bloggers gave their opinions, sometimes without even bothering to read the book. Mizumura was attacked from both ends of the political spectrum. On the right she was criticized as anti-Japanese and anti-nationalist for implying that the Japanese language had weakened in the face of English. In the book, she advocated returning to the great Japanese novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which she considered the peak of modern Japanese literature and a means to revitalizing literary Japanese and Japanese language education as a whole. This stance caused her to be attacked on the left as reactionary and elitist, as a writer who harked back to the dark pre–World War II days and the country’s imperialist past.

The fierce argument across digital media helped make The Fall of Language in the Age of English a national best seller (a rare phenomenon for such an academic book), with over 65,000 copies sold to date, and stirred a national debate about the weaknesses of both Japanese and English education in Japan. Despite the book’s title, Mizumura does not actually believe that the Japanese language is about to collapse; instead she is concerned about the diminishing quality of literary Japanese and the fate of contemporary Japanese literature in an era of English.

Why was Mizumura’s book translated into English? What can this book teach those who know little or nothing about Japanese literature and will probably never read Japanese? The book challenges us to reconsider global literature in an age of English, and it reminds us of the value of reading literature in the original, whatever that language may be. Mizumura traces the rise and decline of modern national literatures, using the example of Japanese literature. In the process she raises key questions about the relationship of local vernaculars to what she calls “national language” and the complex relationship of that national language to the new “universal” language (English), particularly as these concern a writer working in a non-Roman script or non-phonetic writing system.

<i>A reproduction of the original printing of Natsume Sōseki’s 1914 novel</i> Kokoro

By “national language,” Mizumura means a local spoken language that has become a standardized, written, print language bound up with the identity of a modern nation-state; it differs from “local language” in that it takes on many of the important functions of “universal language,” particularly by translating into the national language the advanced knowledge carried by the universal language. In the medieval and early modern periods, transnational languages such as Latin, Arabic, or literary Chinese served as the language of high culture and technology; in the modern period, “national languages” have taken on that role. However, unlike the premodern period, when there were multiple “universal” (transnational, cosmopolitan) languages, or the modern period (late 19th and the first half of the 20th century for Japan), in which national languages and national literatures flourished, the present age has seen a single tongue become the one and only universal language. English’s dominance in all spheres from science to literature is far greater than that of the earlier cosmopolitan languages such as Latin in medieval Europe, literary Chinese in East Asia, Arabic in the Middle East, or French in 19th-century Europe. Because there are now more literate people than at any other time in world history and because of new technologies that create global simultaneity on an unprecedented scale, English now penetrates every sphere.

Much has been said recently about the growth of world literature in the age of globalization, but this has overwhelmingly come from those writing in English and/or dealing with literatures in the Romance languages. For example, Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters ([1999] 2004) traces the rise and dominance of French language and literature; David Damrosch’s What Is World Literature? (2003) examines the ways in which literature travels around the world, either in translation or from one language to another, often following trade routes. In secondary and higher education in the United States, the traditional canons of national literature have been expanded or broken up to include a larger corpus of literature from around the world. However, almost all of the literature dealt with in these studies is based on European languages, and these representatives of “world literature” are read almost entirely in English translation.

The assumptions of this Anglophone view of “world literature” are reflected in the genres and texts that have been chosen by Anglophone critics and scholars to represent “world literature.” Franco Moretti, for example, in his attempt to draw up a “world literary” map, ends up focusing on such modern European-based themes and genres as the “rise of the novel.” In most of Asia, the so-called novel was a minor genre, not even considered serious literature until the 19th century, mostly under the impact of the European novel, while poetry (particularly the lyric), historical writings (chronicles and biographies), and philosophical writing were central. Compared to educated Europeans, until the modern period, elite East Asians (especially Confucian literati) had a very low view of fiction, at least on the surface, and almost all canonical literary genres were thought to be direct reflections of individual or historical experience. In other words, the very notion of “world literature” that has emerged in English largely reflects the modern European notion of literature as imaginative narrative, with particular emphasis on the epic, the novel, and the short story.

In The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Mizumura, a leading contemporary Japanese novelist who was educated (from high school through graduate school) in the United States and returned to Japan to become a writer, asks a fundamental question: what is the position of non-English-language writers (particularly non-European writers) in a global world so thoroughly dominated by English that no writer can escape its weighty impact? In the opening chapter, which describes her experience at an International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, she points to a hierarchy among literary languages, in which languages at the bottom are dying at an unprecedented rate, like animals and plants affected by severe environmental change, with English overrunning and homogenizing what had been a highly diversified linguistic landscape.

English is now the lingua franca of East Asia, an area that saw less occupation by European powers than did Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia.

What Mizumura calls a “universal language” is not determined by the number of its speakers of that language but by the number who depend on it for their survival. Outside of the Anglo-European sphere, a linguistic and cultural hierarchy has emerged in which English, with its access to the latest knowledge and technology, stands at the top, while national and other local languages stand below; most nonnative English writers strive to be bilingual, but it is a severely asymmetrical relationship. Historically, in Mizumura’s words, “the universal [now English], which society places above the local, is assigned the heavy responsibility of aspiring to the highest excellence, not only aesthetically but also intellectually and ethically. In contrast, even if it has a writing system, the lower-ranking local language is primarily intended for only uneducated men and women.”

The equation of English with elite status may account for the influx of Chinese students into American private and public universities. These Chinese students, whose parents have made it into the top economic strata in mainland China, pay exorbitantly high tuition in order for their children to acquire the “universal language” of science, business, statistics, and other fields. Today, there are more speakers of Mandarin Chinese in the world than of English, but their native tongue is far from the “universal” language. English is now the lingua franca of East Asia, an area that saw less occupation by European powers than did Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia, and where—with a few exceptions such as Hong Kong, Vietnam, and the Philippines—the European colonizers left much less of a linguistic imprint.

Having existed for most of its recorded history in a bilingual culture that depended on the reading or translation of the cosmopolitan literary Chinese for its survival, the Japanese have long been adept translators. From the late 19th century, in the race to catch up with modern institutions and technologies of Europe, the Japanese feverishly translated European languages into modern Japanese, introducing key Western terms and ideas, usually using Chinese graphs. In the pre-WWII era, Chinese and Korean students came to study in Tokyo—then the Asian metropole—and this practice transferred key words and ideas to China and Korea. Japan remains one of the most prolific translating nations in the world, and many of the titles in its bookstores are in katakana, the syllabary used for foreign words. But now Chinese and Korean students rarely bother to study in Japan (having no need for Japanese as an intermediary); instead, they come to universities in the global metropole, the United States. Today, when Japanese and Chinese tourists and businesspeople converse with one another, they do so in English.

At the heart of The Fall of Language in the Age of English is an extended debate with Benedict Anderson’s classic account of linguistic nationalism in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983). Mizumura agrees with Anderson’s basic argument that national languages, the vernacular or local language employed by a nation-state, gave birth to national literatures, which in turn helped to build and solidify nation-states—the “imagined communities” for which millions of people have sacrificed their lives. She lauds Anderson for showing how the rise of “print capitalism” was an integral part of the process by which vernaculars (especially spoken, local languages) become national (written and printed) languages.

Mizumura, however, sees two major flaws in Anderson’s argument. First: Anderson acknowledges the role of the earlier “sacred languages” such as Latin, which created “religiously imagined communities” such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Confucianism—as well as bilingual writers who worked in both the universal and the local languages. However, he downplays the subsequent impact of “sacred languages” by describing them as essentially religious and elite and thus “arcane,” in contrast to local vernacular languages, which for Anderson represent the masses. For Mizumura, the importance of a “universal language” lies in its ability to allow people speaking different vernaculars to pursue and accumulate advanced knowledge through a common language. It should be added that those “sacred languages,” like the “universal languages” of the modern period (such as French and then English), were closely linked to empire-building and were by no means limited to elite users.

Traditionally, writing in East Asia has been an aesthetic phenomenon that gives equal weight to the imagistic and textual dimensions of writing.

Moreover, Mizumura underscores how Anderson fails to see the radical difference in status among vernaculars. Some vernaculars, such as English, French, Dutch, and German, became major print languages, with French reigning as the supreme literary vernacular (as Casanova has shown) before it was overtaken by English, which became the undisputed hegemon; other vernaculars were not so fortunate. This blind spot emerges, Mizumura argues, because Anderson (though a scholar of Southeast Asia) is working in that universal language. The stress that Anderson and other Anglo-European-based scholars place on “multilingualism” and on the vernacular mistakenly suggests that all vernaculars operate on a level playing field.

In the late 19th century, Japan followed the trajectory of many European countries in building a strong modern nation-state centered on the identity of its national language, but, as Mizumura points out, that national language did not directly emerge out of the vernacular. Japanese was not, like modern European languages, a written version of the local, spoken language. Instead, the national language of modern Japan depended on a long tradition of writing that mixed logograms and phonograms, a complex notational system that resulted in a rich literary tradition in which writing did not correspond directly with speech. As a written language, Japanese developed what Mizumura calls a “mesmerizing polyphony,” a complex notation system that combines logographic and phonographic use of characters from Chinese with two different sets of native syllabary (kana).

To give a simple example, a name in Germanic or Romance languages may contain recognizable etymological stems, but there is only one reading: the way it is pronounced. A name in Japanese, however, can be represented in a myriad of ways, depending on the graph or graph compound. The name “Haruo,” for example, can be represented by a range of different compound graphs, extending in meaning from “spring man” and “governing husband” to “clear brave male.” The name exists on at least two levels: that of the sound and that of the semantic meaning of the graph. Furthermore, the same graph can be read different ways.

A single page of an English novel contains only the letters of the Roman alphabet, thus looking very plain in comparison with a single page of a late 19th- or early 20th-century Japanese novel, which is filled not only with letters from the two different syllabaries but also with Chinese graphs (carrying aural and/or semantic functions) and what are called furigana, small letters placed alongside the graphs that give those graphs a particular or alternative phonetic reading and meaning. The Japanese had access to printing technology as early as the 8th century and used moveable type by the late 16th century, but they chose to remain with xylography (engravings on wood), largely to accommodate this polyphonic writing and to enhance the aesthetic dimension of the book. Woodblock printing enabled the free combination of text and picture at low cost, spurring genres such as the modern manga, a sophisticated comic book genre that is a major part of Japanese popular culture today. Traditionally, writing in East Asia has been an aesthetic phenomenon that gives equal weight to the imagistic and textual dimensions of writing. This is evident in the high place accorded to calligraphy, long considered the equivalent of poetry and painting. Word processing for a complex writing system like Japanese was initially time-consuming and slow, but once the technical difficulties were mastered, it led to such innovations as emoji (a Japanese word literally meaning “picture words”), with its smiley faces and other pictures (sometimes animated), a more three-dimensional form of writing that is potentially far more multisensory and polyphonic than the Roman script on paper.

From the 19th century onward, European imperial powers attempted to impose their own languages on the colonized, or, at the very least, to enforce the use of the Roman script. Japan was no exception. As Mizumura points out, the Japanese writing system repeatedly faced the danger of Europe-based phonocentricism, in which repeated attempts were made in the modern period (from the late 19th century) to flatten Japanese into a European-style language, to make the Japanese written language a phonetic one, either by romanizing its alphabet (as happened in Vietnam) or by expunging the large number of Chinese-derived graphs embedded in its writing system (as is now occurring with Korean). Each attempt to romanize Japanese was defeated, but the adaptation of a new orthographic system during the US occupation, which brought spoken and written Japanese into closer proximity, created a break between post-WWII Japanese writing and late 19th- and early 20th-century literature. As a result, earlier Japanese literature has become increasingly difficult for Japanese high school and college students to read. The impact of English as a hegemonic language in Japan appears not just in the practical need to use English per se, but in the phonocentric model that it represents.

A Japanese National Railways sign at Toyooka Station, Hyōgo Prefecture, employing a mix of romanization systems. Wikimedia Commons

In Japan, during the Meiji era (1868–1912), the vernacular novel became, at least for a time, the premier genre for the pursuit of knowledge. Japan produced a rich national literature, centered on authors such as Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) for whom the novel became the ultimate vehicle for exploring the large questions of the day in ways that combined the local and the global. The specific example that Mizumura gives is Sōseki’s Sanshirō, a novel “exemplifying national literature in which a character critiques his own country and people from a global perspective” (emphasis in the original).

Mizumura argues that Japan managed to produce a major “national literature” at the end of the 19th century against all odds. This modern “miracle” occurred for three basic reasons. First, as an island nation off the coast of a major civilization, Japan was both geographically close to the regional “universal” language of the premodern and early modern periods (literary Chinese), yet far enough away from the yoke of the Chinese imperial examination system (which dominated the Korean peninsula) to establish its own literary tradition very early, in the 10th and 11th centuries, at least two centuries before the development of vernacular literatures in Europe. Second, Japan enjoyed what Benedict Anderson calls “print capitalism” since the 17th century, during the Edo period, which created an infrastructure and market for mass publishing and the commodification of literature. Third, Japan escaped colonization at the peak of Western imperial expansion, avoiding a situation like that of the Philippines, which became an American colony where English thoroughly dominated the local language.

In my view, it should be stressed that Japan itself became a major imperial power in the first half of the 20th century, closely resembling other imperial powers such as Great Britain, France, and the United States. In the process, Japan forced its colonies Korea and Taiwan to make Japanese their official language; and it made Koreans take on Japanese names. The imposition of Japanese as the national language on Taiwan and Korea was made possible in part because those countries were within the Sinosphere and already used Chinese graphs; the imposition also belonged to a larger imperial strategy that sometimes included banning English. The formation of Japan’s “national literature” thus coincided with Japan becoming a modernized nation and a major empire intent on extending its geographical and linguistic reach, much like its Western counterparts; while Japan managed to escape linguistic colonization by the United States and European powers, it forced others into an asymmetrical, hierarchical bilingualism that ended only with Japan’s defeat in World War II.

Given what she sees as the declining quality of Japanese language and literature, Mizumura advocates that young Japanese study the modern (late 19th- and early 20th-century) canon of Japanese literature, which can provide the foundation for a vibrant contemporary literature. Taking such a position today in Japan, Mizumura points out, is regarded as politically incorrect; in the post-WWII period, Japanese intellectuals, showing their “guilt” for Japan’s wartime failings, moved en masse to the left and rejected the imperial past, refusing to view their own national language in any positive or rational light. In Mizumura’s view, the deterioration of modern Japanese literature has been occurring over an extended period of time, but with the acceleration of globalization and the increasing dominance of English, a healthy recovery of the Japanese literary past may become very difficult. The danger is that young Japanese may not even bother to familiarize themselves with their own modern classics. At the same time, young Japanese students continue to struggle with speaking English since the separation of speaking and writing in Japan extends even to foreign-language education, which focuses almost entirely on grammar and written language.

The originality of Mizumura’s book for Western audiences is that it raises the issue of national and universal languages from the perspective of a major non-European, non-phonocentric literary language that existed in a bilingual state both in the premodern past and in the present. To this broad frame Mizumura has added the critical dimension of the fate of “national languages” in the age of English and the role of the modern novel, which, at least for a limited time, became a vehicle for contemplation of the local in a larger global context. As a writer who was educated in the United States but who never left Japan linguistically, Mizumura has the rare advantage of examining the influence and power of the English language on the world stage even as she looks at it as an outsider, as a Japanese novelist. Through this broader perspective, Mizumura brings out features of literary Japanese that even scholars of Japanese language and literature, not to mention those outside Japanese studies, have hitherto failed to understand.