A New Phase of Japanese Progress
Tokyo, October 2nd, 1885
(From The Times's Tokyo Correspondent)
For nearly twenty years the Western world has been well accustomed to hear of the sweeping political and social changes which have followed one another with a startling rapidity in this interesting country.
Those changes, with hardly an exception, have emanated from the Government, which in Japan enjoys peculair powers of regulating not only affairs of State, but even the national observances and habits.
Of late, however, the people have shown a healthy disposition to start and carry out social reforms independently of the Government; and there is now on foot a measure of this character - a direct and spontaneous outcome of the nation's intellectual growth - which for breadth and novelty, and as a certain means of bringing good upon the country, is at least equal to any that has preceded it.
If we except the movement now in progress in Germany, history furnishes no example of a nation deliberately changing the mode of writing its language.
Yet that is the bold step which a knot of Japanese literati took in hand a few months ago, and which is already in a fair way of being gradually but thoroughly accomplished.
Japan, so far as is known, has never possessed a complete method of writing that could be truly called her own.
On the contrary, she has laboured from early times under the difficulties of the highly cumbrous and complex system of her venerable neighbour, China.
After the advent of Buddhism from that country in the seventh century, the spoken Japanese language of the period soon became largely enriched by Chinese words, and at the same time there was gradually introduced the Chinese ideographic method of writing.
This, in its integrity, as most people know, consists of pictorial symbols, representing objects and ideas, and amounting in number to no fewer than 40,000.
It may be true, as is often claimed, that the principle embodied in this system minimises the expenditure of unconscious mental effort in reading, when once the host of symbols have become sufficiently familiar to the eye.
But the labour of learning to write Chinese can only be described as collosal.
A student who aims at even moderate proficiency must face the appalling task of imprinting accurately on his brain the bewildering forms of at least 10,000 or 12,000 ideographs - or combination of lines, curves, and points - of which, though a very few may be drawn by three or four strokes apiece with the brush, the rest need from ten to upwards of forty distinct movements of the hand for their delineation.
It is, in fact, a work of years to achieve that which with our own alphabet takes only as many weeks, if not days.
Even when the forms have been thus mastered, the mere act of writing is still painfully tiresome and slow; and in consequence of this there arose at least two styles of abbreviated script, the acquisition of which, however, though it certainly lessened the labour of writing, made further heavy calls upon the student's time and fortitude, and more than doubled the load upon his memory.
In Japan, besides the system thus described - the natural difficulties of which were aggravated in her case by unavoidable ambiguities which had grown up in the mode of using the Chinese ideographs - there has existed for more than a thousand years a syllabary called the kana, devised by her own scholars, for easing the yoke of the Chinese script.
The kana consists of highly abbreviated forms of those Chinese characters which correspond with the 47 syllabic sounds that enter into the Japanese language.
It is in two styles, the katakana and Hiragana, of which the former is used as an auxiliary to Chinese ideographs in books and the like, while the latter is used chiefly for social prints and letter-writing by women and the lower classes.
Undoubtedly the kana has been a great boon to the mass of the Japanese people, since it has placed within their easy reach the arts of writing and reading, which but for it were far beyond them.
To the student, however, it brought no such clear relief.
For those who sought to walk in any of the higher paths of knowledge, if it was in some degree a help, it was in none a substitute for the weary and harassing study of Chinese.
This was the state of things in Japan in the matter of written speech at the time when, after the restoration of the Mikado in 1868, there began that rapid course of demolition and reconstruction of her political and social fabrics which is recognized as the most remarkable of its kind in the history of nations.
It will be observed that, under the system of writing which was then in use, the higher standards of education could only be reached after toilsome devotion to the effort of learning by heart many thousands of fanciful and intricate signs - a task which not only needed a very heavy expenditure of time, but was also calculated to stilmulate the memory in an abbormal degree, at the cost of other not less important mental faculties.
It will be seen, secondly, that this system was peculiarly ill-fitted to the new order of things then arising in the Empire.
If, under it, no very serious inconvenience had been felt in previous times, that was merely because Japanese education had until then been practically limited to the history, classics, and ecclesiastics of Japan and China.
But this was now no longer the case.
The whole country suddenly became athirst to acquire the languages, arts, and sciences, the philosophy and laws, in fact the entire civilization, of the West.
Obviously, with such work before them, the youth of Japan could hardly afford to spend years and warp their brains in learning the single accomplishment of writing thoroughly their own tongue.
Yet it was inevitable that, so long as they remained ignorant of it, so long would they, in default of some other system, be hindered from adequately expressing and disseminating their newly found knowledge.
To cite other drawbacks; it was evident that the want of a simple and easy script would stand very much in the way of that complete communication between Japan and the Western world which was earnestly desired by both sides; also that, from the same cause, difficulties would arise in incorporating the new ideas and new terms of Western learning into the language of Japan.
All of these troubles have been met with.
It is not uncommon now to find that a Japanese who has had a good Western education knows very little about writing his own language.
He has received knowledge, but cannot fully impart it.
Foreigners resident in Japan are for the most part as unable as ever to study her current literature or her older records.
Some progress of course has been made, but the means of direct research are still limited to a few hardworking scholars who can be counted on the fingers.
It has come to pass also that a large number of technical and scientific words and terms not previously represented in the languagae have in the course of years been manufactured out of Chinese and adopted into Japanese, much as we employ Greek and Latin for a similar purpose.
From this process, exercised as it was by the educated and student classes, there gradually arose a more or less pedantic habit of introducing the use of Chinese words more freely than before into the conversation of daily life.
Fortunately this habit became productive of good, for out of it, more perhaps than anything else, grew eventually a feeling of impatience and reaction which was to be the forerunner of real and radical reform, and which first took shape about three years ago in the formation of the Kana no kai, or Kana Association, designed to effect a complete substitution of kana for the Chinese system.
The movement, however, did not prove a success.
In despair at the difficulties which faced them in dealing with the large proportion of Chinese homonyms, its supporters found themselves driven towards the mistaken policy of excluding the Chinese element altogether from the language - an error which soon sealed their downfall.
After the failure of this society, some of its ablest members came to see that there could be no real relief from the straits of the situation except by discarding the existing methods in favour of a purely alphabetical system, in which the letters should be used solely according to their phonetic values.
It was found that twenty-two letters of the Roman alphabet would answer this purpose, the l, q, v, and x not being needed for Japanese.
There would still remain the difficulty of the Chinese homonyms.
But this might be gradually overcome, and was at any rate of little moment as against the weighty advantages of using an alphabet in which twenty-two simple signs representing sounds would take the place of tens of thousands of distracting pictorial symbols - in which, moreover, the languages of the leading nations of the world are written, and which, if adopted, would tend to remove those hindrances to the real spread of knowledge which had been encountered since the restoration.
Thus was founded, early in the present year, the Roma-ji-kai, or Roman Alphabet Association, having for its objects the concoction and dissemination of a consistent method of spelling Japanese words with Roman letters.
The Association, which at its first meeting had but forty members, now numbers nearly 6,000 of the leading men in Japan's governing, educated, and literary classes.
Its sphere and influence are extending daily, and its future is secured.
A complete scheme of spelling has been drawn up and approved, of which it is sufficient to say here that the consonants have been taken at their English, the vowels at their Italian, values, and that the chosen standard of pronunciation is that of educated people in the capital.
It is gratifying to note that the new movement has been strongly supported by resident foreign scholars and others, and by nearly the whole of the Diplomatic Corps - among the latter by none more than by England's present Minister, the Hon. F. R. Plunkett, who has worked very hard in its behalf.
The powerful influence which the Romaji Kai is likely to have on the establishment of English as the dominant foreign tongue in Japan is not its least important feature.
There has long been a tendency in this direction, yet it needed stimulating.
Many years ago the Japanese Government purposed making English the language of diplomatic intercourse, and began by writing despatches in very good English to the British Legation; but were effecually snubbed for their pains by a refusal to receive commuinications in any language but Japanese.
Since then, French has taken the vacant place.
Notwithstanding this, and in spite also of the disfavour we have brought upon ourselves by past persistence in an obstructive policy, there is no great reason to complain of the extent to which our language, literature, science, and material products and appliances have already permeated Japan.
Germany here, as also in many other places, has of late been making a bold effort for supremacy.
German influence now prevails in the drafting of the new Constitution for Japan, which is to come into effect in 1890; in the army, the supply of ordnance, the geological survey, and medical tuition.
Japan's navy, on the other hand, is wholly on the English model; so are her railways, lighthouses, telegraphs, mint, postal service, and other public enterprises.
Though her new Codes of Law are founded on those of France, an influential English Law Society was started in this metropolis only a few days ago.
English is now taught, by decree of the State, in the primary shools throughout the country; and, generally, England fills the first place in the ranks and system of education; while in ships, machinery, and other material aids to development, she has distanced every competitor.
To these facts may now be added the reasonable certainty that English will prevail in Japan over all other foreign tongues.
Already, indeed, there has been started a creditable weekly journal in English, the work exclusively of Japanese.
It should be mentioned, finally, that in the Romaji-Kai the Mikado's Government are receiving at the hands of their people valuable support of the principle of action on which they have founded their hopes and plans for preserving the national integrity - the principle, namely, of never ceasing to tighten by every means in their power the bonds of sympathy and civilized progress which now attach them to Western countries.
Perhaps nothing could be better calculated to subserve this principle than the new popular movement, which aims at creating the freest possible channel of intellectual intercourse between Japan and the Occident.
There are some persons who regret and even deprecate the gradual sweeping away of the ancient landmarks and characteristics of a country whose past is so unique and full of charm and romance as is that of Japan.
But this break-up was and is inevitable.
Japan has entered con amore on a course in which there can be no half-measures.
Western tastes and fashions, house-building, clothing, and food are fast becoming as popular as Western learning and institutions.
Even the ladies are beginning to exhibit a relish for foreign habits; and we now find dainty and high-born women, hitherto submissive to the strict canons of old Japanese custom and etiquette, presiding at bazaar-stalls, ministering as nurses at hospitals and in other branches of charity, dressing their hair in European styles, wearing French shoes and stockings, and even attending dancing classes in the capital, at which they are the gentlest and most graceful of pupils.
The Times - Dec.4th
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