Parliamentary Reporting in Japan
Tokio, May 16th, 1891
To complete the sketch of the Japanese Diet and its procedure which was undertaken by me in a recent letter, it is necessary to say something further about that which I therein referred to as the very novel and interesting subject of the shorthand reporting of the debates.
The novelty consists in the fact of its being the first case of the application of stenography to an Oriental language: the interest will, perhaps, be gathered from what I have now to say.
When Japan's statesmen first approached this subject, they had before them an important question and a serious difficulty.
The question was as to the exact line that had best be taken - should the reporting be strictly official and verbatim, or should it be entrusted to private or semi-official enterprise, under stipulations in respect of fulness as conditions of Government support.
Great Britain offered them an example of the latter plan.
There they found that, apart from the admirable system of reporting which is pursued by The Times and some other journals, the work of semi-official reporting is carried out by the Hansard Union, under a contract forbidding the abbreviation of any speech by more than one-third, and providing that the published speeches, revised as far as practicable by the speakers themselves, must be in the hands of members a week after delivery.
Elsewhere, however, the general practice was found to favour official and, consequently, verbatim reports, subject to correction in grammer alone.
Next, as to the difficulty above referred to.
This lay chiefly in the character of the language, which was known to offer terrible obstacles to stenographic reporting.
To make the nature of the difficulty clear, some explanation is necessary.
The Japanese language has contained for more than a thousand years a large admixture of so-called Chinese words.
By this it is to be understood, not that the actual Chinese sounds have been adopted in such cases, but that, when Japan took to the Chinese ideographic method of writing, ideographs representing such and such things were alone appropriated, Japan giving to their expression sounds of her own, different from the Chinese sounds; from which it follows that, though a Chinese and a Japanese may be utterly unable to converse by speech, they can exchange ideas with the pen or pencil readily enough if both of them have a sufficient knowledge of the ideographs.
Now it happens, further, that this admixture of Sinico-Japanese words has of late been growing with great rapidity, and is still growing, in consequence chiefly of the introduction into Japan of many novelties from the Western world, under which it has come to pass that a number of technical and scientific terms, not previously represented in the language, have been manufactured out of Chinese and adopted into Japanese, somewhat as we employ Greek or Latin for the same purpose.
Again, as a result of this increased use of Sinico-Japanese words by the educated and student classes, it has lately become the fashion to employ words of that character more freely than before in the conversation of daily life.
It may seem strange that the language of such a nation as China should be resorted to for the expression of the most modern ideas.
But the explanation is simple.
Chinese, with its thousands of monosyllabic roots, of precise and fixed meanings, out of which an almost infinite number of words may be built up so as to give fairly exact equivalents of pretty well any idea whatever, offered a ready channel for the conveyance of clear notions to the Japanese mind, even in technical matters, whereas words in an unknown tongue would convey no meaning at all.
To take the word telegraph, for example, which has no equivalent in true Japanese.
Its Japanese pronounciation would be te-re-gu-ra-fu, a meaningless aggregation of syllables.
The Sinico-Japanese words den-shin, "lightning communication," on the other hand, are almost self-explanatory.
But, when we come to the question of stenographic reporting, the greater the proportion of Chinese words the greater is the difficulty.
This is because of the abundance of homonyms.
In Chinese the same word sound may mean a dozen or more different things.
There will be a separate ideograph for each of the dozen, but only one sound for all.
One of the broadest contrasts between the language of China and the more purely phonetic tongues of Europe and Ameirca is that the former, with its myriads of ideographs on the one hand and its distracting homonyms on the other, does not lend itself to simple and intelligible record by means of any syllabic or alphabetical script.
Japanese suffers from a like disability, but perhaps hardly in the same degree, because, though Japan employs the Chinese ideographic system of writing, her language is only partly of Chinese origin.
Nevertheless, to the extent by which Chinese has affected the Japanese language, to the same extent at least does the homonym difficulty prevail.
It would be tedious to explain the exact cause of this result, but by persons familiar with the subject it is well known that an inevitable consequence of the process of constructing language out of Chinese ideographs is a reproduction of China's perplexing homonyms.
In this country, however, a palliative has been in operation for many centuries.
As far as is known, Japan never posessed a completed method of writing that could be fairly called her own; and, after the advent of Buddhism from China in the seventh century, the Chinese system was gradually adopted.
But the thraldom of that system was soon found to be terribly irksome; and to escape from it, at least in some measure, Japanese scholars before long devised a syllabary called the kana, consisting of highy abbreviated forms of those 47 Chinese characters which correspond with the 47 syllabic sounds that enter into the Japanese spoken language.
The kana has proved an enormous boon in the Japanese people.
Though it left the difficulty of homonyms unsolved, and to the scholar was no real sustitute for the wearisome study of Chinese, it was at least a valuable aid to the acquisition of knowledge, and brought the arts of reading and writing within easy reach of the masses.
In this kana, it will at once be seen, lies the sole chance for Japanese shorthand reporting - the kana syllabary, that is to say, affords the only available basis for a shorthand script.
But the kana pure and simple fails, as already explained, in the crucial matter of the homonyms.
There is yet another special difficulty.
To follow and report intelligently the speeches in the Diet or in any cultivated circles, it is necessary that the stenographers themselves be not only scholarly men, well versed in Chinese, but men able to keep at all times abreast of the style of language in vogue among the most highly educated classes.
This, as we have seen, is undergoing changes almost from day to day, in obedience to the exigencies of the time.
To keep pace with its demands, besides mere scholarship, at least some knowledge of Western science and philosophy, and familiarity with the newly-coined words and phrases that are employed for their discussion.
With such obstacles confronting it - as well as many others appertaining, in the nature of things, to the fabrication of a shorthand script - the successful application of stenography to the Japanese language came to be well-nigh despaired of, long ago, by foreign sinologues.
To the Japanese, however, or at least to one Japanese, the problem seemed less desperate.
Many years back, a poor ex-samurai scholar, named Minamoto Koki, went to work upon it at his cottage in this capital, at first silently and alone.
By 1879, he had succeeded in devising a stenographic system and had organised a class to study and elaborate it.
It is impossible to help admiring the fortitude, almost amounting to heroism, with which Minamoto and his fellow-students, toiling patiently and bravely, year atfer year, at length wrought out in some inscrutable way of their own the result of which Japan has now such good reason to be proud.
Theirs was a gallant fight against heavy odds - tremendous difficulties of the task itself, their own straitened means, and for all their reward scarcely anything more tangible than the knowledge of having achieved success.
Till last autumn so little were these men in request that they could hardly earn better wages than those of a common labourer.
It was generally understood that an efficient stenographic system and a staff to work it existed, but the experts themselves, unheeded and unrewarded, struggled on in poverty and obscurity.
That was the state of things with respect to shorthand in this country when Mr. Kaneko Kentaro, then Secretary of the Privy Council, returned, last summer, to Japan, armed with the results of a long investigation into Western methods of Parliamentary procedure, on which he had bestowed much painstaking research and the powers of a highly intelligent mind.
Mr. Kaneko's enquiries had led him to favour very strongly the adoption, if possible, of official shorthand reporting for the proceedings in the Japanese Diet.
The great point to be determined was whether the system already existing could be safely resorted to.
With that object he gathered together at his house, on a certain evening in September last, about a dozen of Minamoto's disciples, and tested their capacity to record accurately from his own lips a lecture on his Western travels.
The result of two such evenings of trial was a genuine triumph, leading later to the assemblage of a sufficient staff for the Diet's work, and to the elaboration of an organized system of reporting.
Thus, the labours of Minamoto and his little band were at last to bring forth fruit and reap reward.
Mr, Kaneko could now produce the system and the men; and the Government, advised by him, adopted the principle of official verbatim reporting and established a stenographic bureau.
As a result, the proceedings, day by day, of each House of the Diet, all through the session, appeared in print in the Official Gazette at 6 o'clock the next morning; and with such fidelity were the speeches reproduced that many a country member is said to have been fairly aghast at finding his very provincialisms literally taken down, and published in the enduring pages of the Government journal.
Twelve is the standing number of reporters for each Chamber.
On account of the great difficulty of the operation, two work at a time, so that one may be a check on the other; and they are relieved every fifteen minutes.
Each man has, thus, 75 minutes in which to translate his script into longhand.
There are six spare reporters, as a reserve and for extra work in Committee; also three stenographic revisers, eight fair copyists, and a half-dozen general officials.
The orthographic revision is carried out by secretaries of the House and the head of the Stenographic Bureau.
The two chief men of the stenographers' guild - formerly Minamoto's leading experts - have permanent posts, the rank and file being employed only for the period of the session, but at ten times the salaries they earned before.
Mr.Kaneko himslef is now Chief Secretary of the House of Peers.
Such is the story of an undertaking long thought to be hopeless - begun in drudgery and privation, achieved only to meet at first with the poorest recognition, but at length crowned with a measure of success so great as to have placed Japan in the enviable position of being able to stereotype the utterances of her earliest parliamentary legislators from the first hour of their very first assemblage.
It is also said by scholars that the new stenography bids fair to confer an inestimable blessing on Japan, by bridging the gulf which now separates the written from the spoken language.
Meantime, its author, the sturdy Minamoto, will take neither office nor reward.
He is a Japanese of the old school.
He worked for his country and for a cause; he succeeded; and that, for him, is enough.
The Times: - Sept.1
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