Western Influence in Asian Education – Script Reform during the Meiji Restoration
A while back, I posted a comment on the blog Global Higher Education to this post by guest writers Moshidi Sirat and Ooi Poh Ling. The main point of the post is that local education systems in developing economies have been heavily influenced by the major Western powers that influenced their histories. For example, education in Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong have all had strong British influences. My reply was that in some states, like Taiwan, local education systems have developed under local government control to serve their military or authoritarian needs. As democracy has been established, these states have become stuck with educational institutions that don’t quite fit into their new globalized world. As such, Western institutions can serve as models for how to better structure schooling.
This is not the first time in history that powerful global trends have shocked Asian states into restructuring themselves. Almost 150 years ago, dramatic changes shocked Japan from a feudal state into a major modern military and economic powerhouse. This period, referred to as the Meiji Restoration 明治維新, included changes that are now seen as instrumental in making Japan a world power. In this post, I want to talk about script reform and the redesign of learning in Japan.
Language in Pre-Meiji Japan
Prior to the Meiji Restoration, script in Japan was highly sylized. While there was a colloquial system of writing available, literature, government and documents were all written in a series of systems whose learning was only possible through years and years of study. These scripts were used within a highly structured system of expression that was extremely difficult to learn. So stylized was written expression that, as researcher Nanette Twine (1983, p. 131) once put it, writing, “…had become an object of learning in itself.”
In addition, there was wide regional variation in colloquial language across Japan. The situation was similar to that found in Qing China. Japanese from different parts of Japan could speak with each other only with difficulty or not at all. Also, pronunciation of written forms differed from region to region. So it was with a hugely difficult rhetorical style and a largely unstandardized script that Meiji Japan began its odyssey in the modern world.
The Meiji Restoration introduced a huge number of new changes into Japan. Some of these things were scientific and technical objects brought from the West. Others were concepts and ideas completely foreign to Japan. The Meiji brought about political reforms changing the relationship of the citizen with the state and economy. Citizens would no longer be peasants and instead were transformed into workers and consumers under industrialization. The older script and writing styles could not handle expression under these new conditions.
The observation that every advanced nation of the time used a phonetic alphabet had a huge impact on script reform. The obverse of this is equally as true. European languages have undergone enormous change to suit the demands of modern production and education. It would not be possible to have a modern society with the language situation of Norman England. Society as we think of it demands rulers who can speak directly to their citizens. It demands a citizenry who can freely take part in production. It demands a language that is hugely flexible to meet the needs of a society that has change built into its fabric. All of this entails a high level of citizen literacy and hence a language that can be taught in a public school system by marginally educated teachers. The writing systems of feudal Japan were none of these, and the only model available was European languages.
Over the course of the next few decades, Japanese intellectuals and officials debated a whole range of reforms. These included organized groups that advocated the use of various phonetic alphabets, as well as combinations of these alphabets with Chinese characters to transcribe colloquial speech. You can read all about this in Christopher Seeley’s book, A History of Writing in Japan or from the source of all truth, Wikipedia.
The significance of these reforms for me is not just in the ingenious solution that these thinkers devised. Students of the contemporary Japanese language rightfully complain about how awkward the script is to work with. But in fact, as a solution to problems presented by Tokogawa Era script, the current combination of Kana and Kanji is brilliant. The real issue for me lies in the inspiration that lead to these innovations.
In her history of the Genbunitichi (言文一致), that saw the transformation of classical Japanese into it modern form, Nanette Twine (1978 p. 355) discusses how Meiji Period scholars devised the systems that evolved into modern Japanese script.
The Genbunitchi movement after 1866 was in no sense the result of a natural evolutionary process; rather, it can be seen as stemming from one of the many catalytic ideas imported from the west about that time. Had Japan remained in isolation, traditional styles would doubtless have maintained their dominance and the colloquial would have remained confined to popular literature and occasional evangelical or instructive texts. Once the Genbunitchi movement and its attendant advantages had been observed in other countries, however, it became merely a matter of time before an attempt was made by progressive thinkers to introduce the movement into Japan.
Twine’s interpretation is that the modernization of Japanese writing was directly the result of Western influences. Thinkers and officials of the time modeled modern Japanese after European languages. The concept of an alphabetized writing system based in colloquial speech was derived directly from these Western models. Without their use as a model, there is little reason to believe Japanese reform would have moved in this direction. In fact, these changes were incredibly difficult to implement and stylistic restructuring of language use continued into the middle of the 20th century.
…and so what?
The problem of Western influence has come up before on my blog. As Michael Turton has pointed out, critics are extremely selective about the examples they choose to illustrate their case. No one ever points to the Meiji Restoration as an example of what Western influence can do, when, in fact, history offers few better examples. In the past, comments on my blog have raised the issue of imperialism in education. The claim is that ‘Western imperialism’ is shaping education through the new force of commercial education. My position on this is that imperialism is related to empire, and as such, this is incorrect usage. A more accurate term would be neocolonialism.
The concept of globalization is only poorly understood. The Japanese only reluctantly accepted their place as modern citizens in a world power. There was staunch resistance from displaced feudal lords who were yet to find their place in the ruling class. Initially, in a chapter of the Meiji that is generally forgotten, there was open war with the forces that opposed Restoration. At the time, it was not at all clear that opening up to change was the correct choice. There are probably few alive today who doubt this was the right choice, even for the families of the displaced samurai who were slaughtered. But even late into the 19th century, cultural elites continued to resist script and rhetorical reform.
I have argued that if Taiwan is to survive the changes of this century we need to adopt educational principles developed by people with a very different history and culture. The failure to do this will leave us at the mercy of economic architects with much more power to shape globalization. While I am not sure we are making the right choices, it’s clear that such choices have to be made – and that is why I applaud the efforts of the Second Global Higher Education Forum (GHEF2009). But if there is anything that history has taught us, not making these choices is wrong.