Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

Western Influence in Asian Education – Script Reform during the Meiji Restoration

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on May 4, 2009

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.

Script Reform

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.


8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Mu said, on May 5, 2009 at 3:05 am

    Hello Scott,

    I was under the impression that hirigana (not so sure about katakana) was little more than a formalisation of an existing system that was in widespread use in Japan – by housewives…

    Lacking a system to communicate in writing (since they were not educated in kanji/other systems), they developed an informal system of simplified kanji/hanzi-like characters, matching Chinese characters to Japanese sounds – but not meanings- approximately. (‘yu’ and ‘me’ are quite interesting hirigana).

    I guess what I’m asking, is to what extent do you think a ‘small but effective working alphabet/syllabary (?) for the common person’ was already in place before the meiji restoration?

  2. Scott Sommers said, on May 5, 2009 at 3:50 am


    It’s great to hear from you.

    I think the real answer to your problem lies in the distinction between writing and literacy. A large number of pre-Meiji Japanese would have been able to read and write, as was the case in imperial China. Nobility may have been able to understand their writing, but that is not the script in which the culture of the state was transmitted.

    You are correct that there was a workable alphabet in use prior to the Meiji. That was not the real issue. The problem was that writing was not used in the same way that modern people (like you and I) think it should be used. The idea that writing should reflect speech was considered course. We still retain some of this in modern European languages, but generally, the rule is that writing and speech parallel each other. The result is that you can read this text aloud and if it sounds the way someone would speak these ideas, it’s probably OK. Pre-Meiji Japanese, which I can not read, did not follow the same logic.

    Reading pre-reform Japanese would be more difficult for a modern Japanese that reading Middle English is for you and me. It would be analogous to reading Latin. In fact, it is impossible to read without special training, even for naive speakers of Japanese, even though speaking with pre-Meiji Japanese would be possible.

    To answer your question directly, the characters used in contemporary kana were in existence prior to the Meiji – that’s where they came from. They were not standardized in their form or usage. There was no standard national dialect to script so it would have difficult for speakers of regional variations of Japanese to understand phonetically written speech. The only ‘nationally’ used script systems would have been the classical systems I refer to. These would not have been usable in a national compulsory school system for citizens.

    Does that answer your question?

  3. Mu said, on May 6, 2009 at 12:02 am

    Yes. Thanks for the answer, Scott. 🙂

  4. Alex Case said, on May 11, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for this, very interesting. I’ve read a fair bit about Meiji Japan and never come across this before. It sounds quite similar to the more recent struggles to bring spoken and written Greek closer together, and isn’t High and Low German a similar case as well?

    btw, the script on this post is doing something strange on my computer, with some lines half over others

  5. Scott Sommers said, on May 11, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Alex, thanks for letting me know about the problem. Is that better?

    A more accurate comparison would be with the use of Greek and Latin as a lingua franca during much of European history. These were only writing styles and not connected with speech. In fact, Nanette Twine has some interesting stories about this problem in her book Language and the Modern State.

    The primary issue here is not that speech and writing were distinct or that elites had different usage from common citizens. The real problem that the Meiji had to solve was that the value of writing was not viewed as functional. Form was not assessed by its practicality. Script and rhetoric were valued for aesthetic reasons and as such, could not be used directly for the purposes that we have come to believe they should be used for.

  6. alexcase said, on May 14, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Yes, much better now thanks.

    This is all totally new to me, and so I have loads of questions which I am afraid I am going to burden you with:

    – I understood that late Edo had a reasonably high level of literacy (through temple schools etc) and popular fiction sold in neighbourhood bookstores that also sold ukiyoe prints. Would these people have been reading a combination of kanji and kana like present Japanese, or would it have been purely kanji? And would the style have been similar to speech or similar to classical Japanese (which I guess was a descendant of Heian period writing in Kanji, which was basically Chinese and therefore similar to the use of Latin and Greek as you say)
    – Was there not a more practical style used for paperwork and bureaucracy?
    – For the elite, how much had classical written style moved on since Heian?
    -What script changes exactly did the Meiji government make?
    – I’m still confused about the two points you are making. The title of your piece is “script reform” but you have said in your comments that the main point is the distinction between written and spoken language. Did the Meiji government reform both of those? Is it really possible to reform the latter by government decree, or was it more driven by thinkers campaigning for that? Were the two things connected?

    Sorry for all that, but as I said it is a fascinating topic that you’ve stirred an interest in

  7. Scott Sommers said, on May 14, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    No problem Alex. I could just refer you to Nanette Twine’s work on this. She has written a book and several articles that would answer some of your questions. Your question about script change since the Heian is very specific and my guess is that not a lot of people can answer this with any amount of expertise.

    Let me try and answer your last question, since it’s the one I have personal expertise in. It is common to make the distinction between Classical and Modern language. This is made on the basis of characteristics of the language. One distinction that is often made is the use of written script that mirrors speech. Pretty much everyone who teaches English becomes aware at some point that in English there are words used primarily in writing and not in speech. This is true even for highly proficient speakers of Standard English. For speakers of Cockney or the English spoken in Alabama or Mississippi, this might be even more true. It is very unusual for anyone to write “y’all” when they mean ‘everyone’. This would certainly never occur in a document or official paper.

    English is a highly modernized language, so there are a large number of conventions that have been reached about spelling and, more particularly, the way things are writing. The rhetorical style of Standard English is highly formalized. So much so, in fact, that tiny details, such as how I spell ‘colour’ give hints as to my national background. To deviate from these standards is not just personal taste, it is ‘wrong’.

    Prior to the Meiji, a form of Japanese was used to communicate between nobles from different regions of Japan. This form of writing did not reflect the way that Japanese people spoke. In fact, there was no Standard Japanese at that time. Even in the 1980s, Japanese spoke about certain regional usages that were non-standard. In the Tokogawa, this would have been much more of an issue. But regardless, the written Japanese of the nobility would not have reflected how most Japanese citizens spoke.

    In fact, the written styles prior to the Meiji were incredibly difficult to learn. Just as most Chinese gentry would have spent most of their life preparing the language for imperial examinations, the nobility of feudal Japan would have spent a large part of their life learning the calligraphy and rhetorical styles of their classical writing styles.

    The Meiji needed educated citizens who could work with modern technology and train in a modern military. They needed citizens who could communicate with their leadership. They needed citizens who could go to school. To establish the language needed for this, the Meiji made decisions about how Japanese would look and sound.

    There was a formal decision made to make the Standard Japanese pronunciation and usage the same as that of average educated Tokyo residents. This was a decision made by the MOE and came to reflect the content of books used in their schools. Teachers were educated in how to use this material. The MOE actually ran language programs for teachers in Tokyo so they could hear how Tokyo-ben sounded.

    The reform of script to reflect the speech of an average educated Tokyo resident took a lot longer. In fact, it continued up into the middle of the 20th century.

    Does this answer at least some of your questions?

    Of course there this page from the most true of all Web pages on the Net – Wikipedia.

    I don’t know how much detail you’re interested in, but you can find a lot of interesting downloads and references from a Google search of ‘Genbun Itchi’
    Another source that might answer many of your questions can be found in the book Leaders and Leadership in Japan. Chapter 8, Leaders in Change: The Way to Language Reform by Annette Hansen gives a detailed discussion of the policy changes that went into the creation of modern Japanese. fortunately, you can find this on Google Books at this link,M1

  8. alexcase said, on May 16, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks, will put aside some serious time to read about this properly. This is the kind of thing that makes taking a Masters in Japanese History and Culture or EFL a toss up- which is why I continue to do neither!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: