The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Migration and Language Policy in Japan Today

December 15, 2010

“Language policy is much more than a collection of documents informing government practice. It is informed by and encapsulates the entire linguistic culture of a society, reflecting its specific beliefs about language,” writes Professor Nanette Gottlieb of Japanese Studies at the University of Queensland, a NF-JLEP endowed institution. This is her article on language policy in Japan as an emerging multilingual society.

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Multilingualism and the state

Throughout its modern history, Japan has considered itself monolingual for purposes of nation-building rhetoric, despite the presence of substantial ethnic minorities. Over the last fifteen years, however, the realisation that it is in fact a multilingual society has slowly taken hold. Im has expanded significantly since the early 1980s, so that to the languages of existing ethnic Korean, Chinese, Okinawan and Ainu communities have been added those spoken by an increasingly diverse population of migrant workers. The appearance in communities and schools of residents whose first language is not Japanese has led to growing awareness of multilingualism in local areas, confounding any notion of national monolingualism. While Japanese is of course the major language used in Japan, it is by no means the only one.

Smooth communication between members of a society is critical in determining harmonious relations within that society. It is therefore important that we understand two things: how does the challenge to ideas of national homogeneity posed by the presence of multilingual communities in Japan manifest itself in language expectations? And to what extent can society do something about those expectations through language policies and practices in government organs and schools (in the case of the state) and in the private sector and the community at large?

Ricento (2000) conceptualises three stages in the development of language policy: the early stage where language was viewed as both a pragmatic resource and a tool for nation building, the 1970s and 80s when the neutral view of language gave way to a critical awareness of the ideological trappings of language policy, and the present stage in which the focus is on global flows and identity interactions. Japan now finds itself in this third stage, while its existing language policies are largely derived from the first. A monolingual ideology means no recognition at policy level of internal linguistic communication needs or of the existence of community languages. Emergent multilingualism challenges this and calls upon the state both to provide a wider range of language-related services to taxpayers who do not speak Japanese and to recognise linguistic diversity as a resource rather than a problem. In a multilingual society, national language policy might reasonably be expected to encompass language issues ranging from language education for migrant children in schools and adult migrants in the wider community to citizenship requirements.

Language policy in action: Local and national initiatives

At the micro level, in the communities where foreign residents live in Japan, it is local rather than national government which has taken the lead in meeting language needs. While classes in Japanese as a Second Language (JSL) in public schools are provided in ad hoc fashion by the national education ministry, a much wider range of language classes (often run by volunteers through local international associations) and other multilingual services for locals is provided by local government and civil society organisations such as NGOs or NPOs. An excellent example of local government cooperation is the Council of Cities with Concentrations of Foreign Residents, a coalition of 26 cities in seven prefectures [i] with foreign populations ranging from 2% in Fuji City in Shizuoka to 16.3% in Oizumi in Gunma. Since its formation in 2001, this group has exchanged information on policies and activities relating to its foreign residents, held conferences on issues of common interest and lobbied the government to improve conditions in various areas. In 2008, for example, the Minokamo Declaration [ii] issued by the Council called for a guarantee of support to enable foreign residents to become proficient in Japanese so that they can achieve independence and participate fully in community building.

Given that the integration of immigrants forms an important part of the social fabric, it is essential to clarify ideas and expectations about language in this area. Language policy enshrines those expectations and functions as an indicator of national attitudes about how linguistic diversity should be handled. As in many other countries, the status quo in Japan is linguistic assimilation in the interests of national unity, as has always been the case: in the late nineteenth century, for example, Ainu and Okinawan minorities on the northern and southern peripheries of the country were compelled to adopt the Japanese language in order to construct a unified modern state. It is unlikely that Japan will move away from this position, and – with the exception of the law now promoting Ainu culture and the policy on promotion of English as an international language – its national language policies currently reflect this.

Recent months have provided evidence of new support measures at the national level for the language needs of immigrants. In April 2009, in response to the difficulties being experienced by foreign residents as a result of the financial crisis, the Cabinet Office opened a multilingual web portal (Japanese, English, Portuguese, Spanish) from which immigrants can access general information about living in Japan as well as information on specific topics. The most recent addition has been a page of links to multilingual information about swine flu. Local government websites have played a central role in the dissemination of multilingual information in Japan for some years now, and the appearance of a national-level website is to be welcomed.

The portal also provides evidence of expanded national government intervention into the provision of language classes in tandem with local governments and associations. A link leads to a 2009 Cabinet Office committee document outlining measures to help non-Japanese children whose parents can no longer afford the fees for ethnic schools and who therefore wish to make the transition to Japanese schools, particularly in those cities with high concentrations of foreign residents. Building Japanese-language proficiency is a key enabling element in this transition, of course, and former JICA volunteers among others will help provide teaching assistance to Japanese classes conducted at the local level in order to prepare such children for mainstream school. Public schools where such children enrol will also set up JSL classes to assist them.

Such moves, if properly implemented, have ramifications far beyond the framework of providing financial support in difficult times; they lay the groundwork for enabling language proficiency which could in time assist those migrants who wish to become citizens. The nature of citizenship, a key legal mechanism for facilitating integration, is coming increasingly under scrutiny worldwide as a result of global population flows. At present the language requirements for citizenship in Japan equate to an ability to read and write Japanese equivalent to that gained by the second or third year of elementary school, clearly insufficient to allow full participation in public life. Ongoing discussion is needed on what the expectations of a Japanese citizen in terms of mastery of the national language might be, what the impediments to achieving this are for new arrivals and how they can be overcome. The new provision of increased support for JSL learning by the national government is a start towards addressing this situation as a national issue rather than as a local concern.

Language policy for Japan’s future

Language policy is much more than merely a collection of documents informing government practice. It is informed by and encapsulates the entire linguistic culture of a society, reflecting its specific beliefs about language. From within the field of public philosophy, Katsuragi (2005) has proposed for Japan a forward-looking overarching “language policy framework” within which individual language policies can be located, i.e., an overarching set of policies which set out the guiding ethos for language issues within the society (often called “language ideology”). Such a language policy framework would be the forum within which the foundational beliefs about the role of language in Japan today are articulated, a kind of umbrella national consensus arrived at through nationwide discussion, which would then guide and shape the formation of more specific language policies relating to particular issues.

To carry out that national discussion would require a great deal of time, effort and good will. Given the persisting demographic changes in Japanese society, however, it is likely to be a discussion Japan will eventually have to have. Meanwhile, existing language policies have a direct impact on the classrooms where migrant children are educated. The immediate challenge, then, is to develop a policy stance which accommodates diversity while still maintaining the importance of the national language and which enables migrant children to keep up with educational content while they are still mastering Japanese. In the short term, this means a review of language-in-education policies; in the long term, it will most likely involve a reconceptualising of the place of language in national identity.

This research is funded by the Australian Research Council.

Katsuragi, T. (2005) “Japanese language policy from the point of view of public philosophy”, International Journal of the Sociology of Language 175/176: 41-54.

Ricento, T. (2000) Ideology, Politics, and Language Policies: Focus on English , Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Nanette Gottlieb is Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Queensland and ARC Professorial Research Fellow 2007-2011. She is the author of seven books, including Language and Society in Japan (Cambridge U.P., 2005) and Linguistic Stereotyping and Minority Groups in Japan (Routledge, 2006). Her current focus is a five-year research project on the challenges posed for language policy in today’s Japan by both demographic and technological developments since the 1980s.

[i] Gunma, Nagano, Gifu, Shizuoka, Aichi, Mie, and Shiga. Foreign residents in these cities are overwhelmingly from South America.

[ii] Minokamo in Gifu Prefecture acted as the Council’s secretariat for the 2007-2008 financial year.

    • Professor of Japanese Studies The University of Queensland
    • Nanette Gottlieb
    • Nanette Gottlieb

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