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During the Meiji restoration, the Meiji govenment sought to switch Japan's national language from Japanese to English.

Who and why advocated that?

Ultimately, why was it unsuccessful?

Source: The Role of English and Other Foreign Languages in Japanese Society which does offer some explanation but not enough to my liking.

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    Probably it was unsuccessful because not many Japanese knew English or wanted to learn it. – Lev Oct 12 '11 at 13:10
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    Well they were already enamoured of Europe so sure there might be interest in the culture, but changing a national language of centuries is a hard sell. – MichaelF Oct 13 '11 at 16:42
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    Do you have a source for this claim? – Anschel Schaffer-Cohen Oct 31 '11 at 2:18
  • @Sardathrion As I made in my answer, will you provide me first with your claim that the Japanese Meiji emperor himself was trying to change the national language from Japanese to English? It's hard to think such a think because Japanese emperor himself/herself is and has been the symbol of the Japanese culture. – Kentaro Tomono Sep 26 at 16:32
  • @KentaroTomono I might have been erroneous in thinking that the Emperor wanted to change. However, members of his government did. The edited question works for me. – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Sep 26 at 16:37
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(A little background for others reading this post) In 1868 Emperor Meiji re-established imperial rule. To move Japan into the modern era, he encouraged his people to explore and learn from the more technologically advanced cultures of the world.

Even in the late 1800s, English was the language of international commerce. Emperor Meiji's push to learn English was an attempt to jump onto the world stage with both feet. The effort failed for many of the same reasons that the metric system failed in the US. People are creatures of habit - they only change when they want to change or environment forces them to change. A decree has no force without the will of the people. Language is also a source of national identity. It is easy to adopt someone else's architecture and technology, but language is personal.

By contrast, during this same period the government ordered commoners to adopt a surname. Imagine living in a caste system in which only the high-class had last names, and you are told to be more like a high-class person. In spite of the large scale and significance of this change, it is hard to imagine an effort like this failing.

The only way English would have succeeded as a national language in Japan is if it were somehow necessary.

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    I minored in Asian Studies in college back in the 90s. I was fascinated by the Meiji Restoration period because it was a time when imperial ego was set aside in the name of progress. I wish I could find more authoritative sources to back up my response, but I have long since given up the textbook that I want to use as a reference. Most of what I wrote is what I remember from class lectures anyway. – Brien Malone Nov 11 '11 at 12:03
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    @Rose: You make a good point. Ego was the wrong word. (I'm not sure if Jim's comment was directed at my answer or not, but the 'ego' had nothing to do with the Emperor caring or not caring about his people.) The "early modern" period in Japan starts with Tokugawa and ends with Meiji (who ushered in the "modern era"). Tokugawa was intensely suspicious of foreigners and worked hard to minimize their influence. Meiji took the opposite approach, and the benefit was immediately obvious. – Brien Malone Feb 12 '12 at 8:44
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    ... another great source for information: facts-about-japan.com/modern-japan.html – Brien Malone Feb 12 '12 at 8:49
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    @AndrewGrimm In the 1860s/1870s, the British Empire was near its peak, whereas the USA was still recovering from a civil war. I'd be very surprised if it had even occurred to anyone to consider American English, in much the same way that the opposite would probably be the case since World War II :) – Owen Blacker Feb 28 '12 at 0:04
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    @OwenBlacker - Perhaps, but it was the Americans who (re)opened up Japan and inadvertantly touched off the Meiji, and it was America where they sent their best and brightest (eg: future admiral Yamamoto) off to study. So I know where I'd place my bet. – T.E.D. Apr 3 '12 at 20:59
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The accepted answer is unfortunately wrong. Why wrong? Emperors are/have been himself/herself the embodiment of Japanese culture so that abandoning the national language would be equal with the blaspheme to and the total relinquishment of Japanese culture, westernizing everywhere, demolishing old shrines and other historical statues and constructions, totally denying the Japanese folk tales and other cultural books, thus it is inconsiderate that Japanese Emperors hit the idea to "westernize" Japan. And according to the OP's source,

Shibata (1985) states that Japanese is so firmly entrenched as the one and only national language that no legal designation of its official status is necessary. Yet at least three public figures in modern Japanese history have suggested that Japan abandon its national language in favor of another (Miller, 1977, 41-45). Meiji political leader and educator Mori Arinori (1847-1889) argued in favor of establishing English as the language of Japan and solicited the advice of one of the world's linguistic authorities (Hall, 1973, 189-195). some beaurocrats or thinkers not Emperor. The original title of the OP's question was "Why did the Meiji emperor consider switching from Japanese to English?"

"Yet at least three" is ridiculous. So virtually no one even in the Meiji government supported the idea by Mori.

As even the OP's source states, It was one of the very few Meiji government important key figures, such as Arinori Mori(English). (It looks like only Mori alone to me.)


This page illustrates, Mori's clear advocation to pick the English as a national language, (in his letter to the thinker William Dwight Whitney)

The march of modern civilization in Japan has already reached the heart of the nation—the English language following it suppresses the use of both Japanese and Chinese. The commercial power of the English-speaking race which now rules the world drives our people into some knowledge of their commercial ways and habits. The absolute necessity of mastering the English language is thus forced upon us. It is a requisite of the maintenance of our independence in the community of nations. Under the circumstances, our meagre language, which can never be of any use outside of our islands, is doomed to yield to the domination of the English tongue, especially when the power of steam and electricity shall have pervaded the land. Our intelligent race, eager in the pursuit of knowledge, cannot depend upon a weak and uncertain medium of communication in its endeavor to grasp the principal truths from the precious treasury of Western science and art and religion. The laws of state can never be preserved in the language of Japan. All reasons suggest its disuse. (Education in Japan : a series of letters / addressed by prominent Americans to Arinori Mori. New York ; Appleton, 1873, p.lvi.


Was it successful?

No, as people see today, he failed to convince the emperor and other colleagues.


Why was he failed?

According to this page, a very effective counter was thrown by a thinker called Tatsutani Baba(Sorry, no English wiki available)

Tatsutai Baba's counter proposal was this.(for the correctness of the translation, please ask at JLL SE(hereunder same)),

(1)日本人にとって言語体系が全く違う英語の学習は、骨が折れる。若者は、英語学習に多くの時間や労力を割かねばならず、他の勉強や仕事がおろそかになる。

Translated

For many Japanese, it takes enormously time and effort to learn English, since Englishe's construction as a language is very different from Japanese and young Japanese people would need painstaking time and labor power to master English. So therefore, changing the national language from Japanese to English makes their other tasks and learning and job performances less effective.


(2)英語学習には、時間や労力、お金がかかるため、富裕層に有利である。生活に追われる一般庶民が英語を身に付けるのは大変難しい。結果的に、格差社会化が進む。一般庶民の政治参加や社会参加は難しくなり、一部の恵まれた層しか、国や社会の重要問題に関われなくなる。

Translated

English training needs time and labor and money so that it is very advantageous for rich people. Ordinary people are busy in daily life so that spreading the English training to all of the people in Japan would be very tough. If we gorge forward such an idea, ultimately, rich and poor would be very divided, ordinary people can not publicly participate, therefore only few portion of people would be able to deal with the nationally important issue and society's.


(3)使う言語によって、国民の間に意識の分断が生じてしまう。国民の一体感が育まれなくなる。

Translated

There would be division between these who use English as the main language and these who use Japanese. Therefore there would be no spiritual harmony in people.

I think there were many Japanese people who opposed to the Mori's idea either like Baba.

  • I shall have to digest this. Remind me if a few days if I have not commented. – Sardathrion - Reinstate Monica Sep 26 at 17:31
  • I'm confused. Leaving aside that your answer is more specific than the accepted one, seeing how both are basically saying the same thing and that yours is merely more specific, why do you find the accepted answer incorrect? – Denis de Bernardy Sep 27 at 11:07
  • @DenisdeBernardy Because he clearly states that Japanese emperor pushed the change. Meiji emperor's job, was kind of officially approving the draft or announcing publicly the draft which the government officials decided. – Kentaro Tomono Sep 27 at 11:14
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    @KentaroTomono: Which is what the downvote button is for. Alternatively, you could politely raised the issue in a comment: "You probably meant government rather than emperor. [...]" – Denis de Bernardy Sep 27 at 11:48
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    @KentaroTomono: And he was right to do so -- that one obviously was a typo. Your edit here was not about a typo; the question changed. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 27 at 11:57

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