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the Complete Review
the complete review - language / culture

The Fall of Language
in the Age of English

Mizumura Minae

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To purchase The Fall of Language in the Age of English

Title: The Fall of Language in the Age of English
Author: Mizumura Minae
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 206 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Fall of Language in the Age of English - US
The Fall of Language in the Age of English - UK
The Fall of Language in the Age of English - Canada
The Fall of Language in the Age of English - India
  • Japanese title: 日本語が亡びるとき―英語の世紀の中で
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter
  • With Preface by the author
  • The English translation, alas, is a revised version of the Japanese original: "adding explanations here, shortening or eliminating there, and recasting the discussion as necessary for a new readership"

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Our Assessment:

B : fascinating (beginnings of a) discussion; interesting perspective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 29/3/2009 Hiroaki Sato
The Japan Times . 3/1/2015 Sophie Knight
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/10/2019 Adam Kirsch
Publishers Weekly . 13/10/2014 .
TLS . 19/6/2015 Jay Rubin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Some have suggested that its eschatological title is a publishing gimmick, and they’re right. What strikes me is the author’s relationship to English. (...) Nihongo at any rate, is a book of discontent. (...) Mizumura’s plaint that fellow writers today are not turning out worthy literature is, I’m afraid, of a perennial variety, offered in any age. (...) The trouble is that, coming from Mizumura, the verdict on her fellow writers sounds unnecessarily snooty." - Hiroaki Sato, The Japan Times

  • "Although Mizumura focuses mostly on Japanese, she also gives a rich history of European written languages and unpicks the relationship between the print industry and the rise of nationhood. But while the book emphasizes the importance of the written word in forming one’s identity, accusations of nationalism from its detractors are misplaced. Mizumura’s motives are more artistic than political: essentially, she wishes more people today were acquainted with the pleasures of a good read." - Sophie Knight, The Japan Times

  • "Some of her complaints could be echoed by twenty-first-century writers in any country: the declining prestige of literature, the shrinking circulation of literary journals, the heightened competition for audiences with mass media and the Internet. Others are specific to Japanese literature, which she believes suffers from lingering historical guilt over Japan's involvement in World War II, as well as a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis Western languages." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Review of Books

  • "Though less concerned than the original version with threats posed to the Japanese language by English’s ubiquity, this translation still depicts the country’s linguistic and literary heritage with mesmerizing vividness. For English speakers, the book presents an important opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Japanese is just the canary in the coal mine. The book is fascinating for readers who have no special interest in Japan or its language. (...) Mizumura comes across as someone who feels out of place in all situations, and she never hesitates to share this discomfort with her readers. (...) The translators of this volume, it should be noted, do an excellent job of Englishing Mizumura’s lucid Japanese original." - Jay Rubin, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Fall of Language in the Age of English is written specifically from an (insular) Japanese perspective but many of the issues and concerns addressed by novelist Mizumura Minae apply generally too -- and, indeed, the somewhat unusual Japanese example serves as an excellent starting point for this discussion. In particular, Mizumura's is a welcome voice on these matters, as someone writing from a language (that she worries about being) at risk -- if not entirely an antidote, so at least, one hopes, helping to counteract what Mizumura sees and reveals as: "The virtually unfathomable naïveté of those whose mother tongue is English".
       Mizumura's formative experience might be familiar to readers from the introductory section of A True Novel, but she repeats the essentials here -- specifically that:

When I was twelve, my family moved to New York because of my father's business, and I lived in the United States for the next twenty years. Even so, I never felt comfortable with either American life or the English language. As a teenager, I immersed myself in classic Japanese novels of the modern era, a set of books my great uncle gave my mother for her daughters -- my sister and me -- to read lest we forget our own language. In college and then in graduate school, I even took the trouble of majoring in French literature as a way to continue avoiding English.
       This body of literature that Mizumura so avidly consumed, the Contemporary Japanese Literature (現代日本文学全集)-series from around the 1920s and 30s, collected the classics of the flowering of, in particular, the Meiji period (1868 to 1912), when Japan opened up -- and embraced much from the West. Here Mizumura (still) finds the height of Japanese literature -- while the post-war era has, for her, marked a time of great decline and decay. Similarly, the great boom in literary interest in which these writers flourished has now completely deflated:
Compared with that in other countries, the national reverence for literature bordered on the extreme. But now it is the national indifference to literature that borders on the extreme.
       A major concern of hers is the decline of Japanese reading culture -- which extends beyond the domestic:
even translations of Western literature, once so popular, languish unread. Translations do continue top be read, but the vast majority of them are nonfiction, and from English.
       Mizumura is particularly concerned with the Japanese situation -- noting with dismay that: "in junior and senior high alike, students are never required to read a single work of literature other than their textbook" -- and argues in her concluding chapter for changes that would lead (i.e. force) students to have at least some familiarity with the national literature.
       More interesting is her discussion of how the present-day situation came to be. Japan's near unique position -- long relatively isolated, but large enough to sustain its own literary culture (in turn seeded by Chinese, whose writing system became the foundation of the Japanese one) -- arguably gave a false sense of security and stability to the language. With the opening of the country to the West starting in the middle of the nineteenth century foreign influence spread quickly; as she notes, in the early years university lectures were given in foreign languages, and:
Going to university meant being at least bilingual, and, however, counterintuitive it may now seem, bilingualism was a sine qua non of becoming a standard-bearer of Japanese national literature -- for male writers, anyway.
       An astonishing number of those who would become leading writers of that time -- beginning with Natsume Sōseki, but including dozens of other major names (Tanizaki, Akutagawa, Mori Ōgai among them) -- attended Tokyo Imperial University or its college; a shared background where exposure to the foreign, specifically foreign languages and literature, was a stepping-stone to their own literary achievement. With defeat in the Second World War, Mizumura argues, it all went south -- in no small part because of the debasement of language and, specifically, writing reform: the occupiers (and many in the government) actively pursued implementing romanization, while more damagingly effective reforming (crudely, Mizumura suggests) official kanji (the Chinese ideograms which form the backbone of the Japanese writing system) usage.
The year 1946 was the watershed: generations born after that were increasingly exposed to the new, poorer orthographic style and gradually became reluctant to read anything written before the changes unless it was rewritten in that style. In this way, Japan began to produce generations for whom reading anything prewar in its original form is increasingly a struggle. Older, premodern texts have of course become even more remote.
       Mizumura was 'saved' from this by her geographic isolation, the set of books she immersed herself in while in 1960s America a pre-war collection that did not reflect the changes she complains of. So, yes, her argument is more than just tinged with nostalgia, and her harsh critique of contemporary Japanese fiction -- she names no names, but she isn't very impressed -- in part hard to separate from her unusual personal circumstances.
       One of the chapters presents a talk Mizumura gave in France, in French, in which she speaks about her autobiographical 1995 novel 私小説 from left to right ('An I-novel from left to right'), noting:
For it is not just a how-I-became-a-writer story; it is also a how-I-became-a-Japanese-writer story. And this story is inseparably connected to another story that runs parallel to it and yet is a far more sober tale, full of regret: a how-I-failed-to-became-a-writer-in-the-English-language story.
       Mizumura's failure to embrace English, despite the opportunities she had, and her clinging to Japanese clearly inform her thinking here -- an interesting way of looking at the more fundamental issue, of the spread of English and the consequences on far larger and wider scales. Mizumura is realistic about the present-day situation, noting that no language has:
ever ruled the world the way English does today. No language has ever been as completely and absolutely dominant.
       Her concern is what that means to other languages, and to literature. The impoverishment of Japanese she diagnoses isn't simply because of the rise and spread of English, though occupation rule after the Second World War played a role in aspects of it (and, indeed, as she likes to remind readers, alongside romanization efforts there were even suggestions to make English the official language of Japan). She is keenly aware of the fragility of language and the hold it can have, suggesting that if Japan had become a colony in the nineteenth century -- a not entirely implausible scenario -- "the Japanese language would in all likelihood have been reduced to a typical local language".
       Opening her book with a chapter devoted to her participation in the class of 2003 at the International Writing Program, she considers the marginal roles of many of the languages represented there. Japanese is, of course, a larger one -- widely spoken, albeit very localized -- and yet the concerns of the writer remain much the same, especially as English has become the central literary language as well. So, for example:
I am sure many writers writing in English reflect upon language just like we do. Yet they are not condemned to do so in the way that we are.
     They are not condemned to know, for instance, that the works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably that entertain readers with just the right exoticism. They are not condemned to know that there is thus a perpetual hermeneutic circle -- that in interpreting the world, only "truths" that can be perceived in English exist as "truths."
       In closing the book, Mizumura has an example of the richness of written Japanese, the contrasting effects of the use of katakana (which looks like this: カタカナ), hiragana (which looks like this: ひらがな), and kanji (which looks like this: 漢字) and suggests:
No written language but Japanese can play with with the production of meaning in this bewitching way. Don't tell the French, but the fall of written Japanese, with this striking capability that demonstrates the irreducible and fundamental differences between the spoken language and written, represents a far greater loss to humanity than even the fall of the glorious French language.
       Mizumura's focus on Japanese, and the extent to which her thinking is informed by her own experiences and (what can come across as) chauvinism, is both the greatest strength and weakness of The Fall of Language in the Age of English. Japanese is an unusual example in its literary evolution -- contrasting also with Korean and Vietnamese, which were also Chinese-ideogram-based but have made the transition to phonetic writing (hangul and romanized, respectively) -- and unusual also in the demarcation points that are easily pointed to: the shift that occurred in the Meiji restoration, starting in 1868, and then the American-dominated reboot starting in 1945. Mizumura's nostalgia for a body of literature that defined her -- the reading of her teen years that, fortuitously (or damagingly ?) was not marred by post-war political/editorial correction -- threatens to undermine her argument in part, at least to the extent that she gives such short shrift to contemporary Japanese literature, of which, to the extent she actually bothers mentioning it, she is almost entirely dismissive: more concrete supporting argument and examples would be helpful here. (Of course, it's hard to tell whether or not this is merely an issue in the English-language translation, which has regrettably been revised from the Japanese original.) Mizumura is in the thrall of (what she sees as) a 'golden age' of Japanese literature -- a foundation that is in part suspect, because of how important that literature was to her in her formative years: treating it as defining, while rejecting the America she actually lived in, and unwilling to engage with -- at least in these pages -- the later, modern Japanese literature she dismisses so casually, it's tempting to ascribe some of her defense to misty-eyed nostalgia more than anything substantial. (In fact, there is a good deal of substance to it -- but it does not stand out well enough in this presentation, which would require more contrasting material -- a substantive critique of contemporary Japanese writing would be a start -- to be entirely convincing.)
       Mizumura makes a good case for the 'specialness' of literary/written Japanese, in particular, but one hopes English-speaking readers, especially monoglot ones, are able (and willing ...) to extrapolate from her arguments and examples and consider the larger dangers of English swamping other languages, and the pernicious effect English-language-dominance can have, in particular, on writing even in foreign literatures. As such, The Fall of Language in the Age of English is -- or at least can be -- valuable to any literature-interested reader. Certainly, it is an interesting personal introduction to aspects of Japanese writing, and its transitions across recent centuries, as Japan's own position internationally has shifted.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 January 2015

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The Fall of Language in the Age of English: Reviews: Mizumura Minae: Other books by Mizumura Minae under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Mizumura Minae (水村 美苗) was born in 1951.

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