by Mayumi Yamamoto
During the Second World War, English was labeled “tekikoku-go”(the language of enemies) in Japan and boycotted under the popular mass media’s self-censorship. Worse, the Japanese government imposed the Japanese language on Koreans and Chinese under its rule. Once we were imperialists. We committed war crimes. At the same time, Japan has Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was taught at school about Korea and China as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But I didn’t know how people were tortured by Japanese soldiers in other countries than those two until I met a Filipino poet. He said nothing to me about it, though.
One day in Kyoto, my friend invited me to the café of her friend. Before we got introduced, by chance I heard him talking with another customer in English saying that he speaks a little Spanish. They seemed to have been talking about languages they know. When my friend introduced me to him, I asked “What’s your mother tongue?” in Japanese. He didn’t reply. She urged him to answer me in English but he kept silent, and just watched both of us. Then, she answered for him instead and said that he is from New York and speaks English as his mother tongue.
Until then, I never imagined that his mother tongue is English, and he is from New York. I’ve learned English in India. All of my friends with whom I communicate in English speak a local language as their mother tongue. I knew that English can be a mother tongue of somebody. But that was just a knowledge for me, never has become a reality of mine until that day.
As I said that I’ve learned English in India, he answered that that is almost a different language. We know many non-native English storytellers. Among them, Yiyun Li is worthy of mention. Born in Beijing in 1972 to Chinese parents, her mother tongue is Chinese, in which she should have been able to write novels, but she was/is literally not able to write because of her self-censorship. “That automatically happens while writing in Chinese”, she said. She shifted to the U.S. in 1996 and then started her career as an English novelist later.
English is appropriated by those who choose the language for freedom. That is the ironic by-product of British imperialism. And that is also the reason why those people whose mother tongue is English sometimes find themselves in problematic circumstances, like being asked what their mother tongue is—although they speak English.
When I told this experience to the Filipino poet who works as an English teacher, he said “American imperialism, too.” The word “American imperialism” has echoed for a long inside my ears, because it sounds rather fresh to me in spite that the equivalent Japanese word “amerika teikokushugi” used to be common among the student activists of leftist wings when I was small.
Japan was occupied by the U.S. for a few years before my birth followed by the controversial peace accords between the two governments. However, this reality is contained in my Japanese vocabulary, which has blocked me from something while thinking in English. In other words, these two languages keep their respective territories inside of me, in that each different reality goes on. That means languages are connected to different realities and my English vocabulary has its root in Indian soil.
Today, many Japanese make every endeavor to acquire a good knowledge of American English because they have realized that they would not be able to survive in the future without it. When the Filipino poet mentioned American imperialism, I was about to say that he could have the advantage, if not privilege, of writing in English more easily and elaborately thanks to its by-product. Then I ask myself, “What legacy did Japanese imperialism leave in its occupied countries that may be considered as an ironic but useful by-product?”
If I were Korean, how would I reply to the question? How about if I were born in Taiwan where Japanese was replaced by Chinese? Or if my family belongs to Okinawa where their “dialect” was banned? If I were Filipino, what would I say to a Japanese who is totally ignorant of the Battle of Manila fought between Japan and America, and ardent to learn American English from Filipinos?
Then, I came to know that the Battle of Imphal in English is named as the “Japan Laan” in Meitei, the state language of Manipur. It means the Japanese Invasion. In the Japanese language, we call it “Impaaru Sakusen”. That can be literally translated into “Imphal Strategy”.
Browsing English websites, sometimes I’m stuck as if walking across a field littered with buried landmines. Then, I’ll take a small step back, take a breath, until I slowly start to walk again. That rarely happens in my Japanese vocabulary world.
*According to Yuriko Shinozaki (translator of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li), Li mentioned “self-censorship” in the Washington Post, December 21, 2005 cited in Sen-nen-no Inori, 2007, Shinchosha, Tokyo.
*Hitoshi Nagai, “Hiroshima and Manila: Experiences and Memories of Loss in World War II”, Asian Journal of Peacebuilding Vol.10 No.1(2022): 271-286, The Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, Seoul National University
*Yaphaba Meetei Kangjam, Forgotten Voices of the Japan Laan: The Battle of Imphal and the Second World War in Manipur, 2019, Aryan Books International
About the Author:
Mayumi Yamamoto is a writer and academic based in Kyoto, Japan. Her latest works are “Water, my dear South Indian friend” “Why India, and not America?” in Literary Yard, and “English and Imperialism, Japan’s Experience” in Indian Periodical. She authored several published books in Japanese language.