Japan Translation Association

Message from Tomoki Hotta

Tomoki Hotta, Representative of the Board of Directors, Japan Translation Association

Greetings from the New Representative of the Board of Directors—What is “Translation” to the Japanese?

First of all, I would like to thank the Japan Translation Association for its continued support and cooperation since its establishment in 1986. My name is Tomoki Hotta, and I want to take this opportunity to offer a few words on the occasion of my appointment as Representative of the Board of Directors.

The modernization of Japan, which took place during the Meiji period, brought to us through translation certain intellectual concepts and transformed our country into a place where everyone had access to cutting-edge knowledge and technologies that had been developed all over the world. At the time, there was much talk of making English the official language of Japan, and our very independence could have been compromised. Luckily, we decided against such drastic measures, and instead used translation as our means of modernization.

From the Meiji Restoration onward, great men such as Fukuzawa Yukichi, Nishi Amane, Mori Arinori, and Nakae Chomin introduced a variety of abstract concepts to Japan via translation; society is “shakai,” justice is “seigi,” truth is “shinri,” reason is “risei,” and so on and so forth.

Yet the work of such early translators is set aside these days, as the supremacy of English is once again cropping up in the media as more and more companies consider making English their official internal language. I strongly believe, however, that such policies are too biased towards globalism and will lead to a decline in Japan’s position on the world stage.

Among countries in which English has taken prominence over their native language(s), we have countries such as India, Malaysia, Kenya, the Philippines and Puerto Rico—in other words, countries that are, or have been, colonized by Britain or the United States, and which still use English as a second official language. It can be argued that the low global standing of such countries stems from the adoption of a foreign language (namely, English) as an official language.

The media has taken a rather self-deprecating tone towards Tokyo University recently, noting its drop from number one to number seven in the ranking of Asian universities. The primary reason for this drop is said to be Tokyo University’s relative lack of courses offered in English, as well as the low rate of academic papers produced in English by the University. Thinking of this another way, however, isn’t it notable that Japan is the only country in Asia in which one can obtain a world-class education in a language other than English?

Let us now consider Singapore, a country in which one must learn a number of languages by default, and in which there is a strong strain of elitism, great economic disparity and a general lack of solidarity among the people. It is also generally agreed that Singapore produces little of great cultural or artistic value. I believe these are some of the many possible distortions that can occur in a society that gives in to the pressure of making English an official language.

It has been with the help of translation that Japan has maintained its native language as national language, refusing to let it become a mere local or regional language, as has happened in so many other countries. How and why Japan succeeded thus can be illustrated by the following points regarding Japanese language, culture, and the many advantages thereof:

  • ・From the 6th and 7th centuries, Japan absorbed cultural knowledge from the Chinese via a mixed Japanese-Chinese writing system which became the basis of Japanese culture.

  • ・Japan is said to have the largest vocabulary in the world, with over 500,000 words. English contains about the same number of words, but many are loan words from other languages, while German and French have only 350,000 and 100,000 words, respectively. Japan is truly the country of “kotodama,” or the spiritual power of words.

  • ・The Japanese classics such as Kojiki, Nihon-shoki, and Man’yoshu, written over 1,000 years ago, can still be read today (albeit with some effort) as they are in a form of native Japanese which is still intelligible today. In comparison, in the US or UK, one would have to be literate in ancient Greek or Hebrew to read such ancient texts.

  • ・Out of 200 counties, over 6,000 ethnic groups, and over 6,500 languages, Japanese is unique in variety of its written form, which utilizes hiragana, katakana, the alphabet, Chinese characters and numerals.

  • ・Brain scientist Tsunoda Tadanobu has argued that people from western countries process consonants with the left hemisphere of the brain, while vowel sounds are processed with the right hemisphere, which registers such sounds as mere noise. The cries of birds and the sound of the wind are similarly processed as noise. The Japanese, however, process all these sounds with the left hemisphere. This may be the very reason that the Japanese culturally believe in the sacredness of all natural phenomena in the world.

  • ・Japan, being on the eastern edge of Eurasia, is a culture that took and with sharp sensibility further developed ideas from a wide range of spiritual traditions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Zen, and Japan’s native Shinto.

  • ・Matsuo Yoshiyuki, author of Japanese Science Will Change the World, has said that many discoveries in modern science have the Japanese language to thank, as Japan boasts 20 Nobel Prizes in the field of natural sciences, far outpacing its Asian competition.

Now, let’s also look at recent trends in the world at large.

With Brexit came a great disturbance not only to Europe, but also to Japan and the global economy. It may be the first step towards the dissolution of the EU. Indeed, the Netherlands, Italy, Australia, Denmark and Sweden have all considered withdrawing from the Union.

So, what lies in store for the rest of the world after Brexit’s fallout?

From globalism to neo-nationalism…

Counties may begin to redact policies which have allowed for relatively free mobility and commerce between countries.

From elitism to populism…

Power may shift from the elite global capitalists to the People of each country.

For decades, those who believe in globalism have pushed for a freer global market, the loosening of regulations, and less government interference, radically transforming the global economy. In more recent years, however, the seeds of neo-nationalism and populism which run at odds with such policies have begun to grow.

It would seem that society is on the verge of a great shift away from globalism to a new form of localism that may be called “glocalism.” And it is at just such a moment that the significance of translation comes into stark relief. The time has come for a form of cross-cultural intercourse that utilizes translation to bridge linguistic gaps while respecting the independence of other cultures.

Language is not merely a tool used for communication. Language itself influences and creates a person’s worldview. In Japan, it is our language itself which forms our way of thinking, of feeling, of viewing our society. It follows, therefore, that the integration of English into everyday Japanese society would by and large erase much of our identity, and the strengths and advantages thereof.

The concept of “omoiyari,” the sharp sensibilities, and the deep spiritualism of the Japanese are all wrought by our language and our culture.

The linguist Takao Suzuki refers to the phenomenon of “tatamise,” a word of French origin which means to become like the Japanese, to soften one’s bearing towards others, and to change from a confrontational to a compromising sensibility. This phenomenon is said to occur by the very act of learning the Japanese language.

It therefore becomes more apparent than ever that translation, as a new mode of communication based on a mutual respect of the independence of those from other cultures, will become important in the coming years.

It is my desire to encourage translation as a means of communication that retains the integrity of the Japanese and all languages, and does not give in to the pressures of globalism that would, for the sake of convenience, have the world speak one language.

Let us usher in a new age in which translation allows us to respect and live in harmony with all cultures of the world. Perhaps there is something to be said of the story of God and the Tower of Babel. Even now, after decades of pushing for English as a single global language, God seems to be telling us all to remember the language he gave to each of us.

We live in an age in which peoples of different languages and cultures must live together in peace and harmony. Part of Japan’s strategy, on both national and linguistic fronts, should be to reconsider translation as one of its most essential tools.

I would like to begin my appointment to the Japan Translation Association’s Board of Directors with these thoughts in mind.

I very much look forward to working together with you all.