When I first moved to Kyoto in 1999, I knew about 50 words of Japanese. My attempts to string together a few broken phrases were met with excessive praise, and I assumed everyone was being nice. “No,” I remember my friend Yuki saying. “People mean it. They really are impressed.”
She was referring to the widespread belief that Japanese, with its nuanced formal expressions and three different writing systems, is a uniquely complex language. How could a foreigner possibly learn it? Even Japanese people make mistakes. Former Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose Liberal Democratic Party’s more than half-century in power came to a crashing end this past August, might go down in history for having publicly misread Japanese kanji, or characters. He was hardly the first native speaker to bungle the language. “Many otherwise educated people have trouble writing a logical, grammatically correct sentence,” said Michaela Komine, an Australian who spent eight years working as a Japanese-English translator in Osaka.
Now the Japanese language is being transformed by blogs, e-mail and keitai shosetsu, or cellphone novels. Americans may fret over the ways digital communications encourage sloppy grammar and spelling, but in Japan these changes are much more wrenching. A vertically written language seems to be becoming increasingly horizontal. Novels are being written and read on little screens. People have gotten so used to typing on computers that they can no longer write characters by hand. And English words continue to infiltrate the language.
So what do these changes mean for a language long defined by indirect locutions and long, leisurely sentences that drift from the top of the page? Is Japanese getting simpler, easier or just worse?
On one side of the debate is Minae Mizumura, whose book “The Fall of Japanese in the Age of English” made a splash when it came out in Japan last year. Mizumura contends that the dominance of English, especially with the advent of the...