9 Competing “Languages”: “Sound” in the Orthographic Reforms of Early Meiji Japan

In: Rethinking East Asian Languages, Vernaculars, and Literacies, 1000–1919


This chapter analyzes proposals for a different orthography in Japan’s language reforms in the early Meiji period, such as the adoption of indigenous syllabic scripts (kana), the use of the Roman alphabet, the rejection of kanji characters, and the call to adopt the English language. On the surface, these proposals appear to reinforce the typical narrative of “vernacularization” in Japanese language, which is synonymous with Westernization and de-Asianization of languages—a movement away from kanji, kanbun, and kangaku. By highlighting the competing “languages” inscribed in the claims for a different orthography that formed the discursive space of 1870s Japan, I contend that the narrative of de-Asianization was a retrospective invention that conceals the many traces of kangaku-based language that made the reforms possible.


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