By Yasu Shimizu (Japan Luggage Express)
Japan is famous for its people's high rate of literacy, which is almost 100 percent. Except for people who are originally from other parts of the world, everyone in the country speaks Japanese. Throughout history, Japan has been a homogeneous society with only one language. Until very recently its population consisted of mostly Japanese people, although there were quite a few people from Korea and China who assimilated to Japanese culture well.
The USA is known to have no official language at the federal level because of the diversity of people who originally came from many other countries, while the State of California defines English and Spanish as the official languages of the state.
Japan, on the other hand, has no law, constitute, etc. explicitly stating that the official language of Japan is Japanese. Perhaps the reason for this is because the population of Japan has been mostly Japanese people and the Japanese language has been the only language spoken in the country; therefore, there has been no particular need to define Japanese as the official language. Japanese people never think of it but for this reason Japanese is not the official language of Japan.
That said, the Court Act (the law concerning courts) states in Clause 74 that the language used in court must be Japanese.
While Japanese is the de facto official language of Japan, there could be a minor problem if Japanese society attempted to designate an official language because there are so many dialects in the county. The differences in dialects in Japan are not limited to pronunciation differences. Such differences among dialects could be considered totally different languages if they were spoken elsewhere in the world. However, due to the spread of TV and other mass media in the last century, so-called standard Japanese* can be understood by almost everyone; therefore, so-called standard Japanese would have a chance of becoming the official language.
*There is an interesting perspective with regards to standard Japanese. Standard Japanese is a language commonly spoken on TV and the radio. Many Japanese people, especially those from Tokyo, believe that the Japanese which people in Tokyo speak is standard Japanese, but it is not. It is the Tokyo dialect. Even within Tokyo, people in different areas have different accents (at least to the ears of linguists).
Also, nowadays there are those who believe that English should become the official language. Many people think that Japanese people should learn English so that they can better communicate with people from outside Japan and because the number of people travelling or moving to Japan from other parts of the world is increasing. There is much room for discussion because there is no official language in Japan.
Article 74 of the Japan’s Court Law stipulates that the language used in court shall be *Japanese*. Article 175 of the Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that an interpreter must be employed if a person making a statement is not proficient in the *national language*. The word, “Japanese” is used in the court law while the word ,“national language” (kokugo in Japanese) is used in the criminal procedure law.
While it may seem curious that Japan does not have an officially declared language, it is a testament to the cultural homogeneity of the country that has allowed the Japanese language to permeate every aspect of life without the need for legislation. From an outsider's perspective, it's clear that the Japanese language is, in essence, the official language of Japan.
The absence of an official language law does not appear to have hampered Japanese society. Instead, it has fostered a rich diversity of dialects and accents within the country, highlighting Japan's multifaceted linguistic landscape. This diversity provides a cultural richness that would be somewhat diminished if a single standardized version of the language were officially enforced.
Moreover, the call for making English an official language opens a dialogue for Japan's evolving relationship with global communication and the role language plays in it. It will be interesting to see how this debate unfolds in the future, especially as Japan becomes more internationalized, and the need for greater linguistic diversity may become more pressing.
The lack of an official language law in Japan illustrates a different approach to national identity and language. While some countries proudly display their official languages as a badge of national identity, Japan's stance reinforces its identity through the implicit and all-pervasive use of its language. Despite the lack of official language law, Japanese remains the primary mode of communication, teaching, and governance, making it the de facto official language. However, as Japan continues to navigate its way in a rapidly globalizing world, it's fascinating to ponder whether a change in this unofficial status will emerge in the years to come.