LINGUIST List 28.2794

Fri Jun 23 2017

Review: Japanese; Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Shibamoto-Smith, Okamoto (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 27-Feb-2017
From: Patrick Heinrich <>
Subject: The Social Life of the Japanese Language
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Shigeko Okamoto
AUTHOR: Janet S. Shibamoto-Smith
TITLE: The Social Life of the Japanese Language
SUBTITLE: Cultural Discourse and Situated Practice
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Patrick Heinrich, Università Ca' Foscari di Venezia

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Japanese sociolinguistics is a fragmented field of study, and this has often had negative effects and has stalled advances in this field. New approaches have not found entry into Japanese sociolinguistics and sociolinguistic generalization that take account of Japanese have often drawn on outdated and ideologically biased information (Heinrich 2015). There exists an indigenous tradition which predates Western sociolinguistics by three decades and continues to be influential until today, although its original name “language life” (gengo seikatsu) is rarely used anymore. This approach has retained a rather narrow field of research and a rather light treatment of sociolinguistic theory and methodology. There is a critical branch of sociolinguistics in which scholars from neighboring fields such as history, sociology or media studies (critically) address issues ignored by the former branch (Heinrich and Masiko 2015). Then there is what we may call international sociolinguistics on Japanese, mostly pursued by scholars of Japanese Studies abroad with limited involvement of sociolinguists based in Japan. Such type of sociolinguistic study places research on Japanese into the context of methodologies and research trends outside of Japan. ''The social life of Japanese'' by Shigeko Okamoto and Janet Shibamoto-Smith is a rare example of the latter type of approach. It discusses the three topics which have received the most attention in Japanese sociolinguistics (1) standard language and local dialects, (2) honorifics and (3) language and gender.

There has recently been a great amount of critical and empirical research published in the three fields this book addresses, making it a welcome opportunity to readdress or adjust claims made about Japanese before. Each of the three parts is made up of two chapters. The first chapter of each part presents historical background and a discussion on how language norms have been formed and how they are meta-pragmatically reproduced in the media, among educators and in scholarship, while the chapter that follows presents a detailed analysis of these issues on the basis of linguistic data. In so doing, this book brings together “cultural discourses and situated practice”, the subtitle of this volume.

The book opens with an introduction in which the authors argue for a dynamic model of Japanese. By that they mean studying ideology and language norms, on the one hand, in order to explore congruencescongruencies, on the one hand, and contradictions to language practices, on the other hand. Okamoto and Shibamoto-Smith are to be praised for bringing together such perspectives in one book, because they tend to be discussed in isolation from one another. The authors announce that (p. 5) “we cannot understand the macro-level enregistration of sociolinguistic patterns of variation as identifiably associated with particular groups without attending to micro-level language use in interaction and vice versa. Throughout the chapters of this volume we strive to connect these two levels iteratively and dialectally, and to develop a systematic account of how they are mutually constitutive.” In doing so, they seek to de-essentialize language by paying attention to the multiple and various ways in which linguistic forms generate social meaning. Towards this end, the ideas of indexicality as advocated by Michael Silverstein, Penelope Eckert and others are employed. In other words, they engage in what is now commonly called the “third wave approach” of research on language variation (Eckert 2012).

The first part is titled “The notion of Nihongo” (Japanese). The first chapter thereof discusses the emergence of standard language and the idea of national language in Japan from the end of the 19th century onwards, summarizing the many works which have been produced on this topic. The idea of national language was adopted from Europe (in particular from Germany) and the idea that all Japanese have always been united by one national language spread, despite evidence to the contrary in the form of indigenous linguistic minorities in Japan. Standard Japanese, codified in the early 20th century was to represent national language. It was based on the speech of a particular part of Tokyo (Yamanote) that was adapted for writing novels in “spoken language”. In a situation where the West was rather critical whether Japan as a non-Western nation could really become modern – Japanese was the first non-Western language to be modernized and Japanese modernizers had to prove that this was feasible – language planners in Japan developed a particular fervor for standardizing and prescribing language. One effect thereof were attempts to eradicate Japanese dialects and minority languages. While this attitude was revised in Japanese language policies after the war, Okamoto and Shibamoto-Smith (p. 49) state that up until today “very little space has been made in the Japanese ideological imaginary for language diversity.” Today, Japanese dialects are seeing a comeback as “dialect-lite” in language crossings of younger speakers that draw on the limited dialect features they are conversant with.

The second chapter explores actual uses of Standard Japanese and dialects on the basis of data drawn from surveys, blogs and an analysis of language use on TV. All findings illustrate that the idea of a functional allocation of Standard Japanese for formal settings and of local dialects for informal settings is a stark oversimplification. Such differentiated use (''tsukaiwake'') may have been in place in Japan in the early decades of Standard Japanese language spread, but it no longer constitutes a model for explaining language choices in contemporary Japan. The very idea of two separate language systems (standard versus dialect) in the repertoire of speakers must also be called in question. Rather (p. 119), “Standard and regional varieties as linguistic commodities are valued differently in different contexts”, and are used accordingly in a wide and diverse range of settings. What is more, there is no singular explanation that can account for the language choices of all Japanese. Standard Japanese and dialect tend to surface together in utterances, making it impossible to state whether an utterance is in dialect or in standard language (p. 99). Such ambiguity deserves attention because it points to the fact that variation on language use and the use of dialect (elements) are frequently no longer simply a matter of regional background or of language socialization, but a matter of language style.

Chapter 3 is the first of two addressing honorifics. It first discusses how honorifics became part of Standard Japanese. Like many other Japanese dialects, the language variety spoken in Edo (renamed Tokyo in the modern period) did originally not have an honorific system. Honorifics originating from the court in Kyoto and spread into the Edo, seat of the last Shogunate. The absence of a honorific system in the language repertoires of most speakers of Japanese at the onset of modernity notwithstanding, honorifics were identified early on as an important feature which would promote Japanese as a modern language. At the time, a complex towards Western languages was deeply-rooted and the fact that Japanese has no grammatical gender or number was seen as a possible sign of (linguistic) inferiority. Hence, honorifics (also “women’s language”) were seen as vital elements to promote Japanese as a modern, valuable and unique language. Honorifics became seen as something that makes Japanese in this respect superior to Western languages. As an effect, everyone had to learn honorifics and became evaluated on the norms of how to use them. Norms and guidelines how to use honorifics changed through time, and they have never been uncontroversial or unambiguous. This notwithstanding, there remains a strong belief that there is one singular and correct way of using honorifics and that rigorous rules governing their “correct use” exist. Linguistic insecurity, language purism, debate, disagreement and a large number of self-help books are the result.

Chapter 4 studies attitudes towards and uses of honorifics. It reveals changing attitudes. A considerable number of Japanese regard honorifics asto be difficult to use and asof having non-transparent rules. Simplification is desired by some. Also, a large percentage of the population is seen to accept uses that are prescribed as “wrong” (i.e. double honorifics). Use of honorifics can also be interpreted quite differently in one and the same interaction. There is a thin line between being “refined” orand “polite” and, on the other hand, between “displaying superiority” orand “putting on airs”. Not everyone comes always to the same conclusions. Furthermore, just as in the case of Standard Japanese and local dialects, the question is not simply that of making the appropriate or correct code-choice according to context (here, plain, polite or honorific speech). Rather people mix codes and the right amount of “mixture” matters. In the words of the authors (p.198-199): “The linkage between honorifics and their stereotypical social meanings is in fact in constant negotiation with a wide variety of contingencies in actual practice, and this in turn requires us to recognize the polyindexial nature of honorific forms.” Some reject honorifics when others insist on using them it in one and the same situation. Unsurprisingly, speakers have different rationales for their respective code-choices, too (see, e.g. p. 160). Very obviously, the ideas of language being plain, polite or honorific have been based on the fact that distinct morphologies expressing plain, polite or honorific language exist in Japanese. It has simply been assumed that function follows form – always and everywhere. The matter is more complicated though, but a new framework showing how these codes relate to one another is not presented here.

CThe chapters 5 and 6 discuss gendered use of Japanese, first with regard to norms and then on the basis of empirical data. Just like honorifics, so-called “women’s language” (''joseigo'') became a matter of “language engineering” (my term) and this was directly interrelated with the ideological imagination of “modern Japanese women” during the modernization period. Despite being largely an artifact, “women language” was then linked to the past and became proclaimed as another element (next to honorifics) that characterized Japanese. Chapter 5 sums up the great amount of work that has been done in this field over the last two decades. The modernist ideas of how women should talk could potentially affect all women, although not all are found to speak in that imaginary way or to have mastered such a kind of speech. Masculine speech, on the other hand, was rarely studied and this remains so until today. While the ways how women ought to talk manifest in various ways in blogs, editorials and self-help books, concern for male speech remains a niche for specialists. Yet, changes have been noted in the last field, too, with preferred norms shifting from “manly manly” to “softly male” speech. The chapter also points out that there are exist various ways of expressing femininity and masculinity that affect code-choices differently. Chapter 6 confirms this on the basis of metapragmatic comments in blogs and on the basis of real situated speech. There is also a rural and urban divide in that prototypic “women’s language” is associated with (middle-class and elderly) Tokyo speakers while “men’s speech” from Tokyo is seen by non-residents of Tokyo to be lacking in masculinity. This is an important finding because it illustrates as it does that social variables such as gender, region, age and class intersect and that one cannot simply contrast women and men, urban and rural, young and old, etc., in order to account for variability in Japanese. To add to the complexity, norms are currently changing and people differ very much in their opinion of how men and women should talk in what settings, and thus what constitutes appropriate gendered speech in what kind of setting. The conclusion is similar to that of the previous parts of the book (p. 290): “speakers are neither completely conforming nor completely ignoring linguistic gender norms.” It’s more complicated than that. Why this is so is however not explained. The authors, in general, content themselves to deconstruct ideas about Japanese by identifying contradictions between “cultural discourses” and “situated practice”. New explanations or theorization of the situated practices described are absent.

There are no “Conclusions” in this book, and this is a real pity, given the great discussions and deconstructions that precede the final chapter. The book ends with “Reflections”, which are however very useful for all those conducting sociolinguistic research into Japanese. It points out, for example, that the problem of social class has never been appropriately studied in Japan, due to the myth that Japanese society is allegedly class-less. As a resultan effect, there remain a number of blind spots in our understanding of Japanese language and society. Addressing these is important, as are more focused studies departing from the insights provided by this book.


This is the best book on Japanese sociolinguistics available, written by two keen and long-time observers of Japanese language and society. There is no doubt that this book will serve as an important basis for new, broader and more detailed research into Japanese sociolinguistics henceforth. It skillfully sheds light and discusses problematic and contested issues, and how such uncertainty has come about. The book shows that variation and different language attitudes and repertoires have always existed in Japan, but that ideologies claiming strict norms and homogeneity have overshadowed such plurality. Language norms are ambiguous today and this process and the linguistic uncertaintyuncertainness and insecurity that accompany it could have served as the main threadthreat uniting the three parts of this book. It is truly a pity that this chance has been missed in this book, because it prepares the ground for such an important discussion for the first time for the case of Japanese.

In general, both authors seem to not want to overreach in their analysis. They basically do two things across the book:, (1) they connect cultural discourses with situated practice and (2) they connect these discussions with ongoing debates in sociolinguistic research outside of Japan. This is praiseworthy but more could have been possible. The authors have gutted the stock-and-trade of academic Japanese sociolinguistics of any genuine significance, that is, the notion that Japanese has since immemorial time been special because of “linguistic unity”, “honorifics” and “women’s language”. Much more could have been made from this. To my surprise, some of the most noteworthy observations are to be found in the footnotes, e.g. the importance for language modernizers that Japanese has honorifics but Western languages have not (p. 131), the possibility of different interpretations of honorifics according to region (p. 166), the interrelation between gender and honorifics (p. 190), or the incomplete sentence as a strategy to deal with ambiguous norms of honorific forms (p. 183). “Upgrading” these remarks into the main text and having them discussed in full detail would have been very instructive. At times, a self-imposed restraint manifests in “taking shelter” behind Western scholarship. There is a repetitive pattern in this book. (1) Identify contradictions between language ideology and language practice and then (2) point out that these practices have been observed outside of Japanese contexts, too. Conclusions at the end of the chapters tend to not propose new views. In other words, they do not resolve the contradictions that emerge from the juxtaposition of ideology and practice by proposing new ideas and frameworks. The analytic circle is not completed. For example, the relation between standard and regional varieties in Japan is portrayed to be different from mainstream descriptions, but we are not offered a new perspective on what the relation between them is today, and how it should be studied accordingly from now on. In the same way, we do not learn whether honorifics are part of the language system or whether their useit is a social register. Such important questions are not resolved. Rather, Western scholarship is used to “normalize” Japanese and point out at either shared features with other languages or with general (etic) principles governing language variation and code-choices. For example, part one concludes with Eckert seeing speakers as stylistic agents (p. 122), and part two with Eckert’s idea of polyindexicality and Irvine and Gal’s ideological erasure. The part on gendered speech differs and is exemplary in making full use of the insights that discuss the case of Japanese for sociolinguistics could have. (More) Japanese theorization would be highly welcome for the sociolinguistic of Japanese, and for sociolinguistics in general.

Last but not least, for a book titled “The Social Life of the Japanese Language” the scope of the discussion is limited and centered on topics which have already received lots of attention in Japanese sociolinguistics. Chapters could have also addressed social relations outside the work/friends settings (courts of law, doctor-patient, ''senpai-kohai'', job interviews, professors-students, etc.). Furthermore, the “Japanese language” does not have “a social life”, strictly speaking. Its speakers have a linguistic life, and not all speakers are Japanese monolingual as it appears in this book. Thriving fields in sociolinguistics such as language contact, language endangerment, bilingualism, linguistic landscape, language management, etc. are not addressed.

All in all, this remarkable book calls out for more work on Japanese sociolinguistics, and nobody endeavoring to contribute more to our insights into this field can ignore this work. It is well written, but it is not easy to read. It addresses an advanced readership who have an understanding of the topics discussed here and the way in which they are discussed. No other such book is available at the present, neither in Japanese nor in any other language.


Eckert, Penelope (2012) Three Waves of Variation Study: The Emergence of Meaning in the Study of Sociolinguistic Variation. Annual Review of Anthropology 41. 87–100.

Heinrich, Patrick (2015) The Study of Politeness and Women’s Language in Japan. In Dick Smakman and Patrick Heinrich (eds.), Globalising Sociolinguistics: Challenging and Expanding Theory, 178–193. Routledge.

Heinrich, Patrick and Hideo Masiko (2015) Japanese Sociolinguistics: A Critical Review. Contemporary Japan. Ca’ Foscari Japanese Studies 3. 249–266.


Patrick Heinrich is associate professor of Japanese language and linguistics at Ca' Foscari University of Venice. His focus is on language endangerment and language in the city with a regional focus on Japan.

Page Updated: 23-Jun-2017