Sociolinguistics in Japanese Contexts

By Tetsuya Kunihiro; Fumio Inoue et al. | Go to book overview

1. The language life of the Japanese

0. Introductory notes by the editors

This is an extensive sociolinguistic description of the Japanese people; a synthesis of Japanese works on linguistic behavior from the standpoint of sociolinguistics. Discussions of national characteristics of the Japanese have been published repeatedly, but this chapter is distinguished by the use of concrete data acquired through surveys. Here readers can see how the Japanese language is used in daily life.

The definition of’ language life’, a key word in Japanese sociolinguistics, is discussed first. This is followed by the discussion of a number of topics: linguistic behavior in the course of a day, the sociology of language, functions of language, paralanguage, kinesics, situations of language use, proxemics, factors influencing the flow of communication, characteristics of Japanese linguistic behavior, etc.

Though the author neither cites Western studies nor uses technical terms, he makes use of the frame of reference offered by more recent sociolinguistics in a broader sense. Readers in the Western world will notice universal sociolinguistic tendencies in this description of the Japanese and their linguistic behavior, even though the author seems more interested in pointing out the differences between East and West than the similarities.


1. What is ‘language life’?

“Language life” (a literal translation of the Japanese term gengo seikatsu) is a fairly new term (it has come into extensive use only since the end of World War II), so we must start by discussing what “language life” is, partly because it has no particularly established definition, even in its use by scholars, and partly because the term’s use in so many diverse fields has made it hard to pin down. Ironically, this is one instance where one cannot begin by examining equivalent Western technical terms, since it is a concept peculiar to Japan.

Nevertheless, in the thirty years since the end of the War, even though there remain considerable differences of opinion among scholars, one is left with the impression that there is a basic common understanding, a kind of lowest common denominator, which has formed. At the very least, there seems to be a consensus on what language life is not. That is to say, it does not deal with (or perhaps we should say that it does not limit itself to) the internal structure of language as a sign system (as with grammar and phonetics).

Part of the problem stems from the way in which the term ‘language life’ and related terms first came to be used in academic circles. Minoru Nishio used the term ‘language life’ in the title of a collection of papers (Nishio 1961). In one of these papers, ‘An Examination of Language Life’ (Nishio 1959), he wrote the following about the academic requisites of the term.

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