“Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.” — Martin Heidegger
In The American School written by Nobuo Kojima, the particular use of language reflects and informs a collective struggle to establish a cultural identity within a newly stratified social order. Through a framework of introspections of and interactions between individuals in this narrative, this essay examines language as a representation of the social disorientations felt among the “occupied” when confronted with the foreign ideologies of the “occupier,” and makes an attempt to challenge the narrow conceptions of civilization and culture as closed and homogenous entities dissociated from the rigors of history.
In the study of linguistics, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis posits that ideological motivations are largely driven by the dominant mode of discourse—that is, language. When a language is encountered, a culture is formulated. Culture shapes language, and, language in turn shapes culture. As such, language must not be viewed artificially as a mere instrument of communication; rather, it must be appreciated as a form of expression of the self within the process of mutual dialogue and intercultural exchange.
What, then, does it mean for the “occupied” to speak English? And Japanese? For the teachers in The American School, there is no dominant strategy that can be readily employed. Trapped in a state of constant disarray, they are left in search of ways to thrive under the given conditions. Across the spectrum, the intimate relationship with language reveals a level of discomfort and uncertainty that appears to manifest at the intersection of the two cultures.
For Isa, survival under Occupation rule entails relinquishing the cultural identity of being Japanese. The English language is held in contempt—it is regarded as an extension of colonization that must be actively resisted.
“Listening to these mellifluous English voices, he could not account for the fear and horror which the language had always inspired in him. At the same time his own inner voice whispered: It is foolish for Japanese to speak this language like foreigners. If they do, it makes them foreigners, too. And that is a real disgrace.” (p.132)The Japanese language, however, is seen as vital to understanding the self—without it, Isa is stripped of a credible identity.
“He pictured clearly to himself the outlandish gestures that Yamada affected when he spoke English. There was no dignity in talking just like a foreigner. But it was equally demeaning to speak a foreign tongue like a Japanese.” (p.132)Isa realizes that speaking his native language would only create space for conversation that in all likelihood would result in him having to speak the very language he detests. Confronted with this impossible dilemma, Isa turns to silence as his only recourse and adopts it.
“But so long as he was not obliged to speak, he was resigned to suffering these minor indignities. Nevertheless, he was desperately eager to return to the group, to become again only one among many.” (p.134)Yet even this silence is unable to prevent him from being driven further into isolation.
Unlike her partner Isa, Michiko envisions language as a means of negotiating her position within the existing group hierarchy.
“Michiko reflected that her command of a foreign language and her general level of education might set her far above most of the residents.” (p.136)But as she later acknowledges,
“[i]t was too easy to be carried away by the titillation of the words, words not exactly [her] own… when [she] spoke it [she] stopped being [herself].” (p.141)In either case, language is introduced as having the potential to alter the attitudes and behaviors of individuals through informing self-perception. By the end of the story, Michiko is no longer able to leverage her superior proficiency in English over others, at which point she is met with only a sense of disillusionment.
Disorientation as a state of cognition can be extended to include the sense of connectedness with one’s surroundings. Misapprehension is a pattern that is particularly visible in the character of Yamada.
“‘You might almost say that our English is better than [that of the American teachers],’ Yamada observed to Michiko in Japanese. ‘Weren’t you amazed at all the mistakes in their grammar?’” (p.141)It is ironically the Japanese that must maneuver a stilted and technical grammar of English through constant self-monitoring; governed by convention and prescriptive rule, the Japanese teachers are unable to use language freely.
In Yamada’s case, the English language is employed less as a medium for self-identification and more as a weapon for securing dominance, where friction between individuals becomes more tangible.
“And when he came up against colleagues whose English was better than his own, especially if they were women, he would try to defeat them on other grounds, to browbeat them if need be with the brute strength of his manly will.” (p.135)What is more, any attempt at initiating and sustaining conversation with the Americans results in a mutual lack of understanding, where the burden of shame and humiliation is shifted onto the Japanese.
“[O]ne driver replied, reaching down with a look of extreme boredom to hand him a cigarette… The soldier, who was black, threw up his hands in disgust. ‘I am truly very sorry to have kept you waiting,’ he said, and drove off. / Yamada did not know what to make of this parting remark. The American had perhaps been mocking Japanese officials.” (p.122-3)
“‘Ah, yes. The old kamikaze spirit,’ said the Principal. / The heavy irony was lost on Yamada, who took the remark as a compliment, and presented it as such to his superior.” (p.143)Yamada, too, is left with no option but to forfeit his sycophancies; unable to immerse himself further in the fantasies of the American lifestyle, he must accept the outcome with resignation.
Each of the primary actors in The American School represent important archetypes of the social realities of life under the Occupation. Language is presented as reinforcing a certain mode of domination, serving as an underpinning of violence and struggles for power. Isa, on the one hand, is confronted with the inexorability of an English conversation involving the American soldier and nurse; for each encounter, there grows a pressing need to extricate himself from the prevailing situation. Yamada, on the other hand, recognizes that he cannot surpass Michiko’s abilities and subsequently confines himself to engaging in a series of linguistic microaggressions so as to validate a perceived authority over his colleagues. In the larger context, the myriad of interactions between the Japanese teachers are trivialized once subordinated to the command of the American principal, who emerges as an absolute arbiter.
A linguistic approach to analyzing the intrapersonal and interpersonal levels of social disorientation incorporates significant dimensions to an understanding of the dynamics of power in a colonial setting. The analysis of how language is operationalized, and the extent to which its effects are internalized by both the transmitter and the receiver, uncovers a plurality of dispositions harbored by the “occupied” in relation to the “occupier.” It is precisely the simultaneous fetishism and bewilderment arising from encounters with foreign ideology that captures the uneasy and complicated feelings of the Japanese toward the Americans in the 1950s—such undercurrents of desire and violence are mirrored in Shunya Yoshimi’s account of the politico-military forms of domination in East Asia under an American military aegis, although the Cold War complexities it focuses on are less apparent in The American School selection.
Language, as an extension of militarism and politics that together constitute ideology, is used as a means to instate new cultural norms. The notion that culture is unchanging and resistant to the tests of time must therefore be disputed. The aforementioned arguments pose challenges to earlier works found in the intellectual milieu by scholars such as Ruth Benedict who have posited a particular conception of Japanese culture that has served to legitimize various theories of modernization. Further investigation that involves geopolitical considerations, however, is required to understand how the forceful exportation and imposition of language mediates the development and reproduction of cultural and social identities in the broader sense.