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In Session: The Politics and Poetics of Language in Contemporary Japan
Evolving Voices: National Language, Vocal Music, and Speech Therapy in the Japanese Colonial Empire
Friday, March 26, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
University of British Columbia, Canada
As analyzed in Sonia Ryang’s article “The Tongue That Divided Life and Death: The 1923 Tokyo Earthquake and the Massacre of Koreans,” pronunciation operated as an invisible, but powerful, cultural factor to distinguish Japanese people from other ethnic groups in the Empire of Japan. This paper examines the formation of such pronunciation as a national element of Japan through a case study of Isawa Shuji (1851–1917), a leading educator active in Japan and colonial Taiwan in the Meiji era. It focuses especially on social Darwinism as his guiding principle, a theory of social evolution that gained popularity around the world at that time. When Japan established Taiwan as its first formal colony in 1895, the formation of kokugo (the national language of Japan) was an ongoing project as a part of its modern nation-building efforts. Among various specialists who have attempted to theorize kokugo, it was Isawa who explored the standard pronunciation of kokugo from the perspective of social Darwinism, of which he had learned while studying in the U.S. in the 1870s. He foregrounded the phonetic aspects of language and pursued a “civilized” voice in his projects on vocal music education, deaf-mute education, and speech therapy for those with hearing and speech disabilities and speakers of dialects, as well as national and colonial language education. In disentangling those projects, this paper illuminates the impact of social Darwinism on the politics of voice in the Japanese Empire, with special attention to the nexus between ableism, racism, colonialism, and nation-building.