My Year Zero Proposal

It's not working.
'Year Zero' is a radical political notion. It involves overturning the existing status quo and entirely replacing it with a new order – revolution instead of evolution, because evolution is too slow for the modern world. It is an act of such great upheaval that it usually only happens if the existing system has been completely discredited or destroyed, as in the cases of the bankrupt feudal monarchy overthrown by the French Revolution or the Nazi tyranny crushed by the Allies.

As Year Zero also means wiping the slate clean and starting afresh, it also involves great dangers. The last Year Zero was implemented by the communist government of Cambodia in the Seventies with disastrous results. Japan, too, has had its Year Zero in 1868, when the Edo Shogunate was swept away by the modernizing and centralizing state that created modern Japan.

I believe that the time is now ripe for Japan to have a new Year Zero, one that would sweep away the main curse that afflicts Japan and the Japanese: their cumbersome and impossible-to-learn language. I’m not just talking about my experience – Japanese people also never seem to completely succeed in learning their own language!

Compared to certain 'awkward' European languages, Japanese does have some good points: it lacks the absurd gendered nouns and clunky accusative and nominative declensions of French and German. It is also easy to pronounce; in fact too easy, as this is the reason why, in contrast to most other languages, it is remembered visually through a myriad of archaic-looking kanji.

Without kanji Japanese people would be unable to distinguish half the words in their language from the other half. As proof, consider ‘choh.’ In one of the smaller English-Japanese dictionaries in my possession, sixteen different meanings are listed for this one sound on its own: ‘leaf of paper,’ ‘office,’ ‘agency,’ ‘trillion,’ ‘omen,’ ‘street,’ ‘town,’ ‘an area of 2.45 acres,’ ‘a carbuncle,’ ‘chief,’ ‘dynasty,’ ‘period,’ ‘intestines,’ ‘musical key,’ ‘butterfly,’ and ‘ultra.’ This number expands exponentially when ‘choh’ is used in combination with other sounds.

The narrow range of sounds in the language makes it essential that all Japanese, from an early age until they die, must embark on the Sisyphean Labor of learning, memorizing, and re-learning countless kanji and their various permutations, a task that is not helped by the fact that each kanji has several pronunciations and many of them bear a remarkable resemblance to a squashed spider.

Some naïve Western observers see this as proof of a higher and more sophisticated culture, and even talk about the rich nuances of these obtuse ink blotches. But one flick of the TV switch will soon show you what’s really going on. Although Japanese people, as a rule, are clearly bright and studious, Japan itself has one of the most dumbed-down popular cultures I have ever encountered.

One of the more highbrow Japanese TV programs.

News programs avoid the complexities of covering the international stage, while almost every other program is about the simplicities of food and onsens. Another popular staple are ‘tarento’ shows, where C-list celebrities are corralled to chat about inanities, often with the frequent use of kanji subtitles to underscore key phrases.

The reason for this narrow focus is because most people’s kanji comfort zones don’t allow programs to employ the vocabulary necessary to deal with more complex topics. In other words, the dumbing down of Japanese culture is the effect of having a cumbersome and awkward language.

If the Japanese language was a computer operating system it would require a massive amount of memory or else the deletion of all but the most basic files. English, by contrast, is an OS that allows high performance with comparatively low demands on memory space. The effect of this is that, by persisting in using their native language instead of a superior foreign one, the Japanese actually handicap themselves, their culture, and their society. Indeed, the real reason Japanese people are so bad at learning foreign languages is because learning their own language uses up all the available educational oxygen.

This problem of a whole society and civilization running on a flawed OS can only be solved by a Year Zero solution, as Japanese attempts to have their cake and eat it have clearly failed. A Year Zero solution would mean a provisional government seizing and holding power during a transitional stage, and implementing draconian measures backed by military force. This would probably last for at least twenty years. It would be important to start from day one and maintain constant pressure for change. This is how I envisage the early stages of this Revolution:

  • Day One: The Ministry of English is set up with dictatorial powers to supervise education and arrest people for ‘language crimes.’
  • Day Two: All bookshops and libraries are closed, and only allowed to reopen once they have replaced their entire stock with English books. All Japanese books (French and German, too) are pulped to make English flashcards for educational purposes.
  • Day Three: All kanji signs are painted over or removed.
  • Day Four: Government troops commandeer all pachinko parlors and set about transforming them into ad hoc eikaiwas for the mass of the population who have, so far, evaded the efforts of NOVA and GEOS sales staff. Vast numbers of native English teachers are recruited by doubling all eikaiwa, JET, and AET salaries, giving bonuses, and by sending special ‘ninja teams’ by submarine to areas with particularly good English pronunciation, like the South of England and Northern California, to kidnap well-spoken people.
  • Day Five: All Japanese school teachers are forced to sit a rigorous English exam. Those failing are sent on extended homestays overseas; those passing are required to teach only in English.
  • Day Six: All the sound trucks of Far Right political groups and yakimo vans are commandeered and thereafter used to drive around broadcasting English lessons.
  • Day Seven: A jackbooted force of ‘English Commissars’ is set up to enforce English. Their duties include forcing people to read what’s written on their T-shirts and conducting random ‘L’ and ‘R’ tests at the point of a sub–machinegun.

7th September, 2007
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