Inventing a Language: Translation Words in Meiji Japan

  • Author / Creator
    Cho, Mi Kwi
  • This thesis considers translation practices, debates on language reform, and lexicography of the Meiji period (1868-1912). During this critical time in Japan’s modern history, Japan dealt with an enormous influx of Western culture and technology. Japanese scholars and intellectuals read and translated various works of Western scholarship in order to enlighten the people with brand new concepts from the West. The translation methods most frequently employed in the Meiji period were translation words, loanwords, and analogs. Translation words were wasei kango, which were generally coined by referring to classical Chinese literature. However, scholars and intellectuals also created neologisms, which did not have their origin in Chinese literature, as the concepts they imported did not have currency in Japan. Because these concepts had no currency in Japan, they experienced immense struggles, and reformers even had discussions to abolish parts or all of their native language to substitute European languages. Out of dissatisfaction with the unsuitability of translation words, some intellectuals even preferred the use of loanwords in the 1870s, claiming that loanwords most appropriately presented the original meanings of Western terms. However, the Japanese lexicon was modernized in the first twenty years of the Meiji period, and not only did the number of translation words increase, but many translation words that appeared in dictionaries of the 1880s also survive in the modern lexicon. Moreover, those intellectuals who employed loanwords due to their discontent with translation words in the 1870s switched back to the use of translation words in the second half of the Meiji period. Arguments by prominent reformers about abandoning the Japanese language also ceased in this period. Indeed, the mid-1880s and the 1890s, or the period of reversal culture, were the time in which Japan more selectively emulated the West and worked to revive or preserve its native traditions and Confucian ethics. Grounded in current scholarship, this thesis aims to identify a pattern in Meiji translation practice, lexicography, and language reform discussions that is parallel to patterns that intellectual and political historians have studied. This hypothesis-building study examines translation practices by Meiji intellectuals, language reform discussions among Meiji intellectuals, and Meiji English-Japanese dictionaries in order to document that Westernizing thinkers in the reversal period recognized that unselective borrowing from the West did not suit their country, with its different history and traditions, and that they partly retreated from their early project of forcing enlightenment on the people of Japan through European literature and languages.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Spring 2017
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Master of Arts
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
  • Specialization
    • East Asian Interdisciplinary Studies
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Commons, Anne (East Asian Studies)
    • Ono, Yoshi (East Asian Studies)