Japan

Organized Panel Session

1 - Nishi Amane’s Case for Romanization and the Discovery of World Scripts

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Thurgood Marshall East, Mezzanine

If we take the Meiroku Journal on faith, then in the beginning was not the word, but the letter. Published in the inaugural issue of the Meiroku Journal in March 1874, influenital philospher Nishi Amane’s article “Writing Japanese with the Western Alphabet” was not sympathetic with calls for a unified national language, but presented instead an argument for the adoption of the Roman script. Nishi insisted that what allowed enlightened civilization to come into being was nothing less than the materiality of letters themselves. His proposed transformation of existing graphic regimes to conform to Western-style typography and standardized education would also inspire further reforms for the so-called “unified style” (genbun itchi) that by the 1890s became the preferred mode for modern Japanese literature.



This presentation connects Nishi’s case for Romanization with his earlier lecture notes for the Hyakugaku renkan (Encyclopedia, 1877). Nishi’s investigations into the branches of humanistic and scientific knowledge in the manuscript of that philosophical text reveal a keen fascination with Egyptian, Phoenician, and “Mexican” (Aztec) scripts that was by no means unusual among the early Meiji intelligentsia. As I will argue, the reform of Japanese scripts in part hinged upon an understanding of “hieroglyphics” that was not only predicated upon the discovery of other ideographic world scripts, but also a recognition of the need to overcome the seemingly incommensurable gap between speech and writing by a more accurate, and therefore scientifically experimental, phonetic system.

Seth Jacobowitz

Yale University, Connecticut

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1 - Nishi Amane’s Case for Romanization and the Discovery of World Scripts



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