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Linguistic Imperialism: English as a Controversy

English is appropriated by those who choose the language for freedom. That is the ironic by-product of American imperialism. And that is also the reason
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During the Second World War, English was labelled “tekikoku-go” (language of enemies) in Japan and boycotted under the popular mass media’s self-censorship. Worse, the Japanese government imposed the Japanese language on Koreans and Chinese under its rule. Once, we were imperialists. We committed war crimes. At the same time, Japan has Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was taught at school about Korea and China as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But I didn’t know how people were tortured by Japanese soldiers in countries other than those two.

One day in Kyoto, my friend invited me to her friend’s café. Before we got introduced, by chance I heard him talking with another customer in English saying that he speaks a little Spanish. They seemed to have been talking about languages they knew. When my friend introduced me to him, I asked “What’s your mother tongue?” in Japanese. He didn’t reply. She urged him to answer me in English but he kept silent, and just stared at us. Then, she answered for him instead and said that he is from New York and speaks English as his mother tongue.

Until then, I never imagined that his mother tongue is English, and that he is from New York. I learned English in India. All of my friends with whom I communicate in English speak a local language as their mother tongue. I knew that English could be a mother tongue of somebody. But that was just knowledge for me and never became a reality until that day.

Train station signs in Japan include English

As I said that I’ve learned English in India, he answered that it is almost a different language. We know many non-native English storytellers. Among them, Yiyun Li is worthy of mention. Born in Beijing in 1972 to Chinese parents, her mother tongue is Chinese, the language in which she should have been able to write novels. However, she was unable to do so because of her self-censorship. “That automatically happens while writing in Chinese”, she said. She moved to the US in 1996 and then started her career as an English novelist later.

English is appropriated by those who choose the language for freedom. That is the ironic by-product of American imperialism. And that is also the reason why those people whose mother tongue is English sometimes find themselves in problematic circumstances, like being asked what their mother tongue is, although they speak English.

Japan was occupied by the US for a few years before my birth followed by the controversial peace accords— the Japan-US Peace Treaty also known as the Treaty of San Francisco signed between the two governments. I often heard the Japanese word “amerika teikokushugi.” This word prevailed among Japanese society under a huge protest movement in front of the parliament house back then. However, it was never translated into English in my mind. So, I was quite unfamiliar with the English expression: American imperialism.

Yes. We, the Japanese people, have never “enjoyed” using English, the ironic but useful by-product of American imperialism, although we have been under the strong influence of American culture and affected by US foreign policies. And today, many Japanese make every effort to acquire a good knowledge of American English, because they have realized that they would not be able to survive without it.

I was born and brought up in a Japanese monolingual society, and my memories and experiences during childhood were contained in the Japanese vocabulary, which has blocked me from thinking in English. In other words, these two languages keep their respective territories inside of me, in that each different reality goes on. That means languages are connected to different realities and my English vocabulary has its roots in Indian soil.

I am reminded of what one Indian student said to me when I studied at an Indian university. He asked me why Japanese people loved America and Americans in spite of the atomic bombing. I couldn’t find the answer. I was someone who chose India instead of the US for my studies. So, I answered with a counter-question about why Indian people are so willing to speak English. Then, he told me that English is one of the Indian languages.

I was profoundly impressed by his answer and somehow understood what he meant. From my Japanese viewpoint, Indians have the advantage of acquiring English as their own language, ironically enough, due to British imperialism. Yes, they utilize English in their own manner with confidence, something like an intangible asset. Then I ask myself, “What legacy did Japanese imperialism leave in the countries that it occupied, that may be considered an ironic but useful by-product?”

Tokyo sreets at night

If I were Korean, how would I reply to the question? How about if I were born in Taiwan where Japanese is replaced by Chinese? Or if my family belongs to Okinawa where their “dialect” was banned to speak at school and in public? If I were Filipino, what would I say to a Japanese person who is totally ignorant of the Battle of Manila fought between Japan and America, and is ardent to learn American English from Filipinos?

This imaginary thinking awakens my reverie of The Indian state of Manipur. I’ve never been to Manipur, but I have been aspiring to visit there someday since I met an Indian artist at a gallery in New Delhi in 1988. I acquired his drawings there, which were casually piled up on the reception desk for sale. When my friend and I were choosing our favorites among many semi-abstract Indian portraits, the artist was standing beside us. He looked Japanese, not a typical Indian, and he told us that he was from Manipur.

Battle of Manipur in WW II

Manipur has the city of Imphal as its capital, which is known for the Battle of Imphal in English. Here, my reverie turns into something like a bitter memory. Yes, Manipur is the only Indian state where the Japanese soldiers invaded and “suffered from extreme exhaustion, then illness and starvation to death because of a failed strategy of irresponsible Japanese military headquarters” under the Second World War. It has been narrated as the most miserable battlefield by Japanese survivors in the Japanese language.

Then, I came to know that the Battle of Imphal in English is named the “Japan Laan” in Meitei, the state language of Manipur. It means the Japanese Invasion. In Japanese, we call it “Impaaru Sakusen”. That can be literally translated into “Imphal Strategy”.
Browsing the English websites, sometimes I’m stuck as if walking across a field littered with buried landmines. Then, I’ll take a small step back and breathe deeply, until I slowly start to walk again. That rarely happens in my Japanese vocabulary world.
While leaving the gallery, I asked if I could visit him one day, and he replied, “You are welcome,” but I haven’t fulfilled my wish so far. I still dream of that day.

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Tripadvisor, Linkedin


  1. Douglas Lummis, Ideorogii to shite no eikaiwa, (translated by Yasuko Saito), Shobunsha, Tokyo, 1976. Lummis is a writer, former professor at Tsuda College in Tokyo.
  2. The US sitcoms like The Brady Bunch, I Dream of Jeannie, and Bewitched were broadcasted in 1970’s Japan.
  3. According to Yuriko Shinozaki (translator of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li), Li mentioned “self-censorship” in the Washington Post, December 21, 2005 cited in Sen-nen-no Inori, 2007, Shinchosha, Tokyo.
  4. Hitoshi Nagai, “Hiroshima and Manila: Experiences and Memories of Loss in World War II”, Asian Journal of Peacebuilding Vol.10 No.1(2022): 271-286, The Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, Seoul National University
  5. Yaphaba Meetei Kangjam, Forgotten Voices of the Japan Laan: The Battle of Imphal and the Second World War in Manipur, 2019, Aryan Books International 05-english%20conversation%20as%20ideology.pdf (
Mayumi Yamamoto is a writer and academic based in Kyoto, Japan. Her poems have appeared in Literary Yard, and some opinions in Indian Periodical. She authored several published books in the Japanese language.

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