Faculty Author Q&A: Atsuko Ueda on “Language, Nation, Race Linguistic Reform in Meiji Japan (1868-1912)”

July 7, 2022

Atsuko Ueda is Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Literature at Princeton University. She is the author of Concealment of Politics, Politics of Concealment and a coeditor of Politics and Literature Debate: Postwar Japanese Literary Criticism 1945-1952.

How did you get the idea for this project?

This project is intimately tied to how I grew up. Growing up outside of Japan from the age of six, I was constantly told that “Japanese” was an elusive language that I would never be able to master. When I began to study the history of the “Japanese language,” I found that what we now call the “Japanese language” was only quite artificially created toward the end of the 19th century. And the idea that the “Japanese people”—the boundaries of which were also being drawn at the time—were “authentic” speakers of this artificial national language was ideologically produced around the same time. I thus became interested in the specific ways in which the “Japanese language” was produced, as well as deciphering the ideological foundation upon which it was generated.

How has your project developed or changed throughout the research and writing process?

The book was written over the span of 10 years, so it went through many changes. The most important change that allowed me to finish the book was introducing race into my discussion of language reform. The beginning of modernity in Japan featured a race war. I felt it was crucial to inscribe race in our examination, since no analysis of imperialism or nationalism is possible without it. After writing three chapters of the book, I grew dissatisfied. I felt that, despite my effort to critique the nation, I was inadvertently reifying it. But by introducing the issue of race, I was able to develop my thoughts of language reform in a more sophisticated way.

What questions for future investigation has the project sparked?

The need to inscribe race in Japan studies is even stronger in me. Race is so often overlooked in Asian Studies, as “Asians” are typically categorized as the same “yellow race.” Race rarely enters the picture in discussions of Japanese modernity. Such silence reifies the biologism of race and is utterly unproductive. I feel that I will continue to think about race in Japan studies.