What is Japan’s National Language?

It may surprise some readers (but perhaps not others) that Japan has no official language. This may seem trivial, but remember that Japan’s constitution, the basis of its entire legal system, was largely drafted by US lawyers and then translated into Japanese (which is why the Japanese language, such as randomly granting rights to “citizens” or “anyone” without a meaningful discrepancy, is so scattershot). What, then, is the law regarding the use of Japanese, and where is Japanese language use mandated by law?

The instances are surprisingly few. Perhaps the most important is Article 74 of the Courts Law:

Article 74: In the courts, the Japanese language shall be used.

The pre-war Foreign Courts Cooperation Law also provides that any document submitted to the Japanese courts must contain a Japanese translation.

The other instances are pretty minor and frankly merely procedural:

  • Japan’s Patent Law and other related intellectual property laws requires that all international patent registration documents be submitted in Japanese. These laws were primarily amended to bring Japanese domestic law into line with the international treaties on IP registration that Japan has signed.
  • Under the Notary Public Law, notaries can draft proof documents—that are in Japanese.
  • Foreign doctors doing clinical work in Japan must speak Japanese, or another language approved by the Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare.
  • The conversion of a foreign driver license requires that it be translated into Japanese by an officially approved translation body, under Article 107-2 of the Road and Transport Law.
  • Foreign company reports designated by the cabinet to contain public interest information or information for the protection of investors must be in Japanese, under Article 24 of the J-SOX Law.

In my search of the Japanese law database houko.com, those are the only significant instances where the law mentions Japanese.

18 thoughts on “What is Japan’s National Language?”

  1. One of the languages of Japan that completely flew over my radar until I read a mention in a magazine article the other day was: Japanese Sign Language.

  2. 国語 (“national language”) also appears (undefined) in some statutes, like the Criminal Procedure Code.

    第175条 国語に通じない者に陳述をさせる場合には、通訳人に通訳をさせなければならない。
    第176条 耳の聞えない者又は口のきけない者に陳述をさせる場合には、通訳人に通訳をさせることができる。
    第177条 国語でない文字又は符号は、これを翻訳させることができる。
    第178条 前章の規定は、通訳及び翻訳についてこれを準用する。

    And the School Education Act:

    第21条 義務教育として行われる普通教育は、教育基本法(平成18年法律第120号)第5条第2項に規定する目的を実現するため、次に掲げる目標を達成するよう行われるものとする。

  3. Interesting post. So what’s the difference between kōyō-go and koku-go? For the avoidance of doubt, restricting the use of other languages in different settings?

  4. Peter, kokugo is “national language” and koyogo is “official language.” There are actually several countries that have a different “national language” and “official language,” as well as plenty that have multiple official languages. In these cases the national language is chosen for symbolic reasons, even if rarely used for official business, such as Irish Gaelic in Ireland. One other good example that comes to mind is Singapore, where the rarely spoken national language, is, for historical reasons, Malaysian, while the official languages are Malaysian, English, Mandarin and Tamil. However, in plenty of countries, such as Japan, there is no distinction between the two.

    There are also situations where the medium of instruction (language used in teaching) or language of the courts may include a language additional to the ordinary official language(s). For example, in USA-rules Philippines, which had been a Spanish colony, Spanish was still permitted as a language of the courts alongside English for some time, since all of the existing states were originally in Spanish, and all the judges and lawyers were trained in Spanish.

    Interestingly, this list of official languages on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_official_languages) only shows a handful of countries as having a de facto official language, including Japan, USA, Mexico and Australia. There may be others that aren’t specified here, but it seems that most countries have a constitutional and/or statutory provision.

  5. Funny they did not declare Japanese the national language at the same time they declared Hinomaru & Kimigayo official symbols of the country.

    Probably sounded so obvious everybody forgot about it.

  6. Actually, Irish is constitutionally defined as the “first official language” of the Irish Republic, and English is the second official language. All government documents are bilingual with Irish titles appearing above English titles; the national assembly generally operates in English but members are free to switch to Irish if they want, and all the key government institutions use their Irish names on a daily basis—Dail Eireann, Taoiseach, Garda Siochana, etc.

    As could be expected, there is an exhaustive Wikipedia article about this.

  7. François, yes it does—the Prime Minister is both the head of government and head of state.

    Thanks to Joe for pointing out the 国語 issue.

  8. The question of who gets to be head of state in Japan is debated.

    Practically speaking, the emperor is pretty close to being the head of state—closer than the prime minister, anyway.

  9. Anyhow, we’ve been using “national language” and “official language” interchangeably throughout this post. I’m deducing that there is a national language for Japan, but there is no official language.

  10. I would actually say that standard modern Japanese (aka hyojungo) is the de facto official language. You certainly aren’t going to get away with using any other language when conducting any sort of government business, which is more or less the criteria that defines an official language.

    The question of what is the national language, however, is actually somewhat more complicated when you consider both that various local dialects are all considered as falling within the range of kokugo, as well as the fact that the kokugo class in public education includes both modern standard Japanese as well as various archaic/classical forms of the language.

  11. I always thought kokugo was another way of saying Japanese. In the education system, Kokugo no benkyou could not mean anything else but the study of Japanese.

    kokugo is japanese and gaikokugo is everything else.

  12. In Japanese, unqualified kokugo means Japanese, but in context it can refer to the national language of any country. Incidentally, the Republic of China (currently just Taiwan) also calls their national language (Mandarin) 國語, pronounced guoyu, and have been using that name since the 1920s or 1930s when they were the government of China.

  13. “Kokugo no benkyou could not mean anything else but the study of Japanese.”

    Kanbun is a grey zone and some schools in Hokkaido do some Ainu in kokugo class.

  14. There’s always Esperanto. It is a language of at least one Japanese religion (Ōmoto/Aizen en).

  15. Regarding Japan’s head of state, Nicholas Kristof shows off some knowledge from when he was the NYT bureau chief for Japan in today’s column (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/opinion/10kristof.html?hp) when he says “In Japan, the head of state is effectively the emperor.”

    I can’t imagine there are many American journalists would know actually know to slip the word “effectively” in there.

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