Genbun itchi is often presented, explicitly or not, as an unambiguous improvement in Japanese orthography. Who would oppose a common-sense idea like writing the way you speak, rather than the way Heian courtiers or medieval scholars of the Chinese classics did? Fuddy-duddies, elitists, and the Meiji equivalent of people who comment on Facebook status updates just to correct people's spelling, that's who.

So it was interesting to read a more balanced view of the situation from author Ozaki "Konjiki yasha" Kōyō 尾崎紅葉, in the essay Gikobun to genbun itchi 擬古文と言文一致 ("Pseudo-archaicism and genbun itchi"), included in Meiji ikō kokugo mondai ronshū 明治以降国語問題論集 ("Anthology of Meiji and later essays on the problem of the national language"), ed. Yoshida Sumio 吉田澄夫 and Inokuchi Yūichi 井之口有一. The key passage:

Even when writing the same thing in both genbun itchi and pseudo-archaic style, it feels as if the latter is playing music in the shadows to help you. For taking confused thinking and writing it down clearly from beginning to end, genbun itchi can't be beaten. Pseudo-archaism is more restrictive [不自由], but it can't be denied that it does have a certain ring [余韻] to it. If genbun itchi is like listening to one of Enchō's masterful tales, then pseudo-archaism is like a song. Even the same details can become quite different depending on whether they are simply spoken plainly or presented as an impassioned, tearful plea by someone with a pleasant voice. An ill-fated beauty, sunk in the depths of despair, denouncing the world and cursing the heavens: if this is set to music and sung in a beautiful voice, it will have much more power to move people than if it is simply spoken plainly. This is where genbun itchi comes up short; it does not reward a second reading, the way pseudo-archaicism does. This is why I intend to begin applying genbun itchi in practical areas before using it in writing of literary merit [美文].

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While the actual case is almost always the contrary – pseudo-archaic language survives much better in utilitarian prose than belles-lettres almost in every diglossic culture.


Yep, although my impression (after admittedly non-exhaustive reading) is that Kōyō and to a lesser extent his disciple Izumi Kyōka walked the walk to the extent that they could.

Earlier in the essay Kōyō actually singles out novelists for their considerable contributions to the genbun itchi movement. I think this piece is best read as a personal manifesto, maybe even an apology for not getting with the program, rather than an attempt at objective argument about the proper place of genbun itchi.

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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