July 19, 2005

Roll over Bourbaki, and tell Cholesky the news

According to a July 14 story in Japan Today

A French language teacher and 20 other plaintiffs filed a damages suit Wednesday against Tokyo Gov Shintaro Ishihara for his insulting remarks against the French language last year.

Malik Berkane, a 46-year-old principal of a French language school in Tokyo, filed the suit at the Tokyo District Court, together with 20 other French and Japanese people, demanding an apology over the remarks and 500,000 yen in compensation for each plaintiff.

Before becoming a politician, Ishihara was a novelist. His 1955 Season of the Sun describes wealthy students who "express their defiance of postwar respectability by gambling and brawling and indulging in promiscuous sex.” He made a political name for himself with the million-selling 1989 nationalist screed "The Japan that Can Say No: Why Japan Will be First Among Equals".

So why did Ishihara insult the French language, and how? Because some teachers of French criticized a reorganization of Tokyo Metropolitan University, and because (he says) the French language can't be used to count.

According to the petition, Ishihara said Oct 19, "I have to say that it should be no surprise that French is disqualified as an international language because French is a language which cannot count numbers."

He made the remarks at a meeting of a support organization for Tokyo Metropolitan University, which opened in April after integrating five universities and colleges run by the metropolitan government, when he criticized university employees who opposed the integration, including those teaching French and other languages.

"After all, those guys desperately clinging to such kind of language are lodging opposition for the sake of opposition," he said.

The newspaper accounts are not very exact about Ishihara's criticism, but it seems to have something to do with the fact that 80 in French is quatre-vingt ("four-twenty").

Back in the days of the Japanese economic boom, one of the many cultural characteristics cited as a reason for Japan's then-superior economic performance was the rarity of lawsuits, whether serious or frivolous. Has Japan now adopted American "sue the bastard(s)" attitudes along with baseball and coffee, or is this action atypical? Or is there some more traditional concern with linguistic "face" in the mix here:

The plaintiffs said the governor's remarks give a false impression that French is a poor language, which is not acceptable by international standards, and brought disgrace to the plaintiffs, many of whom are involved in running language schools.

Berkane said, "I was shocked when I heard his remarks. We decided to file the suit as the governor has not responded to our letter demanding his apology."

Other stories at the Mainichi Daily News (7/12/2005), the Asahi Shimbun (7/13/2005), the BBC News (7/13/2005), the National Post (7/16/2005), the Taipei Times (7/19/2005), and a relevant comment from Korea, suggesting that Ishihara should be taken seriously as a demagogue if not as a linguist. (And more here on Ishihara's rhetorical stance...)

I do need to point out that here at Language Log, Bill Poser went there first, though no one sued him.

[via Overlawyered via Ed(itor) at blawgreview]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 19, 2005 07:27 AM