This panel explores how Japanese people engaged with the planned language Esperanto, from the late 19th to the mid 20th centuries: how they used it to analyze the key role of language in ordering society, to make connections across borders, and to advocate a fairer, more modern and better world.
Esperanto, the language created and proposed by Ludwig Zamenhof in the late nineteenth century for use in international as well as transnational contexts, has long held a position in the footnotes of East Asian historiography. Read studies of such figures as Ōsugi Sakae, Kita Ikki, Nitobe Inazō, Yanagita Kunio, Deguchi Onisaburō, and Miyazawa Kenji, and you will find passing mentions of their engagement with and advocacy of the language. But beyond this position in the margins, recent work such as that of Gotelind Mueller Saini, Ulrich Lins, and Sho Konishi has made the case that, rather than a piece of historical marginalia or exotica, Esperanto as language, idea, and community in Japan and China is a sociolinguistic phenomenon worthy of more serious consideration. This panel will explore Esperanto in three different historical contexts: Meiji-period first encounters, 1930s left-wing thought and language reform, and Sino-Japanese connections on the eve of the Pacific War, in order to develop our understanding of why Esperanto has appealed to Japanese people over time, and what it reveals about the history of language in Japan's domestic, international and transnational settings. Although it never achieved the mass uptake of which its advocates dreamed, Esperanto has an almost unbroken history of organised activity in Japan dating back at least to 1906 and continuing today, supported over time by a diverse, bottom-up movement and embodied in a wide range of different ideas and practices. Esperanto has been read, written, spoken and sung by Japanese figures ranging from diplomats at the League of Nations to revolutionaries in prison, from leaders of religions old and new, scientists and doctors, to schoolchildren in rural villages. As a language of foreign contact, it offered the possibility of an easy-to-learn alternative to the likes of English, French and German; to some it also represented a vision of a more equitable international order; and finally, it was a practical medium of communication, allowing Japanese people to make connections across East Asia and the wider world.