Old Language, New Model: Is There a Community of English Speakers?

Countries where English is an official or de f...

Countries where English is an official or de facto official language (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Saki Miyata

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson discusses the rise of nationalism in Europe through the study of language and the establishment of official or vernacular languages. A “revolution in European ideas about language” (Anderson 1991) evolved right after the discovery of the civilizations other than European, which were thought to be much older than the European civilization.

The “revolution in European ideas about language” included the beginning of the first scientific study of language, including comparing grammar, classifying language into families, reconstructing language by scientific reasoning of “proto-language” (Anderson 1991). These studies of language created new fields of professions, which pushed further increase in printed language including dictionaries. In addition, Anderson states that the so-called middle class population “visualize in a general way the existence of thousands and thousands like themselves through print language” (Anderson 1991). Here, it implies that the population sharing the same vernacular language or readable language were able to imagine a community.

I was particularly interested in the concept that sharing the same language creates communities. Anderson states that “power and print-language mapped different realms” (Anderson, 1991). To give an example, a German speaking population was imagined as a community, including every German speaker meaning both native German speakers and the population who did not come from Germany but was able to speak the German language. Can we apply this to the current English speaking world? The English speaking world includes the United States, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries that use English, as well as immigrant populations. Although their countries may be different, these groups of people all share and understand the same language.

If sharing a common language means to belong to the same community, can ESL (English as a second language) students be included in the “English-speaker’s community” as well? Can accents such as “British-accent”, “American-accent”, and “Australian-accent” all be classified as one community? In order to investigate who belongs to this “English community”, the ownership of English is questioned. Pavlenko and Norton interestingly state that “In many English-speaking context, the ownership of English by white immigrants is contested to a significantly lesser degree than by racialized newcomers” (Palvenco and Norton, 2007). Does this imply that the English language belongs to whites?

Do different language have different degrees of unity? Is it true that the smaller or lesser the population which shares a language, the stronger sense of community? In Japan, one of the criteria to be recognized as Japanese is to be able to speak the Japanese language. In Japanese society, the Japanese language is considered unique and it is true that Japan is the only country that uses Japanese. However, English is used or learned all around the world. For example, in Canada, being able to speak English was not considered important when determining who is Canadian.

Another question is how well do we have to know the language in order to be in the community? If Benedict Anderson’s statement of imagining a community by sharing common language can be applied to the English speaking world, then these members are increasing drastically through the globalization.

For further research I would also like to investigate what for and why these people “wants” or feel necessary to join this community of the English language.


Japanese mascotization, marketing, and imagined communities

by Deanne Walters

Mascots are everywhere in Japan. Often anthropomorphized and cute, they represent companies, cities, and even the Japanese Self Defense Force. They came about after the economic bubble crashed. The national government decided to decentralize, putting more responsibility on the prefectures and cities (Birkett, 2012). Because of the economic bubble, there had also been a mass migration out of the countryside and into the cities (Birkett, 2012). Smaller cities had shrinking populations, both from aging and emigration as well as the problems of the economic depression (Birkett, 2012). So a new way to promote cities and create city pride was made, mascots or characters that represented cities (Birkett, 2012). The mascots speak the local dialect and are often based off of a city’s historical legend or city’s industries (Occhi, 2012).

This marketing tool became very popular and now there are over 800 mascots in Japan (Kracker, 2013). Each prefecture has at least 2 mascots and some have over 50 (Tan, n.d.). These mascots help create the imagined community of the city and become the representation of the city. The characters participate in community events and some of these events become so popular they bring in tourism (Birkett, 2012). These characters have been shown to be very popular with children and the elderly (Tan, n.d.). Some mascots become popular even outside of their city. An example of the massive popularity of mascots can be shown with the mascot grand prix a national event in which people vote on their favorite mascot. The ideas that will be discussed in relation to the mascotization are mascots as soft power, creating imagined hometowns, mascots and their connection to the past, and mascots similarity to invented traditions.

Soft power as defined by Joseph Nye is the ability to influence events and people (2005). While Nye was looking specifically at countries, anything can have soft power. The soft power of the mascots is created in different ways from other organizations, with mascots it is often done through cuteness. Mascots are made to be marketing tools and cuteness is an important component of that marketing (Birkett, 2012). Cuteness is not unique to marketing mascots, it is quite widespread in Japan (Madge, 1997). During live events, the cuteness of the mascots helps create approachability and familiarity that is not possible between two people (Birkett, 2012). This familiarity helps foster the imagined community of the city and from that people feel pride in their cities. The public’s connection to the mascots did not start at events, but through contest were amateur artist create possible mascots and they are voted on by the public and there are also contests for mascots’ names (Occhi, 2012). This connection is then used, indirectly, when mascots are used in marketing that is aimed toward the public, similar to how celebrity endorsements are used (Occhi, 2012).

Mascots at events are played by people wearing costumes and are able to interact with the people around them (Occhi, 2012). These events are specifically working to promote the connection between the mascot and the people (Occhi, 2012). These events are aimed at children and families and used to reinforce the both the characters and the sponsors (Occhi, 2012). The sponsors are usually companies or branches of local government (Occhi, 2012). Many of the mascots also promote traits like kindness and cleanliness (Occhi, 2012). At these events there are also various group activities that promote the idea of togetherness (Occhi, 2012).

Part of the soft power that mascots have is the fact that they are not seen as marketing tools, but as a friendly character something between a mascot and a human (Birkett, 2012). Some of the popular characters get fan mail and talk with their fans over twitter (Birkett, 2012). One famous character, Kumamon, made over 2.5 million yen in merchandise sales (Birkett, 2012). These characters represent their city or prefecture and so are also popular with tourists (Tan, n.d.). Mascots have been successful marketing tools (Birkett, 2012). They can also fail, only some of the characters are popular, usually the more rounded and soft mascots and not the more human shaped mascots (Occhi, 2012). The soft power of mascots is created through their cuteness and approachability. They are aimed at children and families. They are used to market cities, local events, and the mascot’s sponsor.

Mascots were not the first thing to be tried to help revive towns. There was push before them for creating “hometowns” which were the idea of traditional Japan and were said to be the hometowns for urban people, profiting off of the nostalgia of urban people (Birkett, 2012). The connection to the past was not only for the tourists’ sake. The town’s reconnection to the past was also important for the townspeople to feel pride and connection to their town (Birkett, 2012). Towns would also promote some rare product, natural resource, or legends tied to the place and create merchandise of it (Birkett, 2012). Some attempts of merchandising failed because it was available everywhere, however some became successful because they could only be bought in one shop (Birkett, 2012).


Mascots have been the most successful form of marketing for towns. The mascots share similar ideas to previous marketing schemes. Mascots are usually based on either the industries or the legends of the area (Birkett, 2012). When the mascots are using a figure from history or a legend, the connection is always to the ancient past. One of those mascots is Sento-kun. He was created for Nara’s 1300th anniversary as the embodiment of Nara (“Sento-kun’s profile,” n.d.). He is a young boy with deer antlers to represent the deer in Nara (Hashi, 2011). He is heavily connected to the past because they created him to be the new protector of Nara as other deities were before him (“Sento-kun’s profile,” n.d.). The mascots that are based off legends and traditional creatures vary from Yoichi-kun based off of the archer Nasu no Yoichi from the Tales of Heike to demons and the kappa (Birkett, 2012). All of them have been redesigned to be cute. They are a reinterpretation of the past not completely disconnected from it, but clearly changed (Occhi, 2012). The mascots have been the latest and most successful form of marketing for the towns. The mascots are similar to the previous marketing schemes in promoting the towns with their unique products and connection with the past.

Mascots share attributes to invented traditions. Invented traditions are traditions that have been created recently, but are made to seem as if they are a tradition from the past (Vlastos, 1998). The purpose of the traditions is often to support the status quo. Instead of being from the past, mascots inherit the past. Their purpose is to promote the community similar to some invented traditions that also support group identities. Mascots also promote the status quo, promoting only positive ideas and parts of the past.

Representations of the community, connections to the past, invented traditions, imagined hometowns, and soft power are all discussed in the paragraphs before are also present in national imagined communities. The first parallel is with banal nationalism. Banal nationalism is when an imagined community has objects that make the community feel connected, like flags (Billig, 1995). For cities, the mascots become those representations for the community, while the ties to the cities are not are strong as with the nation there is still the imagined community and the reinforcement of it through the mascots.

Another parallel is with the connection to the past. Nation-states often connect themselves with the past and use the past to support their positions with invented traditions (Vlastos, 1998). In this same way mascots and cities are also using the past for their own ends, which are creating pride in the city.

The next parallel is imagined hometowns and imagined pasts. Imagined hometowns do not have any direct parallel to national imagined communities, but when looking at the ideas that make up imagined hometowns there are parallels. When making imagined hometowns recreates a romanticized Japanese past (Birkett, 2012). Recreating an imagined past is also something that national imagined communities will do as well (Anderson, 2006).

The final parallel, soft power, is one of the more obvious parallels. Both imagined communities have goals that they wanted accomplished through their citizens, the difference is the goals they have. Mascots and the imagined city communities share more resemblance to national imagined communities than would first be assumed.

Created to foster city pride and market the city, mascots have become successful in those goals and beyond. The creation of city pride has had the inadvertent effect of creating imagined city communities around these mascots with various parallels with national imagined communities. The mascots also now have power themselves that is used to market the city, local government branches and companies. The mascots and Japanese city pride show another variation of imagined communities and how marketing can be intermixed with that.


  1. Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. New York, NY: Verso.
  2. Billig, M. (1995). Banal nationalism. London, UK: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  3. Birkett, M. (2012). “Amateur” mascots on the loose: The pragmatics of kawaii (cute). (Master’s thesis, University of Michigan).
  4. Hashi. (2011). Japan’s wackiest town mascots. Retrieved from http://www.tofugu.com/2011/08/31/japans-wackiest-town-mascots/
  5. Kracker, D. (2013, May 20). Get loose with japan’s yuru-chara. Retrieved from http://www.mtv81.com/features/specials/get-loose-with-japans-yuru-chara/ 
  6. Madge, L. (1997). Capitalizing on “cuteness”: The aesthetics of social relations in a new postwar Japanese order. The Journal of the German Institute for Japanese Studies, 9, 155-174.
  7. Nye, J. S., Jr. (2005). Soft power: The means to success in world politics. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.
  8. Occhi, D. J. (2012). Wobbly aesthetics, performance, and message. Asian Ethnology, 71(1), 109–132.
  9. Sento-kun’s profile. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.japantravelinfo.com/anime/pdf/sento_kun_profile.pdf 
  10. Tan, C. S. L. (n.d.). ご当地キャラ (gotochikyara) & ゆるキャラ (yurukyara) – the fusion of pop culture in place branding in japan. Retrieved from http://www.ijbts-journal.com/images/main_1366796758/0006-Caroline.pdf 
  11. Vlastos, S. (1998). Mirror of modernity: Invented traditions of modern japan. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
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Yasukuni Shrine and Nationalism

A gateway to a Shinto shrine. In Yasukuni Shrine.

A gateway to a Shinto shrine. In Yasukuni Shrine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Lilia Yamakawa

Some people criticize nationalism because it is connected with racism and a sense of “us & them.” Benedict Anderson, however, believes we should remember that nations also inspire love and self-sacrifice. I want to explore how Yasukuni Shrine is seen by some as a symbol of love and self-sacrifice.

When thinking about Yasukuni Shrine, it is very easy to see the negative side of nationalism and patriotism. Twelve class A war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni. (In fact, the government pressured the shrine to include the war criminals in 1978.) The museum at the shrine, the Yushukan, fails to portray the atrocities that the Japanese army brought on its neighbors in Asia, controlling the way history is remembered. The shrine symbolizes the beliefs of ultra-nationalist right-wing groups today. Japanese government officials insult Asian neighbors when they insist on visiting the shrine. Finally, while there is supposed to be a separation of religion and state, Yasukuni Shrine seems like a very political place, which does indeed portray a nationalism based in “us vs. them.”

How do some people see Yasukuni as a symbol of love and self-sacrifice? Anderson points out that a love of nation is often expressed in its literature. Emperor Hirohito paid a visit to the shrine and wrote a poem that said, “I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine in Musashino.”  Because of this, soldiers who went to war would say, “Let’s meet at Yasukuni.” These words signified loyalty to the emperor, to the nation, and to the Shinto religion. In this way, it was and remains a symbol of love and self-sacrifice.

People who believe it is the right or duty of Japanese, even government officials, to pray at Yasukuni argue that it is a spiritual place. To worship at Yasukuni is an act of love and gratitude to those who fought and died for Japan. Kevin Doak expresses this view: …

To die for the protection of one’s family, friends, or fellow countrymen is the most sacred of acts…The paying of respect is an act of mourning their death and praying for their souls. Can the Chinese leaders and those who argue that Class A war criminals should be removed from Yasukuni really be so arrogant as to believe that they themselves are perfect human beings? Will they themselves not need our prayers some day? (p. 55-56)

Many Japanese also believe it is the right of the people of a nation to worship whoever and however they chose to worship.

Clearly, Yasukuni Shrine is a symbol of patriotic love and self-sacrifice. It depends on your political beliefs as to whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing. I believe the people were used and sent to war by the Meiji oligarchs in their official nationalism, and they need to be prayed for. I believe, however, that we should pray for them in a place that is not so political and insensitive to the Koreans, Chinese, and others.


Breen, John, ed. 2007. Yasukuni, the War Dead and the Struggle for Japan’s Past. New York: Columbia University Press.