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Monday, August 28, 2006

 
The Mysterious World of the "Oranda-Tsuuji"
I've been reading James Stanlaw's Japanese English: Language and Culture Contact, and I just recently finished the chapter in which he gave an overview of Japan's historical contact with Western languages. The most interesting thing to me was that I had never realized the influence the Dutch had in Japan. When, in 1633, Tokugawa Hidetada banned Christianity and killed the devout Japanese converts, the Dutch were the only group of Europeans not kicked out of the country, and therefore, for a period of about two hundred years, all Japanese contact and concepts of the West were Dutch. And of course, to conduct trade, someone had to be able to communicate. Since it was illegal for foreigners to learn Japanese, it fell to the Japanese themselves to field adequate translators.

And this leads to my most recent fascination. Ever so briefly, so tantalizingly, Stanlaw mentions the oranda-tsuuji: "Knowledge of Dutch was restricted to the oranda-tsuuji ('Dutch interpreters'), the hereditary interpreter families living mostly in Nagasaki..." (47)

Just imagine. A group of hereditary interpretors, responsible for the bulk of all contact between two societies. What were they like? How did they live? What kind of power did they wield? The possibilities are immense, certainly, but were they as respected as I might think they deserved to be in their own time, or were they looked down upon as some sort of linguistic group of untouchables, those who had to lower themselves to converse with foreigners in a barbarous tongue?

Alas, my cursory searches via Amazon and Google Scholar have not yielded me much information, (at least, not in English,) or even hope of a treasure trove of such, if only I could get to it. Clearly, in the meantime, I am capable of entertaining myself with stories, and certainly there are the nuggets of such interesting ones in there, I may find myself forced to turn to creative writing again, but I still lust for more concrete information.

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