Ōno Susumu (大野晋), Old Japanese specialist and one of Japan’s best-known linguists, passed away in a Tokyo hospital at the age of 88 on July 14 this year.
Ōno made his academic name with important work on early Japanese writing and phonology in the 1950s, and his subsequent publications include new scholarly editions of various classics, Iwanami Shoten’s early Japanese dictionary, and popular bestsellers like Nihongo renshū chō (『日本語練習帳』, “Japanese exercise book”). He also famously testified during the Sayama Incident trials, voicing his doubt that the defendant had written the (orthographically bizarre) ransom note.
You can view Ōno’s œuvre as a marvelous reef accreted during his lifelong attempt to answer the question which, he occasionally observed, had driven him since his undergraduate days: “What is Japan?” However, unlike similarly-motivated nihonjinron authors, Ōno believed that the best way to address this issue was to examine Japan’s historical relationships with other regions and cultures, searching for connections and similarities. If that occasionally led him to see things that other academics generally agree weren’t there — like his infamous support for the Dravidian hypothesis, with particular reference to Tamil — well, it didn’t diminish the value of his other scholarship. And hey, it’s always good to be reminded of the need to read academic work critically.
Of course, Ōno was also a popularizer. Despite his personal dislike of modernized kana and similar philologically unsound post-Meiji developments, when he wrote for non-academic readers it was always in a clear and unpretentious modern style. The Q-and-A format of Ōno Susumu no nihongo sōdan (『大野晋の日本語相談』, “Ōno Susumu’s answers on Japanese”), a collection of newspaper columns in which Ōno answered readers’ questions on the Japanese language, is a showcase for the Ōno approach: patient, generous, and always eager to show people the cabinet of wonders that Japonic linguistics can be.