Language as a Window into Japanese Culture

by Steve McCarty

Professor in Japan


Originally published by Bismarck State College, North Dakota, in an electronic literary magazine: Webgeist, 3 (1), 12 January 1997. "Notes from the Pacific Rim" column, second installment.

Language is much more than the semantic meanings of a lexicon. This becomes clear when studying a foreign language and culture quite contrasting to one's own. Looking at the Japanese language from the vantage point of an English-speaking Western culture, many aspects of language are set in vivid relief, which helps us better understand language itself as well as our own culture. This essay will therefore outline some basic aspects of any language, with sometimes amusing examples where Japanese differs strikingly from English. Everyday Japanese words that have no equivalent in English will be featured for what they disclose about Japanese culture. Then cross-cultural communication problems will be touched upon, with the addition of biculturalism to bilingualism suggested as a challenging solution.

Let us first consider a few semantic examples where there is no isomorphic equivalency between Japanese and English, along with some corresponding cultural reasons why translation is defied. Bilingual dictionaries regularly gloss over these deeper differences and cultivate the illusion that certain words can define others regardless of the context. But there are nevertheless everyday expressions for which translators and lexicographers despair to offer any English equivalent.

One common expression that is bound up with Japanese culture and all but untranslatable into English is "o-negai-shimasu." A literal translation is insufficient but provides a starting point. With this caveat the expression could be rendered as "will [you please] do [me/us a/the] honorable favor ..." This is because, with a very different syntax from English, no articles like "a" and "the," and the persons referred to often assumed from the context, "o" = honorable, "negai" = favor, and "shimasu" = will do (formal).

At this literal level "o-negai-shimasu" is therefore closer to the Spanish "Por favor" than to any expression in English. One of its meanings has a closer equivalent in British than American English, when an offer of something is accepted by saying not "Yes, please," but rather just "Please." However, "O-negai-shimasu" is used more often in asking favors, as in "I would be much obliged ..." Yet it also seals self-introductory expressions where Americans would say "Nice to meet you." Its ubiquitous use in various situations reflects a culture where human relations are of the utmost seriousness and obligations are a major currency bonding human relationships.

There is also a large vocabulary to describe the dynamics of obligations, repaying them or not, making people feel obligated or sparing them the burden. Obligations are calculated with precision in the exchange of gifts as well as favors, so this is too important an area of Japanese life to be left to spontaneous feelings or the Western concept of sincerity. Common sense is almost the opposite in this respect, with the imperative to efface oneself and to placate others, even if this means telling them whatever they want to hear.

An interesting expression is the verb "norokeru" used to criticize or tease a person for praising someone in his or her own group. It is seldom invoked because people in Japan rarely break this taboo. But a Japanese-speaking foreigner, speaking Japanese with a non-Japanese communication style, is liable to run afoul of this way of thinking. When I first got married, for example, naturally I was smitten by the beauty of my Japanese wife. But when I said anything about it, even in a relatively informal situation, I would get hit by that "Norokeru," softened by a sympathetic laugh.

In Japanese as in English, the present tense is all-too-powerful in framing a generalization. In English, for example, an unqualified "is" is often an exaggeration. The present tense spans the past and future, so if one ever praises someone in his or her own group, one is branded as if always having done so and intent on continuing to unrepentantly do so. This came home to me when a colleague repeated "Norokeru" about ten years after hearing my earlier violation, and I had all but ceased the practice in face of my domineering wife's proven capability to lead a Bataan Death March.

In any case, Japanese culture dictates humility toward oneself and other members of one's group, along with elevation of valued people outside of one's group. In Japan it could be considered an ironclad rule that "He who humbles himself will be exalted; he who exalts himself will be humbled." But in the Japanese way of thinking "he" extends to one's group and vice versa. The above considerations point to a culture that is thoroughly regulated and hierarchical, in which group affiliation tends to be a definitive characteristic of the individual.

Even in these brief examples it has proven difficult if not impossible to discuss semantic differences alone. The way of thinking behind "norokeru"--that to praise a member of one's group is to indirectly praise oneself and hence violate a taboo--is codified in the very language as well. In what linguists call register, the level of formality in expressing a certain meaning differs according to the situation and one's status in relation to his or her interlocutor(s). The sense of register is weak in English, with its relatively egalitarian culture, but there is still a sense that, for example, casual speech is inappropriate before a judge. There might even be adverse consequences to an inappropriate level of formality.

In a hierarchical society like Japan's, this sense of register constitutes a much stronger protocol. The fact that native speakers of Japanese will usually not correct grammatical mistakes of non-native speakers but tend to correct errors of register shows that the culture values maintaining the social status relationships among speakers over and above the correctness of what they express. One concomitant of this way of thinking, and perhaps another cultural contrast between Japan and the U.S., is that the vast majority would rather be liked than to be right. Rather than risk a confrontation or rock the boat of a whole group, a Japanese speaker can select from all sorts of sociolinguistic strategies to be ambiguous and non-committal until the coast is clear.

In everyday speech ambiguity is thus an art, with a keen eye on subtle audience reactions. Sentences can trail off before the end if there is any whiff of turbulence, as one's position is not committed until the verb inflection at the end of the sentence, and even then one can reverse the polarity or postpone the conclusion to stay on safe ground. This again points to a culture where human relations are uppermost, with the reaction of others felt to be more important than self-expression. Individuals tend to be viewed in terms of the role they perform in a group, rather than in and of themselves. As a consequence, their self-image is largely vulnerable to definition by others, and their happiness may depend on supportive gestures from others certifying their sense of belonging to the group.

Nowadays there are individuals who have considered the Western viewpoint and are actively seeking self-realization. But some cooperative customs have proven necessary and viable through over 2,000 years of exacting rice cultivation, resulting in a strict sense of appropriateness. The obstacles to liberation or non-conformity in a Japanese environment extend to the everyday rules of speech. To use a set phrase in a certain situation rather than innovating has perhaps served to keep the members of a crowded society in relative harmony, maintaining their social distance so that others remain not too far to be useless and not too close to be meddlesome.

To use honorifics toward others in face relationships is obligatory, while only an evil cartoon figure would stoop to so honor himself or someone on his side. Thus it is difficult to open one's mouth in Japanese without affirming the historical hierarchies with all their inequalities. Praising one's wife is stigmatized, as discussed above, while nearly all of the words for "wife" literally consign her to the "interior" of a house, and most words for "husband" mean "master." To avoid these implications by employing an unnatural usage can easily mark the speaker as disengaging from cultural allegiance, so feminists in Japan must experience much frustration. They must often swallow the football lest they be branded "Oba-tarion" or "Aunt Batallion" after the unstoppable female in a zombie movie.

Some extreme expressions, however, are no longer acceptable in mixed company, like "gusai" which means "my stupid wife." In considering why the expression used to be acceptable, we need to bear in mind that it was and still is unacceptable to praise a member of one's group, and more than acceptable to cut them down. What happens is often that people speak nothing but ill of their spouse and children, but this is taken as a virtue by their interlocutor, who then proceeds to exalt the humbled.

We have seen examples of how grammar, register and so forth reflect culture. Paralinguistic features such as gestures also differ among cultures and are inseparable from their languages. An amusing case of gestures wedded to words is bowing on the telephone. When non-native speakers of Japanese begin to do this, home folks pronounce them "too far east too long," heads shake and eyes roll. On the other hand, a native speaker of Japanesewho is bilingual may not bow on the telephone when speaking English. The bilingual needs to switch behavioral as well as linguistic gears back and forth when the two are as dissimilar as the cultures of Japanese and English are.

Another aspect of language is communication style, and the cultural differences expressed therein are legion. In Japanese there are expressions used when English speakers would probably say nothing. While the latter would just listen in a conversation, speakers of Japanese are expected to back-channel with phrases like "Hai" (Yes) or "So desu ne" (That's right) that show their active engagement if not agreement. If a listener is quiet on the telephone, the speaker might say "moshi moshi?" (Hello?), wondering if the listener disagrees or the connection has been cut off.

An amusing Japanese word said when most people in the world would say nothing is "yoisho," which rhymes with "Joey show..." This onomatopoetic expression is often used when people pick up something heavy or even walk by others at close quarters, in effect plowing through their personal space. By the same token, when people sit down, they may say "yoisho" to viscerally express the touchdown, all the more so if others are nearby and the space thickens, as it were. It could even be said when entering a tight parking space.

Japanese-Foreigner Controversies betray a lack of Biculturalism

Because of cultural differences, words may be understood in their dictionary meanings but are taken the wrong way, such as innocent remarks that cause offense. Recently there was a controversy where a newscaster said he preferred foreigners not to be fluent in Japanese, a sentiment evidently shared by many viewers. Non-Japanese pressed for clarification, while the TV station stonewalled, reflecting some differences in communication style. A special program was planned to placate the offended foreigners, but the newscaster ended up avoiding the original issue of why foreigners should not be fluent in Japanese. Instead, the program just focused on the word "gaijin," translated as "foreigner" or sometimes "outsider." This word is also controversial among non-Japanese, but it represents safer, more familiar ground to the TV staff. They know that, while foreigners may misunderstand, the word "gaijin" is often used innocently or even admiringly in reference to Westerners.

Once an 18-month-old baby saw me on a train platform, pointed her finger at me and said "gaijin" before her mother noticed me. Submerged minorities like third-generation Koreans or Chinese may or may not apply for Japanese nationality, but they would not be considered "gaijin" in any case. Only the conspicuous minorities and Caucasians in particular attract the epithet. So the meaning cannot be "foreigner" with assumptions about nationality. It means something like persons outside the national ethnic group, and this phenomenon is by no means unique to Japan. This also bares the inadequacy of dictionaries. What is needed is a sociolinguistic or pragmatic dictionary that shows how words are used, if at all, in certain situations, and explains the cultural background thereof.

As for the deeper problem of discomfort with non-native speakers fluent in Japanese, the language is the last bastion of uniqueness that many commentators have sold to the public. Even so, there could be a modicum of justification for the aversion some people feel toward fluent non-native speakers. For one thing, speaking Japanese, or any foreign language to an extent, with a non-native communication style can constitute the sociolinguistic equivalent of a bull in a china shop. For example, a group of non-Japanese went into a no-frills restaurant that was busy and asked that tables be put together for their party. The reply was that they do not do this, but a woman insisted on it in Japanese, which hardly any native speaker would do in that situation. Staff members acceded to the request, but the cross-cultural damage was done.

The moral of the story is that a person has to be bicultural as well as bilingual to speak a foreign language in such a way as to do no violence to the culture behind the language. Much as Japanese is one of the world's most difficult languages, many non-natives reach a level of fluency in speaking Japanese without becoming bicultural to any appreciable extent. Where the cultures contrast and one or both tend to view cultural allegiances as mutually exclusive, biculturalism evidently represents a stage even beyond bilingualism.

Issues that first seem black or white turn out to have at least two sides if not many subtle shades of gray. Cultivating no illusions that the path will be easy, it can still be said that the higher the mountain, the greater the accomplishment and rewards of scaling it. Not stopping short at a serviceable bilingual proficiency, East-West biculturalism is possible, and it may be just what the world needs.


Updated on 27 October 2016

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