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
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
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 Japanese
who 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
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.