Language as a Window into Japanese Culture

by Steve McCarty

Professor, Kagawa Junior College, 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 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

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.


To the Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection Online Library

バイリンガリズムと日本学

Updated on 3 December 2001

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