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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

July 14, 2010

Idolatrous Cannibals in Golden Palaces (Part Three)

It’s not just for serious study of Japan that I think Japanese language is essential. What about if you simply want to find out what the Japanese find entertaining and enjoy it? For example, one of the things the Japanese astronaut Yamazaki Naoko did during her recent visit to the International Space Station was compose haiku, such as:

ruri-iro no/chikyū mo hana mo/uchū no ko

瑠璃色の 地球も花も 宇宙の子

Lapis lazuli-hued
The world and blossoms, too,
Are children of space.

And the Japanese Space Agency ran a competition for ordinary Japanese to submit their own contributions, which Yamazaki judged (the results are here, if you can read Japanese). I’m not aware of any of the other astronauts or space agencies doing something similar, and without access to Japanese language, you miss out on the pleasure. This also serves as a useful illustration of cultural difference.

On a more pop-culture note, there’s the recent satirical monster flick Girara no gyakushū: toyako samitto kiki ippatsu ギララの逆襲・洞爺湖サミット危機一発 (‘The Revenge of Girara: Explosive Crisis at the Toyako Summit’, 2008), where the usual man-in-a-rubber-suit monster from space, provoked by a Chinese space-shot, arrives on Earth and starts laying waste to Hokkaido while the leaders of the G8 are holding their summit there. The world leaders band together to fight it, each reacting according to his or her national stereotype (the US president bosses the Japanese around, takes charge, but is ultimately ineffectual; the Russian President orders the monster assassinated with polonium 210; the German chancellor attempts to have it gassed; the British attempt to brainwash it – not quite sure where that one comes from; and the president of France is too busy seducing his interpreter to care). Eventually, former Japanese prime minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō arrives to take charge, with a suggestion to nuke the beast. The horrified world leaders reject this out of hand, whereupon he reveals himself to be North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in disguise, who has infiltrated the summit, accompanied by his attractive female bodyguards, to make his mark in the world. Even though the world leaders all speak in their own languages, Japanese skills are a must to really make sense of everything. (In case you’re wondering, Girara is eventually defeated by a local Shinto deity, who vaguely resembles popular Japanese comedian Beat Takeshi!)

Speaking more seriously, the sheer volume of Japan and Japanese-related blogs and internet sites is testament to the level of interest in Japan and Japanese culture which already exists. Quite apart from specialists like myself, people of all ages are busily learning Japanese, writing about Japan, and using it in their daily lives. One only has to think of the phenomenal success enjoyed by 15 year-old schoolgirl Rebecca Flint, who started by posting videos of herself dancing and singing along to Japanese songs in a variety of costumes on You Tube,

was taken up by a Japanese site, was invited to Japan to perform and now has advertising and recording contracts under the stage name of Beckii Cruel ベッキー・クルエル (her latest You Tube videos seem more professionally done, too).

Now, Ms Flint’s success is obviously aided by the fact that she is telegenic, and that some Japanese have a fondness for a quality described as moe 萌え ‘budding’, which is used to describe cute young girls on the cusp of womanhood – supposedly in a pure, protective, non-sexualised way – and I’m not saying that anyone can parlay an interest in Japanese pop culture into a career, but it does show that success can arise from the most unlikely of sources, and, to use the language that seems to be used all to frequently about education these days, that real, measureable, economic benefits can arise from linguistic knowledge.

The quantity of amateur, ‘fan-subs’ of Japanese anime (and dorama) on the web suggests that there are  audiences for Japanese popular culture products for which their makers do not attempt to cater, and that there may be careers to be made in subtitling, as opposed to the usual translator’s path of dealing with technical texts, and having people do it who know the language better may help to avoid howlers such as this!

Finally, to return to my starting point, and the question of why languages should have a place in the higher education curriculum, the answer is obvious: if it’s Japanese we’re talking about, people worldwide are plainly already interested in Japan and things Japanese, and are struggling with knowledge of the language, culture and society. The task of the academy is to help them take their interest in things Japanese, whether it be manga, anime, literature, history, management or economics, and do the best they possibly can with it – and teaching them the language and improving their existing skills will help them individually, produce better understanding between nations, and ultimately be of material benefit. So, how can language not have a place?

July 07, 2010

Idolatrous Cannibals in Golden Palaces (Part Two)

Carrying on from last week, in order to get information, or data for research, the best sources in my view are going to be straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and in the language of the nation’s people, particularly when it’s as geographically and culturally distant from our own as Japan is.

‘Ah,’ says the sceptic, ‘But I’m only interested in statistics – you don’t need language for that! Or I can just work through an interpreter, or read books written in English. Why do I need to learn the language?’

Well, say you are interested in statistics, and are looking for some Japanese data, it’s not very helpful to know that 飯田市 has 225 外国人登録者 who are 就学者 divided into 167 公立学校 and 14 外国人学校, with other numbers in two other categories. You will understand the numbers, of course, but they won’t mean anything unless you can read the accompanying text to know what they refer to. (In case you’re curious, the figures above say that Iida City has 225 registered (school age) foreigners, of whom 167 are attending ordinary Japanese public schools and 14 schools for foreigners.) Admittedly, if you are in possession of a very large research grant, you can hire a Japanese research assistant to deal with the figures for you, but most people aren’t – if you want to get the data, you have to read it for yourself in Japanese.

The same is true of working through an interpreter – it’s just not an option in many circumstances. Even in the world of business, where interpreters are a way of life in interaction between international companies, who’s going to get further when all other things are equal: the person the Japanese can talk to and contact directly if there’s a problem or issue, or the one they have to wait and arrange translation and interpretation for? The one who shows they understand the Japanese expectations of a business relationship, with all the emphasis placed on long-term commitments and reliability that implies, or the one who makes no allowances for the fact that they are not dealing with people from their own country? I know which I would choose, if the situation were reversed.

Finally, what about just reading about Japan in English? Well, there’s no denying you can get a great deal of information this way, but – and this is a big but – you are then at the mercy of the accuracy and reliability of the writers you are reading. I have already described how one of the problems with English language scholarship on Japan in the 1970s and early 80s was an uncritical acceptance of many nihonjinron ideas and theories, resulting in work which gave a distorted picture of what Japanese society and language was really like, particularly when influential nihonjinron texts like Doi’s Amae no kōzō 甘えの構造 (‘The Anatomy of Dependence’) were translated into English and treated as genuine depictions of Japanese reality. Even today, long past nihonjiron’s heyday, nihonjinron writers still pop up and are allowed to make statements having little basis in fact in otherwise trustworthy venues. For example, Tsunoda Tadanobu, who I have mentioned before, was recently in The Japan Times saying:

Japanese communication is more of an exchange of feelings than of information. Our conversation is more like animal sounds, like two birds singing to each other. Ours is not as logical a language as others. (27/6/2006)

There are so many things wrong with this statement, it’s difficult to know where to begin, but suffice it to say, in my experience, when I’m speaking Japanese, or listening to Japanese people speak the language to each other, I’m not particularly aware of squawking out sounds, or of a lack of ability to hold complex, well-argued discussions – although the nature and structure of that argument might be different.

To take more literary example of why Japanese language is important, let’s think of Kawabata Yasunari 川端康成: he was awarded the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature ‘for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind’. I have no doubt of Kawabata’s worth as a prize winner, but the fact is that the committee had to read his work in translation, and simply because of the very Japanese-ness of his writing, the English versions are often a very different animal from the original. For example, Edward Seidensticker begins his 1957 translation of Kawabata’s masterwork, Yukiguni 雪国 (1935-37) with the following sentence:

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.

This, in fact, bears remarkably little resemblance to the Japanese original. In fact, none of the elements I’ve boldfaced in the English, above, appear in the Japanese. This is partly for grammatical reasons – Japanese doesn’t have articles, for example, so there is no equivalent for the – but much more important are Seidensticker’s decisions as a translator: what to include, what to omit, and what to insert. The original text starts:

kokkyō no nagai toneru wo nukeru to yukiguni deatta

The Japanese sentence consists of two clauses (Seidensticker’s English has just one), neither of which has a subject (Seidensticker inserts the train); the original gives the location of the tunnel – the border between provinces (kokkyō 国境) – (Seidensticker omits this); with the particle to と after the verb in the first clause in the original, there’s a sense of immediacy (‘as soon as’), and change from one thing to another – (again Seidensticker omits this); and finally, the second clause in the original, yukiguni deatta 雪国であった is a copula structure (‘was [the] snow country’), focussing on the result of the change suggested before (Seidensticker makes this a location the train enters). As you can see, there’s quite a difference between the two.

If I were asked to translate the sentence, my version would probably be:

As soon as they emerged from the long, border tunnel, they were in snow country.

But even this involves a conscious change to the text – the introduction of the subject they – which foreshadows the involvement of the protagonists for the English reader, something which is left ambiguous in the original. My version is closer to the Japanese, but it’s still not the same, and the only way to get the full sense is to read it in the original, and for that you need the language.

Or, let’s think about military history: in the introduction to his Japanese Army Operations in the South Pacific Area: New Britain and Papua Campaigns, 1942-43 (2007, Australian War Memorial), which is a translation of an excerpt of the official Japanese military history of the war (Senshi Sōsho 戦史叢書), historian and translator Steve Bullard discusses some of the issues which make the text difficult to translate, for example the use of ideologically loaded euphemisms such as gyokusai 玉砕, ‘shattered jewels’, used when soldiers fought to the death rather than surrender, or the fact that equivalents to ‘withdraw’ or ‘defeat’ simply weren’t part of the Imperial Japanese Army’s vocabulary, and so the most you will get mentioned in despatches and orders from the time is tenshin 転進, ‘alternate advance’ and any move to a defensive position is always framed as a preparation for a future offensive. Interpreting the true state of affairs behind documents such as these, then, requires not only linguistic skills, but also a knowledge of the culture and rhetoric of the Imperial Army, and this can only be gained once you have Japanese language under your belt.

Next week: what if you’re just interested in fun, Japanese things?

July 01, 2010

Idolatrous Cannibals in Golden Palaces (Part One)

A couple of months ago, I was speaking at a conference entitled New directions: how languages promote research and internationalisation in higher education organised by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, in conjunction with the Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies – which is a Language Based Area Studies Centre focussing on Russia, and central and eastern Europe, just as the White Rose East Asia Centre does on East Asia. The event was an opportunity to bring together people working in languages in higher education in the UK and discuss the best way to promote the languages agenda in the face of increased pressure on resources and ignorance about the importance of language learning as a part of degree programmes. You can find the full programme for the day here.

My own talk was about why learning the Japanese language was vital for engagement with, and study of, Japan and in the next few columns I’m going to go over some of the same ground, starting with the same quotation which gives them their title:

In the oceans to the east of Cathay lies a large island. The natives have white skins, and their behaviour is most elegant, following strict rules of decorum. They worship, however, idols with the heads of beasts, such as oxen, swine, hounds and sheep, and on occasion eat the flesh of enemies they have captured in battle. They think, moreover, that human flesh is the most delicious of all meats. Of even greater note, however, is the fact that their palaces are all plated with gold. The roofs are tiled with gold, and the floors have gold two fingers thick spread upon them.

This is my own translation of a Japanese account of the first ever description a European gave of Japan – by Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324), in fact. Polo famously visited China, then under the control of the Mongols, and worked for Kublai Khan, and it is most likely from them that he got the information on which he based his description. The Mongols were hardly the most objective describers of Japan, attempting to invade the country twice, in 1274 and again in 1281, while Polo was in China, only to be defeated by a combination of military readiness on the part of the Kamakura Shogunate, and a freak storm which sank much of the invasion fleet – the famous ‘divine wind’ kamikaze 神風 which was to become such a symbol of the defence of Japan in desperate straits that the term was used to refer to the Tokubetsu Kōgeki Tai 特別攻撃隊 (‘Special Attack Group’) suicide pilot squadron during the Pacific War.

Given this, it’s not surprising that the image that Polo conveys bears little connection to reality – only the reference to Japanese decorum seems to have any resonance – having as he did no opportunity to visit Japan or speak to a Japanese person. Even today, however, despite the benefits we enjoy of fast, relatively cheap intercontinental travel, and the instant communication of text, image, sound and video worldwide, it strikes me that non-Japan specialists are confronted with a range of conflicting and often contradictory images of Japan, and so it is unsurprising that they often have difficulties in determining the complex reality of the nation and its people.

To give some examples of common images of Japan, there’s ‘Japan: the ultra-modern urban environment’, familiar from films such as Lost in Translation (2003) or Black Rain (1989), or pictures of the shinkansen 新幹線  bullet train, or the latest robot. Equally, there’s ‘Japan: the bizarre’, where buildings such as love hotels shaped like The Titanic are commonplace, or the people spend their time watching game shows like Za Gaman ザ・ガマン ‘Endurance’. Then there’s ‘Popular Culture Japan’ represented first by monsters such as the mighty Godzilla – incidentally one of the few fictional characters to be granted a statue in Tokyo. You can find a picture of it here (although the caption wrongly positions the statue in Hibiya Park), and also here where my colleague, Graham Healey, faces off against the King of the Monsters. Later incarnations of ‘Popular Culture Japan’, of course, are represented by anime and manga characters, such as the ultra-cute, sailor-suited heroine, Sailor Moon, or even the Akihabara Majokko Princess character played by Kirsten Dunst in a recent video for artist Murakami Takashi’s contribution to the recent Tate Modern exhibition ‘Pop Life’.

Then, finally, there’s ‘Traditional, natural Japan’ represented by images of places like Lake Ashi (Ashinoko 芦ノ湖) in Hakone, with its pine-forested shores, shrine gate (torii 鳥居) and proximity to Mount Fuji. Seeing the photograph in the link you could be forgiven for thinking that Hakone was some kind of natural wonderland, whereas, without discounting the undoubted beauty of the area, anyone with any knowledge of the place knows that a pirate galleon cruises the bay providing sightseeing trips for tourists, and one of the major attractions is the Hakone Garasu no Mori Bijutsukan 箱根ガラスの森美術館, the ‘Hakone Glass Forest Venetian Glass Museum’, which displays all of Maria Callas’ costume stage jewellery, among other things. There’s even a popular culture connection, as Hakone is famously the site of the fictional Tokyo-3 in the classic anime series Shinseiki Ebangerion 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’, and an Evangelion-themed convenience store opened there recently had to close when too many fans of the series congregated to visit it.

Faced with all of these conflicting images of Japan, is it any wonder that there’s confusion and uncertainty about the nation, its people and culture? And, if we want to find out the truth, or truths, about the place, how can we do it unless we can access information about it? The answer is, obviously, that we can’t.

Next week: can we get information on Japan without knowing Japanese?

April 28, 2010

You will talk proper!

In my last column, I talked a little about the social aspect of Japanese honorific speech, and how speakers from certain social groups use it as a linguistic means of projecting an image of themselves to other people. In this they are no different from English speakers, who either consciously or unconsciously adopt different accents: the case of British violinist Nigel Kennedy, who famously adopted a ‘Mockney’ accent in order to appeal to a constituency who wouldn’t normally like classical music, springs to mind. I’ve also outlined how the normal rules (respect from inferiors to superiors) can be suspended in situations where the superior is seeking a favour, or of heightened levels of formality, and how this counts against the argument that honorific usage is solely based upon the obligatory indication of social status. Finally, I’ve mentioned that it’s been suggested that one reason why older speakers often seem to feel that younger ones can’t use honorifics properly is because the latter’s perception of how social relationships should be determined is different from that of their elders, which results in different honorific usage.

This week, I’m going to draw all of these themes together and look briefly at the historical development of the honorific system – from both a grammatical and social perspective – with a view to seeing how the language has ended up with the system it now has. This will be a little linguistics-heavy to start with, but bear with me, as I hope it will be interesting. I’ll start by looking at previous versions of honorifics.

The earliest type of Japanese for which we have a significant amount of information about the honorific system is the language spoken during the Heian period (794-1185). Linguists refer to this as either Late Old Japanese, or Early Middle Japanese, but less technically it’s just ‘Classical Japanese’ – the language in which most of the pre-modern works of literature were composed. In Japanese schools it’s called kogo 古語 ‘old language’, and every Japanese learns the rudiments of it as part of their education.

The language was that variety of Japanese spoken and written by the court aristocracy in Heian-kyō 平安京 (Kyoto 京都) during the Heian period (794-1185). Roughly speaking, it’s grammatically more different from modern Japanese than Chaucer’s is from modern English, but not as different as Beowulf’s Anglo-Saxon is from the modern language. It was, of course, restricted to a tiny proportion of the population – approximately one tenth of one percent, that being the rough numbers of the court aristocracy – and reflects their society and concerns.

The nobility lived in a world where rank and status was all important, and determined partly by family back ground, but also by one’s official rank in the imperial government. This isn’t the place to go into that in detail, but briefly there was an officially sanctioned system of ranks, promotion in which brought a man increased status and income – benefits which would also reflect upon his family. The system was clear and well-understood, with the Emperor at the apex, followed by the Empress and Crown Prince, then other members of the imperial family, higher nobility, mid-ranking nobility and so on downwards. The top five non-imperial ranks were the most important, and people below that level were looked down upon by their betters and thought of as not fit to associate with. People outside the rank structure were barely thought of as being the same species.

Given this preoccupation with rank and status, then, it’s not surprising that EMJ should have a well-developed system of honorifics. Formally, of course, it’s very different from the modern system, with the verbs and inflections which indicate respect or deference being entirely different from those in the modern language, and it being possible to combine respectful and deferential forms in the one expression in ways which it is no longer possible to do, but more interesting is the evidence which suggests that the level of honorifics used to address and refer to another person was determined almost entirely by their court rank. So, if one was addressing a Major Councillor (dainagon 大納言) say, one would use one level of honorifics, but if one was talking to a Minister (otodo 大臣) a higher level was required. Talking to or about the Emperor mandated the highest possible level, with a range of terms and forms used only for actions by or in relation to him.

What this means is that the Heian honorific system is much closer to the ‘discernment’ model of honorific usage. Japanese linguists call this zettai 絶対 (‘absolute’) in that honorific speech was determined by the addressee or referent’s position on an absolute, and externally determined, scale of social status. This is contrasted with the modern system, which is characterised as sōtai 相対 (‘relative’), meaning that the speaker’s perception of the relationship is more important. (In fact, even the ‘absolute’ Heian system was not absolute – if it were Emperors would never use honorifics at all – because seniors did use honorifics to juniors, particularly if a debt or obligation was involved.)

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the system was more absolute than the modern one, and speakers were aware, and critical, of people who used the wrong level of honorifics about people of lower status – Sei Shōnagon complains about it in her Pillow Book. It’s also accurate to say that, leaving aside the formal changes which have been extreme, the major development in Japanese honorifics over the past thousand years has been a progressive increase in the relativisation of the system – particularly once we enter the modern period and a person’s social position became less a product of absolute external criteria. To a certain extent, that is what makes honorific usage more difficult – for both Japanese and foreign speakers – nowadays: it’s no longer enough to simply know what someone is, and use the right honorifics for that position, you have to form your own judgement about the relationship and speak accordingly.

How, though, do Japanese speakers decide which forms to use? Well, in business contexts companies often train new employees in the correct forms to use to clients and customers, but people in everyday life have to rely upon their own instincts, and they are often unsure about them, particularly if they are going to have to speak in a situation, or to someone, outside of their usual patterns of interaction. As an extreme example of this, one of my colleagues related to me an anecdote about what happened when the current Emperor paid a visit to Oxford when he was Crown Prince back in the 1960s. The university wasn’t quite sure what to do about the visit, and so invited a large number of Japanese to a reception to meet His Highness – people who would never have met a member of the imperial family in Japan under normal circumstances. My colleague described his astonishment when most of these people, when introduced to the Prince, chose to speak to him in English rather than Japanese, and when he asked one of them about it afterwards was told, ‘Well, I wasn’t sure what honorifics to use to someone like him, so it was just easier to speak in English.’

I have to say that I, myself, probably wouldn’t be sure of the correct etiquette for addressing the Prince of Wales should I ever get to meet him, but I don’t think that I would choose to speak in French to avoid the issue! Nevertheless, it demonstrates the lack of security people may have about their honorifics, and the lengths they may go to in order to avoid embarrassing themselves with mistakes. It’s this concern over doing things right which accounts for the large number of ‘How to’ books on honorifics available from any Japanese bookshop (putting the search term ‘correct honorific usage’ (keigo no tadashii tsukaikata 敬語の正しい使い方) in to Amazon Japan’s search engine immediately produced a list of fifty titles). What criteria, though, do the authors of books like these use to provide their readers with information?

Well, one valuable source is, in fact, the Japanese government! Believe it or not, there’s a long tradition of these bodies making prescriptive pronouncements on matters of linguistic usage in Japan, and receiving support from government organs to do so. The most obvious area where the government interferes is, of course, the writing system, by determining which kanji should be learnt during compulsory education and used in public life, but honorifics haven’t escaped attention either. This is some time ago, but in 1957 the Ministry of Education issued a document entitled Kore kara no keigo これからの敬語, ‘Honorifics from now on’ which contained a series of detailed ‘recommendations’ about how the Japanese people should speak to each other in the future.

The document is not particularly lengthy, but it does make interesting reading, as evidence of a belief that it is possible to change linguistic behaviour by fiat (Miller 1967, 284). I don’t have space here to go into all the ‘advice’ the document provides – you can read a summary in Miller (1967, 285-287) if you are interested – but briefly there is instruction about which pronouns should, or shouldn’t be used (watashi 私and anata あなた only, with boku 僕 allowed only for men prior to entering adult society); which suffixes (-san, -sama) should be used after people’s names; appropriate contexts for the honorific prefixes o- and go-; and a prohibition of extended honorific verb forms (where, for example, the ordinary honorific form of the verb yomu 読む ‘read’, o-yomi ni naru お読みになる ‘read(honorific)’, is made even more respectful by the addition of a further honorific inflection: o-yomi ni nareru お読みになれる). Anyone who knows anything about the Japanese language will know that none of these prescriptions has been effective – a wide variety of other pronouns and suffixes is still used, as are extended honorific verb forms – which just serves to demonstrate the persistence of honorific speech as a part of the language and its intrinsic connection to Japanese social relations and organisation and the uselessness of governmental bodies attempting to control how people speak.

There is, however, one set recommendations in Kore kara no keigo which have been effective: the advice provided on what type of honorific vocabulary should be used in referring to the Emperor – not when speaking to him face-to-face, of course, but in writing. The concern then, only a few years after Japan’s defeat, was to eliminate honorific usage which overly exalted the throne, as had been the case during and before the war. Essentially, the recommendations were that ‘ordinary’ levels of honorifics should henceforth be applied to the emperor, and specialised honorific vocabulary should be avoided. These have largely been followed, and so the imperial body is now simply o-karada お体 ‘body(honorific)’ and not gyokutai 玉体 ‘jewelled form’, and his face is simply o-kao お顔 ‘face(honorific)’ and not ryūgan 竜顔 ‘dragon’s visage’, although I remember the headline in the Asahi newspaper when Emperor Shōwa died in 1989 as being Tennō heika go-hōgyo 天皇陛下御崩御 ‘His Majesty the Emperor - Dead’, using an honorific word for ‘dead’ which can only be applied to the imperial person, although the television newscasters used the more common o-nakunari ni narimashita お亡くなりになりました ‘passed away(honorific)’.

The fact, however, that Kore kara no keigo enjoyed even this level of success, and was largely welcomed by the Japanese as a helpful contribution also demonstrates the difference in attitude to official ‘advice’ on language between the Japanese and the British, say: can you imagine the public reaction if the British prime minister held a press conference and announced that the government was abolishing the use of ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Ms’ before people’s names when addressing each other? I have absolutely no doubt that the response would be a resounding ‘Get lost!’ and it would be seen as a ridiculous infringement on personal relations.

In conclusion, then, despite the generational changes in usage, there’s no evidence to suggest that honorifics will disappear from Japanese any time soon, and they will continue to both delight and frustrate foreign learners of the language for many years to come. All that you can do is do your best to learn them, use them, understand and accept them – look upon them not as a barrier to communication, but an additional resource, a way of both smoothing relations and shielding yourself in talking to and with the Japanese. And if you get frustrated, just think of all those self-help books for the Japanese themselves, and realise that there are a great many native speakers in the same boat!


Miller, Roy Andrew (1967), The Japanese Language, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

March 05, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been talking about the motivations for Japanese speakers to use honorific language, and how those motivations have been theoretically explained by linguists interested in Pragmatics. This week, I’m going to move away from the theory and take a look at how honorifics have been considered by socio-linguists – people who are interested in language use as a social activity, and in the links between language and different social groups – groups based on age, sex, affiliation, region, class, and so forth.

In any language, speakers adjust what they say, and how they say it, depending upon the situation in which they find themselves, and what image they wish to project. Do they wish to assert solidarity with their addressees? Do they wish to emphasise superiority? Level of education? Identity? And so forth. All of this can be done, and is done, through language use: the accent, use of dialect, type of vocabulary, intonation, etc. Sometimes, it’s a conscious decision, and sometimes it’s done unconsciously. British readers in their forties may remember the 1980s Nat West commercial below:

It is, of course, a showcase for Adrian Edmonson’s clowning, but the fact that he endeavours to ‘Talk proper’ in order to get a bank account is evidence of the importance placed upon the right language for the right situation in British society – and the ending is evidence of how things were changing in the 1980s.

There’s been a great deal of work done on English speakers’ attitudes to, and use of, language – some of which seems to identify general cross-linguistic tendencies, and some which is country-specific. In England, for example, there’s a very close relationship between accent and social class, and listeners tend to assign people to classes depending upon what they sound like, and then have stereotyped expectations of how they will behave, and what sort of people they are. So, people with who speak RP – the standard middle class accent spoken by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady:

are: intelligent, unfriendly, trustworthy and, believe it or not, tall! Whereas people with accents from the larger metropoli (London, Birmingham, etc.) are friendly, devious and short, and people with rural accents are backward, uneducated, warm, and direct. As you can see, a lot of these are nonsense – accent has nothing to do with body size, for example – but the attitudes are pervasive. One of the most famous experiments a linguist did to test this was to have someone go into a cinema and shout, ‘Fire! Everybody leave via the emergency exits!’ during a performance, in an RP accent, and then at a different showing in a regional accent, and time how long it took the audience to leave. The audience were noticeably slower to get moving with the latter than with the former – evidence that an RP accent was regarded as more trustworthy and authoritative.

In Japan, of course, which lacks a class-system along English lines, accent is much less important as a social marker – even dialect use doesn’t convey as much information about background and education. As Fukuda and Asato (2004, 2000) say, however, ‘use [of] elaborate honorifics’ by people from particular groups is one of the things which serves as a badge of identity.

One of the best examples of this is given by Miller (1967, 289-90) in his description of the difference between women’s and men’s Japanese speech. The following exchange he describes as (for the time) ‘fairly elegant, but otherwise quite run-of-the-mill women’s speech’:

ma, go-rippa na o-niwa degozāmasu wa nē. shibafu ga hirobiro to shite ite, kekkō degozāmasu wa nē.

My, what a splendid garden you have here-the lawn is so nice and big, it's certainly wonderful, isn't it!

iie, nan desu ka, chitto mo teire ga yukitodokimasen mono degozaimasu kara, mō, nakanaka itsumo kirei ni shite oku wake ni wa mairimasen no degozāmasu yo.

Oh no, not at all, we don't take care of it at all any more, so it simply doesn't always look as nice as we would like it to.

ā, sai degozaimashō nē. kore dake o-hiroin degozāmasu kara, hitotōri o-teire asobasu no ni datte taihen degozaimasho nē. demo mā, sore de mo, itsumo yoku o-teire ga yukitodoite irasshaimasu wa. itsumo hontō ni o-kirei de kekkō degozāmasu wa.

Oh no, I don't think so at all -but since it's such a big garden, of course it must be quite a tremendous task to take care of it all by yourself; but even so, you certainly do manage to
make it look nice all the time: it certainly is nice and pretty any time one sees it.

iie, chitto mo sonna koto gozāmasen wa.

No. I'm afraid not, not at all...

All of the boldfaced elements in the above exchange are honorific, in one way or another, and the conversation is less about the content – which is relatively trivial – than about the two women affirming their relationship and common background, and the elaborate honorifics are a significant part of that. Miller goes on to remark humorously that the same exchange between two men would consist of Ii niwa da nā いい庭だなあ (‘Nice garden’) and ‘a sub-linguistic grunt, as a sign of acknowledgement or of polite denial’ (1967, 290), which contains no honorifics at all. This is not to say that male speakers don’t use honorifics – they do, of course – but that they use them less for asserting solidarity with friends and acquaintances than women do.

Given the pronunciation of the deferential copula degozaimasu as degozāmasu, the ladies are from the Yamanote area of Tokyo – then and now a wealthy district – and when I was last discussing this extract with some Japanese (about twenty years ago now) my informants said the language was a bit old-fashioned, but they wouldn’t be too surprised to hear it on the streets there, if the two women were quite elderly. I wonder what people would say today?

Next week, I’ll continue on the social side of honorifics, and consider some of the reasons why usage changes over time.

Fukada, Atsushi and Asato, Noriko (2004), “Universal politeness theory: application to the use of Japanese honorifics” Journal of Pragmatics, 36 (11), 1991-2002.
Martin, Samuel E. (1964) “Speech levels in Japan and Korea”, 407-414 in Dell Hymes (ed.), Language in Culture and Society. New York: Harper & Row.
Miller, Roy Andrew (1967) The Japanese Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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