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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

February 19, 2010

Your Face or Mine (Part One)

Last week, I was talking about the use of honorifics in Japanese, and speculated a little about why speakers might use them. This week and next week, I’m going to continue in that vein, but from a more technical angle by considering how linguists have analysed and theorised about them, and see whether this has any practical lessons for someone who wants to learn, and speak, Japanese.

There are, of course, any number of different fields within linguistics where honorifics could be studied – syntax, semantics, historical, and so on – but the area which I’m going to talk about falls under the general heading of Pragmatics. This covers quite a wide range of theoretical areas, but what I am interested in here are the reasons why certain language forms are used in particular contexts, and how these phenomena can be described theoretically. (If you want to know more about Pragmatics in general, then there are any number of good introductory textbooks, with Huang (2006) being the most recent.)

In Pragmatics, then, honorifics are generally considered to fall under what is called Politeness Theory, which was first laid out by Brown and Levinson (1978; 1987) in an attempt to come up with a way to describe the theoretical basis for polite language usage cross-linguistically. Their theory – which they claimed was universally applicable – (1987, 57-76) was to posit that all human beings have both positive and negative ‘face’, with the former being essentially the desire to be liked and approved of by other people, and the latter the claim that individuals make for their personal prerogatives, such as the desire that their own actions and wishes should not be impeded. Any action which impinged upon one’s own, or another person’s face was described as a ‘face threatening act’ (FTA) and potentially required a politeness strategy to minimise its effect. Brown and Levinson posited five possible actions, depending upon how serious the speaker judges the FTA to be: (1) Use no politeness; (2) use positive politeness – stressing one’s community with the addressee, for example; (3) use negative politeness – minimising the level of the imposition, or degrading one’s own position vis á vis the addressee; (4) use other means, such as getting a third party to initiate the FTA; and (5) don’t do the FTA at all. They further posited that speakers determine how serious an individual FTA is by summing the social distance between speaker and hearer, the amount of power the hearer has over the speaker, and a culture-based ranking of impositions (asking for a reference from a superior is more serious in Japan, for example, where the writer is expected to put his or her personal status behind the junior, than it is in the UK, where the reference is a more objective evaluation of the person’s qualities). They represented this with the following equation:

W(eightiness of the FTA)= D(istance between Speaker-Hearer)+P(ower of Hearer over Speaker)+R(ank of Imposition)

Having laid out the basis of their theory, Brown and Levinson then proceeded to apply it to politeness phenomena in a variety of the world’s languages in an attempt to demonstrate its universality. Use of honorifics – in any language, not just Japanese – is categorised as a negative politeness strategy, as it is seen as giving deference by lowering the speaker’s position, and exalting the hearer.

Obviously, in the above I’ve simplified things quite a bit, but that’s the basis of universal politeness theory and its application to honorifics. Simple, isn’t it?

If your answer is ‘No!’, and you feel that describing honorifics as simple markers of deference used when initiating requests doesn’t quite fit with your understanding of them, you would not be alone. In fact, Brown and Levinson almost immediately came under attack from linguists who questioned the universality of ‘face’, and claimed that the theory was based upon an overly-Eurocentric concept of social relations between individuals, or even of the notion of the individual. One of the first to do this was Matsumoto (1988), who denies the applicability of the idea that individuals want to be unimpeded in their actions to a Japanese context. Instead, ‘acknowledgement and maintenance of the relative position of others, rather than preservation of an individual’s proper territory, governs all social interaction’ (1988, 405). The sources she cites in support of this, such as Nakane (1970) and Doi (1973) would probably now be considered as part of the nihonjinron (even Matsumoto acknowledges that Doi may be over-stating the point (1988: 407)), which weakens her overall argument, but there is no doubt that honorifics are used in Japanese in situations which do not involve a face-threatening act, such as Kyō wa doyōbi degozaimasu 今日は土曜日でございます (‘Today is Saturday’), where the copula verb degozaimasu (‘be (deferential)’) indicates a high level of politeness and formality, but the statement itself cannot possibly impinge on anyone’s prerogatives. Furthermore, in some contexts imposing upon a person is actually considered the polite thing to do. For example, a wife may say to her husband’s boss, Shujin o dōzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu 主人をどうぞよろしくお願いします (‘Please take care of my husband’). This is a request to the boss, and hence an imposition upon him, but is considered polite in Japan because it’s an acknowledgement that the superior has the power to perform the action requested (Matsumoto 1988, 410). Given these, and other, issues, Matsumoto (1988, 411) claims that Japanese honorifics are essentially ‘relation-acknowledging devices’, a description which comes closer to my own reference to them as markers of social deixis. She also rejects Brown and Levinson’s theory entirely, and prefers to see politeness as motivated by culturally-determined concepts of deference, which ‘in Japanese culture focuses on the ranking difference between the conversational participants…Conventional Japanese Deference would say ‘Leave it to someone higher’’(Matsumoto 1988, 424). Further criticisms, and an alternative theory, were proposed by Ide (1989), who argues that honorifics are governed by ‘discernment’ of the social position of the addressee, and this is based upon the speaker’s understanding of the social conventions governing interaction in Japanese culture. Again, this is broadly similar to Matsumoto’s description of honorifics as ‘relation-acknowledging devices’.

So, is the face-based account of Japanese politeness discredited? Not entirely, and I’ll tell you why, next week.


Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen (1978) ‘Universals in language usage: politeness phenomena’, 56-311 in Goody, E. (ed.) Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen (1987) Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Doi, Takeo (1973) The anatomy of dependence. Tokyo: Kodansha.
Huang, Yan (2006) Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ide, Sachiko (1989) ‘Formal forms and discernment: two neglected aspects of universals of linguistic politeness’ Multilingua 8 (2/3), 223–248.
Matsumoto, Yoshiko (1988) ‘Reexamination of the universality of face: politeness phenomena in Japanese’ Journal of Pragmatics 12 (4), 403–426.
Nakane, Chie (1970) Japanese society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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Thank you! Looking forward to part 2.

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