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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?

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