Columns on View All Columns
Visit ELTBOOKS - all Western ELT Books with 20% discount (Japan only)

Thoughts on Japan - Japanese Language Archive

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 20, 2009

Japanese is Not a Hard Language

Last year I was invited up to Edinburgh to speak at a conference organised by the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, which is one of a number of centres of excellence in language-based area studies recently established by the UK government (my own department at Sheffield, together with the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds, has formed the White Rose East Asia Centre to conduct research, and train researchers, in East Asian Studies). The conference was entitled Arabic on Campus and Beyond and was on the teaching of Arabic language, so a Japanese specialist like myself might seem to be an odd choice of speaker, but the final session was called ‘Comparative Perspectives’ and for it specialists in other ‘hard’ languages were invited to discuss what was challenging for learners of their languages, so the Arabic specialists could see if there was anything they could learn from the way these languages were taught.

The ‘hard’ languages discussed were, perhaps not surprisingly: Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, too, of course (it just so happens that those four languages were the ones I considered taking at university, before I eventually settled on Japanese – but that’s another story). Each of these languages has different features which make them ‘difficult’, although difficult for whom is another question. When they are said to be ‘hard’, it usually means ‘hard for speakers of English, or Romance languages’, because, of course, speakers of languages closely related to them often have few problems acquiring them – Korean speakers manage to pick up Japanese with very little difficulty, for example.

Russian can be difficult as its tense and aspect system is quite complex – and different from what English speakers are used to in their own language. Arabic is a challenge because you have to learn both classical Arabic – the written language of high culture and religion – and the vernacular version – what is spoken by the man, or woman, on the street – and what they speak in Morocco is very different from what they speak in Egypt, for example. With both of these languages you also have to learn a new writing system, too, of course, although both are alphabets, and Cyrillic even has some letters in common with the Roman alphabet used by English. Chinese is usually said to be the most difficult language to learn for native English speakers, even though its grammatical structure is similar to that of English in some ways, because you have to learn the correct tones to speak it correctly, and learn a character-based writing system, but what about Japanese, though?

Well, my presentation was on the difficulty of learning Japanese – for native English speakers, that is – and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the subject with you this week.

Before I went up to Edinburgh, though, I discussed the topic with my colleagues at Sheffield. The first thing that most of them said was, in fact, what my reaction to the topic was, too, ‘But…Japanese isn’t difficult to learn – it’s just tedious.’ This is the largest secret about Japanese: in many ways, it’s not a difficult language to learn – as long as you can stand the tedium of the initial stages. Obviously, as someone who has learned Japanese to a reasonably competent level, I would say this, but let’s see if I can’t at least make a start on convincing you that I’m right.

Let’s start with the ways in which Japanese is easier than English: first, its phonology is much simpler. The number of consonants and vowels that the language uses is significantly fewer – Japanese has just five vowels, whereas English uses over forty – making it extremely easy to pronounce for English speakers. I’m sure you must have had the experience many times of tearing your hair out over some of your Japanese students’ inability to get their tongues round English words – and there’s the reason why: their native language uses many fewer sounds, and you are asking them to make sounds which are completely outside of their normal inventory. By contrast, there’s only a couple of consonants in Japanese, /f/ and /r/ - think of fujisan 富士山 ‘Mt Fuji’ and raku 楽 ‘pleasant’ – which are not used in most varieties of English as a matter of course, and even with these you can get away with using English /f/ and /r/ and not sound too odd. So, Japanese phonology is no problem – what about the grammar?

Well, again, compared to English, Japanese grammar is relatively unproblematic: there’s no number for nouns (isu 椅子 is both ‘chair’ and ‘chairs’); no gender for nouns, as in many European languages; no case endings for nouns, as in German or Russian, for example (isu is always isu, whether it’s the subject, object or indirect object of a sentence); no person for verbs (iku 行く is ‘I go’, ‘he goes’, etc.) – you should try a language like Cherokee which, if I can remember back to my first year Linguistics lectures correctly, doesn’t have person either, but does have inflections for whether an action is perceived by someone else, or is carried out in isolation; only two substantially irregular verbs (iku and kuru 来る ‘come’); only two tenses (past and not-past – and some linguists even argue that Japanese doesn’t have tense at all, just markers for completion of actions); no articles (the/a) and so on. More important than all of these, perhaps, is the language’s general regularity – once you learn a rule, you can follow it and know you won’t really come across any exceptions, so you can learn the language with a fair degree of proficiency quite quickly – unlike English, with its blizzard of exceptions to every rule, confusing nest of tenses, etc. Frankly, it comes as no surprise to me that Japanese need to make a great effort to learn it well: that’s not to say they can’t – as with anything it’s a matter of motivation and opportunity to practice. Many of the young men sent abroad to study after the Meiji Restoration learned English extremely well – keeping diaries in English while away – and they were, of course, extremely well motivated, and it’s the same today: motivated students can do it, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

So, given that Japanese is such an easy language (several of the Arabic specialists came up to me after my presentation and told me I’d almost convinced them to switch to Japanese at this point), why is it that Japanese has a reputation of being a ‘hard’ language? Why is it that that many who start give up, and many others fail to learn it well? Watch this space – I’ll talk about that next week.

February 27, 2009

Japanese is a Hard Language

Last week, I talked about all the ways in which Japanese was not that difficult a language to learn. This week, I’m going to start putting the opposite viewpoint, and mention some of the challenges to learning it. So, in my view, there are four main factors making Japanese ‘difficult’ – for native English speakers, that is. These are: lexicon, writing system, social deixis and discourse structure. I’ll deal with the first two this week, and the second pair next.

First, lexicon – the vocabulary of the language, that is – this can be problematic for English speakers, because the vast majority of the word-stock comes from either pure Japanese or Chinese roots, meaning there’s a proportionally greater burden on the memory in learning the words of Japanese than there is a language like French, for example, which has much in common with English. Something like sixty percent of the word stock of modern Japanese is the result of borrowing from Chinese, with the remainder being pure Japanese. It’s true, of course, that in more recent years there has been considerable linguistic borrowing from English, but it is impossible to get by just with katakana 片仮名 gairaigo 外来語 (‘loan words’). Even where borrowings do take place from English, they often change beyond all recognition once they’ve been adopted into Japanese. An example which is frequently given is the element kon コン, which crops up in words like pasokon パソコン (‘personal computer’), eakon エアコン (‘air conditioning’), and mazakon マザコン (‘Oedipus complex’). As you can see, three terms with wildly different senses in English have been conflated into a single one in Japanese, meaning that your English knowledge will do you little good. It just means, though, that you have to put more effort into learning Japanese vocabulary – something that’s tedious and time consuming, but not difficult per se.

I also acknowledge Mr Torley’s point about there being proportionally fewer words with a one-to-one correspondence in meaning between English and Japanese than there are between, say, English and French: this is certainly true, but I am less convinced that this is as significant a problem for human language learners as it is for machine translation. Machines – and programming – like one-to-one matches, but the real world rarely works that way, and the human mind recognises it. Actually, one of my very first lecturers as a student in the mid-1980s was working on Japanese-English machine translation at the time. He argued, quite convincingly, that because of its syntactic regularity, it was relatively easy to ‘teach’ a machine how Japanese ‘worked’ – particularly as the verb plays such an important role in a Japanese sentence, and the various affixes (negative, passive, etc.) always occur in a predictable order. (You can even do this with classical Japanese, which is much more morphologically complex than the modern language.) The difficulty arose in getting the programme to choose accurately between different possible interpretations of the same sentence, given that the language displays a relatively high degree of context-dependence. My lecturer eventually left university life to work full-time on machine-translation for Sharp, and I’ve often wondered how his work progressed, given that, as Mr Torley says, it’s still the case that Japanese-English machine translation works poorly, if at all.

Let’s move on to the second factor: the writing system. This is a problem, as for historical reasons, the Japanese writing system is undoubtedly the most complex in use in the world today. Briefly, the Japanese first encountered writing in the form of Chinese characters, which, for reasons I won’t go into now, were unsuited to writing Japanese. This led to the rapid development of both hiragana 平仮名 and katakana 片仮名, and also to Chinese characters in Japanese being read as Japanese words, and also with a Japanese approximation of their pronunciation in Chinese. These are what are now known as kun 訓 and on 音 readings. As if that didn’t make the situation complicated enough, many characters were borrowed more than once, after their Chinese pronunciations had changed, meaning that they have multiple on readings, and they could also be used for multiple Japanese words, giving a variety of kun readings. To give one example, the character 生, which has a core meaning of ‘life’, has two on readings (sei and shō) and no fewer than fourteen kun readings (ikiru 生きる, ikasu 生かす, ikeru 生ける, umareru 生まれる, umu 生む, ou 生う, haeru 生える, hayasu 生やす, naru 生る, nasu 生す, ki 生, nama 生, o 生 and nari 生). As you can see, in contemporary orthography, the okurigana 送り仮名, the kana characters after the kanji, will generally tell you which reading is meant, but it’s perfectly possible to write both ikasu and hayasu as 生す, for example, meaning you have to work out from the context which of these is meant, and you just have to know the word in order to tell whether 生 is ki or nama in a given context (o and nari are readings only used in names, but again, either could be possible).

So, with its two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, and kanji, there are a very large number of characters to learn. Hiragana and katakana are not too problematic, though – with a bit of effort you can get a reading knowledge of both of them with about 48 hours of study – the difficulty lies with the kanji. Even though you only need to learn about half the number of characters – about 2,000 – to be literate in Japanese, that you do in Chinese (about 4,000), the fact that almost every single kanji has more than one possible reading, and you need to know a word to be certain of which reading is being used, makes learning to read, and write, Japanese an immensely time-consuming and tedious process. By comparison, written Chinese is much easier, as each character has only one reading, so once you’ve learnt it, you can be confident of how it's read when you come across it in an unfamiliar word, unlike in Japanese. Again, though, there’s nothing really difficult about the learning process – you just have to put up with the tedium of banging your head against the wall of characters and readings, and accept that it’s going to be an incremental one. Obviously, it helps to be in Japan during at least some of this time, because you are surrounded by kanji all the time and can constantly reinforce your knowledge.

It’s difficult to understate the barrier the writing system places in the way of speakers of languages with alphabetic writing systems, if they want to learn Japanese, but on the other hand, you don’t want to make too much of it, either. It’s just something you have to keep working at, and prevent yourself from giving up in frustration. There will always be new kanji to learn, or new readings, and you will always find that you know some readings, but not others for a kanji, or you know the meanings, but not the readings. Part of the problem for us as English readers, I think, although I’ve no objective evidence for this, is that we are so used to associating being able to read with knowing the sound of something, that we tend to panic and think we know less than we really do when we look at a character and find that we can’t say it. What we have to also have to bear in mind is that it’s the same for the Japanese – it’s just that they have more time to learn their characters, and learn them at a time when their minds are more receptive to language learning. They also develop strategies for coping with characters they don’t know if they come across them, and any foreign learner of Japanese needs to do the same, which is something I’ll talk about in a future column.

Next week: social deixis and discourse structure.

March 06, 2009

Is Japanese a Hard Language?

Following on from last week’s column, this week, I’m going to talk about the second two factors making Japanese a challenge to learn: social deixis and discourse structure.

‘Deixis’ for those of you who are unfamiliar with the word, refers to linguistic features which have to do with positioning, meaning they can only be interpreted correctly in the context in which they are used. For example, in English, if someone says, ‘Here is the book, and there is the magazine,’ unless you know when and where the statement was made, you cannot know exactly what ‘here’ and ‘there’ mean. Japanese has similar deictic expressions, of course, but it also has an extremely large number of elements whose purpose is to indicate the social relationship between speaker and addressee. In fact, these are so characteristic of the language that it’s fair to say that it’s impossible to say anything in Japanese without indicating what you think of your relationship with the person you are speaking, or writing, to.

You may know this already, but just as an example, modern Japanese has five different copula verbs (‘to be’) in common use, each of which conveys different social information. You have: the plain copula da だ, used when speaking to social inferiors, or to people the speaker knows well in informal circumstances; the polite copula desu です, used when speaking to adult strangers, or under polite circumstances; the deferential copula degozaimasu でございます, used when speaking to social superiors, or in formal circumstances; the honorific copula deirasshaimasu でいらっしゃいます, used when speaking about social superiors, in their presence; and finally, the impersonal copula dearu である, which conveys no social information but is only used in writing, or in formal speeches to large audiences when the speaker wants to strike an objective tone. (There are other copulas which are have fallen out of current use, or you will only come across in highly restricted circumstances: dearaseraremasu であらせられます, for example, which is only used if the subject is a Shintō deity, or kami 神.)

So, it’s impossible for a Japanese person to say, ‘This is Tanaka,’ and no more in Japanese: kore wa tanaka da これは田中だ, says, approximately, ‘This is my junior, Tanaka,’ or ‘This is Tanaka who I know very well, and the situation in which we are speaking is a casual one.’ Kore wa tanaka-san desu これは田中さんです , says, ‘This is Tanaka, and I don’t know you well, so we are speaking under polite, formal circumstances.’ Kochira wa tanaka-sama deirasshaimasu こちらは田中様でいらっしゃいます, says, ‘This is Mr Tanaka, who is superior to me, and to whom I wish to show respect.’ It’s perfectly possible to give an indication of what you think of the relationship between you and your addressee in English, too, of course – just think of the different circumstances under which someone might say, ‘Fancy a brew?’ and ‘Might you possibly care for a cup of tea?’ (That’s if you’re British, that is, but I’m sure you can think of an equivalent pair of expressions in your own version of English.) In Japanese, however, the social aspect of what you are saying is always present, and encoded in the syntactic and lexical choices you make, so you have to remain constantly aware of who you are speaking to, and your relationship with them, in a way that you don’t have to do in English.

There are also significant linguistic differences between the way men and women express themselves in similar social situations – you may have had the experience of your Japanese students saying to you, ‘Please teach me to talk English like a man/woman,’ and this is the reason why. Japanese is by no means unique in this, of course, there are identifiable gender-based differences in many languages, including English, but the differences in Japanese are much more extensive than English speakers are likely to be used in their own language, and operate at the syntactic level.

What all this means is that it is quite difficult to learn to speak, and write, Japanese authentically, unless you understand both how Japanese society is structured, and where your place is in it, and this it is difficult to do unless you live in Japan, and make an effort to relate to Japanese people in a Japanese way. In short, you have to develop a ‘Japanese persona’, which you use when speaking the language, which is usually quite different from your ‘English’ one, and this is something that people often find very hard to do.

As evidence for this, one of my students did a dissertation a couple of years ago on the attitudes native English speakers who had developed good Japanese skills had to the language. One of the questions he asked his informants was which was more important in Japanese communication: conveying information, or using the social aspects of the language correctly. Interestingly, those who rated their abilities as ‘good’ plumped for ‘conveying information’, but those who rated their abilities as ‘native or near native’ uniformly said ‘the social aspects,’ as this allowed them to function much more effectively in Japanese society.

Finally, we come to the fourth difficulty with Japanese – discourse structure – by which I mean the way in which texts, using the word in the broadest sense, are put together and the roles the various parts play. I’m not going to say too much about this now, because there’s enough material in the topic for a column or two, but suffice it to say that Japanese texts are frequently structured in a very different way from English ones, and until you get used to this, as a native English speaker, you may not even recognise what a given text is, or what role it is supposed to perform. So, even if you understand the grammar and vocabulary perfectly, you may not understand why a text has the structure it does, and what the equivalent structure would be in English: is this an argument in favour of something? Is this an introduction? Is this a conclusion? What is the writer, or speaker, trying to say? You just can’t tell.

It is at this point that some people give up in disgust, or accuse the Japanese of being duplicitous, or never saying what they ‘really’ mean, or meaning what they say. I’m not stating that the Japanese never lie or intentionally mislead, but a considerable number of the miscommunications and misunderstandings between Japanese and English speakers arise because both are using their own discourse structures – even if speaking the others’ language – and these are simply not compatible.

In conclusion, then, is Japanese a ‘hard’ language? Well, the answer is both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’: phonologically and syntactically, it certainly isn’t, and challenges like learning the writing system and vocabulary can be overcome simply by improving one’s memory skills and having a high boredom threshold, but communication and comprehension require flexibility and considerable effort at redrawing your mental ‘maps’, and this is something that some people find they can’t do, or don’t feel comfortable doing. In the end, though, what it comes down to, just like the Japanese learning English, is motivation.

That’s it for the language for a while – next week, I’m going to talk about a subject dear to my heart: jidai geki 時代劇, or samurai 侍 dramas!

March 20, 2009

Let's Talk Letters!

This week I thought I’d introduce you to the wonderful world of Japanese letters – something you may not be familiar with unless your Japanese language skills are already at quite a high level. Obviously, if you’re not intending to develop your knowledge of written Japanese much this isn’t a skill you are ever going to need to apply, but knowing about how the Japanese communicate with each other in writing can be illuminating about other aspects of their social behaviour, and can help you to understand them better, so it’s useful to know about, even if it’s something you’ll never have to do yourself.

I suppose the first thing I should say is that writing letters in Japanese is a complicated business, and I’m only going to have time to scratch the surface here. If this whets your appetite, then I recommend Writing Letters in Japanese which is a reasonable guide to the basic patterns and expressions, with examples of various different types of letters, with somewhat clumsy English translations, to give you an idea of how things are expressed.

With that said, let me try and explain what it is that I love about Japanese letter writing: I think it’s the fact that it’s still something of an art – in a way that letter-writing in English no longer is. While the modern age and information technology are bringing changes, there’s an etiquette and a structure to writing a Japanese letter that I find deeply satisfying, although I admit that some people find the exercise stultifying.

What you need to remember is that it’s not so long – probably about 25 years – since all, and I mean all, letters were handwritten: postcards, family messages, love letters, business ones – everything. This is obviously partly a simply practical response to the fact that Japanese typewriters were hugely cumbersome pieces of equipment, requiring extensive specialised training to use, and even then being relatively slow to operate. So, they were only used under special circumstances, as it was much easier to write something by hand. It was only with the word processing revolution that it became easier, and faster, to have a machine ‘write’ for you, but even so, that was still regarded as cold and impersonal, so it was much slower to be widely adopted than it was in the UK and US, for example.

Another reason for this was, as I said in my column on jiko shōkai, that the Japanese in general place great emphasis on maintaining relationships, and not writing a letter by hand was thought of as showing a lack of concern – you couldn’t be bothered to take the time to do it yourself. There are a number of ways in which you can demonstrate that you do care when writing a letter: for example, it’s vital to make no mistakes at all – if you do, you have to do the whole page again (many people write letters in pencil and then trace them), and it’s also imperative to send more than one page – even if you have to include a blank sheet with the letter. It’s a sign that you wish you could write more, and are not deliberately cutting the communication short.

It’s also the case that Japanese letters, as communicative acts from one person to another, contain a number of features intended to demonstrate that the writer is appropriately committed to the relationship. Thus, they always begin with both wishes for the addressee’s continuing good health, followed by a reassurance of the writer’s health, usually with an assertion that this due to the good offices of the addressee. Prior to this, however, you need to have two other elements: a formulaic opening salutation, always paired with a particular formulaic close – the equivalent of ‘Dear Sir’ and ‘Yours faithfully’ in English – and a remark about the season. There are any number of these – you can get lists of the appropriate ones for each month, or a word processor will generate one automatically – although a skilled letter-writer will adapt a standardised remark to their own context. This gives the impression that you have devoted more personal attention to the letter and is bound to create a better reaction in your recipient.

To give just a couple of examples, for this month, March, you could begin ‘fuyu no nagori no mada sariyaranu toki sōrō’ 冬の名残のまだ去りやらぬ時候 (‘At this time when the lingering traces of winter have yet to depart’), whereas in May you would start ‘wakaba no azayaka na kisetsu’ 若葉の鮮やかな季節 (‘In the season of fresh green leaves’), and in August ‘zansho kibishiki ori kara’ 残暑厳しき折から (‘As this is a time of severe and lingering heat’). The expressions relate more to the traditional, poetic, lunar year than they do to the calendrical, solar one – dating is, perhaps, something I can talk about in detail in another column – which is why they can sometimes seem a little out of step with the actual weather, such as referring to the summer heat being almost over in August, and it can seem particularly incongruous when writing a letter to Japan from the UK - mentioning the ‘fragrant breezes’ of June, when the rain is still lashing down – but it still provides an elegant beginning to the letter, and helps to establish a civilised tone.

After these opening remarks, you can then move on with what you actually want to write about. The language used in letters is formal and contains a number of archaic features (verb stems instead of te-forms, for example, so yuki 行き (‘go and…’), and not itte 行って, as it would be in conversation, or some other forms of writing), all of which help to maintain the polite tone. You also use a higher level of honorific language than you would in person, because you don’t have the option of using body language and tone of voice to be polite, but on the whole, modern epistolary Japanese is not that different from the language as it would be written in other formal contexts. A mere fifty, or sixty, years ago, however, the situation was quite different.

Letters used to be written in a special linguistic style called sōrōbun 候文, a term which translates loosely into English as ‘epistolary style’. I don’t have time to go into this in detail now – again maybe I can write another column about it, if there’s interest enough – but suffice it to say that it was substantially different, in almost every respect, from the modern spoken and written language. Just as an example, what do you make of this:

saru sangatsu muika zuke o motte gokōfuainarisōrō ‘bukanan’ in uisukii no gosōbazuke ichi dāsu ni tsuki yonjūni shiringu kae ni yori rokujū hako dake tōten kanjō nite gokaimotomekudasaretaku onegaimōshiagesōrō


This is a single sentence from a standard business letter, written in the late 1940s, but I suspect it’s a closed book to most of you, even if you do know quite a lot of Japanese. It’s representative of sōrōbun, though, in its use of the tenseless auxiliary verb sōrō 候 – we saw it earlier in one of the seasonal remarks, which is about the only context it’s still used today – alternatives for suru する (‘do’) – in this case ainarisōrō 相成候 – and using kanji alone, without any hiragana – 御買求下度願申上候 . Oh, if you want to know what it means, it’s:

We request you to purchase for our account 60 cases of “Buchanan” Brand Whisky at 42/- per dozen, as per your quotation of March 6th.

Luckily, no one has to learn to produce sōrōbun these days, although historians learn how to read it, but diplomats used to be taught how to speak it – imagine instead of being able to say dekimasen 出来ません (‘I can’t’), having to say itashikanesōrō 兼至候 – for use in formal meetings with their Japanese counterparts.

Getting back to modern letters, once you’ve finished the main body, it’s time to close. Here, again, the most important thing is to wish your addressee good health, and pass on your respects to their family, in a personal letter, or to apologise for taking up their time in a business one.

That’s the basic structure of a formal Japanese letter – a civilised form of communication, I’ll hope you agree. These days, of course, the taboo against writing by machine is disappearing, and younger people, of course, use printers and word processors, but there has also been a much greater investment in fonts and software which can mimic handwriting – I’m sure you know this from just wandering into any computer shop – than has been in the English-speaking countries, all as a way of mitigating the perceived coldness and unfriendliness of writing to someone by machine.

So, what do you do if you want to write to a Japanese person, and your language skills aren’t yet at the advanced level? Well, the most important thing is to show willing – for a beginner using the ‘correct’ forms is much less important than appearing to show concern for the person to whom you are writing. Just remember to make a simple remark about the weather (ima otenki ga atsuidesu ne 今お天気が暑いですね ‘It’s hot now, isn’t it?’), ask about your addressee’s health (ogenki desu ka お元気ですか ‘How are you?’), and pay your respects to their family (gokazoku ni yoroshiku o tsutaekudasai ご家族によろしくを伝えください ‘Please give my regards to your family’) and you are bound to make a positive impression.

Next week: why read the classics?

May 01, 2009

Why Can’t Japanese Writers Stick to the Point?

Academic writing is rarely the product of just one person's work - unless you're a Darwin or an Einstein - and it's only by reading other people's work and discussing with them that your own ideas take shape, so before I begin this topic, which I'll be covering in the next three columns, I'd just like to say that none of the ideas here would be as clearly, or coherently, expressed and developed without the invaluable input of my colleague, Ishikawa Luli, over the years.

I suspect that many of you who have some facility with written Japanese, and those of you who have read texts written by Japanese in English, may be able to relate to some aspects of the following experience.

You pick up something and begin to read it, and very quickly end up getting frustrated: it doesn’t say what it’s going to be about, and just launches straight in with a description of something; or, the first sentence isn’t a sentence at all – not having a verb – and you wonder whether the text has been properly proof read. Just as you’ve made your way through the first paragraph, and so think you might have an idea of what the writer is trying to say, you find the second paragraph talking about something completely different, without much of a clear link with what’s gone before, and this continues, with the text making a number of seemingly unrelated points; or, after talking about one subject for a while, the writer suddenly switches and dashes off on a tangent – writing about ikebana 生花 in a text about management structures, say. Finally, when you get to the end of the text, it just stops, or asks a question, without any signs that the writer has reached a conclusion, and you’re left feeling hopelessly confused: what were they trying to say? Why on earth didn’t they stick to the point? Why start talking about something completely irrelevant in the middle of a text?

You may have sat there frowning at what you have just read, and wondering how the Japanese manage to make sense of such poorly organised gibberish (or maybe, if you’re teaching English writing skills to your students and this was something they’ve written for you, you heaved a heavy sigh and thought, ‘There’s a long way to go.’)

So, what is the reason for this? Well, if you remember back to my column, ‘Is Japanese A Hard Language?’, I said then that one of the features that makes Japanese difficult for native English speakers to pick up is that the discourse structures of the two languages are very different, meaning that the roles different text elements play, and consequently the expectations readers have about how texts should be structured, are also very different, and as a native English speaker it takes a good deal of mental readjustment before you can familiarise yourself with the structures of Japanese. What the aforementioned Japanese writers are doing, of course, is simply following the patterns and conventions of their own language and the confusion arises because these are not the same as English ones.

Let’s start by outlining how English arguments tend to be structured: traditionally, they use one of two patterns, a deductive one, or an inductive one. In a deductive argument, you state your conclusion first, and then provide evidence to support it, so you’d say, ‘X is the case, for reasons A, B, and C.’ An inductive argument is reversed: you present evidence, and then provide a conclusion based upon it – ‘A, B, and C mean X.’ Research has shown, although I don’t have the reference to hand at the moment, that native English speakers on being presented with a text will assume it to be deductively structured, and will then switch to assuming an inductive structure, if that doesn’t seem to work.

Linguist John Hinds (1990), however, has categorised the standard Japanese written style as quasi-inductive, which Maynard (2002: 430) suggests has the following characteristics:

• The presentation of the writer’s purpose is delayed (hence texts can seem to just suddenly start, without saying what it is they are going to be about.
• Pieces of information contained in the writing are loosely related to a single topic (hence you can get a series of seemingly unrelated and unconnected points – remember the topic can be something which can be understood from the context, or title of the piece, and so does not necessarily need to be explicitly outlined in an ‘introduction’).
• The concluding statement is not necessarily based on the preceding statements (hence the text can seem to just suddenly stop).

The reason that Japanese writers adopt this type of style is that:

…the task of the writer is not necessarily to argue, convince or persuade the reader. Rather, the task is to stimulate the reader into contemplating an issue or issues that might not have been previously considered by providing a number of observations and perspectives. The reader is expected to draw his or her own conclusions based on the reading. (Maynard 1998: 38)

I’m sure you know that it’s considered extremely impolite in Japanese society to come right out and state your opinion about something directly – it’s better to hint at it and allow your interlocutors to work it out. Well, it’s the same in writing – arguing your point, or telling your readers what something means, is considered rude and patronising. Your readers are adults after all, and as a writer you need to show them sufficient respect and assume that they are capable of making their minds up on their own.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t appeal to them, however, and one of the ways in which writers do this is to attempt to grab readers attention – hence an ungrammatical initial statement, and launching straight in. Japanese readers recognise this as a technique which gets them immediately involved and interested in the ‘world’ the writer creates in the text. Similarly, providing a number of different perspectives, to use Maynard’s expression, helps to stop readers getting bored and keep their attention on the text. Finally, ending a text on a question invites a response from the reader, asks him or her to join the writer in the ‘world’ of the text, and elicits their sympathy. Obviously, writers hope that readers will agree with their point of view, but they don’t attempt to force it on them.

Unfortunately, this type of style can seem extremely vague, if you are not used to it and able to read between the lines to work out what the point is that the writer is trying to make. When we read an English text, ideally, we expect to be told what it is going to be about in the introduction, have it organised into paragraphs, each of which makes its main point in its first sentence, and each of which leads logically on to the next one, or, if the topic changes, for this to be clearly stated and explained. If these organisational ‘signposts’ are missing, however, it’s easy for us to get lost. Japanese readers, on the other hand, do not expect to be led around by the hand in this way, and writers don’t write texts that do. Instead, they will make efforts to write in a way which is mentally challenging and emotionally appealing.

More on this next week, including some suggestions on how to start making sense of Japanese texts.

Hinds, John (1990), "Inductive, deductive, quasi-inductive: Expository writing in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Thai", 89-109 in Connor, Ulla and Ann M. Johns (Eds.) Coherence in Writing: Research and Pedagogical Perspectives Alexandria, VA, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.
Maynard, Senko K. (1998), Principles of Japanese Discourse: A Handbook Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Maynard, Senko K. (2002), "Discourse Analysis and Pragmatics", 425-43 in Tsujimura, Natsuko (Ed.) The Handbook of Japanese Linguistics Oxford, Blackwell.

May 08, 2009

Japanese Writers Do Stick to the Point!

Last week, I talked about how some of the difficulties native English speakers have in understanding texts written by and in Japanese arise from the fact that the rules for written discourse between the two languages are so different. I’m glad to see from the comments that what I had to say resonated with at least some of you. Just in reply to Sakai-san, though, I’m not saying that English language writers always stick to the point when Japanese ones don’t – it never ceases to amaze me how often my undergraduate students wander off track in their essays, contradict themselves, or fail to say what they mean through not thinking carefully enough about what they are writing. What I am saying is that native English speakers tend to think Japanese writers don’t stick to the point, because they don’t understand, or miss, the signposts Japanese writers use to organise their texts – and that’s a failing on the readers' part, not the writers.

To reiterate: it’s not the case that either way is better than the other – simply that they use different rulebooks to arrive at the same point. To use an analogy, imagine two people go to visit a museum exhibition on the same day. The first buys a guide, and follows it exactly, going from exhibit one, to exhibit twenty, checking at each stage that he/she is following the right route, and seeing everything in the order prescribed by the curators. The second buys the guide, reads it, but then wanders from one exhibit to another, seeing number five first, then number fourteen, then number one, and so forth, until he/she has seen everything. Both people experience the exhibition, and end up knowing the same things, but reach that knowledge by very different routes. A well-written English text bears some, and I stress some, resemblance to the first person’s experience, and a well-written Japanese one, the second.

The structure and organisation of longer texts is, of course, difficult to show without going into greater detail than I have space for here, but let me talk about a single short essay, about karaoke, of all things, which does serve to demonstrate the quasi-inductive style of writing Hinds (1990) mentions. I’m not going to give the actual Japanese, as that’s not especially relevant to the organisation, but will instead describe the contents of each paragraph, making some comments along the way.

The text is called simply Karaoke, and starts…with a paragraph on Japan’s world leading position as a manufacturer of semi-conductors. This, of course, immediately stumps the English reader: what has this got to do with karaoke? There’s no mention of it at all, and so we’re not sure where we’re going, or what the writer wants to say. The second paragraph…talks about the post-war music education system, and the manufacture of musical instruments – still no mention of karaoke. The English reader is now more confused: why are we now talking about something else? Finally, in the third paragraph, which is just a single short sentence, we are told karaoke links Japan’s musical and electronics skills. This is reassuring to the English reader – finally, a mention of what the text is supposed to be about and, OK, it links up what’s been mentioned before. We’re still not clear, however, what the overall thrust of the text is, and get confused again when paragraph four talks about Japan’s economic growth over the past forty years, leading to the destruction of traditional communities – karaoke seems to have disappeared again. Paragraph five continues the previous theme and mentions the declining birth-rate, while paragraph six stresses the need for people in modern times to find new ways of connecting with each other. Then paragraph seven refers to teenagers’ lives with few close friends living nearby – still no mention of karaoke. In paragraph eight, however, karaoke appears again, being compared to old-style village festivals. The theme is maintained in paragraph nine, where the numbers of karaoke fans are given, and doing karaoke is equated with self-actualisation. Paragraph ten, however, changes the theme again, and discusses the internationalisation of the Japanese economy, with the concomitant rise in the number of Japanese salarymen living abroad. Paragraph eleven returns to karaoke, mentioning the appearance of karaoke bars in foreign cities for resident Japanese, and that this has led to the development of karaoke for the locals, with karaoke becoming increasingly popular in other east Asian countries, and the Americas. Finally, paragraph twelve, the conclusion, bluntly states that karaoke is Japanese popular culture’s greatest gift to the world.

Laid out paragraph by paragraph like this, the text’s structure, in English terms, seems confused: there’s no introduction, it skips from one thing to another with very little obvious linkage – particularly in the initial sections – and the conclusion is a simple blunt statement which doesn’t relate closely to what has been said before. Does this sound familiar? It is, indeed, an almost classic example of a quasi-inductive text, but how do Japanese readers make sense of it?

Well, the answer lies in the priority placed by Japanese speakers on different linguistic features – what they consider to be the most important elements in a text. I don’t have the space here to go into this in detail, but briefly, for Japanese, psychologically the most important element is topic. This is a discourse element, and is the thing which the speaker/writer wants the listener/hearer to pay most attention to at any given moment. It thus relates to the speaker’s attitude, rather than relations of who did what to whom. When explicitly mentioned, topic is marked with the particle wa は, but it can be derived from other elements, such as a text’s title, or even the body of cultural assumptions that all Japanese share. (A mention of tsuki 月 ‘moon’, for example, can introduce the topic of ‘autumn’, because that is the season most closely associated with the moon in Japanese culture.) Topic holds readers’ attention so strongly that it does not have to be stated explicitly if it can be understood from the context, and frequently, it isn’t. It will also remain the focus of attention until another topic is mentioned, but will stay in the background, and can be brought back, either by being referred to again explicitly, or by the context. By contrast, the most important element for English speakers is grammatical subject, which always has to be explicitly stated in English.

This is where the problem lies: English speakers think that if something is not concretely and explicitly stated, it isn’t playing a role in the makeup of the text, but that’s not the case for Japanese.

When reading a text, Japanese readers will assign a preliminary, unstated, topic from its title, and from the mini-biography of the writer which is almost always given at its beginning, and then make assumptions about how the text should be read by adhering to what they assume the author's veiwpoint to be (in the case of Karaoke it states the writer is an ‘economic commentator’ (keizai hyōronka 経済評論家), so before they even start reading the main text they ‘know’ the text will be about karaoke, and will be looking at it from an economic perspective. Thus, they are not surprised when it starts by talking about semi-conductor manufacturing – karaoke involves electronics, after all, and the writer must be going to link up the content of this initial paragraph at some point. As each new paragraph introduces a new theme, it’s viewed psychologically through the lens of the implicit topic, and assessed for what bearing it might have upon it (as before, this crucial point was explained to me by Ishikawa Luli - I've even borrowed some of her words, as she can put it far more succinctly than I can).

Moreover, as you probably know, the most important part of a Japanese sentence is usually its end – where the verb is – and this carries over to text structure. The most significant part – the author’s main point, or points, usually comes at the text’s end, in the final paragraph. Hence in Karaoke the statement about karaoke being Japanese popular culture’s main gift to the world. This is the central point the author wants to put across, and placing it at the end of the text means that it’s in the position where, psychologically, Japanese readers will pay most attention to it.

What this means is that if you are a native English speaker, you have to retrain yourself to read Japanese texts: first, always pay close attention to the title and information about the author, and recognise that this may take the place of an introduction. Second, be alert for changes in topic – look for was, but keep in mind that there will always be a topic, even if it isn’t stated explicitly. Third, look at the ends of paragraphs, and the final paragraph of the text in order to find the writer’s main message. One technique is to simply highlight anything marked with a wa – this will show you how the focus shifts; the final sentence in each paragraph – these will contain the key ideas and author’s opinions; and the final paragraph in the text – this will contain a statement of the main message, as previously said: if you do that, you are likely to have all the main points the writer wishes to make.

It’s not an easy thing to do – it takes practice – but it is possible to learn to make sense of Japanese writing, and in doing so, you will come to realise that far from wandering randomly about, Japanese texts tend to be tend to be tightly structured around an underlying pattern of topic shifts, and they only seem vague to us, because topic is not relevant as an organisational principle in English. Simply put, by judging Japanese texts by the standards of our own language, we tend to ignore their most salient feature.

Next week: a few words on Japanese rhetorical styles.


Hinds, John (1990), "Inductive, deductive, quasi-inductive: Expository writing in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Thai", 89-109 in Connor, Ulla and Ann M. Johns (Eds.) Coherence in Writing: Research and Pedagogical Perspectives Alexandria, VA, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.

May 15, 2009

How Japanese Writers Make the Point

Over the last couple of weeks, I have talked about how the difficulty native English speakers often have in working out what a Japanese text is attempting to say is frequently a combination of a lack of familiarity with the Japanese quasi-inductive style of discourse, and with the idea of relying upon something which is not explicitly present in the text in order to understand it, given that the network holding Japanese texts together tends to be one of explicit and implicit topics. There is one further difficulty, however, which is what I am going to talk about this week.

Beyond linguistic structure, and general ideas about the appropriate format for a discourse, texts are also organised according to rhetorical principles – broadly speaking, what parts a texts should have, and what type of things you should say in order to make your point. Most English texts, for example, have a three part organisation: introduction, main body, and conclusion, although there are others. Japanese, too, has a three-part rhetorical structure: joron 序論, honron 本論, ketsuron 結論, and the Japanese terms translate literally as ‘introduction’, ‘main argument’ and, unsurprisingly, ‘conclusion’, which, on the surface, is identical to the English one.

Problems can arise, however, because the Japanese concept of what an ‘introduction’ or a ‘conclusion’ should be is different from the English one. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how an effective way for a Japanese writer to begin a text is with an ungrammatical statement, and that a question is good way to conclude, because the former captures the reader’s attention, and the latter demonstrates respect, indicating that the writer is allowing the reader to make up his or her own mind about the topic of the text. These demonstrations of deference can go to extreme lengths: an equally effective Japanese conclusion might be ‘shikashi kono kangae jitai ga kontei kara ayamatteiru kamoshirenai’ しかし、この考え自体が根底から誤っているかもしれない ‘I may, however, be fundamentally mistaken in my views’, a statement which might be calculated to annoy readers, if used to conclude an English text. So, if you are reading something written by a Japanese, and they suddenly seem to backtrack, or become tentative in their statements, always bear in mind that it might not necessarily be an indication that they are uncertain of the correctness of their argument, but instead, it might be simply that they are following an effective, Japanese, rhetorical strategy.

There are other types of Japanese text organisation besides the three-part one. If you recall, I also mentioned that one thing that may have puzzled you is why a Japanese writer might suddenly start talking about something completely unrelated to the main topic of their text. This has its origin in an extremely common writing style which is held up as a good model for Japanese writers to follow when producing short, expository texts: ki shō ten ketsu 起承転結. This is a four-part organisation for a piece of writing: an introduction of a topic (ki 起), a development of the topic (shō 承), a sudden switch away from the topic (ten 転), and a conclusion (ketsu 結). Despite now being regarded as a typically Japanese style, in fact, it’s derived from the pattern of a four-line classical Chinese poem, a shih 詩, which had its heyday in the seventh century. Kanshi 漢詩 (‘Chinese poems’), as the shih were called in Japan, were very popular among the aristocracy of Japan’s classical age, and at some point in mediaeval times, the pattern began to be used to write essays, and still is. (If you want to know more about ki shō ten ketsu, just ask a kokugo teacher, or one of your students.)

Maynard (1998: 33) uses the following short text to exemplify this pattern:

Ki: Ōsaka Motomachi Itoya no musume 大阪本町糸屋の娘。
‘The daughters of Itoya in Ōsaka Motomachi:’

Here, we have topic introduced: the daughters of Ito, the thread seller, in one small district of Osaka.

Shō: Ane wa jūroku, imōto wa jūgo 姉は十六、妹は十五。
‘The elder is sixteen, the younger: fifteen.’

Next, the topic is developed further, with information about the two girls’ ages. Thus far, there is nothing to confuse an English reader.

Ten: Taikoku daimyō wa yumiya de korosu 大国大名は弓矢で殺す。
‘The Great Lords of the mighty domains slay with bows and arrows.’

It is at this point that the English reader would start getting confused: why is the writer suddenly talking about something unrelated to the topic of the text? The fact, however, is that this diversion is not random, but has been carefully chosen. The ki and shō talk about the daughters of a single merchant in a single part of a single city – the lord of his own, tiny, domain. The ten sets up a semantic contrast with what has gone before by referring to feudal lords, in command of many thousands of warriors, instead of a single shop. It also makes a reference to killing, which is taken up in the ketsu:

Ketsu: Itoya no musume wa me de korosu 糸屋の娘は目で殺す。
‘The daughters of Itoya slay with their eyes.’

Here, the writer combines elements from all the previous sections of the text to make their final point – about the devastating attractiveness of the two girls. This type of carefully constructed, contrasting structure, is typical of ki shō ten ketsu-patterned texts, and the diversion from the main topic is key to their impact and effectiveness.

The text above has only a single line per section, but the same principles apply to longer ones, where each section can last over several paragraphs, or more. So, the next time you are reading something written by a Japanese, and it seems to go off on a tangent, look for semantic contrasts with what has been mentioned before – if you find it, the likelihood is that the writer, far from wandering randomly off the topic, is doing it deliberately, and you can look for the various elements to be tied together in the subsequent, concluding, section. I should emphasis at this point that I couldn't have produced any of the above explanation without the input of my colleague, Ishikawa Luli, who has the rare skill of distilling quite complicated linguistic theoretical explanations down into easily comprehensible layman's terms.

(If you want to read more texts structured like this, try reading the Asahi Shinbun’s Tensei Jingo 天声人語 column, and if you want to read more about all aspects of Japanese text organisation, Maynard (1998) is by far the best source.)


Maynard, Senko K. (1998), Principles of Japanese Discourse: A Handbook Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

February 12, 2010

Honour and Humility - Japanese Style

In my column about why the Japanese language can be difficult to learn, I mentioned that one of the challenging features is social deixis – the fact that you cannot say anything in Japanese without conveying what your impression is of the social relationship between you and your addressee, or between you and the person you are talking about. This week, and over the next couple of columns, too, I’m going to talk about this in a little more depth, by taking a look at the subject of honorifics.

For those of you who don’t know any Japanese, briefly, honorifics are linguistic means of expressing respect to the person you are talking to, or the person you are talking about. There are various forms: prefixes attached to nouns, a variety of verb inflections, and a number of substitute nouns and verbs for use in particular contexts. So, for example, one uses the verb meshiagaru (召し上がる), ‘eat (honourably)’, if a social superior is doing it, but itadaku (頂く), ‘eat (humbly)’, if you are doing it in a social superior’s presence, and so on. Put like that it sounds quite simple, if bizarre to English speakers, and strictly speaking, it is – one can learn the most common forms, expressions and grammatical rules quite quickly – and like everything in Japanese they are logical and don’t have exceptions, but the challenge comes in learning when and how to apply them, and relating that to yourself – your age, sex, job and so forth – in other words, the socio-pragmatic rules and conventions.

What combination of honorifics are appropriate when meeting one’s prospective parents-in-law for the first time? When speaking to one’s teacher? When meeting a business client? When talking to one’s boss at work? Should you use different expressions if you meet him outside the office? The possibilities are as varied as there are different social situations and encounters, and unless you are extremely familiar with Japanese social relationships, it’s difficult to sound natural, or to pick up on the signals that honorific usage sends.

For example, I recently received an email from a Japanese publisher, requesting corrections to the proofs of a book chapter I’ve written, and letting me know what the necessary schedule was for me to get the corrections back. Nothing surprising about that, but how did she conclude her mail? Well, the final sentence was: ‘kongo tomo go-shidō go-bentatsu no hodo, nanitozo yoroshiku o-negai-mōshiagemasu’ (今後ともご指導ご鞭撻の程、何卒宜しくお願い申し上げます), which translates literally as, ‘In every way we humbly and sincerely request your future honoured guidance and the honour of your lashes of encouragement’, although if you look the expression up in Kenkyūsha’s Japanese-English Dictionary, you’ll find the much less flowery, ‘Thank you in advance for your continued support’ given as a translation! In any case, this was about the politest expression I’ve ever received from a Japanese, so I showed it to one of my Japanese colleagues, who laughed, and said, ‘I haven’t seen anything like that for years. She wants you to know how important you are, and she must work for quite a traditional company.’ As a native Japanese speaker, my colleague was able to pick up on the message that was being sent, in a way that I couldn’t, but I was still flattered to be addressed in that way, and have reciprocated by being especially careful in my own responses which, in turn, has generated a warm response back.

Knowing that they are missing out, many foreign learners of Japanese tend to throw up their hands at the thought of honorifics, and try to avoid them wherever possible – and the Japanese, being polite – let them get away with it. It’s a mistake to do so, however, as it means you’re cutting yourself off from a major part of Japanese socio-linguistic interaction, and depriving yourself of a useful tool for easing relationships, making a good impression and even disambiguating your speech – of which more later.

As a Japanese teacher, I sometimes think that part of the problem learners have with honorifics is that they tend to be introduced some way into a course, after students have had a chance to internalise a fair number of conjugations, inflections and other pieces of grammatical information, which means that they tend to regard them as an special add-on to ‘normal’ Japanese, rather than as an integral part of it and simply an extension of the ‘polite’ and ‘plain’ styles of speech that everyone learns almost from the beginning. Perhaps if honorifics were taught earlier, students would find them easier to deal with (I seem to recall that the famous linguist Eleanor Jorden was in favour of this approach), but then again, maybe it would just put them off even more.

In any case, with teaching as it is, students’ reactions to honorifics generally fall into one of three types – not unlike the reactions they have to learning kanji characters: grudging acceptance, wholehearted enjoyment or, virulent dislike, with the first being the most common. Leaving the first two aside, people who dislike honorifics tend to believe that by using them they are somehow demeaning themselves, and that they are simply a manifestation of the inequalities in Japanese society, and so it’s a democratic duty to actively refuse to use them. Or, that it’s part of the Japanese conspiracy to make speaking their language needlessly complex, and difficult for foreigners to learn.

Obviously, the latter belief is simply paranoia brought on by dealing with a language which conceptualises the world in a very different way from what they are used to, but what about the former? Are honorifics a linguistic reflection of an unequal society? Is doing away with them a ‘good’ thing? Will they eventually disappear?

Well, the answer is far from easy to arrive at, partly because first we’d need to define what an unequal society was, and who it was unequal for. To avoid getting bogged down in that, I think I would prefer to say that in the Japanese case, honorific usage reflects a society where it’s important to show that you are considerate of other people – and of demonstrating that consideration verbally. I’ve talked previously about the Japanese love of rituals to mark important, and not so important, events, and using honorifics is a verbal confirmation to the person you are speaking to that you know how to relate to them and are taking things seriously.

As a foreign learner, unless you live in Japan long-term and relate to people largely in Japanese, it is true that you probably won’t use honorifics in an entirely natural way, but that is no reason not to try, because honorifics are not primarily about conveying information – propositional content, in technical terms – because you can do that using neutral verbs and expressions. Instead, they function as a demonstration of commitment and concern, and will convey the sense that you are trying hard to communicate properly, and are thus more trustworthy and reliable.

Next week, I’m going to get a bit more technical, and discuss the different ways linguists have analysed honorific usage, and what these theories can tell us.

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.

February 26, 2010

Your Face or Mine? (Part Two)

Last week, I described how Brown and Levinson (1978; 1987) laid out a universal politeness theory, and how this had been criticised as being inapplicable to Japanese by a variety of linguists (Matsumoto 1988; Ide 1989), who prefer to analyse Japanese honorifics as being based upon ‘discernment’ or indication of social relationships. It might have seemed from this that the face-based account of honorific usage was discredited by this but – and this will come as no surprise to you if you think about how science works – other linguists have recently been criticising the discernment account, and relating how the theory of face could be adjusted to fit the linguistic facts of Japanese.

One of the most cogent of these criticisms comes from Fukuda and Asato (2004), who argue that Brown and Levinson’s theory works perfectly well for Japanese, as long as one important fact is taken into account:

When a person of higher status is involved, distance and power are given markedly high values, which in turn, elevates…the weightiness of the FTA. Thus, any act, whether intrinsically face-threatening or not (meaning, regardless of the value of imposition), will be counted as face-threatening.
(Fukuda and Asato 2004, 1997)

Thus, saying anything in the presence of a social superior can require the use of politeness strategies, and hence the use of honorifics. This does seem like a sensible adjustment to the theory, given the well-documented awareness that Japanese people display of status differences between individuals – even in contexts where a difference wouldn’t exist, or be considered to be important, most English-speaking countries. As an example of this, we only have to think of the fact that one of the most important relations Japanese can have is between senpai 先輩 (‘seniors’) and kōhai 後輩 (‘juniors’) – whether it’s at school, or in a club, or at a company. Those who enter an organisation later will accord respect to those who were there before them, who, in turn, will feel obligated to look after, or instruct, (or take advantage of) those younger than themselves. The relations can be extremely long-lasting, and require use of honorifics by the kōhai to the senpai – if you see two Japanese meet at a school reunion you can often spot who was in which position by listening to who is using honorifics and who isn’t.

Fukuda and Asato (2004) also provide five arguments for the applicability of their account, and against Ide and Matsumoto’s version.

First, correct honorific usage does have much to do with face-preservation, as if speakers fail to use honorifics when expected, they can sound presumptuous – threatening the addressee’s face – or, they can embarrass themselves, threatening their own (Fukuda and Asato 2004, 1997). This is obviously a concern for non-Japanese trying to speak the language, as you want to avoid causing offence, although – particularly if you don’t look Japanese – you can get away with mistakes native speakers can’t. The most important thing is to try and avoid obvious mistakes – like using honorific expressions to refer to your own actions, and humble ones to refer to a superior’s – and try and develop your honorific fluency by observing how Japanese speakers talk to each other.

Although, that being said, it’s also best to avoid talking ‘down’ to your Japanese juniors (people younger than you, or who work for, or under you) too much, as it’s difficult to adopt the mannerisms of a Japanese senior without sounding offensive, unless your language skills are very high, and even then, they may not ‘fit’ with your Japanese personality.

Second, the fact that it sounds odd to use honorifics about social superiors if they have done something dishonourable (Sensei ga dōkyūsei o gōkan nasatta 先生が同級生を強姦なさった ‘My teacher raped(honorific) my classmate’ – sounds bizarre in the extreme), means that obligatory indication of the social relationship is not the only criterion for honorific usage (Fukuda and Asato 2004, 1998). Third, superiors do use honorifics to juniors if they are asking them a favour. This usage cannot be to indicate the social ranking between them, as that is maintained (Fukuda and Asato 2004, 1998). Fourth, in more formal situations, too, superiors will use honorifics to juniors, which again cannot be to indicate social ranking (Fukuda and Asato 2004, 1999).

These arguments, in fact, contain useful lessons for the Japanese language learner – not about what honorifics to use, but when to use them: making requests and impositions, and in any formal situation, and to anyone who’s a superior – either in the sense of having some authority over you, or simply that they are older.

Finally, if saying anything in the presence of a superior is intrinsically face-threatening, then one of the most sensible options for juniors is Brown and Levinson’s (5) don’t do the FTA – in other words, keep quiet – and this accounts for the tendency of juniors in Japan not to say very much in the presence of their superiors. It is not the case, after all, that it is considered polite for them to talk as much as they want, even if they do use honorifics (Fukuda and Asato 2004, 2000).

All in all, then, it seems like the face-based account of honorifics might well have something to recommend it, doesn’t it? What you need to remember, though, is that no theory can entirely account for the complexities of human interactions or behaviour: just as it’s possible to find weaknesses in the ‘face’ account, it’s also possible to find weakness in the ‘discernment’ one, and even Fukuda and Asato’s revised version is unlikely to be the final word. It’s likely that someone else will come up with a new account in a few years which will provide a different approach, and there’s nothing wrong with this, because each new version provides different insights into the language and takes a step closer to the reality.

So, is that the final word on honorifics? Well, no, another interesting area, and one which Fukuda and Asato themselves acknowledge is that ‘sex, age, education, and regional origin of the speaker are related to the use of honorifics…Women, the well-educated, the aged, and urbanites like to speak a refined, elegant language and use elaborate honorifics to serve their own face wants, such as being perceived as having had a good upbringing, and being intelligent, decent or sophisticated persons’ (Fukuda and Asato.2004, 2000). This is moving more into the socio-linguistic analysis of honorifics, and is something I’ll talk about 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.
Fukada, Atsushi and Asato, Noriko (2004), “Universal politeness theory: application to the use of Japanese honorifics” Journal of Pragmatics, 36 (11), 1991-2002.
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.

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.

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.

Recent Columns

Recent Comments




World Today