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Thoughts on Japan - Japanese Society 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

April 03, 2009

Nonsense About Nihonjin

One of the traps it’s easiest to fall into when you start living in a foreign country and start noticing that people don’t seem to behave the way they do back home, or institutions don’t seem to work in the way you’re used to, is to start making broad generalisations about the reasons why. We all do it – it’s just so tempting to say, ‘Oh, people here do such-and-such because they’re Japanese,’ or ‘Japanese companies/shops/governments just work that way, because they’re Japanese,’ without looking for deeper causes. It’s only a short step from that to making generalisations about what the Japanese are like: ‘Japanese are group oriented,’ ‘Japanese don’t feel guilt,’ ‘Japanese aren’t religious’ – I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. You may even have said similar things yourself, when asked about Japan by family and friends – I know I have.

On one level, there’s nothing wrong with making statements like this, as most people asking, ‘What’s Japan like?’ aren’t looking for an in-depth anthropological or sociological discussion, just a quick explanation. Equally, however, you always need to keep in mind that any simplistic statement is likely to conceal just as much as it reveals, and I’m sure that you do, for the most part. A conversation with friends or family, however, isn’t likely to cause much damage to Japan’s relations with the rest of the world, but what would happen if some of those broad generalisations made it into print, were widely disseminated and came to be believed as representing the truth about Japan and the Japanese?

Well, believe it or not, this is what did happen for a period during the 1970s and early 1980s, with the uncritical acceptance by many academic specialists on Japan of a stream of publications coming under the general heading of nihonjinron 日本人論 – a term which translates loosely as ‘theories of the Japanese’ – produced by Japanese writers about almost every aspect of Japan: linguistic, social, cultural, historical, and even scientific. Many of these works were extremely influential in Japan, being widely read by the general public, and the theses they contained gained broad acceptance in the media, popular culture and even some facets of Japanese academia. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that non-Japanese attempting to research Japan should come to think there must be something in all these writings, and to use them when seeking to ‘explain’ Japan to those outside it. It’s even less surprising that non-Japanese media sources and non-specialist writers should pick up on the contents of these English language nihonjinron-based works, and believe that the contents were an accurate description of the way Japan ‘really was’, and thus these ideas made their way into popular ideas about Japan and the Japanese and, unfortunately, still remain there to a great extent.

The simple fact of the matter is, however, that much of what was written in the nihonjinron was, not to put too fine a point on it, nonsense, which was academically indefensible, scientifically inaccurate, or unprovable.

The single key thesis, running through almost all nihonjinron, was that Japan was a unique case in the world’s societies and cultures, and as a corollary of this, there was an essential core at the heart of all things Japanese which was inexplicable to, and incomprehensible by, anyone who was not born and brought up in Japan as a Japanese. Furthermore, these characteristics held true for all of Japan and could be contrasted with the characteristics of a monolithic ‘West.’ This was both wonderful and seductive, as it meant that any questions asked about how Japanese society, culture, language, or institutions worked could be answered simply with the explanation, ‘They work that way because they are Japanese,’ and any disagreeable analyses could be dismissed, because the researcher, not being Japanese, ‘couldn’t really understand Japan.’ This was an extremely useful defence mechanism, and a good way of deflecting attention from uncomfortable truths.

What sort of ideas are contained in the nihonjinron?

Well, at the moderate end of the scale, there’s sociologist Nakane Chie, who argues that non-Japanese sociological models don’t fit the Japanese reality, and that scholars using these methods tend to dismiss what doesn’t fit as ‘feudal residues’, whereas, in fact, they are repositories of the uniqueness of Japan. In the field of linguistics, there’s Kindaichi Haruhiko, who argues that Japanese should be compared with the Germanic languages (English, German Dutch, Danish, etc.), ignoring the fact that all of these are different and have their own histories and dialects. Other writers too numerous to mention have argued that the Japanese language contains an ineffable component – represented by yamato kotoba 大和言葉, that is, ‘pure’ Japanese vocabulary – which is uniquely suited to describing Japanese situations and conditions, and is essentially untranslatable. This is contrasted with kango 漢語, ‘Chinese vocabulary’, or gairaigo 外来語, ‘loan words’, which, because they are foreign in origin, can only represent ‘alien’ concepts and – even though they may be used widely by the Japanese – cannot accurately describe Japan. Still less can expressions in foreign languages actually do so.

It’s just a short step from this to ‘scientific’ studies like those of Tsunoda Tadanobu, who claimed that consonants and vowels were processed in the left hemispheres of Japanese brains, but were processed separately in the left and right hemispheres in ‘occidental’ brains. This was used as justification for any number of claims: that exposure of a Japanese child to a foreign language could lead them to develop an ‘occidental’ type brain and irreparably damage their ability to process and produce Japanese; that the poor performance of Japanese athletes in international sporting events could be explained by the stress having to learn foreign languages placed on their unique brains, and so forth. Needless to say, no subsequent researchers have been able to duplicate Tsunoda’s results.

The uniqueness inherent to Japan, however, is not limited to the human beings: Sakagami Shōichi argued that Japanese bees displayed different characteristics to ‘western’ bees' characteristics which remarkably reflect those of the Japanese people: ‘western’ bees cool their hives by (aggressively) facing outwards and fanning backwards with their wings, while Japanese bees (peacefully) face inwards - wanting to be part of the group; ‘western’ bees, uncaring of pollution, or dirt, will colonise hives vacated by Japanese bees, while Japanese bees – sensitive to pollution – will dismantle a vacated hive and build a new one; and finally, ‘western’ bees are welcomed into Japanese bees’ hives, but Japanese bees are attacked by ‘western’ bees if they enter their hives. This simultaneously makes the ‘western’ bees aggressive colonisers and explorers, and the Japanese bees peaceful, insular, homebodies.

You can make of that what you like, but purely by chance I've recently heard about some other research which has scientifically demonstrated that native Japanese bees are much better at defending their hives from attack by hornets than imported ones - so much for their 'peaceful' nature!

The key thing to understand about all of the nihonjinron is that they are essentially works of cultural nationalism, whose unstated purpose was to defend and establish a Japanese identity against perceived political, cultural, or linguistic threats. It comes as no surprise that their heyday was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Japanese came to feel that it was once more OK to feel proud about being Japanese, after the success of the ‘economic miracle’, and simultaneously many of the traditional ways of doing things came under increasing threat from social modernisation. The writers who wrote them, though, drew upon a long history of works in a similar vein, often produced in the 1930s, when ultra-nationalism was on the rise, or in Meiji, when Japan was threatened by the imperial ambitions of the Great Powers.

So, whenever you hear anyone talking about the uniqueness of Japan, or are tempted to do so yourself, just remember: Japan is a unique society, but then so is every other one, and it doesn’t mean that Japan doesn’t have a great deal in common with the rest of the world. Second, whenever you hear, or read, about ‘Japan’ and ‘the west’, as if they were two monolithic polar opposites, pause, because Japan is by no means homogenous, and ‘the west’ simply doesn’t exist – there are individual nations (the US, UK, France, Portugal, Greece, Romania, Turkey, etc., etc.), and it’s dangerous to assume that there are any unifying commonalities between them. You need to think about where the speaker/writer is really referring to, and often you’ll find that ‘the west’ is an Anglo-centric shorthand for the US/UK, ignoring the differences between even those two nations.

If you want to read more about nihonjinron and its significance in both Japanese and non-Japanese writing about Japan, I suggest you take a look at Peter Dale’s never-bettered The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness (1986; Routledge), which comprehensively critiques nihonjinron ideas, and is where I’ve got much of the information above.

There won’t be a column next week, as it’s Easter, and the week after, my department at Sheffield is moving accommodation, so I’ll be up to my ears in packing cases – I’ll try and get something done for Friday, April 24th.

June 12, 2009

What can we learn from dorama?

Last week I was talking about the wonderful subject of Japanese television dramas in terms of the general types of plots and characters which tend to appear, and what broader lessons about Japanese society we can draw from watching them, quite apart from the linguistic and entertainment benefits that can be obtained. This week, I said I’d take a look at the types of academic studies which scholars have done recently. I’m not going to pretend that this is anything like a comprehensive study or review of the literature – I don’t have time, or space, for that – but I can identify some of the broader areas which have attracted attention and flag up some of the more interesting studies for you to look at if you want to go into the subject in more depth.

Television drama can, of course, be a research topic for any number of academic disciplines, some of which can pay less attention to the dramatic aspects of the medium than others. For example, Senko Maynard, who I’ve mentioned before when talking about Japanese rhetorical structures, has recently been analysing the language used in a particular dorama in order to determine how language use between individuals changes as their relationships mature and alter, and discovering that ‘linguistic strategy such as stylistic shift expresses changing emotions between the characters, and, in particular, that stylistic shift indexes changing degrees of intimacy.’ (Maynard 2001: 1). This is straight linguistics research, which just happens to be using a drama as a resource – she could equally have gone out and recorded examples of speech and analysed those, although as the dorama in question, Majo no Jōken 魔女の条件 (TBS, 1999), concerned the progression of an illicit affair, it might have been difficult to obtain real-life examples easily.

It’s also possible to draw more firmly grounded academic conclusions about the current state of Japanese society from looking at what appears, or doesn’t appear, on television. Two recent studies, Valentine (1997) and Stibbe (2004) have analysed TV programmes in order to determine what they can tell us about the representation of minorities in Japan. Valentine’s work on marginalised sexualities shows that ‘lesbians and gay men can be freely stereotyped’ (Valentine 1997: 59), with lesbians in particular being portrayed, when they are represented at all, in almost wholly negative terms. For example, in the drama Kōkō Kyōshi 高校教師 (TBS, 1993), a lesbian character, even though not explicitly acknowledged as such, ‘is associated with…non-reciprocated, enforced relationships involving abuse of power’ (Valentine 1997: 60), while gay men generally, when not portrayed comically as okama オカマ, are ‘stereotypically defective in love, decency, honesty or courage: they are lonesome and/or loathsome’ (Valentine 1997: 69). Stibbe (2004), on the other hand, investigated representations of the disabled on Japanese television, discovering that from the beginning of the 1990s, there was ‘a massive boom in the portrayal of fictional disabled characters, played by non-disabled actors’ (Stibbe 2004: 23), with the characters being both positive, attractive and involved in romantic relationships (Stibbe 2004: 23). These dramas worked, however, to reinforce accepted social norms in that they either almost invariably concluded with the death of one of the protagonists, suggesting that the barrier between able-bodied and disabled people is ‘a taken-for-granted fact of Japanese society, without so much as a hint that it might be overcome’ (Stibbe 2004: 26), or else suggested that disabled people could be cured, or needed the protection of someone able-bodied (Stibbe 2004: 27), thus marginalising them and denying them an identity of their own.

The final major area of research on Japanese television is the consideration of its relationship with East Asia – either in terms of how it may contribute to the formation of a common East Asian popular culture and identity (Chua 2004), or how it spreads beyond the shores of Japan to Hong Kong and China (Nakano 2004) (other scholars have also considered the penetration of Japanese popular culture into Korea). In the former, it is not simply Japanese television which becomes the object of study, but other countries’ products of popular culture, too – I’m sure you are all familiar with the vogue for all things Korean recently in Japan, the so-called Kanryū būmu 韓流ブーム - and how they cross cultural boundaries and are received in environments other than that in which they were created.

There might be a tendency to view the international spread of the artefacts of Japanese popular culture – television programmes, films, comics, music, and so forth – as the result of cultural and economic imperialism. That is, Japanese corporations aggressively pushing their products into other East Asian markets, and overwhelming the domestic products. According to Nakano (2004), however, this is not the case: the spread of Japanese entertainment into Hong Kong and China was consumer driven, with young people watching pirated copies of Japanese dramas, and demanding more themselves. This is important because ‘this shift in perspective might help us break with the concepts of Japanization as well as Americanization that put the economic power at the absolute center of globalization’ (Nakano 2004: 249), and allow us to develop a more people-centred view of East Asian relations.

So, in answer to the question posed in the title of this column – I’d have to say, we can learn a great deal from dorama, both about Japan, and the part of the world in which it is.


Chua, Beng Huat (2004) ‘Conceptualizing an East Asian popular culture’ Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 5 (2): 200 – 221.
Maynard, Senko K. (2001) ‘Falling in love with style: Expressive functions of stylistic shifts in a Japanese television drama series’ Functions of Language 8 (1): 1-39.
Nakano, Yoshiko (2002) ‘Who initiates a global flow? Japanese popular culture in Asia’ Visual Communication 1: 230-254.
Stibbe, Arran (2004) ‘Disability, gender and power in Japanese television drama’ Japan Forum 16 (1): 21-36.
Valentine, James (1997) ‘Skirting and Suiting Stereotypes: Representations of Marginalized Sexualities in Japan’ Theory Culture Society 14: 57-85.

March 05, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iie, chitto mo sonna koto gozāmasen wa.

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

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

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

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

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



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