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Thoughts on Japan - Musings 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 03, 2009

A Brief Introduction

I intend to range fairly widely in this column, from musings on the Japanese language, to thoughts from across the range of Japanese Studies, both modern and premodern, with the intention of providing a window of sorts onto Japan and the Japanese. I don’t live in the country, of course, and haven’t done so for almost twenty years (although I’m lucky enough to be able to visit regularly at the moment), so I don’t know much about living there day-to-day, but I have spent over two decades improving my knowledge of the language – spoken and written – and reading and researching about different aspects of Japan, as well as working with colleagues conducting their own studies of a variety of Japan-related topics, so I have a good academic knowledge of the place, and that’s what I hope to provide. After all, sometimes the outsider’s perspective can be clearer than that of someone closer at hand.

I suspect many of you are wondering about the subtitle for the column – 金額からの思い kin’gaku kara no omoi – well, that comes from a famous description of Sheffield, back in its nineteenth century days as a one of the most important centres of the British steel industry (‘Sheffield steel’ is still famous in precision instruments, such as surgical scalpels, and the Cutlers’ Hall is still one of the city’s major buildings). But I digress: back then the city was described as ‘a grimy picture in a golden frame’, as a reference to the smoke and dirt associated with steel production, situated in some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain – the Peak District – and I thought that ‘Thoughts from a golden frame’ would be a good, if subtle, reference to Sheffield. Incidentally, when Sheffield City Council had its tourist brochure translated into Japanese, ‘a grimy picture in a golden frame’ became simply kin’gaku no naka no e 金額の中の絵 ‘a picture in a golden frame’, forsaking accuracy for the sake of not putting off the tourists!

The Peak District, of course, has been a famous tourist destination for more than two hundred years – fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will remember that Lizzie Bennett travelled to its southern parts, in Derbyshire, with her aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Gardner, and there once more met Mr Darcy at his estate in Pemberley (famously depicted by Colin Firth emerging dripping from a swim in the lake and running into a flustered Jennifer Ehle in the BBC’s 1995 version). Jane Austen’s writing has been said to have a great deal in common with that of Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部, the author of Japan’s greatest literary masterpiece, Genji Monogatari 源氏物語 ‘The Tale of Genji’ on the topic of which I’ll say more in a later column.

Sheffield’s own Japanese connection, however, dates back well over one hundred years, as it was one of the sites visited by members of the Iwakura Mission (1871-73) – the famous tour by Japanese government officials and experts to learn about foreign technology, culture, society and economy in order to aid in the Meiji modernisation of the country. In fact, it was possible to see the chimney of the factory the mission visited from my office window until recently. The Mission kept detailed records of their experiences, all of which have now been translated into English as the multi-volume The Iwakura Embassy, 1871-73 : a true account of the Ambassador Extraordinary & plenipotentiary’s journey of observation through the United States of America and Europe (2002: Chiba Japan Documents) with my own colleague Graham Healey as Chief Editor. The visit to Sheffield doesn’t make that interesting reading, but here’s a description of another place they visited:

Amongst the about 650 men of talent assembled, there are white haired elders, calm and virtuous gentlemen, and also prodigiously able youths. During the sparkling debates and orderly explanations, they gaze upwards, lie prone, or sit in silence cogitating deeply, or write letters, peruse documents; some among them even sketch pictures. The opinions are varied, and seem like a hundred brilliant blooms…at the most important moments, they call out, ‘Hear! Hear!’, or an even more essential expression of praise is, ‘Cheers!’, and when they good-naturedly defeat a ludicrous proposition, there are guffaws of laughter; among them yawns can be heard, and men who disagree pay no attention, and scoff, or glance at other drafts; there are even some men who seem to know nothing of their office.

I hasten to say that this translation is mine, and not the official one, but can anyone guess what this extraordinary institution was?

Well, the clue is in the number of men: 650 – and what they do – debate – so I’m sure you can guess that this is a description of the British House of Commons, and the men described are Members of Parliament! How little has changed in 140 years…

I think that’s enough for a start; for my next column I’ll stick more closely to the brief and give some thoughts about why a formal Japanese relationship always starts with a jiko shōkai 自己紹介 ‘self introduction’.

March 27, 2009

Why Read the Classics?

In my first column I mentioned The Tale of Genji, and a couple of weeks later I talked about the Heian attitude to love. You can probably guess from these references that I’m a fan of pre-modern Japan, and you’d be right: I love classical Japanese and the texts written in it. I’m not going to talk about Genji now – that’s a topic for another time – but instead, I’m going to muse upon why it’s worth reading things written over a thousand years ago, by people whose lives, values and beliefs were so different from our own, and from those of the modern Japanese, too.

Almost everything that we now associate with Japanese culture and the Japanese way of life simply didn’t exist in the Heian period: Noh 能, Kabuki 歌舞伎, Bunraku 文楽, tea ceremony, tatami 畳 mats, shōji 障子 screens, kimono 着物 (as we know them now), samurai 侍, haiku 俳句 poetry, Zen Buddhism – the list could go on, but I expect you get the point: none of these things would be familiar to the people of the Heian period, as they were all developed after it ended. Added to that the rigid separation of men and women (as I described in my column on love affairs), and the taboos and superstitions that ruled much of people’s behaviour, requiring periods of seclusion, or even moving out of one’s house to avoid annoying a jealous deity, and people’s relations and motivations sometimes seem like a complete mystery to us.

So, why should we read things written by people who lived such strange lives, so long ago? And who used a language which can be challenge to read and interpret? (Those of you who work with high school children can ask them what they think of classical grammar (koten bunpō 古典文法) – and I expect you’ll get groans and told that it’s boring – at least by some of them.) I’m not going to go into that in detail now, as I think I’ve talked about the difficulty of Japanese, or lack thereof, enough for the moment, but let’s just say that there are two sides to that argument, and it’s something I’ll come back to at a later date.

Getting back to the question: why read stuff written by the Heian Japanese? I could make the historical argument that it’s the best way of learning about the society and events of the time, or the literary argument that the works raise questions about the human condition, or the linguistic argument that they can enlighten us about the development of the Japanese language – all of these would be true – but miss, perhaps, the most important reason of all: these texts are frequently fun to read, and allow us to see the writers, and the people they write about, as human beings – people with the same emotions as us, who laughed with and at each other, teased each other, or sneered at each other, just like people do today, even if the reasons for doing so are very different.

To prove the point, let’s look at a couple of my favourite extracts from two different classical works: Tosa Nikki 土佐日記 (‘The Tosa Diary’) and Makura no Sōshi 枕草子 (‘The Pillow Book’).

First, Tosa Nikki: this is known to have been written by Ki no Tsurayuki 紀貫之 (ca. 872-945), perhaps the greatest poet of his generation, al though he maintains the fiction that the writer is a woman in his service throughout, as men’s diaries were supposed to have been kept in Chinese – the language of civilisation and culture – at the time. It’s a brief account of his return to the capital from serving as a provincial governor in Tosa in Shikoku, and contains prose entries interspersed with poems to punctuate emotional high-points.

Here’s the scene: Tsurayuki and his party have made port on the coast of Shikoku at New Year; unfortunately, all their special New Year food has been spoiled, as seawater has got into the supplies. One of the local nobles, however, on hearing of their plight has sent over a magnificent repast and everyone has stuffed themselves (in the diary, he writes ‘funagodomo wa haratsuzumi o uchite’ 船子どもは腹鼓を打ちて “Even the sailors beat the drum of their stomachs”). How, though, is their benefactor treated? (I’ve romanised this as if it were modern Japanese – it would have sounded a bit different in the original, but classical Japanese is almost always read as if it were modern now, anyway):

kyō, warigo motasetekitaru hito, sono na nado zo ima omoi’idemu. kono hito, uta yomamu to omou kokoro arite narikeri. tokaku ii’iite, ‘nami tatsu naru koto’ to urueiite, yomeru uta:

yukusaki ni tatsu shiranami no koe yori mo okurete nakamu ware ya masaramu

to zo yomeru. ito ōgoe narubeshi. motekitaru mono yori wa, uta wa ikaga aramu. kono uta o, korekare awaredomo, hitori mo kaeshisezu. shitsubeki hito mo majiredo, kore o nomi itagari, mono o nomi kuite, yo fukenu.




The man who had the food brought that day – I’ll remember his name soon, I’m sure. Well, this man was of a mind to compose a poem. Or so he said – several times – fretting over, ‘On the waves rising,’; here is the poem he composed:

On your path
The rising whitecaps
Left behind, weeping,
I will surpass them!

His voice must have been loud, indeed! And how did his poem compare with the food he had had brought? Though everyone said how moved they were by it, no one attempted a reply. There was one among them who should have done it, but he only praised it, kept on eating, and so the night wore on.

I think you get a real sense from this of the capital aristocrats shifting uneasily in their seats, knowing that the polite thing to do would be to compose a reply, but not knowing how to go about it. Even Tsurayuki, the celebrated poet, the one who should have done it, remains silent, and laughs secretly at the man’s technique. Suddenly, the nameless noble lives again, and you can sympathise with his situation – desperately trying to impress the VIPs from the capital, and not getting it quite right, while they snigger at him for being irremediably uncultured and rustic.

For our second extract, here’s a brief scene from the Makura no Sōshi, Japan’s most celebrated zuihitsu 随筆 (a literary form composed of a series of short anecdotes and miscellaneous jottings), written, at least partially, by a woman now referred to as Sei Shōnagon 清少納言, who served the Empress Sadako 定子 (also known as Teishi) (976-1000), one of the consorts to Emperor Ichijō 一条 (980-1011; r. 986-1011). In this section, Sadako has left the palace and gone to stay at the residence of Taira no Narimasa 平生昌 – noble known for being a good-hearted man, but something of a pompous ass – because she is due to give birth, and the pollution associated with childbirth was not permitted within the palace precincts. Her women, of course, have gone with her, and Sei has earlier berated Narimasa for not having a gate big enough to get an ox-cart through at his house, meaning the ladies have had to get out and walk inside, exposing themselves to public, male, view. That evening:

onaji tsubone ni sumu wakaki hitobito nado shite, yorozu no koto mo shirazu, nebutakereba mina nenu. hingashi no tai no nishi no hisashi, kita kaketearu ni, kita no sōji ni kakegane mo nakarikeru o, sore mo tazunesezu. ie no aruji nareba, annai o shirite aketekeri. ayashiku karebami sawagitaru koe nite, ‘saburawan wa ika ni, ika ni’ to, amata tabi iu koe ni zo odorokite mireba, kichō no ushiro ni tatetaru tōdai no hikari wa arawa nari, sōji o gosun bakari akete iu narikeri. imijū okashi.

sara ni kayō no sukizukishiki waza, yume ni senu mono o, wagaya ni owashimashitari tote muge ni kokoro ni makasuru nameri, to omou mo ito okashi.

katawaranaru hito o oshiokoshite, ‘kare mitamae. kakaru mienu mono no ameru wa’ to ieba, kashira motagete miyarite, imijū warau. ‘are wa ta so, kesō ni’ to ieba, ‘arazu. ie no aruji to, sadame mōsubeki koto no haberu nari’ to ieba, ‘kado no koto o koso kikoetsure, sōji aketamae to ya kikoetsuru’ to ieba, ‘nao sono koto mo mōsamu. soko ni saburawan wa ika ni, ika ni’ to ieba, ‘ito migurushiki koto. sara ni e owaseji’ tote waraumereba, ‘wakaki hito owashikeri’ tote, hikitatete inuru, nochi ni warau koto imijū, aken to naraba, tada irinekashi, shōsoko o iwan ni, yokanari to wa tare ka iwan, to, geni zo okashiki.


I was together with a number of other young women in the same chamber, and not thinking about much at all, and being sleepy, we all dozed off. We were in the northern section of the western part of the east wing, and the northern shutter had no bolt – a fact we didn’t know. The master of the house, though, was well acquainted with this, and opened the shutter. In an oddly husky and excited voice, he called, ‘How about if I come in? How about it?’ several times: I was startled, and looking up, by the light of a lamp standing behind the screens, I saw he was speaking through the shutter, which he’d opened five inches or so. It was quite remarkable!

How funny it was when I realised that he thought he could do just as he pleased – disgracefully lascivious conduct he normally wouldn’t have even dreamt of , because Her Majesty was staying in his house!

I prodded the girl beside me awake, saying, ‘Look at that! Did you ever see such a thing?’ and she lifted her head and burst into peals of laughter. ‘Who is it? Being so obvious?’ I asked, and he replied, ‘I am not! It’s just your host, with something he needs to talk to you about.’
‘I asked you about your gate – but did I ask you to come open my shutters?’ I said.
‘That’s just what I want to talk to you about. How about if I come in? How about it?’
‘How disgraceful! You certainly may not!’ answered the other girl, laughing, and he, saying, ‘Oh, there are other young women there!’ drew the shutter closed and departed: afterwards, we laughed and laughed. If he’d gone so far as to open the shutter, he should have just come in and slept with me – for what woman, on being importuned in such a manner, is going to tell a man it’s fine? It really was astounding!

Again, for me, reading this suddenly brings the witty Sei, and the bumptious Narimasa, back to life. You can feel the fun that was to be had in aristocratic life and relationships, and her amusement at Narimasa not following the rules. The way in which she banters with him seems not that dissimilar from how people behave today. Of course, the rules are different from modern ones – Sei’s remark that Narimasa should have just come in and had his way with her demonstrates that – but it’s a small window onto a happy time, and works well as an antidote to all the lamenting over unhappy affairs that one gets in the love poetry.

I did a class on the entire scene of which this is just a part (Narimasa makes a fool of himself the following day, too, when he doesn’t know the right words for some articles of women’s clothing) with some students last summer, and beforehand rehearsed my reading – out loud – of the original text with a Japanese colleague, translating it on the fly as I went along. Afterwards, she said to me, ‘You know, when I studied Makura no Sōshi at school, the picture I got of Sei Shōnagon was of a bitter, humourless woman, but listening to you read that has completely changed my mind. She seem so much more fun now, and you make me want to read more of The Pillow Book.’

As a teacher, I can’t ask for a better reaction than that!

April 21, 2009

Selling (in) Japan

In my last column, I talked about how many of the Nihonjinron myths about Japan and the Japanese have become part of the ‘received wisdom’ about the country and its people, both for the Japanese themselves, and many outside observers. This week I’d like to talk about another fertile source of images of Japan, both positive and negative: advertising – for reasons which I’ll get to shortly.

If you type ‘Japanese advertising’, or ‘Japanese commercials’ into any search engine, you’ll come up with a large number of You Tube hits where people have uploaded Japanese television commercials – usually of the wacky and bizarre sort – and often featuring various American, or occasionally British, celebrities plugging all manner of Japanese goods (my current favourite is one of the series where Kiefer Sutherland does a Jack Bauer routine to sell Calorie Mate). In fact, the image of the, slightly washed-up, film, or sports, star demeaning himself (the vast majority are men) by making Japanese commercials is so well-known that it has become a plot device in its own right, with the best-known example of this being Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

Japanese advertising, and the differences between it and advertising in other markets, however, has also been a subject of academic study, with scholars looking at the subject from a wide variety of angles and in many different ways. For example, research shows that the reason why celebrity adverts are so common in Japan is that Japanese consumers find celebrity endorsements reassuring, and thus they help to build trust in a brand, while US consumers tend to be suspicious of celebrities’ motives and think ‘they’re only in it for the money.’ Comparative studies have also revealed other general tendencies in Japanese advertising – commercials tend to be aimed more at building brand awareness and creating associations with particular companies and products, rather than ‘selling’ per se.

There’s also been a good deal of work done on the language used in Japanese advertisements, and the subtle differences which are introduced, even if the campaign is an international one. For example, in the 1992 campaign for Coco Chanel, Vanessa Paradis was portrayed as a bird in a cage:

In the commercial you can clearly see that she’s wearing fishnet stockings and these were shown in print ads in the same campaign in magazines in France and the UK. When the same photos were used in Japanese magazines (and US ones, too, I think), the fishnets were converted to sheer stockings (Tanaka 1994), as they were considered too crudely sexual, and thus inappropriate in the Japanese market for selling an elite product like French perfume.

Nevertheless, the classic advertising adage ‘sex sells’ is just as true in the Japanese market as anywhere else, although the type of products sold in this way could be thought of as somewhat unusual. For example, according to Bailey (2006), sex, or more precisely erotic potential is a major feature of Japanese eikaiwa advertising. In an amusing article, whose impact is slightly diminished by his obvious ignorance of some aspects of Japanese popular culture, and some mistranslations of Japanese expressions, he argues that eikaiwa is primarily marketed to young Japanese women, and one of the major tools for this is the presentation of the white, male, English-speaking eikaiwa teacher as an erotic object. This is done as a result of ingrained class-based associations whereby:

a Japanese woman's own characteristics of `sophistication', `attraction', and `talent' can be measured by her English-language skills. Class status is conferred both by facility in English and through establishing a relationship with the white male, the signifier of upward mobility
(Bailey 2006: 111).

Thus, in a 2002 promotion, ECC produced an ad in which a larger picture of a smiling office-lady has underneath it an arrow bearing the words ‘What’s next?’, with the arrow pointing at a smaller picture of a white, male eikaiwa teacher.

The relative size and position of the office lady and the instructor emphasizes the office lady’s capacity for choice, telling viewers that the office lady is in control and makes decisions, while the English instructor performs in whatever role she wishes. He is thus positioned as an object of consumption [for her].
(Bailey 2006: 155)

Similarly, a promotion for GABA, also in 2002 featured a picture of a serious-faced young Japanese woman handcuffed to an equally serious, blond, white male, meaning that ‘the Japanese woman was using the handcuffs to bind the Western instructor to her purpose…the woman is the active agent: GABA visually promises the female client control, if not outright domination, over the bodies of the male gaijin instructors’ (Bailey 2006: 177).

Whether or not you accept Bailey’s argument about the sub-text of this type of commercial, the ECC advertisement I mentioned earlier contains another common feature of much Japanese advertising: the use of English. Now, obviously, in an advertisement for English conversation classes, it’s not that unusual to see some English used, but the language’s use in Japanese advertising is pervasive, as I’m sure you know. This is a subject which has been studied extensively, with many scholars considering whether this type of English usage is evidence of the spread of English linguistic imperialism. The general conclusion, however is that:

the widely observable phenomenon of English codeswitching in Japanese commercial discourse…works as a metaphoric commodity with the power to invoke an occidental identity, that is, an image related to the Japanese conception of Western-type cultures
(Loveday 2008: 132).

(‘Codeswitching’ is a technical term in linguistics broadly referring to the phenomenon of speakers, or writers, changing between languages (‘codes’) in the same utterance. To give a Japanese-related example, which I expect many of you can relate to: Speaker A: ‘How are you today?’ Speaker B: ‘I’m feeling pretty genki!’)

Getting back to advertising, Loveday (2008) analyses the use of English on chocolate bar wrappers in Japan, and comes to the conclusion that while the use of English can have powerful effects – ‘the West’ being associated in many Japanese consumers’ minds with wealth and sophistication – there are regular conventions observed as to where the English is placed and how it is used, all of which serve to delimit and demarcate its effects – he uses the rather emotive term ‘spatial apartheid’ (Loveday 2008: 146) to describe this – meaning that the extensive use of English:

is not a reflection of cultural domination and global neo-imperialism but more a manifestation of its containment and peripherization. English has not succeeded in ousting Japanese but has been segregated to a different graphic position; English does not fundamentally mix and blend with Japanese but is compartmentalized. Crudely stated, it is relegated to the level of eye-candy
(Loveday 2008: 148).

If the use of English in Japanese advertising is contained and controlled, and used in order to create positive associations for products in Japan, one cannot help but be curious of how obviously Japanese products are promoted in American and European markets. I’m not talking here about global mega-brands like Sony and Nissan, but instead smaller scale products, like, for example, Pocky chocolate biscuit sticks. I’m sure you all know what these are, and may have eaten a few in your time, but you may not know that these have been marketed in continental Europe for some time under the brand-name ‘Mikado’ – immediately identifying them as a Japanese product. Within the last few weeks, a TV ad campaign has been launched on UK television to try and sell ‘Mikado’ to the British, and how have the marketing men decided to do it? Take a look at the video below:

Two things immediately strike me about this commercial: first, that it’s a classic example of the cannibalistic nature of advertising, as it’s an almost exact copy of a Dutch advertisement for photocopier paper:

Note that the young woman in the second ad seems rather more embarrassed by her predicament than her Japanese counterpart – I wonder why?

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the commercial has nothing whatsoever to do with the product being advertised, but is, instead, wacky and humorous. Again, why should this be? Well, it’s entirely possible that there’s been a recognition on the part of the marketers that the only hope for a new product on the British market is to create a ‘water-cooler moment’ by producing something that people are going to talk about – if that’s the case I suppose I’m doing their job for them – or that this is simply building on the European campaign for the product, whose commercials have also been characterised by their oddness:

But that still begs the question of why did the European marketers chose to sell ‘Mikado’ in this way. I have to think that a major component is a general idea that anything to do with Japan is bizarre and odd, and so to sell something with a clearly Japanese name, you have to trade on, and exaggerate, these associations, while in the UK ad simultaneously reinforcing stereotypes about Japan and the Japanese (salarymen, demure and subservient Japanese women, deviant sexual practices, etc.).

I don’t have any academic evidence for the above, of course, but it is an example of the tight grip national stereotypes can have on popular consciousness, and how easy it is to fall into using them.

Next week: why do Japanese writers not stick to the point?

Bailey, Keiron (2006), "Marketing the Eikaiwa Wonderland: Ideology, Akogare, and Gender Alterity in English Conversation School Advertising in Japan" Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24, 105-130.
Loveday, Leo J. (2008), "Creating a Mock-Western Identity through English in Japanese Ads: A Study of Occidentalist Invocations" Journal of Creative Communication 3 (2), 123-153.
Tanaka, Keiko (1994) Advertising language : a pragmatic approach to advertisements in Britain and Japan. London: Routledge.

May 22, 2009

Journeys Outside of the Bubble

Here’s a question for you: what’s the stereotypical image of a Japanese tourist abroad? Thinking about it, you might say that the question is misphrased, because there’s no such thing as a Japanese tourist, only Japanese tourists – they only ever occur in groups. That’s obviously an overstatement, and yet it’s probably true to say that many, or perhaps most, Japanese leisure travellers outside of their own country do so as part of package, group, tours. If you live in a tourist area of Japan, you’ll be familiar with the sight of tour groups, each with their own guide, being bussed from place to place according to a carefully planned schedule of sightseeing and shopping, and the sight of groups of tourists being gathered together at airports, often all wearing name badges, or with similar hats, is one I’m familiar with from my own travels.

The Japanese tour group, too, travelling together, speaking only Japanese and being rushed from place to place, snapping photographs, but never stopping long, is almost a metaphor for Japan’s preferred way of dealing with kaigai 海外 (‘abroad’): looking at it through a Japanese lens, or visiting it in a Japanese bubble. (The British, of course, aren’t any better – thousands of Britons visit popular tourist spots in Europe every year, and spend their time eating British food, visiting British pubs and clubs, and staying in hotels surrounded by other Brits – the only way they know they’re not at home is because the weather’s better. This type of attitude was satirised by the Comic Strip team, in the episode ‘Funseekers’ (1988), at the end of which the gormless protagonists emerge from a church where they have just assisted a young Spanish woman to give birth to her illegitimate child, gaze around in amazement, and say, ‘I’ve just realised – we’re in Spain!’ – but I digress.)

Package tours are such a part of Japanese travel now that it’s difficult to believe that they are a relatively recent development, only really taking off after the 1960s with Japan’s rise to economic superpower status. Incidentally, do you know the origin of the modern package tour? It’s, in fact, a British invention: on 5 July 1841 a cabinet maker by the name of Thomas Cook reached an agreement with the Midland Counties Railway company to send 570 people from Leicester to a temperance rally in Loughborough eleven miles away. He was so successful in this and arranging other trips, after some initial problems, that he abandoned cabinet making altogether, and became the first travel agent, eventually arranging to send people all over the world.

Anyway, I seem to be digressing again.

Foreign travel by Japanese didn’t start in the 1960s, of course, it’s just that earlier travellers tended to be solo ones, and leisure wasn’t the reason they left Japan. In Meiji and the early twentieth century, Japanese travelled for education – to learn about the world outside, which was a strange place after the two hundred and fifty odd years of isolation of the Tokugawa period. Some of Japan’s most famous modern writers went overseas, either voluntarily, or because the government despatched them, to improve their knowledge and return with it to Japan, and had intense experiences while there. For example, Natsume Kinnosuke (1867-1916), better known by his pen-name Sōseki 漱石, the famous author of works such as Botchan 坊ちゃん (‘The Young Master’) (1906) and Kokoro こころ (1914), and, by all accounts something of an eccentric (his first remark to his wife on their marriage was apparently, ‘I am a scholar and therefore must study. I have no time to fuss over you. Please understand this.’), spent two very unhappy years in England from 1900, eventually behaving so oddly that reports were sent back to Tokyo that he had gone mad, resulting in his urgent recall home. Years later, when asked about his impressions of his stay there, he was to say, ‘To tell the truth, I have no liking for England. But I must be honest, whether I like the country or not. I do not think there is a place in the world so free or so orderly.’ Arishima Takeo 有島健郎 (1878-1923), another famous writer, spent over three years abroad, from 1901-04, travelling through the US and on to Europe, where he fell in love with a Swiss innkeeper’s daughter. He left after they had spent only a week together, but they corresponded until his death, and she remained faithful to his memory, visiting his grave in Japan and buying copies of his books, which she kept until her death at the age of 84 in 1970, although she was unable to read a word of them (Llewellen 1993).

Other travellers went for religious reasons: the most famous Meiji example was Kawaguchi Ekai河口慧海, a Buddhist monk who made several journeys to Nepal and Tibet and was the first known modern Japanese visitor to both countries, while the most famous Japanese Christian traveller was undoubtedly Kibe Petro 岐部ペトロ (1587-1639). Kibe was born to Christian convert parents in Kyushu, and seems to have wanted to be nothing other than a priest, enrolling in a Jesuit school at the age of 13, and being deported by the Bakufu to Macao in 1614 at the age of 23. He then set off on a odyssey in search of ordainment, eventually walking the entire length of the Silk Road, some 2000 miles, becoming the first Japanese to enter the Holy Land, and the first to visit Rome, where his wish was eventually granted. He returned to Japan in 1630, after the sakoku 鎖国 (‘seclusion’) policy had been instituted, landing in secret at Nagasaki and travelling as far north as Sendai before he was finally betrayed to the shogunate and arrested. By all accounts, great efforts were made to make him apostatise, including interrogation by Christovao Ferreira, a Portuguese Jesuit who had abandoned his faith after torture (if you’ve read Endō Shūsaku’s 遠藤周作 (1923-96) award winning novel Chinmoku 沈黙 ('Silence') (1966), you’ll be familiar with his name, as he’s the man the protagonists enter Japan to seek). Kibe remained, however, true to his beliefs, and eventually died under torture in July 1639. His name appears near the top of the list of Japanese Christian martyrs recognised by the Catholic church, and he was beatified in November last year.

Japanese Buddhists, of course, travelled abroad in search of enlightenment and instruction centuries before Christianity ever came to Japan. Probably the most famous of these, even though he spent relatively little time away, was a man by the name of Saeki no Mao 佐伯 眞魚 (774-?835), although he’s far better known now by his Buddhist name of Kūkai 空海, or his posthumous title of Kōbō Daishi 弘法大師. Mao came from an aristocratic background, as many monks did at the time, and was prodigiously clever, publishing his first work Sangō Shiiki三教指帰, a comparison of the merits of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, in 794 at the age of just 24. Ten years later, he travelled to China and within two years had been initiated as a master of Shingon 真言 esoteric Buddhism, a faith he was to bring back to Japan, which proved to be fertile ground for its teachings. In addition to his religious duties, Kūkai worked as an advisor to the imperial throne and is known to have guided the building works to improve Mannō Ike 満濃池, Japan’s largest agricultural irrigation reservoir, which is still to be found in Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku. Kōbō Daishi remains the single most revered Japanese Buddhist figure, legendarily responsible for inventing both the kana 仮名 syllabary and the Iroha poem traditionally used to teach it, and the faithful believe that he did not die in 835, but merely entered permanent meditation on Mount Kōya 高野, where his body remains to this day.

Finally, we should also remember that in pre-modern times, travel within Japan could be just as daunting as long sea voyages abroad, and so I’ll end this week with a poem composed by an anonymous retainer of Ōtomo no Tabito 大伴旅人, while journeying with him from Kyushu back to the capital in Nara:

opoumi nö
oku ka mo sirazu
yuku ware wo
itu kimasamu tö
topisi kora pa mo

On the vastness of the sea
Not knowing what's to come
Or whither bound am I;
"When will you be home?"
My children asked...

MYS XVII: 3897

There won’t be a column next week, as I’ll be on holiday, so look for the next one on, or around, June 5th.

Llewellen, John (1993), Modern Japanese Novelists: A Biographical Dictionary Tokyo, Kodansha International.

July 01, 2010

Idolatrous Cannibals in Golden Palaces (Part One)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 07, 2010

Idolatrous Cannibals in Golden Palaces (Part Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kokkyō no nagai toneru wo nukeru to yukiguni deatta

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 14, 2010

Idolatrous Cannibals in Golden Palaces (Part Three)

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

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

瑠璃色の 地球も花も 宇宙の子

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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