Ever since Japan opened to the outside world in the middle of the 19th century after some 250 years of isolation imposed and enforced by its ruling shoguns, the Japanese language has been widely regarded as a kind of code.
Foreigners, it is generally conceded, may be able to learn to “decipher” this code, but the deeper meanings of the words — which give voice to the hearts and minds of the Japanese people — are still considered by most Japanese people to be beyond their grasp, just as beautiful stones in the depths of a clear pond cannot be reached by those destined to remain on the edges. Foreigners could stick their toes into the water, perhaps even enter the pond, but they could not reach the depths.
Some Japanese people, I fear, still believe this, but many now see that foreigners can be deep divers too; that barriers to understanding can be breached.
In the first decades of the 45 years that I have used the Japanese language — reading hundreds of books and even writing a few in Japanese — I was often asked if I “really understood” what was being said to me. When I assured Japanese people that I did, some cocked their head to one side, sucked in air through their teeth and likely thought, “Wakaru ka na?” (“I doubt if he really does.”)
The notion that the Japanese language is a kind of code of implicit communication and “ethnic telepathy” among native speakers has served them well on their islands somewhat distant from centers of civilizations on the Asian continent, and much farther away from others elsewhere.
It allowed the Japanese to create a unique aesthetic vocabulary to express the intricate and exquisite facets in the kaleidoscope that comprises their culture. It led them to believe that, even if foreigners understand separate words in the language, the ways Japanese people put them together make them difficult, if not impossible to “decipher.”
More than single words or phrases, however, are the Japanese modes of expression — or, rather, “modes of non-expression” — where people normally keep their feelings to themselves or express them in seemingly vague terms. The modes of communication used by the Japanese — the way they look (or don’t look) at each other, move their bodies, gesture and use their language — are naturally not the same, in many cases, as they are among some other nationalities.
This has led Japanese people to believe that their language is ambiguous. This self-perceived ambiguity — combined with the many behavioral habits that create a portrait of the Japanese national character — has given rise to the notion that the Japanese language is one of the world’s most difficult for foreigners to learn.
But let me pose three questions: Is the Japanese language a special code whose rules and secrets can be grasped only by the Japanese? Is it ambiguous? And is it difficult for foreigners to learn?
My answer to all three is a definite “No.”
There is nothing secret, inscrutable or codelike about Japanese words. The language is certainly not ambiguous. And, in fact, spoken Japanese is really quite easy to learn. In contrast, my native English is fiendishly difficult to learn, with pronunciation, spelling and stress being highly irregular, and an everyday vocabulary that is dauntingly vast.
The fact is that all languages, Japanese included, are entirely neutral. The claims made for a language being ambiguous or “expressive,” or even beautiful-sounding, are made on subjective grounds. Humans are all capable of feeling emotions and expressing ideas to the same levels of depth and breadth no matter what country we are born in. All languages are equally expressive, though some have developed a special vocabulary for particular subjects due to their geography or history.
But this merely means that it requires a cultural background to appreciate the nuances of some words, the associations of some colors or the beauty of some sounds. Words exist in a historical, behavioral or cultural context. Outside that context they are neutral. This applies to Japanese just as it does to all languages. What’s difficult to learn for us non-Japanese are the intricacies of culture and the many conventions of behavior that have evolved over the centuries.
The main obstacle hindering Japanese people’s understanding of the outside world is not an inability to speak foreign languages, though being able to do so would be desirable and beneficial — it is a misunderstanding of the very nature of their own language.
It is hard for any people to see and judge the nature of their language. Is Japanese a difficult language? A beautiful language? A special language? Would an American or Canadian or Australian be able to answer these questions for English? Would a Yemeni or a Vietnamese person know whether Arabic of Vietnamese was difficult, beautiful or special? They would probably say, “Yes, my language is difficult, beautiful and special.” Can anyone view their own language from an outsider’s perspective? Is it possible to be objective about your own language?
If you were asked to describe the Japanese language, what would you say?
You might point out features of the way it is used, specifying perhaps how it can be subtlely sensitive to the occasion. When formal or polite expressions are called for, as when speaking to a superior or someone older, you may cite how honorifics, known as keigo, are used. When a confrontation between speakers seems to be evident, you would perhaps point out how ambiguous forms of speech may come into play to avoid unpleasantness. And you may even add that Japanese is full of pauses and silences, since it is a language that avoids self-assertion. It also often omits the subject in a sentence, as the language favors indirect speech.
But are these features belonging to the Japanese language, or are they traits of a Japanese personality? Does a language have intrinsic features such as subtlety, sensitivity, ambiguity and self-assertion — or are these features of usage by a certain people at a certain time in their history?
Japanese is among the world’s most spoken languages, and there is no reason it couldn’t have become an international language like English, Spanish and French. If Japan’s policy in Asia and the Asia-Pacific region had been benign and kind throughout the 20th century, and had the European powers given up power there (which they were not about to do of their own volition), then the Japanese language might have spread permanently outside the borders of this country.
If so, people who were not native-born Japanese would now likely be using Japanese as their national language. If Japan had been successful in transplanting its language overseas, over time there would be no standard Japanese, just as there is no standard English. Consider the possibility that Japan had conquered and occupied Hawaii after 1941 (as the United States did decades earlier), and had then stopped its aggression. By now, Hawaiians would probably be speaking Japanese instead of English.
I imagine a film in Yoji Yamada’s long-running “Tora-san” series in which Tora-san, the hapless hero, meets his Hawaiian madonna in Waikiki. She might even speak a more refined version of Japanese than him! He would appear back in Shibamata, his working-class home district of Tokyo, wearing a Hawaiian shirt instead of a haramaki (fabric waist band) with a lei, not an omamori good-luck charm around his neck. And when he walked into his sister’s dumpling shop there, the first thing he’d say would not be “Tadaima!” (“I’m back!”), but “Aloha!”
And could you expect the Hawaiians, with their laid-back lifestyle and easygoing ways, to act “like Japanese”? The prewar Japanese believed that once the peoples of Asia and the South Pacific spoke Japanese, they would turn into Japanese in thought and action. During the war, children in Micronesia under Japanese rule were forced to bow to the north, in the direction of the Imperial palace, during morning assembly.
Did the oppressors believe that making people bow like that would really change a culture and lifestyle in existence for many centuries? Did they think the gregarious and fun-loving people of the Solomon Islands would sit on their knees on tatami mats, sip bitter powdered green tea and recite 17-syllable poems about the aesthetic symbolism of cherry blossom petals?
And would Koreans, who are not generally prone to a diffident ambiguity of expression, use Japanese in the same way as many Japanese people do, mumbling and hesitating if they are unsure of themselves or choose to appear so?
Why should people have to “act like Japanese” just because they use the language?
It is high time the Japanese realized that the qualities they ascribe to their language are features of usage that can be and are being modified by myriad circumstances in the passage of time. The more foreigners who speak Japanese, the greater benefit it will be for the Japanese to understand what is linguistically intrinsic in their language and what is simply custom.
The use of the Japanese language by Japanese is both elegantly concise and impressively flexible. A language itself, of course, cannot be either “verbose” or “inarticulate,” since these are social, not linguistic, phenomena. Hence I have met hundreds of verbose Japanese people, because the language is just as good a medium for allowing people to talk the hind legs off a donkey as any other.
A language is a medium. It is a vehicle that we drive, sometimes slow, sometimes fast; sometimes clumsily, sometimes adeptly. It all depends on the driver. The number of words in a language in no way limits a people’s expressiveness. It is how they are subtlely variegated and combined that produces the expressiveness.
The Japanese language today has become a vehicle driven by different nationalities, thanks to the many non-Japanese living, working and active in public life here. This is giving Japanese people a more objective view of their own language not as an exclusive ethnic code but as a normal vehicle of communication. The days when a Japanese listens to a foreigner speaking Japanese with skeptical disbelief are over.
Foreigners who do not know the Japanese language and the Japanese people are often puzzled by the latter’s intentions. When asked by a non-Japanese if they want to go hiking, a Japanese might answer, “I leave it to you.” Do they want to go or not? Similarly, do they want a cup of coffee or not, if they nod once and say when asked, “Sekkaku desu ga …” (“It’s very kind of you to ask …”)? To any Japanese, these responses are not ambiguous. In the first instance, the person is deferring to their host; they do not want to appear selfish. In the second, the answer is, “Thanks all the same …”
Are these people’s expressions really ambiguous, or are they just expressing verbal conventions or, perhaps, simply not wishing to express themselves in what may appear to be a self-assertive manner?
The term monogoto o hakkiri iu means not only “speaking distinctly, clearly and precisely,” but also “speaking bluntly, perhaps saying something that another person might not want to hear.” This may not be a desirable thing to do in a society where self-effacement is a classic virtue.
Japanese people do not generally wish to appear dogmatic or overly convinced of something. When people give their opinions on television, they invariably use the phrase, shite moraitai. This means “I would like (them) to do (something).” If we translate this literally into a foreign language, it might appear the people voicing it are weak or unsure of their convictions. They are, after all, “asking” someone to do something. In many other countries, people are more forceful. “The government must do something about this!” “The principal should change school policy right now!”
If a Japanese person said those things in public in their home country in such a “foreign” way, many people might be repelled by their opinions, even if they tended to agree with them. That is why foreigners often appear overly assertive in Japanese eyes. Nonetheless, it is important for Japanese people to say their opinions clearly and sincerely when speaking a foreign language. By simply “translating” Japanese words, they may come out sounding insincere.
The issue of emphasis illustrates a complexity of usage that reveals a telling point.
The most common method of producing emphasis is to raise the intonation of the voice — except in Japanese, though of course people do raise the volume of their voice when they are emotional. Listen to the way most foreigners speak Japanese and you will hear much more rising and falling intonation than you hear when Japanese people speak the language, particularly when the speaker is excited or angry. They are using the intonation of emphasis in their own language when they speak Japanese. This is a perfectly natural thing to do, but it again can give the impression foreigners are more assertive and convinced of what they say than Japanese people.
On the other hand, Japanese people speak in a more monotone fashion because the Japanese language provides them with auxiliary means of emphasis. They don’t need to underline individual words. They just need to use forms of emphatic speech that the language provides, such as da, yo and ne at the end of a sentence.
Aditionally, they don’t want to appear to be 100 percent convinced of the correctness of their opinions. They want to be inclusive of you. I would say that this attribute — of being inclusive of others when expressing yourself — is one of the most striking qualities of the Japanese people.
But why should non-Japanese speaking Japanese be obliged to be self-effacingly “Japanese” just because they speak the language?
The Japanese will have to recognize this fact. And in fact it is quite possible that, some decades from now, Japanese people will not be expressing themselves at all in the way they do today.
Moreover, if foreigners understand and speak Japanese, then Japanese people will understand the people of other countries and more readily learn to speak their languages. If Japanese people believe their language is a secret code foreigners cannot fathom, they will be fated to remain on the edge of the foreign ponds where the beauties and depths of foreign words reside. If you are closed to others, others will be closed to you.
The internationalization of the Japanese language is vital if Japan is to take further the opening up of the heart of the nation that began more than a century and a half ago.