Probably the most annoying thing ever written about language goes something like this: “Eskimos have 52 words for snow because it’s important to them. English should have as many words for love.” All this really says is that the Inuit language probably lets you stick morphemes together to create new words without bothersome prepositions or tenses, sort of like Japanese kanji. English is different, but still perfectly adequate for expressing concepts like “crusty 3-day-old snow the dog peed in” or “crazy doomed love of someone who will make you miserable.”

The second most annoying (to me) thing written about language is that Japanese is “vague.” This is a pretty ironic thing to express in modern English, which has a single second-person pronoun that is incapable even of distinguishing between plural and singular.

Japanese, by contrast, has scores of words for “you,” from the circuitous sochira (そちら) and the militaristic (now just rude) kisama (貴様) to the gruff omae (お前) and the boring, textbook anata (あなた). Usage of these depends on who you are and to whom you are speaking. Most of these can also be rendered plural by adding the suffices ra (ら) or tachi (達).

In writing, the character ki (貴) can express “you” in a variety of ways that are painfully specific as to gender, status or type of person or institution being addressed: kisha (貴社) for companies, kikō (貴校) for schools (or banks, if 貴行), kishoku (貴職) for public servants, kichō (貴庁) for courts or municipal offices, kishō (貴省) for ministries, kiden (貴殿) for men and kijo (貴女) for women, though if she is unmarried and old-fashioned you might want to use kijō (貴嬢) instead. A similar multiverse of ways of expressing “I” and “we” exist, the use of which is similarly complicated.

Vague? Certainly not! In fact, the real trick is figuring out how to speak or write without using “you” at all, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of getting it wrong.

In my field — law — some people explain that the supposed vagueness of the Japanese language is reflected in the legal system itself. Indeed, specifics in this area can sometimes seem hard to pin down, but laws can be vague for reasons that have nothing to do with language but a lot to do with the convenience of the people who make and enforce them.

Legal Japanese can be far more specific than English. There is a huge variety of words meaning “detention” or “imprisonment” depending upon legal circumstances by which it occurs.

There is kōryū (拘留) — incarceration for a short term imposed as a punishment — and the confusingly homophonous kōryū (勾留), pretrial detention. Kōchi (拘置) is also sometimes used to describe detention pending trial, but in a more specific context refers to the status of prisoners on death row. Such incarceration can last for years, but is legally different from the imprisonment with labor (chōeki, 懲役) or without labor (kinko, 禁固) used to punish many crimes.

Ryūchi (留置) is what happens when someone is thrown into a police jail (a ryūchijo, 留置所) pending further disposition, which is supposed to be release or pretrial detention (kōryū) in different facilities. In practice, suspects are often kept in police custody until they confess. The benign-sounding shūyō (収容, accommodate or commit) describes what happens to foreigners awaiting expulsion at the Ministry of Justice’s “immigration centers,” and to young offenders being sent to juvenile detention facilities.

On the other side of the ledger there only seem to be two terms for release, and the standards for both seem kind of vague: hoshaku (保釈) — release on bail pending trial — and shakuhō (釈放), meaning release from criminal detention facilities in general, including on parole (hogo kansatsu, 保護観察).

Greater specificity can also be found in family terminology. Students new to the language quickly learn it is hard to talk about siblings without knowing whether they are older or younger (ane (姉), ani (兄) imōto (妹) and otōto (弟) being the basic terms for older sister and brother and younger sister and brother, respectively). The same is true of obasan and ojisan (aunt and uncle) which, when written, specify whether they are the older or younger sibling of your parent (伯母 and 伯父 for older aunts and uncles, 叔母 and 叔父 for younger). Ditto for itoko, the Japanese word for cousin; in writing they clarify both gender and relative age: (従兄 and 従弟 for older and younger male cousins, 従姉 and 従妹 for females). In the past these terms would have had greater legal and social significance, since Japanese law once favored males over females and elder siblings over younger ones for inheritance and other purposes. Going back even further, punishments for crimes among family members would have varied depending upon the relationship between and relative status of the offender and victim.

Today, remnants of this very specific legal language can be seen in the family registry (koseki, 戸籍) system, which still requires the birth order of children to be specified (i.e., chōjo and chōnan (長女, 長男) for eldest son and daughter, jijo and jinan (二女, 二男) for second daughter and son, and so forth). This can be confusing because it counts children relative to the family unit that produced them, not the individual parent. Accordingly, someone who has children with more than one person can end up with two “eldest sons” on their registry.

Interestingly, despite all these very specific family terms, Japanese seems to lack any commonly used appellations for stepfather, stepmother and step- and half-siblings. There are clinical-sounding terms such as ibokyōdai (異母兄弟 — literally, “brother(s) of a different mother”), but the people in these blended family relationships are apparently supposed to get by with calling each other “mama,” “papa,” “brother” and “sister,” regardless of the genetics involved.

So there is some vagueness after all. But perhaps that is convenient for everyone involved, or at least for the rest of society.

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