The other day in English class I shocked a student by supplying her with a translation of the Japanese proverb “Even monkeys fall from trees.” (The English-language proverb I used for the translation was “Even Homer sometimes nods.”) The student seemed amazed that English had proverbs; she had believed them to be a unique feature of the Japanese language. I once got the same reaction from a student who thought that “puns” were an exclusively Japanese phenomenon.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by such ignorance from people who are often unaware that the four seasons are a global phenomenon. But believing that something as universal as proverbs are one’s exclusive cultural property reveals an unconscious but stunning sense of superiority, which is one reason most Japanese have such a hard time learning foreign languages. To learn a language, you have to respect it.
In Japan, some common myths reveal a basic misunderstanding of the nature of language. One myth, for example, is that Japanese is a vague language. Languages are not vague, people are. And the strangest concept I’ve come across is the idea that the Japanese have unique emotions. Last week a student told me that it was very difficult to find words in English for emotions that English-speakers don’t experience. As it turned out, the wonderfully subtle, only-in-Japan emotion he was struggling to express was: “That was slick.”
Why he thought this a uniquely Japanese emotion, I don’t know, but this was not the first time I’d heard this idea. Actually, it is one of the central premises of Masahiko Fujiwara’s Nihonjinron book, “The Dignity of the Nation,” in which he asserts not only that Japanese have unique emotions but also that those unique emotions, along with the samurai spirit, are the only things that can save the world.
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