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Regarding Eric Hilton’s June 25 letter, “Japanese is just a language“: Hilton’s point is well made and his observations are in line with my experiences at a college in Japan, where I have taught for four years. I think the issue he raises of the importance of respecting a target language is overlooked. The same holds for the culture as a whole.

Every year, at the beginning of one particular course that focuses on cultural differences, I ask my students if they think Japanese or Americans are more polite. The overwhelming consensus every time has been that Japanese are more polite. No one has said that Americans are more polite. A few have hedged by saying things like “Japanese are very polite while at work.” It takes me months to get the students to realize that my question was flawed insofar as there are, in some cases, different notions of politeness that cannot be quantitatively compared with one another. But even if I am able to teach them to acknowledge this idea intellectually, I doubt that many of them truly believe it.

In any case, the experience that truly stunned me was when colleagues, with whom I was caught up in a debate over how to edit a text for use in an entrance examination, resolutely insisted that the idea of “saving face” was uniquely Japanese and that the Japanese are superior to Americans when it comes to the notion of sympathy or consideration — a notion, they strongly implied, that Americans lack! Now if everyone in Japan is taught that they are the most polite people in the world, what motivation have they to learn anything from the barbarians abroad?

philip adamek

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