Japanese Beyond Words

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Recently my reading has spiked, but I am still busy so write-ups are slowly forthcoming. Japanese Beyond Words by Horvat was recommended to me a handful of years ago as a source of good information about the connection between culture and language. When it was loaned to me I read a couple brief excerpts marked by the lender, but otherwise it sat on my shelf. Before my move I noticed a couple books seemed to be on permanent loan to my collection and guilt prompted me to quickly read them so they could be restored to their proper homes.

Horvat worked in Japan for many years and often wrote short articles for periodicals. I believe most of the chapters were developed from his articles. Each section covers some aspect of language, but more so the culture behind the language. I found the articles generally easy to read and mostly helpful; however, two regrets came up. One is simply that I already know the content of several chapters, having lived in Japan more than seven years and ostensibly beginning my interactions here about 23 years ago. The other regret was not having read the book sooner, as it could have helped me more easily deal with a difficult situation regarding my work contract. There were only a few small points where I disagreed with the author or felt he was covering an unimportant point; otherwise I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning about Japanese culture and language.

Confucian thinking comes up more than once; which is interesting since most people think about Buddhist and Shinto influence on Japan. Every Japanese person seems to know a little about Confucius and there are some deeply rooted connections in society here. One is the concept that specific relationships should be valued and others should not; which results in the often befuddling “private politeness” versus “public nonchalance”.

…The visitor who has just been bowed to very deeply by a company president finds himself jostled by silent strangers as he heads back to his hotel, where, the moment he enters, he resumes the role of visiting dignitary. Everyone from bell-boy to manager greets him with the deference accorded to a recent recipient of a Nobel Prize.

Living here, I am routinely exposed to extreme politeness followed by ambivalence – or even grossly discourteous treatment – which is perplexing. Understanding the culture that drives this makes it a little easier to adapt.

Another Confucian teaching is that “outward forms produce inward attitudes” making appearance extremely important here. Occasionally I participate in cycling events here. I purchased a bicycle in line with my budget and occasionally make improvements to it; however, I will encounter rank amateurs at these events who have dropped many thousands of dollars on bikes, accessories, clothing and the like. The practice is attached to the ancient belief that to be a cyclist they must have proper cycling gear. In some cases I find them as decorations at business covered in dust from lack of use, showing perhaps that internal change is also necessary.

Simple but powerful is learning how Japanese view proverbs, and seeing how they can grease the skids, relieving the initial tension of meeting a foreigner. “Unlike in the West where the proverb is often seen as a poor relative of serious thought, old sayings are revered as gems of wisdom handed down through the ages.” A topic deserving of more detailed approach later.

Horvat writes about the importance of ‘order’ in Japan, referencing the humorous anecdote about police responding to a burglary call to find the culprit putting on his shoes in the entry hall. He was willing to break into a home to steal, but would never think of stepping up into the home without removing his shoes. Conversely the photo of GIs standing on tatami mat floors in combat boots is used as a symbol of the breakdown of order after the Battle of Okinawa. Learning which defined rules are important to the ‘order’ aid foreign residents immensely in their acceptance here.

Our author got shocked reactions at the mahjongg parlor as he was laughing at the comics in his newspaper. Newspapers are serious in Japan and rarely have more than a single comic. More importantly the mixing of worlds is considered inappropriate. I have personally been bitten by this repeatedly as I like to send teachers off to conferences with a friendly, “enjoy yourself!” Mistakenly, I thought their sharp retort of, “It’s not FUN, it’s WORK.”, was a sign of being a little too tightly wound. Reading Horvat and rethinking my encounters, I think I was ‘laughing at the newspaper’ as it were.

Two important language study points came up as well, and I hope there are still readers interested this far down the page. First, Japanese pronouns are NOT pronouns. They are used as nouns and should be treated as nouns.  Thinking of them as pronouns will inhibit learning the language. Second, he recommends not trusting the written word, but trusting our ears because language is “an interrupted flow of air”. The way things are pronounced and the way they are written may vary in any language: focusing too much on the reading will lead us into ruts from which it is hard to extricate oneself.

Again, I found his work useful and approachable. I will most likely write a bit more about proverbs and history in the near future, but this is enough for today.

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2 Responses to “Japanese Beyond Words”

  1. titus2woman Says:

    Is mahjongg of Japanese origin? I was thinking Chinese and now want to look it up! 🙂 Because of Crunchyroll’s historical dramas, Confucius intrigues me. I would like to learn/study more for fun, because it’s fascinating! I loved this post and have read it again and again….

  2. びっくり Says:

    Mahjongg is a Chinese game, but it enjoys popularity amongst older men here. Some terms even find their way into common usage, but we can’t write them in kanji because the Chinese readings throw everyone off.

    I have decided that there is a reason Confucian and confusion sound so much alike.

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