Column: Books and Writing

On language and culture: a postcard from Japan


I look over the moss-blue waters of the Oi river at Arashiyama in Kyoto, Japan. A mountain of trees tips up behind, mottled in colour with the last of the autumn leaves. It’s not the first time I’ve had the fortune to be at this scenic spot.

Since I was here last I’ve read Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk. Thanks to Iyer I can picture him and his lady Sachiko. I imagine Sachiko in her summer kimono and the two of them floating past me, quietly in love, on a boat in the moonlight. Since I was here last I’ve also studied some Japanese. I can now grasp a little flotsam from the river of words being spoken around me. Language – words – have enriched this visit today.

But that’s not all that’s happened since I was here last. I’ve now come to understand that the very word ‘language’ is entirely insufficient to describe itself. It’s merely a marker, a reference to a loose connection between the ways we each communicate. Sure, ‘green’ might be exchanged for midori in Japanese but other communiqués are more complicated. I now understand the deeper meaning of the phase ‘lost in translation’ and have glimpsed the inherent ties between language and culture. (This will come as no surprise to the bilingual among you.)

The first time I came to Arashiyama I knew two Japanese words. They were okudasai ‘please’ and arigatou gozaimasu ‘thank you’ (words I thought necessary for polite survival). I used them liberally and (I know now) often applied them incorrectly. I’ve studied Japanese since, and although I’m still a beginner I understand enough to know that there are several ways to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Japanese. They require you to consider with whom you are conversing, the context in which you are speaking as well as where you are in the transaction. It’s not a matter of interchanging one form of expression for another. There are substantial differences in how each language communicates an idea.

Robert B Kaplan, in his 1960s essay Cultural Thought Patterns in Inter-cultural Education draws a connection between language and rhetoric. He supports his argument with an illustration. There’s a straight line for ‘English’, a zig-zag one for ‘Semitic’, a spiral for ‘Oriental’ and some off kilter lines for ‘Romance’ and ‘Russian’. The illustration might be too simplistic for today’s meta/post modern world (where there are always exceptions and complexities to be noted and clearly many more rhetorical approaches to consider). But I do believe there’s something in Kaplan’s hypothesis. Language can’t be separated from rhetoric and, ‘language in its turn is the effect and the expression of a certain world view that is manifested in the culture.’ I often see this when I tango between Japanese and English.

Just last week I was organising to meet a friend for lunch. ‘Would you like to meet at 12.30 or 1.00pm?’ she asked. ‘Let’s go for 1pm.’ I said, inclined to lunch later. ‘12.30 or 1pm?’ she asked again. In the past this would confuse me – but now I get it. My friend could only meet at 12.30. She simply offered the 1pm slot to be polite. It was my role in turn to pick the right time, for us to reach a ‘consensus’ – to get to it together. Working as a team is very much a part of Japanese culture.

When I lived in Japan my failure to sufficiently parse English and Japanese both literally and rhetorically often sent my Japanese friends into fits of laughter. I’d look up a word in my Japanese-English dictionary then slot it into a sentence structure I knew, only to learn that I was using the Japanese equivalent to ye-olde-English or that I’d picked a word or structure that doesn’t translate into the context I was using. ‘Thanks for everything’ I once tried to write on a card in Japanese to a family who had been very kind to me. Between my poor Japanese and my recipients’ limited English no one could work out what it was I was trying to say (neither the word, nor the sentiment). And it goes both ways. My students would often write odd things in their English diaries. One week they all wrote of ‘breaking’ origami cranes. I needed a bi-lingual friend to explain there are connections between ‘folding’ and ‘breaking’ in Japanese. My students had simply done the same thing as me, picking up their Japanese-English dictionaries on the presumption that language could be swapped word for word. It can’t.

Up the hill from the river at Arashiyama I take a few moments to work out what’s happening on a bag being carried by a girl nearby. Follow love and it will flee thee it reads. ‘Huh?’ I think. ‘That’s a kind of miserable take on love…’ Then I read on, Flee love and it will follow thee. What an odd perspective. Eventually I realise that it’s a classic case of lost in pronunciation. Follow love and it will free thee, is what was intended. Pronunciation, now there’s a whole other possibility for confusion (too much for this post). And context too… in Japanese the same word (omoshiroi) means both funny and interesting. I was surprised how often I failed to communicate which one I intended. Omoshiroi ne?

In one passage of The Lady and the Monk Iyer is at Pub Africa in Kyoto – a ‘social club for the foreign dispossessed.’ He finds himself caught in the ‘usual litanies of [foreigner] talk.’ ‘You know the Japanese word for ‘different’ is the same as their word for ‘wrong’?’ Iyer hears someone say. ‘Does that mean that the Japanese are wrong?’ Iyer wonders, ‘Just because they’re different?’

In my first Japanese class I learned how to bow and introduce myself. In my second Japanese class I learned how to ask about something and how to answer, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ Hai so desu Or, ‘No, that’s wrong.’ Iie chigaimasu.

Until I lived in Japan these were meanings I held to be true, to be translatable. But later I learned that I was wrong, or more specifically that I was different.

Pepi Ronalds is a Killings columnist. She has been published in MeanjinOpen ManifestoA List Apart and more. Her blog, Future of Long Form, was an Emerging Blog for the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival. She’s on Twitter and Facebook, and has a website.

Her essay A Public Engagement: The Art of Controversy appears in Issue 15 of Kill Your Darlings

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