Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 16 • July 2008
The feeling of sakura – Are you interested in
* Izumi-kosha 1-9-1 Suginami-ku Efuku, Tokyo, Japan 168-8555, http://www.meiji.ac.jp
Fumitoshi (早川 文敏) received his PhD from
Whether you are contemplating studying the Japanese language, undertaking the task of finding out what makes Japan tick, or interested by the intellectual challenge of gaining insights into Japanese culture, I would like to congratulate you on having the courage and curiosity to embark on this journey to conquer the enigma of this island nation and break the code, otherwise known as the Japanese language. Let me preface my remarks by saying I would like to ensure that you recognize the challenges and understand the dimensions of the task. This is the reason why, instead of assuring you of the simplicity of this venture, I go overboard to show how utterly and maddeningly interwoven the language is, with the plethora of cultural rules, both stated and implicit; how the frame of reference shifts depending on the situation; and how the situation itself is not what it appears, depending on the perspective, the relationship between the participants, and the mood of the narrator. In short, it is a mess, albeit a lovely one. However, structure does exist within this chaos and once you establish what it is, life will be a lot more meaningful.
So, treat the essay below as a mini example, an encapsulation, if you will, of what you can expect.
Without conjugating the verb
A Japanese sentence has no subject. This does not mean that Japanese is a language like Latin. In Japanese, we can play with all the personal pronouns in context without using the subject and without conjugating the verb. We utilize the infinitive of the verb as both the subject and the conjugated verb.
For example, the infinitive of iku (行く), meaning to go in English or aller in French, embraces all of the following: I go, you go, he goes, she goes, we go, you go, they go / je vais, tu vas, il va, elle va, nous allons, vous allez, ils vont, elles vont. Evidently, it is possible to express similarly all the grammatical variations by using one past form of a verb. In other words, you can translate the conversation of “A: Itta (行った)? B: Un, itta (うん、行った)”, as “A: Did I (you, he, she, we, they) go? B: Yes, you (I, he, she, we, they) did”. One can surely appreciate this level of semantic flexibility. Usually, in Japanese, it is the context that determines the intended meaning of a passage.
A phrase in which all the persons except you can exist
The above explanation that Japanese is highly dependent on the context may lead to some misunderstandings. Let me make it clear that despite the perceived interpretive latitude, we can easily specify a grammatical person in Japanese, even without a context.
For example, recently, a fellow teacher asked me to translate the following phrase into French: Nanajussai ni narimasu (70歳になります). Although this is a commonly used expression in Japanese conversation, I answered as follows: J'ai [Il a, Elle a, Nous avons, Ils ont, Elles ont] 70 ans, or Je vais [Il va, Elle va, Nous allons, Ils vont, Elles vont] avoir 70 ans. (I am [He is, She is, We are, They are] 70 years-old, or I (He, She, We, They) will be 70 years-old.)
Quite obviously, he was not satisfied with this vague answer. He asked me again whether this phrase could be translated as Vous avez 70 ans or Vous allez avoir 70 ans [You are 70 years-old, or You will be 70 years-old.]. I replied in the negative. If this were an interrogative statement, it would have been possible to translate it as Avez-vous 70 ans? or Allez-vous avoir 70 ans? [Are you 70 years-old? or Will you be 70 years-old?]. But since it is a declarative sentence, we cannot restrict it to a second person singular or plural subject. He gazed at me and asked Why?, a question I could not answer.
In addition, in Japanese there is the problem of word order. One can shift transition words and phrases without changing the meaning of a passage. As Japanese is an agglutinative language, one can select, relatively freely, certain sentence patterns consisting of subject-object-verb (SOV), object-subject-verb (OSV), or verb-subject-object (VSO). Of course, such changes are not readily accepted in English. If the subject and object of A dog bit Tom are interchanged, the meaning of the passage changes quite dramatically. Although the words corresponding to each sentence item are Tom, bit, and a dog, once this is re-arranged in a text, the meaning is derived from the relative positions of the sentence items, i.e., the subject, verb, and object. Even if there is no inflection that shows the rank of a noun in present-day English, it causes no confusion because the word order is decided.
Pessimism with regard to a native language
During the period of
Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français, the well-known quote by Antoine de Rivarol (De l’universalité de la langue française, 1784), is habitually invoked. During the post-war confusion, Shiga Naoya, one of the greatest Japanese writers, stated the following:
“In order to spare the future generations of Japanese children from the trouble of dealing with the peculiarities of their native tongue, we had better change Japanese into French, because this language is the clearest and the strongest in the world.” (Kokugo mondai / Problems related to the reform of the Japanese language, 1946, Kaizosha)
A one-time minister of
education also said in all seriousness that we ought to change Japanese into
simplified English if
By the way, where are you?
I apologize for the abrupt question but what do you visualize when reading the following text? In other words, what is your viewpoint?
Kunizakai no nagai tonneru o nukeruto sokowa yukiguni deatta. Yoru no soko ga shiroku natta.
The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay under the night sky.
These are the opening lines of Snow Country (Yukiguni, 1948, Sogensha), written by the Nobel Prize writer Kawabata Yasunari; the novel has been translated into English by Edward Seidenstiker (1957, Unesco translations of contemporary works).
Now, are you, the reader, in the train or outside the train? Your answer is probably the latter. However, most Japanese readers would feel the opposite. While reading Snow Country in Japanese, you imagine the scene of a snow-covered country unfolding outside a train window. Yet, in English, you might be a photographer, capturing the sight of the train emerging out of a tunnel.
Let me digress slightly here
to point out a trivial translation mistake that is said to be responsible for
the decision to drop the atomic bombs on
In 1945, the Japanese
government received an important document from the
This episode differs from the example of varying viewpoints in the translation of Snow Country. The point I was tying to make is that the I is always hidden in Japanese text. In other words, in Japanese, a purely objective description cannot be easily achieved.
A language in which I builds a very inconspicuous nest
In Japanese, the I usually intrudes. For example, if we literally translate she is happy as kanojo wa shiawase dearu, such a rendition would be unnatural. This is because the following points are included in this sentence: Why is she happy? Who determined that? Is this third person objective? How can I confirm if others are happy without having a clear understanding of whether I myself am happy or not?
In Japanese, even when describing the actions of the third person, the I is lurking in the background, precisely to avoid such complications. In order to describe one’s happiness, a frame of reference is needed. Therefore, a more natural translation would be something like kanojo wa shiawase sooda.
This interference of the I in spoken and written discourse in Japanese takes the form of the pervasive qualifier I think. Non-Japanese speakers believe that the Japanese are never sure of what they say and try to avoid responsibility in this manner.
Conversation at cross purposes
If a perfectly natural, spontaneous Japanese conversation is translated into English without some explanatory comments, it is unlikely that it will make much sense. Let us look at a few examples from a proverbial street corner:
- Good morning! Where are you going?
- Hello, the weather is good… just for a moment.
- Well, it’s fine today. Take care.
- Thank you.
It appears that there is some
mysterious pragmatic play at work. The question Where are you going is answered with the non-sequester just for a moment. In Japanese, this
seeming incongruity is not an issue. Since the weather has cleared up, we
assume that the person is simply in the mood to go somewhere without
bothering to declare the precise destination. At any rate, no further
explanation is required: a Japanese person would understand the sentiment
immediately and would not probe further. In fact, such a non-intrusive
attitude is indispensable for survival in
The reason why the sentences translated by Seidenstiker are different from the original Japanese sentences is that he must have fully recognized the above facts: being literally translated, Kawabata’s sentences would not be easily understood by those unfamiliar with Japanese culturally-bound rhetoric.
Those who love nature
As I write this text, cherry
blossoms (sakura in Japanese), are
in full bloom in
This fascination with cherry blossoms
is just one example of
The two parts of the brain
Scientific evidence indicates that the brain apparatus has a special feature through which most Japanese feel nature. Some experts claim that there is a significant difference between the functions of the brain of a Japanese native speaker and the functions of the brains of Europeans and Americans. They speculate that Westerners typically use their right brain while the Japanese speakers have a tendency to rely primarily on the functions of their left brain (cf. Tunoda Tadanobu Nihon-jin no noo / A Japanese brain, 1978, Taishukan-shoten). Thus, sounds, including music, are usually processed by Japanese speakers with their left brain, called language brain, while this role is thought to be performed by the right brain (music brain) in the case of speakers of Western languages. Regrettably, the scope of this article does not allow for a thorough presentation of the clinical evidence that supports this dichotomy.
The Japanese language is very sound-effect driven. The Japanese enjoy the sounds of birds and insects, which are often interpreted as mere noise by others. The Japanese language, in a sense, is a representation of the various sounds one finds in nature.
The history of French study in Japan
It is certain that such
physiological differences make it difficult for Japanese people to study
European languages. I cannot imagine the trials and tribulations the editors
of French-Japanese dictionaries went through in the early stage of
westernization about 140 years ago. The history of French study in
French, in fact, was one of
the minor languages among the Japanese people. However, it is true that the
rise of the French influence in
It is noteworthy that one of
the first specialists in foreign languages was a natural scientist. The Japanese
had comparatively low levels of scientific technique, which prevented the
development of necessary weapons for national defense. The most urgent task
for the nation, which had been isolated until then, was the assimilation of
the latest scientific knowledge from European countries. It was evident that
the Japanese military organization and the production and application of
their weapons were modeled on those of
Japanese people in the Meiji
era readily adopted and assimilated French products. Some endeavored to
report the political system and culture of
Besides, the Japanese people
were greatly interested in other aspects of French culture, like music,
literature, architecture, and food. A treaty of commerce was signed by the
two countries in 1857, which marked the beginning of prosperous trade. An
increasing number of French products were imported, which resulted in a
positive image of
So far, we have seen how the Japanese people came to like the French language and culture. Initially, we learned French to understand the scientific knowledge and modern thoughts of the French, and then, increasing commercial exchanges have strengthened our concern with regard to learning the language. All the while, of course, we have been making advances in the comprehension of the language, and we are now able to produce better French-Japanese dictionaries as well.
The original translation of dictionary in Japanese was jbiki, which means a tool to look up characters. We can
imagine that characters signified
Kanji (Chinese characters); therefore, ancient dictionaries were presumably
used only to trace, without error or hesitation, the correct form of these
difficult letters. Dictionaries for European languages, however, need much
more, because their grammatical system and ways of thinking are completely
different from those in
According to Sakurai Takehito,
previous studies have held that the primary reference for Futsugo Meiyo was P. Agron’s Nieuw hand-woordenboek der Fransche en Nederduitsche
(1828). He says, however, that “the Kaihan
Kenkai Motocho, a record of publishing at the end of the
As it was natural among
scholars in the early days of Japanese modernization, Murakami’s main concern
in compiling Futsugo Meiyo was to
simply replace French words with Japanese words. Since then, there have been
a number of improvements in the newer French-Japanese dictionaries: there are
more detailed definitions of words, rich examples involving the use of
natural phrases, grammatical explanations of articles that do not exist in
Japanese, and the like. French studies in
Features of our upcoming dictionary
Today, there are many kinds of
French-Japanese and Japanese-French dictionaries in
An advantage of our new dictionary resides in this point. All the kanji characters are accompanied by their pronunciation in hiragana, the easiest character set in Japanese. Further, all Japanese words and phrases are rewritten in the Roman alphabet to provide readers with a direct means to pronounce them. If other dictionaries present a phrase as:
you promised 君は約束した,
in ours, you will find the following style:
you promised 君（きみ）は約束（やくそく）した kimi wa yakusoku shita
Thus, any user may appreciate this and be able to experience the joy of pronouncing Japanese words.
Second, in our new
Japanese-French dictionary, the headwords are carefully selected by highly
experienced and qualified Japanese language specialists, in order to give a
very natural and up-to-date vocabulary of our tongue. So, one will come
across many particular Japanese expressions, which have not been chosen by
other Japanese-French dictionaries (because it is difficult to translate them
into French). A fine example is umeboshi
no onigiri (rice ball with pickled
plum), a very popular dish consumed in everyday life, which, however,
most of the old Japanese-French dictionaries do not include. In our
dictionary, these expressions are properly translated by French native
speakers living in
Lastly, this dictionary provides a detailed explanation of the different meanings of kanji. For example, when they translate 画 (kaku), other regular dictionaries may simply indicate that this character means strokes of writing, although it is well known that almost every kanji character has many different meanings. For example, 画 can refer to a project, section, or square. Incidentally, coinage is one of the characteristics of Japanese language activity. We frequently combine plural kanji characters to form a new word. So if you do not grasp the original definitions of the characters, you will be unable to understand the coined words, which are constantly being invented. I am positive that our dictionary will be very useful in this respect.
Japanese, having no declension of nouns or conjugation of verbs by subject, is a rather easy language as far as grammar is concerned. Nevertheless, writing is an altogether different issue. The Japanese script has three different types of character sets. A writer has to choose an approprate set to write each word, and finally combine them to form a phrase. So, even if you completely mastered the 52 hiragana characters, you might still be unable to write a birthday letter to your friend.
So, what does this all mean?
I do not wish to convey the impression that Japanese is an impossible language to master. Despite the complexities I described above and in spite of the oft cited belief by many Japanese that only someone raised in the Japanese culture can acquire the socio-cultural background necessary for the acquisition of this language, it is not an impossible task. It is certainly difficult, but this is what makes the learning process all the more satisfying.
Japanese is rightly perceived as a language of many layers. Just when you believe you have adequately mastered it, there is a whole new dimension to be discovered. Just when you think you have gained a very thorough understanding of the Japanese culture and the customs, another realm, equally important, yet seemingly contradictory, will be laid in front of you. This depth of socio-linguistic knowledge baffles both novice Japanese language learners and experienced Japanologists.
On the surface, too many
factors conspire to make the study of Japanese a challenge not for the
fainthearted. To become reasonably proficient in Japanese, one has to
memorize several thousand Chinese characters and innumerable combinations
thereof, in addition to the two phonetic systems of hiragana and katakana. If
you want to master Japanese, you have to learn the customs and traditions
embedded in the language over the long history of Japanese isolation from the
rest of the world. During this period of over 200 years, a very intricate network
of linguistic patterns, honorifics, and metalinguistic notions evolved. What
makes matters worse is that Japanese does not really have linguistic
brethren. The language, like the nation itself, is very much an island. Few
parallels can be identified with other languages and Japanese people offer
little help in this regard. In fact, many of my countrymen take pride in