Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Truth, lies, and the Japanese language

The Japanese language is a beautiful, maddening thing. Because it's more polite to speak in an indirect way, words become unhinged from their meanings, serving as signposts to the deeper subtext.

You have to learn that "maybe" usually means "absolutely not" or that "thank you" is a rude way to respond to a compliment. Politeness requires that you reply to a compliment by firmly denying it. Besides everyone knows that a compliment in Japan is not meant to be taken at face value. What's important is the subtext. A compliment is a foot in the door, a conversation starter, a way to express kind feelings. If, for example, you can string a few sentences together in Japanese, you will consistently be told, "Wow! Your Japanese is so good." The person saying this knows it's a lie. You know it's a lie. But you also both know the purpose of the lie is to foster friendly feelings. The words are fake but the kindness is genuine.

And while the dishonesty and restraint inherent in this style of speaking can be frustrating, it makes for a fluid, creative way of communicating. Japanese is dynamic in a way that English is not. English communication takes place on the surface -- what you see is what you get (unless the person is lying, of course). Words are not used as signposts to guide the listener toward a deeper meaning. Words are used to directly express what the speaker is thinking and feeling. English speakers define "good" communication as being clear and unambiguous. We chastise politicians for the way they speak because they carefully chose their words to dance around the subject, never confirming nor denying, using vague terms to avoid saying what they really think. Our politicians are masters of the polite Japanese style of speaking.

I'm equally fascinated by the way Japanese businesses appropriate English words to sell their products in a Japanese way. A billboard for a coffee company that reads "Good coffee smile" cannot be taken literally nor is it meant to be taken literally. The words allude to the way coffee makes you feel. "Good coffee smile" is a paradox: it makes no sense and yet it makes perfect sense. It's poetic. (Of course, this misuse of English can also be hilarious.)

Another one of my favourite differences between Japanese and English is the use of sound symbolism. In English, we limit onomatopoeia to words that refer to sounds ("oink" "bang" "pop"). But in Japanese, there are mimetic words for things that don't make noise, like glitter (kira kira) or slime (neba neba). Procrastination has a sound (guzu guzu), as does a dress covered in sequins (pika pika), as does a basket full of fluffy kittens (fa fa).

Its fluidity is what makes Japanese beautiful and its ambiguity is what makes it maddening. It's difficult to know what people are really thinking, which, in turn, makes it difficult to form close friendships. How can you get to know someone without open and honest communication? My closest female Japanese friend is a woman by the name of Sachi, who, upon meeting me for the first time, blurted out, "Wow! Your Japanese is terrible."

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