Babel University Professional School of Translation
In this article, I’d like for us translators working in Japanese and English – who need to place utmost importance on Japanese – to remove the stereotypes we have from learning Japanese in school in considering Japanese and English. The weighty issues I’ll bring up in this article are based on the experiences Montreal University Japanese professor of 25 years Takehiro Kanaya wrote in his book These are the Reasons why Japanese Makes the World Peaceful (published October 11, 2018 by Asuka-Shinsha).
Have you heard of the concept of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? This is a hypothesis that a person’ native language – the language they learned as a child in their family – shapes how that person views the world. Accordingly, people that learn a second language also form a new way of viewing the world based on the influence of that second language.
Although I won’t follow exactly the same order professor Kanaya does in his book, since many of you readers are aspiring translators, I’d like to start off by considering various episodes in the book to look at what kind of language Japanese is.
First, there’s the story of NHK educational TV program Series Japanese, whose program instructor is the linguist Yoshihiko Ikegami. In this program, instructor Ikegami uses a comparison of the introduction of the famous book Snow Country by novelist Yasunari Wakabata in both Japanese and in English (translated by Edward George Seidensticker) to show the characteristics of Japanese and English.
Instructor Ikegami looks as the following is a translated sentence into English from the book: “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country” (the original Japanese is 国境の長いトンネルを抜けると、雪国であった.)
Reconsidering the original text in Japanese, one could paraphrase as follows: “Now, the train is running through the darkness of the tunnel, and I am sitting within the train. Look, it’s starting to get brighter and brighter outside the window. It looks like the train is about to make it through the tunnel. Now the train has left the tunnel. My goodness! The mountains on this side are a pure white world. I’ve entered the snow country!”
In other words, the reader senses the scene changes from moment to moment along with the transition of time. The main character is on the train and the reader sees what the main character sees; both the reader and main character seem to blend into each other.
English readers in the program were asked to give a description of the scenery based on the English translation “the train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country” to see how those readers understood the scene.
All English readers reportedly described the scene from an angle looking down from above. Although in Japanese the viewpoint had been from within the train, it switched in English to being outside the train and looking down from above.
Instructor Ikegami concluded from readers’ responses that the difference was that in Japanese there’s no subject in the sentence, but in English a subject is necessary so “the train” is used in the sentence. In doing so, the scene that possessed a transition and flow of time in Japanese turned into a single snapshot without the flow of time when expressed in English.
Instructor Ikegami explained that in the positioning in Japanese, one is no longer able to be seen by the narrator. In other words, in languages such as English that always require a subject, this subject serves to create a distance from the situation at hand. Instructor Ikegami says that what this means is that English separates the subject (“I”) and the object (the other party) and places them in a polarized world.
For example, the inscription on the monument in Hiroshima Peace Park reads, “let all souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.” This phrase does not make clear whose evil (literally “mistake”) it was. The inscription seems to suggest that you and I coexist, and that it’s as if the enemy and ally live in a state of coexistence.
In his book, Takehiro Kanaya also looks at the familiar words “arigato” (thank you) and “ohayo” (good morning) in defining the essence of Japanese. In Japanese, the word “arigato” is directed towards no person – there is no speaker or listener implied. In contrast, the words “thank you” are actually “I thank you.”
The Japanese “arigato” is spelled using the kanji 有難う, an adjective that means something is difficult. It describes the situation of “something that is rare.” Accordingly, Kanaya states that English is a language where “someone” does “something,” while Japanese is a language where “there is some sort of situation.”
The Japanese word “ohayo” (good morning) is, “I wish you a good morning” in English. “I” is part of the phrase, and it continues with wishing that the morning be a good one, depicting an enterprising action. In contrast, the Japanese word “ohayogozaimasu” brings together the thoughts of the two in question given the condition that “it’s still early.” This shows that the two empathize with each other. In other words, one could say that Japanese is a language of empathy, while English is a language of self-assertion and opposition.
Kanaya states that when one meets Japanese people or studies the Japanese language, that person’s world view changes from one of competition to cooperation, from directly viewing others to viewing together, and from rivalry to coexistence. Within the Japanese language itself, it seems that there is a sort of mechanism that puts a halt to self-assertion.
On the other hand, English speakers seem to almost talk down to their listeners as they assert themselves with phrases like “listen to me”, “let me tell you”, or “you won’t believe this.”
Author Kanaya concludes his book with the chapter titled “that’s why Japanese will make the world peaceful!” He states the following: “Those that have taught Japanese for many years overseas say that Japanese is a very popular language.”
According to the Overseas Japanese education Agencies Survey conducted every three years by The Japan Foundation, data from the year 2014 shows that there are 16,167 agencies that implement Japanese instruction in 137 countries and regions outside Japan, while the total number of instructors is 64,041 with 3,651,715 learners. Kanaya points out that it’s incorrect to say that Japanese is a “closed off language” or “dying language,” spoken only by the Japanese in the Japan archipelago.
Furthermore, the desire for Japanese language learners to learn Japanese is because they like Japan. Namely, they esteem Japan’s nature, culture, and the gentleness of the Japanese people.
Kanaya states from his experience that when one learns Japanese their personality changes. Their personality shifts from being more aggressive to mild.
In my interactions with people I come into contact with at BUPST, especially for women whose husband is a native English speaker who can speak some Japanese, when they switch to Japanese during a fight oftentimes their quarrel subsides. This must be the so-called “tatamiser effect” – a word coined by the French that means to become Japanese-like.
Kanaya concludes that, through learning Japanese, learners’ world view changes from being competitive to cooperative, from directly viewing others to viewing together, and from rivalry to coexistence. He says one can confidently state that Japanese originally is a very peace-oriented, romantic, happy, and beautiful language.
Finally, Kanaya concludes with the following:
1. There are a growing number of people who want to learn Japanese.
2. Those who experience Japan like Japan even more, and become what’s known as “Japanophiles” or people that become important supporters of Japan.
These two points are undeniable facts.
It’s said that currently the trend in world culture is from West to East, and from men to women. I firmly believe that Japan should be confident but also needs to have a maternal volition and use Japanese to bring harmony to the world.