Saturday, 15 May 2010

Real life role plays
(curb your abruptness)

Somewhere in his Japan Journals, Donald Richie, a commentator who never resorts to lazy superlatives, describes Japan as the “most conformist nation on earth”. Yes, Japan, with its abundant reserves of imagination and fantasy, resources upon which colossal industries (manga, cosplay ... love hotels, and more) have been built. For what little it's worth, I don't think he's wrong. Well, do any more conformist countries spring to mind?

In a society where escapism is ubiquitous and mainstream, this begs the question: what's being escaped? The answer may be the very conformism noted by Richie: others’ conservative expectations of how things should be done, how real lives should be led. The pressures and conformism of adult society, the shadow of which - in a country where the age of consent is 13 - looms large over childhood and adolescence. (As if to make up for lost time, it’s no coincidence that Japan’s ‘escapism’ industries - most notably the Japanese sex industry - market themselves to adults with an overt infantilism.)

The caveat to the above, tentative reflections is that I’m a recently arrived language tourist with basic Japanese who has never worked – i.e. lived – here and consequently have very little to go on. But if there’s one thing which permits a sightline of the generalisation that is ‘national character’, then surely it’s what I’ve come here to learn: the language.

The German philosopher-linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was the first to argue that language could be taken as a barometer of national character and expresses the culture of its speaker. “One of the most important ideas put forth by Humboldt was his concept of linguistic relativity, which stated that the national language and character of a nation are inextricably linked, each providing an insight into the other.” ( ) (For more on this, see also .)

Japanese still represents an interesting (and under-used?) testbed for such theories. As noted here , it is “perhaps one of the ideal languages to investigate how novices are socialized into society through the use of language, for it has rich morphology, and a great deal of social information is encoded in the language (e.g. honorifics, pronouns, and sentence-final particles).”

In another life, on another budget, on an imaginary scholarship, I would love to read and research this further, but for today they’re just some more quotes googled up on a subject I freely admit to not having studied. (Very much in the spirit of this superficial post.) But I can’t think of anything which absorbs what history throws at it better than language does. And from what I’ve been taught, and seen / heard, both inside and outside the classroom, Japanese - a language of subtlety and implication - certainly reflects the conformist model to which Richie refers.

It often strikes me that this is a language used to communicate what the listener expects to hear as much as what the speaker wishes to convey. Where you communicate as much through what you don’t say as what you do. There's some of that in every language, granted, but here it's more pronounced. The order of the role play has be observed. And outside intimate social circles (where the Japanese capacity for irony puts even an Englishman at ease), it is abruptness and self-importance that are the big no-nos. There are ideals and standards to be conformed to.

My textbooks often allude to these conventions of conversation, which are germane to the grammar. They include:-

- leaving off the second half of sentences, for example in situations where you are making excuses or turning down invitations and it is obvious to the listener where the sentence is heading.

- avoiding certain assumptions as to the interlocutor’s mood, willingness or availability (which, in other countries, might be acceptable and inoffensive). For example, in Japan, it’s rather inappropriate to ask (outside close family or friends): “are you free [tomorrow etc]?” Since being busy is the more socially acceptable, anticipated state, one works from the assumption that they are not. “Are you busy tomorrow?"

- if showing disagreement, tread carefully and do it delicately. (I find this difficult. The linguistic re-wiring involved is complex.) Agreement is the ideal, the desired state. Since dissent often equates to impoliteness, one hears a lot of "sou desu ne"s (“isn’t that so”), even where the topic is so uncontroversial or trite that to dispute it would be out of the question. ("Sou desu ne" is also used, rather strangely to my foreign ears, to buy you thinking time in response to a question which you have understood and are taking in.)

- actively showing interest. By regularly peppering your conversation with phatic expressions such as "sou desu ka", you are suggesting that you are listening and paying attention and are interested. It’s quite a difficult skill to pick up; my energies are often so concentrated on understanding and gearing up to respond that I listen to Japanese mutedly, with little reaction, and appear distant. It's a two-way thing, remember.

- opening gambits and icebreakers. The Japanese really out-do the English in making conversation by raising the weather. Stating the obvious is apparently fine to get the conversation off to a start: "mou sugu haru yasumi desu ne" ("it’s soon the Spring holidays, isn’t it?"), "hayai desu ne" (“it’s early isn’t it?”), “ii tenki desu ne” (“nice weather isn’t it?”). Noone will roll their eyes if you use these staples.

- implying that one would like an explanation, guidance or assistance rather than asking for one outright and directly. One of the trickiest things I have learnt so far, this is often conveyed through a grammatical structure (“n .. desu”) which has no intrinsic meaning. You simply build it into a statement and change the verb forms to hint that you’d like some help. E.g. entering a shop, “keitai wo kaitai desu” ("I would like to buy a mobile") does not suggest that you are seeking guidance, yet by adding a ‘n’ after "kaitai" you imply that you do.

- manners and how to show interest in people. It’s your turn to be asking me a question now, he's thinking. But you can’t think of one. Show interest, even in something that doesn't interest you. “What a great spoon. Where did you get it?” Hey, the conversation's back on track.

 If only I could speak like Mike Miller...

I’m only a quarter of a way through my second textbook and yet it never felt like this when I was learning French and German. With those European languages, you said what you wanted to say and listened to others do the same. Here, in Japan, manners and the need to say the right thing, the right way, should always be kept in mind – and we’ve barely touched on honorific language ....

As a result, real life conversation - when I have time for it - with relative strangers can seem rather formulaic, much like a classroom roleplay. And we practise those a lot. It can come close to acting. (The Japanese seem to be good at this in real life – they give little away - but less so in fictional life. Just watch a television drama and you’ll see they ham it up; all exaggerated expressions and reactions.)

It's all a little like the stereotypical politespeak of the English Gentleman, which my American classmates occasionally imitate . “After you, Sir.” “No, after you.” “Sorry.” “No, I’m sorry.” etc etc. A language of flattery (“jouzu desu ne”), humility (“mada mada desu”), embarrassment (“shitsurei desu ga” – I must be rude) and, when there’s a good social reason for doing so, stating the obvious. So to quote not von Humboldt, but those no less renowned linguistic pioneers Bananarama (yes, it’s a cover version, I know), “it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you do it, and that’s what gets results”.

As a Beginner (or should be that Lower Intermediate?), I’m not sure I am getting results. Yet if this makes me sound like a frustrated learner, then far from it. I’m fascinated. And that’s me speaking English.

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