Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Why [do] Japanese [people] look subdued?"

Shigekatsu Yamauchi, president of the International Communication Institute and a Cornell University trained Japanese language teacher, writes a column that appears in the Daily Yomiuri. His column usually focuses on the differences between the Japanese and English languages and often concludes that Japanese is easier and more logical and by extension superior and unique. I usually get a kick out of reading his blatant nihinjinron tainted text. In today's column he explains why the Japanese are more restrained and refined in their use of gesture, especially in comparison to English speakers. Please check out his column and then return for my comments.

Link to Japanese in depth / Why Japanese look subdued?
By Shigekatsu Yamauchi, Special to The Daily Yomiuri (Oct. 23, 2007)

Yamauchi's opinions and use of "linguistics" seems flawed on many levels. He justifies his opinion that English speakers use gestures and facial expressions more than the Japanese (this in itself is a huge and questionable generalization) by comparing the speeches of Japanese prime ministers (except for Koizumi - why the exception?) and American presidents. This is a poor source of evidence in that such political speeches are not examples of natural language use. Political speeches are highly choreographed, most especially the use of gestures. I would also question using the current American president as a typical English speaker... Observations of natural language use would be much more revealing than scripted rhetorical devices.

Just this morning on my 15 minute train ride to work I was able to observe the rich use of gesture and facial expressions by a wide variety of Japanese people. I found them to be anything but subdued. Young school children were chatting, laughing and gesturing away. The old woman sitting next to them indicated her discomfort and disgust of the antics of the students with her tense, upright posture and foul facial expressions. Two middle aged women sat speaking, covering their mouths when laughing, waving their hand in negation and made a variety of illustrative, emblematic and cohesive gestures. A salaryman standing by the door was talking on his cell phone, speaking in female register, bowing and making polite facial expressions (obviously he was speaking with a customer or superior). Two college youths who seemed to be studying sometimes drew kanji characters in the air or on their hands. I could go on and on with these real life examples of gesture use in Japan.

Yamauchi resorts to his often used and tired example of the Japanese being able to translate "I am a cat" in 2,000 different ways. He writes, "Even with changes in intonation, the English speaker cannot, by use of language alone, convey with these three words what the various Japanese equivalents can convey." Three words? It is four words, right? And why does it matter the number of words or morphemes needed to express the same phrase? Why the emphasis on one-to-one correspondences? This is indeed an odd comparison for a linguist to make. And to claim that because the same phrase cannot be uttered in English that conveys the same emotional meaning as it does in the Japanese version, more gestures and facial expressions are needed, again odd and extremely questionable.

Gesture and speech are parts of the same communication system. While the meanings of gestures are culture specific and not universal, the fact that humans use gesture is a universal. Not all cultures use gesture in the same way. Yamauchi's subdued facial expression is indeed a gesture itself rather than an example of a lack of gesture. There are occasions when the subdued face is appropriate and expected in Japanese communication. Gesture and facial expression are hardly missing or secondary in Japan. And, at least where I work, I see more subdued expressions on the faces of foreign teachers than on our Japanese students.

Borrowed photo credits:

Junichiro Koizumi photo comes from Time magazine on-line

George W. Bush photo comes from Out in Hollywood

Yasuo Fukuda photo comes from The Age


Anonymous said...

Your description of Yamauchi-sensei as following "nihonjinron" is wildly inaccurate. I have studied under him and I have found Mr. Yamauchi to be a man justly proud of Japanese, and also very even-handed in his descriptions of the differences between the languages. He will tease, on occasion, about the inconvenience of certain English necessities (such as mentioning the subject when it is clear from the context), but he is never mean or petty about it.

It is a pity, but unfortunately common, that those who don't toe the line of stereotypes about Japanese (that it is 'illogical,' 'vague,' etc.) are themselves assumed to be some kind of nationalist. Mr. Yamauchi lived abroad for many years and has worldview, in my experience, extending beyond Japanese borders.

Japanese is a rich and varied language with a continuous history far older than English. It has tools that no European language has and contains rich descriptive devices that European languages simply lack. Mr. Yamauchi is merely elucidating these in a comparitive fashion. His is a lonely voice describing mechanisms that Europeans do not have access to in their native languages. He would also be the first to admit that Japanese lacks tools the European languages have. Such is the nature of comparitive linguistics.


visual gonthros said...

Thanks for your comment and I respect that you are sticking up for your teacher. If he is teasing in his columns, it doesn't come across that way - and this is a problem. His comparisons do match the tired stereotypes of nihonjinron thinking. Your final paragraph seems nihonjinron as well. Can you offer evidence of the "continuous history older than English" and the tools that "European languages simply lack?"

Perhaps I was a bit dismissive of your teacher, but his nihonjinron was not the focus of the post - his problematic treatment of Japanese gesture is what I was critiquing.