Home > Japan, Linguistics > Some thoughts on the Japanese

Some thoughts on the Japanese


One of the most recognizable traits of the Japanese people is a tendency to copy and improve things from other cultures. The writing style was taken from the Chinese, Buddhism was brought to Japan from India, though they believed it to be a Chinese religion when it first came. Cell phones weren’t invented by the Japanese, but they sure as hell made them better. Same with toilets, and just about any other technology known to man. Even little things like an electric blackboard eraser cleaner. The Japanese language is filled with words they have simply lifted and placed into Japanese. This is the main use of “katakana”, one of three scripts in the Japanese language.

Yet another trait many Japanese share (especially the older generation) is a belief that Japan, and the Japanese people by extension, is special. There have been people (certainly the minority, but people still) who have written on the subjects of Japanese brains working differently, the Japanese intestines being longer, and the Japanese being all together and entirely new and separate (though definitely superior) species. To a less racist degree, in general Japanese people will be extremely impressed that a foreigner speaks Japanese, mainly because they tend to think it’s one of the most difficult languages to learn.

Being Japanese, these two seemingly opposite traits (on the one hand having a modern culture filled with foreign imports, and on the other having an underlying feeling that there is something special about them that others don’t understand) are able to co-exist quite comfortably within the (I would argue indeed special) brain of Japanese people. Being able to reconcile two entirely opposite beliefs is yet another trait the Japanese have. It reminds me of a story my grandparents tell, from when they were in Japan in the 1980s. At the time, the opposition party was protesting vehemently against the use of the Japanese “Self Defense Force.” Since World War II, Japan has been constitutionally barred from having a standing army. However, this has not stopped them from creating a “Self Defense Force” (SDF), which is only there in case their sovereignty is attacked. This “Self Defense Force” is certainly the most powerful “Self Defense Force” in the world, rivaling even some of the bigger “Not So Self Defense” forces in the world. Anyway, the opposition party argued that the SDF was a colossal waste of money, and should not be funded. “It’s against the constitution to have such a large military!” they said. The ruling party at the time, the Liberal (hah) Democratic (Perhaps…) Party (nomihoudai, all you can drink) brought up a bill to fund the Self Defense Force. When the bill came to a vote, it passed unanimously, with overwhelming support from both the LDP and the opposition party, despite their tremendous protests. Asked later what had happened to change their mind, the opposition leader said something along the lines of: “We didn’t change our mind, but you have to fund the military!” A wonderful anecdote to the Japanese state of mind that has eluded so many people.

This has been quite a long introduction to what I originally wanted to discuss, but I think the back story is important. Today (Wednesday) at school, I was asked whether I wanted to get school lunches starting in September. I said yes please, and then was asked: “Arerugi arimasuka?” “A-re-ru-gi” if you pronounce it out, is pretty much a direct translation from the English word: Allergy. She asked me if I had any allergies. I said no, and then they asked me what the English word for allergies is. I told them. They were amazed! The ability of the Japanese to on the one hand be masters of reproduction, taking in terms of linguistics entire words, and in terms of technology entire programs and dropping them into their language and culture, and then at the same time having the ability to forget entirely where these words and technologies come from, is incredible. Please don’t get me wrong and think I am in any way angered or frustrated by this. I am not writing this because I’m so pissed that these damn Japanese are blah blah blah, far from it. I am just making an observation which I find to be incredibly interesting.

Their language is full of words taken from foreign languages. Bread in Japanese is “pan”, from the Portuguese. Many of the naval terms are Dutch in origin, thanks to the long history of trade between the two countries, even during the 200 year isolation period. A part time job in Japanese is a “baito” which comes from the German “arbeit”, meaning to work. Yet they have adopted the lingo so completely, their knowledge of foreign languages is generally so low, and a small part, I think, believes that things in Japan are generally authentically Japanese, that it’s almost as if these words have been in the Japanese language ever since its inception. Yet another example was when we were driving to Nakatsu city from the airport. My supervisor, Kusano-san asked Natalie, who does not speak any Japanese, if she was tired because of the jetlag. His first question wasn’t understood, so he turned to me and asked me what “jetlag” was in English. The Japanese word for jetlag is “Jetto ra-gu.”

I am also remembering a story told by someone, though I cannot remember who it was exactly, Ben perhaps, which entailed a native Japanese person arguing vehemently that K.F.C. was started in Japan. Despite being asked where exactly Kentucky was in Japan, this person genuinely seemed to think it was authentic.

I love this country.


Categories: Japan, Linguistics Tags: , ,
  1. Akiko
    August 18, 2009 at 1:04 am


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