Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Language’ Category


Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 7, 2012

THE concept of Sinocentric culturalism — that China is the flower at the center of the world and Chinese behavior and etiquette is the correct form to which everyone else must be measured — is familiar to people outside of East Asia. Less well known is that the Koreans have their own version of it. That brand also involves looking down on the Chinese for being periodically corrupted by barbarian invasions, while the Korean brand remains pure.

One example of the manifestation of that belief is found in this previous post. It features an interview with Dankook University Prof. Kim Yong-un, who was born and grew up in Japan. He tells a story that is too infrequently heard: The overwhelming majority of Koreans who moved to Japan during the 1910-1945 period did so for the same reason most Europeans emigrated to the United States in past centuries. That was to seek a better life with a greater chance for affluence. Coercion was not a factor.

At the end of that post is a note that Prof. Kim planned to publish a book claiming that his research shows the Korean language is derived from the old Silla language, and that the Japanese language is derived from the old Baekche language.

Just before it was published, the Global Times of China ran an article that discussed the book and the professor’s research. His research subjects included the Samguk Sagi, or History of the Three Kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla), and a text in the old Goryeo language. The professor also claimed that Japan’s 26th emperor, Keitai (507-531), was also Konshi, the younger brother of the 22nd Baekje king.

The reaction of the Chinese public to the Global Times article was enlightening. They too are well aware of the claims of some Koreans that Confucius was Korean, the Koreans invented Chinese characters, and even that Christ was Korean. The Koreans have also registered the Dragon Boat Festival as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, though it is widely thought to have originated in China. Thus the Chinese share with the Japanese the recognition that the Koreans distort history to place themselves at the center of events or to suit their own purposes.

The Japanese thought it was entertaining to read the comments to the article submitted by the Chinese readers. They included:

* After China, Japan. Which country will be next?

* The Koreans really are creative. This is probably making the Japanese dizzy too.

* God in heaven is also probably Korean.

* The solar system was also a Korean invention.

* After reading this, I realized the Japanese-Korean merger was the right thing to do.

The problem with Prof. Kim’s research is that serious linguists have covered this same ground and reached conclusions that were less ethnocentric. Scholars of East Asian languages are aware of the areas of similarity between the Japanese and Korean languages, both in structure and some vocabulary elements. Here are the opinions of Iksop Lee and S. Robert Ramsey, linguists who wrote The Korean Language, published in 2000.

(T)he general structural characteristics of Japanese are almost identical to that of Korean. Concrete lexical and grammatical correspondences may be thin compared to this strikingly close structural resemblance, but there continues to be optimism about the possibility that the two languages might share a common genetic origin. The probability that Japanese belongs to the Altaic family is believed to be somewhat less than that of Korean. Even G.J. Ramstedt and N. Poppe,, who were enthusiastic advocates of a genetic relationship between Korean and Altaic, hesitated when it came to placing Japanese in the Altaic family. Moreover, there are also those who advocate a relationship with Austronesian for Japanese — a “southern hypothesis” as it were.


The significance of the Goguryeo language is that it seems to share vocabulary not only with Silla, on the one hand, but with Japanese, on the other hand. Because of the Japanese-like vocabulary of Goguryeoan, some foreign scholars have thought it likely to be a close relative or ancestor of Japanese, but that idea ignores the fact that much of the vocabulary is clearly Korean. The relationship that Goguryeoan had with Japanese lies tantalizingly beyond our grasp.

In other words, the linguists have been there and done that. Those linguists also include Japanese scholars, many of whom also suspect their language might be Altaic.

But none of them feel the need to wave the flag about it.

At least Prof. Kim takes a stab at scholarship. Not all Joseon-centric culturalists do. For an example, try this article from the weekly Shukan Post for 18 November.

“A portmanteau word has been created to define the concept that Japanese culture originates in Korea. This word is urijinaru, a combination of the Korean word uri (our) and original. This extends to all aspects of Japanese culture. Now that Japanese cuisine has become popular around the world, it extends to that as well.

“One recent claim is that Japanese sake has its roots in magkeolli, which is being aggressively promoted by some Korean restaurants (in Japan). That seems plausible at a glance, but Japanese sake was created from doburoku, and the history and fermentation processes of magkeolli and doburoku are different.

“Also, the Korean-language Wikipedia page for wasabi states that it was originally grown in Korea and is now cultivated near rivers in Korea and Japan.

“Said the South Korean news site Digital Times:

South Korean wasabi has a fragrance that is far superior to Japanese wasabi, which is well-known among Japanese chefs.

“This is of course nonsense, and wasabi is a variety of the plant that originated in Japan. But the South Koreans also claim that sushi is urijinaru, so they had to create this story about wasabi to make their story consistent.”

Now try to imagine if someone with that sort of attitude lived in your neighborhood, and how it might be to associate with them on a regular basis.

Posted in China, Food, History, Language, South Korea | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji (150)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 25, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

Mr. Koizumi was a master of language. A sense of tension disappeared with Mr. Abe, dreams disappeared with Mr. Fukuda, and intelligence disappeared with Mr. Aso. Reality completely flew out the window with the spaceman, Mr. Hatoyama, and it disappeared without a trace with Mr. Kan. That is the power of language.

– Inose Naoki, deputy governor of the Tokyo Metro District, and a non-fiction author

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Ichigen koji (141)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 16, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

Rather than indicating an inability to compete globally, the lack of English ability is a lack of competitiveness because it indicates an inability to communicate with anyone other than Japanese and the lack of interest in places other than Japan.

– Tokai Yukiko, visiting lecturer at Showa Women’s University and former NHK sportscaster

Posted in Language, Quotations, Social trends | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Back to front

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

ALL of the following stories appeared yesterday in the back pages of newspapers or the less well-traveled sections of websites. All of them present aspects of a reality quite different from the narrative of major news media outlets outside the region.


The National Institute of the Korean Language conducted a survey of the Korean language ability of foreigners in South Korea married to Koreans, based on the results of a language competence test conducted from 10 September to 20 October. The highest score possible for the test was 100.

The institute broke the results down by nationality and found that the Japanese had the best results, as 62.8% of that group scored 90 or better.

They were followed by Chinese of Korean ancestry at 55.7% and Mongolians at 45.6%. In last place were natives of The Philippines at 21.3%.

They also broke down the results by region of residence. (They do things like that in East Asia.) Foreign spouses in Daegu did the best with 45.5% scoring over 90 points. By province, Gangwon was at the top of the table with 40.8%, closely trailed by Gyeonggi at 40.0%.


Speaking of Daegu:

Daegu City and Yeungjin College jointly launched an investment seminar on Dec. 8 for 11 invited Japanese-member companies of the Technology Advanced Metropolitan Area (TAMA)….

The investment seminar catered to 14 to 19 attendees representing a total of 11 Japanese companies. In addition, officials from Japan’s Kanto Economy and Commerce Department attended the event, with the number of participants estimated at 20. Another 30 local companies from Daegu participated in the seminar, providing one-on-one consultations with Japanese companies on technology and business partnerships.

The participating Japanese companies are located near Tokyo and specialize in electronics and mechanical metal parts. The participants were able to look forward to possible exchanges and cooperation with established auto- and machinery-parts manufacturers in Daegu and the North Gyeongsang Provincial region. According to Daegu City, the occasion paved the way for some Japanese companies to consider entering the Korean market.

The governments of Japan, South Korea, and China are talking about having talks about a free trade agreement, but local governments and the business sectors in both countries aren’t futzing around. Similar articles appear nearly every day in the middle or back pages of the Nishinippon Shimbun, with reports of South Korean and Chinese businesspeople coming to Kyushu for discussions and signing business agreements. Governments and business associations in Kyushu, the southern Korean Peninsula, and Northeast China have been working together for several years to create a de facto free trade zone.

Oh, and if you hit that link, you’ll see a photo of cherry blossoms in Daegu.


Seoul-based Harmony Cruises has begun sales of cruise packages to Kyushu that will call at Fukuoka City, Beppu, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima (as well as Jeju) from home ports in Busan and Incheon. The initial sales are for 19 cruises between February and April. The company plans to offer almost 100 cruises per year. The Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport says they will become the first South Korean company to operate cruises to Japan.

There’s also been a sharp increase in the number of Chinese cruises to Kyushu over the past five years. They already call on six Kyushu ports 118 times a year, and more are planned. The Kyushu Economic Research Center says the economic effect for each city of each port call for each cruise is JPY 44 million.

There are plenty of things to do and see in Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima, ranging from theme parks to historical and cultural attractions. Beppu is famous for its hot springs, and many Koreans like to come to Kyushu to play golf.


Low-cost carrier Jeju Air of South Korea announced plans to inaugurate regularly scheduled daily flights between Fukuoka City and Seoul this year, beginning sometime after March. The number of flights and their times are undecided, pending authorization by South Korean authorities. (If the project has gotten this far, however, they’ll get the authorization.) Jeju Air has been operating three flights a week between Kitakyushu (Fukuoka City’s neighbor) and Seoul since March 2009.

Said a Jeju Air spokesman:

The Fukuoka Airport has many users from both Japan and South Korea, and it has excellent access because it is close to the city center. (It’s 10 minutes by subway.)

Jeju will be the second Korean LCC to operate flights to Fukuoka; the first was T’way, which also flies to Osaka and Nagoya.

And that’s in addition to the Japanese LCCs and the major Japanese and Korean airlines flying the same route.

Read the primary articles in the English-language media about Japan-South Korea relations, and you can’t get past the second sentence without them dipping into all the bad blood. Oh, it’s there all right, kept at a boil and stirred by the politicos and their Greek chorus in the commentariat and academia.

But read the newspaper back to front and you see that it’s a different story altogether on the ground.


The Daegu story is a couple of weeks old, but I found out about it yesterday in an e-mail alert from the Korean Herald.

Happy New Year is a Matsutoya Yumi (“Yuming”) song, but here she performs it in a duet with Suga Shikao

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Language, Social trends, South Korea, Travel | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 1, 2011

TANAKA Satoshi, the head of the Okinawa Defense Bureau, went out drinking with some members of the media on Monday night, and it cost him his job.

While they were in the process of getting lubricated, one of the media lads present asked Mr. Tanaka why the government has so far not set a schedule for submitting to Okinawa Prefecture an environmental assessment report on the relocation of the US Marine air base at Futenma. This report would expedite the implementation of the plan.

Here’s how Kyodo translated his reply:

Do you declare that you are going to commit an act before you do so?

The media members present said he used the word okasu for “commit an act”. Since spreading gossip is their primary job, they promptly got to work and blabbed about it as soon as they got next to a computer. Kyodo’s amusing explanation was that this word is “often interpreted as implying an act of sexual violence against women”. Japanese dictionaries don’t present that word as an implication, however — they list “rape” as one of the definitions. It’s primarily used to mean “to violate, to contravene the law, or to commit an improper act”, so it’s easy to see how the meaning expanded. I found that out first hand years ago early in my life in Japan when I stumbled over the word myself. I said okasu instead of okosu when I was talking about waking someone up, and I had to revisit the dictionary later after everyone in the room gave me a funny look.

Defense Minister Ichikawa Yasuo summoned Mr. Tanaka to Tokyo to explain himself. He said he doesn’t remember saying it, but Mr. Ichikawa fired him anyway. Kyodo explained:

Ichikawa said it would be difficult for Tanaka to continue in the post while the ministry is in a crucial stage regarding various issues involving Okinawa.

We don’t need Kyodo or a dictionary to interpret that. It means that government officials aren’t allowed to tell the truth about policies detested by the people who will be the most affected.

Most amusing of all is the media-driven teapot tempest. Kyodo’s dizziness in their effort to avoid the word “rape” resembles the 19th century women of the Victorian age who chose to substitute “limb” for the vulgar “leg”, and covered up the limbs of large tables so as to prevent impressionable eyes from gazing on that curvaceous naked wood.

The comment was held to offend Okinawans, and some Okinawans did their Pavlovian postmodern duty and became offended. You’d think they’d be glad someone in the government finally told the truth. It seems they’d much rather pretend the DPJ government intends to do something it is incapable of doing — getting the base moved.

The comment was also held to offend women, presumably the feeble-minded among them overcome by the vapors at the combination of a figure of speech, the facts of life, and common sense. Japan awaits the social epidemiologist who can identify the local strain of the political correctness virus that has infected so many Western lackwits handicapped by a congenitally weak intellectual immune system.

Left unsaid by the media was the most salient fact, perhaps because it was so obvious: the government’s prediliction for rape won’t come as news to the rest of us.

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Posted in Government, Language, Politics, Quotations | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Hammers and sickles

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 8, 2011

THERE’S AN acid test guaranteed to separate the bogus from the bona fide for those who pass themselves off as Japan hands. It’s easy to apply, too: Anyone who uses the alleged proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” to proclaim that the Japanese repress originality is a fraud. That’s a reliable signal to turn the page, change the channel, or click on the next website.

The most important of the several reasons why that test is infallible is that they’ve botched the proverb. The handful of people who cite it and actually know some Japanese assume it is Deru kugi ha (wa) utareru, but that’s a mistake. Instead of kugi, or nail, the word is kui (杭), a post or a stake. And—because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing—they’ve also botched the meaning.

The Japanese employ the concentrated insights of proverbs in speech and writing more often than people in the Anglosphere, and their long political, cultural, and literary history means they have a large supply from which to draw. That also means there are plenty of inexpensive proverb dictionaries available in bookstores, with more examples than anyone will ever be able to use in a lifetime. I have one published by Goto Shoin in 1979 that runs more than 500 pages and has definitions for roughly 10 proverbs a page. The author sources the oldest Japanese proverb as coming from the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), which was completed in the eighth century.

Here’s how the author defines this proverb:

“A post that protrudes too far will be driven in further. In the same way, people who assert their pre-eminence over the general public will be envied and meet with difficulties as a result. There’s nothing wrong with excelling or becoming a prominent figure, but human emotion resists that logic. Indeed, people who push themselves forward despite a lack of talent generally receive no forbearance from others.”

He cites one variation on the proverb as, “The post that sticks out is pounded by the waves.” He finally mentions the variation with the nail at the end of the entry, but dismisses it as a mistake. (In fact, he uses the word “bad” to describe its use.)

Therefore, the adage has nothing to do with enforcing conformity to a rigid social order. Rather, it combines a warning that one shouldn’t get too big for one’s britches with the observation that jealousy can have unpleasant consequences. And we all know that the latter is a universal human phenomenon rather than a Japan-only attribute. After all, the belief of some that the redistribution of wealth by a government through confiscatory taxation is a “progressive” concept didn’t originate here.

It doesn’t take much thought to see what happened. Either a foreigner misheard kui as kugi and jumped to the wrong conclusion, or he was steered in the wrong direction by a Japanese fuzzy on the details himself. That the proverb with the nail mistake circulates in some English-speaking circles shows it is being parroted by foreigners with a parrot’s understanding of what they’re saying. The same thing occurred when people used to believe the myth that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow.


The subject comes up because reader Get a Job Son sent in a link to an article by John Feffer in the Huffington Post titled Gambling in Japan. Feffer is described as having lived in Japan in the 90s, though the extent of his stay isn’t mentioned. Considering what little he knows, it couldn’t have been that long. Try this:

“On the outside, Japan appears to be a clean, well-ordered place. The Japanese are, stereotypically, risk-averse. According to the Japanese adage, deru kugi wa utareru: the nail that sticks out will be hammered down. This apparent preference for order and conformity helps explain the patience with which the Japanese have responded to the triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami, and the partial meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear facility – that has afflicted the country.”

Feffer doesn’t explain why a preference for conformity explains the Japanese response to the disaster, or why conformity would be a factor at all. The preference for order is certainly not unique to the Japanese, as few people anywhere are interested in the alternative. And to use one small example, neither order nor conformity explains why Hitachi’s Ibaragi plant, which manufactures generators and gas and steam turbines, resumed post-earthquake operations on 30 March and reached 90% of their productive capacity by 4 April.

Feffer’s point does not rest on a simple, shallow argument, however. It’s not possible to be a convincing public intellectual unless one uses a more complicated shallow argument. That’s why he digs up an irrelevant old anecdote of a 19th century kabuki performer who died because he couldn’t discipline his taste for the potentially poisonous blowfish, and uses it as a metaphor for the country’s mindset:

“Beneath this façade of conformity, however, lies a more interesting reality. Like Mitsugoro Bando VIII, the Japanese have become almost inured to calamity. They’ve accepted – and in some cases courted – extraordinarily risky behavior.

“Consider Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy.”

His discussion of nuclear power plants in Japan, which overlooks the placement of large hydroelectric dams on fault lines in India and China, suggests his agenda is something other than explicating the nature of Japanese behavior. Sure enough:

“Embracing nuclear power isn’t Japan’s only risky behavior. For years, the Japanese government has boasted of a “peace constitution” that restricts the country to a defense-only posture. But this constitution hasn’t prevented Japan from amassing one of the world’s most powerful militaries, confronting China and Korea over disputed islands, cooperating with the United States on a missile defense system that destabilizes the region, and playing host to dozens of U.S. military bases that endanger human lives and the surrounding environment.

“Is there somehow a contradiction between the stereotypical conformity of the average Japanese and this tendency to court disaster in the economic, military, energy, and humanitarian sectors?”

What do you know! A walking, talking strawman!

Hey, why stop at one caricature when you can use several?

“When I lived in Japan in the late 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon late at night to come upon office workers passed out on the street, vomiting in alleyways, or being carried home by their equally inebriated colleagues. Excessive drinking after work was part of the salaryman culture. Indeed, it could be awkward for a businessman to demur from such rituals. When such behavior becomes the norm, then engaging in risky activities becomes just another way of conforming. Of course, it’s only a sector of Japanese society that drinks to excess.”

Feffer doesn’t know anything about salaryman culture, of course, because he wasn’t part of it. (He would have been sure to tell us otherwise). Nor would he know about who does or doesn’t demur from such “rituals”, what is or what isn’t the norm with drinking habits, what is or what isn’t a ritual, who does or who doesn’t conform, and who does or who doesn’t drink to excess.

Many Japanese men drink prodigious amounts of alcohol, regardless of whether they are salarymen, carpenters, or even politicians, including Prime Minister Kan Naoto and the late Nakagawa Shoichi. It has nothing to do with “salaryman culture”, which in any event had already begun to wane in the late 90s when Feffer blew through town. Had he kept his wits about him when writing this piece, it might have occurred to him to blame all the boozing on the stress of conformist behavior to avoid getting pounded in like the nail that sticks out, rather than conforming to “salaryman culture”.

In fact, had he taken the time to do some reading, he would have discovered the many stories of sake-loving divinities in Shinto mythology, created millenia before salarymen existed. The Japanese have always had a taste for the rice. People were singing out of tune and carrying each other home long before the first joint-stock corporation was formed.

But none of that is his real point anyway. He edges up to it here:

“An oligarchy of gamblers holds sway over the majority of cautious Japanese.”

An “oligarchy” controlling a race of conformist, red-nosed lushes too wimpy to express themselves, eh?

The choice of the inappropriate word “oligarchy”, the statement about a mighty Japanese military confronting China and some entity called “Korea”, the claim that a missile defense system is destabilizing, the use of the ruse of environmental concerns (about an endangered species of dugong) to object to American military installations, and the unexplained assertion that Japan is courting disaster in the “humanitarian sector” all point in the direction of a certain worldview.

Once again, Google is our friend. The Huffpo identifies Feffer only as the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus. The FPIF website announces that they are a “project” of the Institute for Policy Studies. That institute openly identifies itself as a “left-wing think tank”, as even Sidney Blumenthal, the American political version of Sid Vicious, notes with approval. Noam Chomsky is an associate.

A group that so quickly cops to being leftist is sure to have some rather large rocks on their turf to provide cover for some rather slimy worms and ugly slugs. This particular left-wing think tank cooperated with the KGB in planting disinformation in Europe about NATO. A brief scan is enough to discover the usual cast of Bolshies, Reds, Pinks, Crimsons, communitarians, Gramsciites, and the other undifferentiated hairballs who use eco-lunacy, pacifism, and similar counterfeit issues to conceal their real motivations and the sweat-stained Che Guevara t-shirts under their more socially acceptable haberdashery.

Japan is not Feffer’s chosen field of study; North Korean apologistics is. Still floating around unflushed on the web is his justification of Pyeongyang’s 2009 missile launch:

“North Korea is clearly interested in still reaching out, working with, engaging with the international community.”

The Foreign Policy in Focus website informs us that a detailed statement of their positions is contained in the paper, Just Security. Feffer edited the paper, which is found on the IPS website. Here’s one of the planks of their program:

“Start a managed resource transfer from rich to poor countries through climate-friendly global justice, trade, and aid policies. This would involve a border fee on “dirty trade” that would help developing countries shift to clean energy.”

Feffer is not the first to pretend that a brief stay in Japan qualifies him to discuss the nation as if he knew something about it, nor is he the first to unload hearsay misinformation as a way to present himself as a big league thinker. This might be the first time, however, that someone has used the overseas manga edition of the country to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with Japan.


It’s curious that some would swallow the idea that the Japanese advocate pounding in posts, nails, or people as a part of everyday life. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Koizumi Jun’ichiro, no one’s idea of a conformist, spent five successful years as prime minister. The cautious Japanese electorate would love to have that reckless gambling oligarch back tomorrow if they could. They’d be so overjoyed, in fact, they might force each other to get falling down drunk and pass out in the streets. Then again, people of a certain political orientation are loath to portray a man of Mr. Koizumi’s beliefs in a positive light. Calling attention to the Koizumi record of accomplishment would only accentuate the failures of their own heroes.

The people who come to Japan and pay attention to their surroundings soon realize it is almost impossible to get through a day without discovering unpounded posts sticking out all over the place. Just yesterday, for example, I read a newspaper article about private sector efforts to hire people from the Tohoku area who have been put out of work by the disaster. At the end of the piece, the author briefly mentioned that Cococala-mura of Awaji Island would make it a policy to give preference to hiring young people from that region. Accompanying the article was the photo shown here of people working in the Cococala fields.

It was easy to turn up their Japanese language website, which reveals it to be an enterprise that would be in imminent danger of a raid by mallet-bearing thought police were the myth a reality. The project is operated by Pasona, a company specializing in temporary staffing, recruiting, and human resource consulting. Pasona hires as employees young musicians, actors, dancers, and others in the arts to work at local farms or regional businesses while they take courses in business, arts management, and agriculture. The idea seems to be to have them to do something tangibly productive with their time as they learn to become self-supporting professionals.

A company in Japan has come up with a capital idea for nurturing self-reliance and providing the means for success to people in a field in which it is difficult to make a decent living. It’s better in every imaginable way than using public funds for national arts subsidies. Is it a coincidence that Takenaka Heizo, Mr. Koizumi’s privatization guru, is the company’s chairman?

Meanwhile, a political extremist without the slightest interest in Japan is so unwilling to let a crisis go to waste that he parades the Trojan horse of his ignorance as knowledge to disguise the parasitic bacteria inside.

Something would benefit from being pounded in, but Japanese fence posts ain’t it.

My use of the word “pound”, incidentally, is as figurative as that of the Beatles.

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Posted in Agriculture, Foreigners in Japan, Language, Politics, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »

Translating Obama into Japanese

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 14, 2009

SOME LINGUISTS claim that Japanese rivals English and German in its amenability for incorporating outside influences. Indeed, the Japanese might well surpass native speakers of the other two languages in their ability to borrow words and chop and channel them for their own purposes.

And now comes word that the first faint signs are beginning to appear of Japanese young people importing another word into the language—this one based on the name of the President of the United States.

A contributor to a mailing list for Japanese-English translation that I read reports that the verb obamu is gaining currency on the Kyoto University campus. He writes, “It means something along the lines of, ‘to ignore anything which appears to make you likely to fail or (be) wrong, and blindly surge ahead (preferably chanting, “yes we can, yes we can”)’.” He adds that he heard a friend jokingly try to cheer someone up by saying, “obandoke, omae.” (オバんどけ、お前.)

If I had to translate that on the fly, it would come out something like, “Lighten up and think positive, guy!”

A quick look at the Japanese-language turf on the Internet turns up few examples, but one in particular is meaningful. I found it as an entry dated 22 September in a collection of slang and modern usage put together by the Japanese Teachers’ Network in Kitakyushu. Here’s what they write:

obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think “Yes we can, Yes we can,” and proceed with optimism using those facts as an inspiration (literally, as fuel). It is used to elicit success in a personal endeavor. One explanation holds that it is the opposite of kobamu. (拒む, which means to refuse, reject, or oppose).

They give the following example:


Or, “Hey, why are you so down in the dumps? Cheer up, cheer up!”

That people cite its use in cities as far apart as Kyoto and Kitakyushu suggests some fire might be under those wisps of smoke.

One more Japanese-language citation is from a Twitter tweet, which defines it simply as believing you can accomplish something.

Those familiar with the language will understand immediately that such a coinage would sound very natural, and that it is typical of Japanese creativity and their sense of humor.

I asked my wife, the television-watcher in the family, if she had heard anything about it, but it was news to her.

It remains to be seen whether this word is capable of hitoriaruki (literally, walking alone, or becoming independently viable), and whether the tweety Pollyanna definition or the more pointed Kitakyushu definition become the standard.

But considering the nature of the Internet and the Japanese love of wordplay and new coinages, it shouldn’t be long before we find out.

Posted in Language, Popular culture | Tagged: | 20 Comments »

Amae, amas, amat…

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 11, 2009

“JOURNALISM LARGELY CONSISTS of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive,” observed G.K. Chesterton, and that corresponds all too well to the reports earlier this week of the death of Dr. Doi Takeo. A psychoanalyst, Dr. Doi developed and presented first to Japan and then to the world his theories on the role of amae in the Japanese psyche and cultural behavior. As the obituaries noted, people consider him to have been the first Japanese trained in psychiatry to influence Western psychiatric thought.

Those with an interest in psychiatry and in Japan knew his work well. When I studied Japanese at university, it was considered de rigeur to have read Dr. Doi’s book, Amae no Kozo (The Anatomy of Dependence). For everyone else, however, Dr. Doi might as well have been Lord Jones, and that’s how the English-language press treated his passing.

That treatment is something of a tragedy, because his work and the concepts he presented offered an important new perspective for Japanese to understand themselves and for foreigners to understand them. Perhaps that’s shikata ga nai, as the Japanese say; it can’t be helped. The interest of the lumpen readership in either Japan or psychiatry is limited, and the concept of amae is difficult to understand for anyone not familiar with Japanese society. In fact, I suspect it would be next to impossible to understand unless one were Japanese or had lived in Japan for several years and paid close attention to what was going on.

Amae defined

Dr. Doi used the word amae because there’s no real English equivalent. Indeed, it is said to be a back formation he coined himself from the verb amaeru. The underlying emotions, said Dr. Doi, are instinctual and present in every society, but the Japanese have a greater awareness of those emotions because they have specific words to describe them. Thus, Western terminology is insufficient to describe the Japan psyche. That further complicates the understanding of subtle concepts difficult to describe and prone to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

One trustworthy source translates amae as “dependency wishes”, in which a person relies on the love, patience, and/or tolerance of other people or groups who form the other pole of an emotional relationship. Dr. Doi himself described it as presuming on another’s love, basking in another’s indulgence, or indulging in another’s kindness. Right away, that definition causes problems with misinterpretation. Westerners often view relationships and emotional dependence of that sort in a negative light. Dependency is to be outgrown because it is a manifestation of weakness and childishness.

That view does not predominate in Japan, however. The word amae has the same root as the word amai, or sweet, imparting a positive sense that makes it impossible to render into a single English word or phrase. In that spirit, the name of his book could also have been rendered literally as The Structure of Amae. Translators know better than anyone that converting from one language to another is not the same as handling an algebraic equation.

Amae in everyday life

A Freudian, Dr. Doi postulated that the origin of amae lies in the restoration of the lost mother-and-child union, a relationship that might be considered even more important in Japan than elsewhere. He then used it as a way to describe the dynamics of different relationships in adult life, including those between parent and child (in which amae is present even after children become adults), husband and wife, teacher and pupil, patron and acolyte, master and apprentice, and even feudal lord and samurai.

In many instances, the one-way direction of this relationship is only temporary, and in other cases, the dynamics move in both directions. People often use as an example of amae women indulging in emotional dependence on men, but that works in reverse from men to women as well. Also, pupils grow up to become teachers, and apprentices grow up to be masters. While Westerners may consider dependency a weakness, in Japan amae can strengthen the social fabric through a relationship between two people or among a larger group of people.

Dr. Doi used the concept to explain the importance in Japan of developing a rapport or relationship that transcends the feeling of simpatico, in which there is merging, or tokekomu. He held that amae helped explain the blurring of the distinction between subject or object—or self and other—in Japan, and why the notions of privacy and individual rights were different here than elsewhere.

He extended his theory by using it to explain the Japanese dislike of cut-and-dried logic, frequently referred to as “fart logic” (herikutsu), the nature of long-term business relationships, and the importance of nonverbal communication.


Another layer of complexity was added by his application of amae to examine the contrasting feelings of giri, or obligations in social relationships, and ninjo, or human emotions—in other words, the conflict between what one should do or has to do, with what one would naturally want to do. This issue is a much greater part of both the daily dialogue and general cultural discussion in Japan than elsewhere. In Japan, Dr. Doi claimed, ninjo is characterized by both using and responding to amae, while giri is infused by ninjo.

While giri may seem to be an unpleasant burden that Westerners might prefer to shuck as soon as it becomes convenient, the Japanese recognize it as an important social lubricant. Unlike ninjo, it is not universal, so it is restricted to specific relationships. It can involve helping those who help you and returning favors to those who do one favors. People neglect these obligations at the risk of their social standing.

Of course these same obligations are present in the West, but they seem to have an added dimension here. Try giving an unexpected present, no matter how insignificant, to a Japanese with whom you are on friendly terms and watch what happens.

This side up

There’s still more. One of the first things a foreign student of Japan learns is that it is a vertical society, rather than a horizontal one. Dr. Doi claimed that amae was the reason for the prevalence of vertical integration in Japan to begin with.

Incidentally, the Japanese themselves are aware that vertical structures can be inefficient and frequently discuss them as an obstacle rather than an advantage. For example, people often criticize the excessive verticalization of the governmental bureaucracy when discussing ways to reform the system. Some think it was one reason for the poor performance of the military command structure during the war. That might provide a hint why bureaucratic reform has been so difficult to achieve–how does one change the natural default position of everyone’s emotional structure?

Those who disagree

Naturally, these theories were, and are, wide open to criticism. All the Japanese with whom I’ve discussed the book said that while they thought it was essentially accurate, the doctor tried to stretch the concept too far by applying it to every aspect of life. Perhaps that’s to be expected of pioneers anxious to spread the awareness of new ideas they’ve developed.

Some of this might also be dated. Dr. Doi was born in 1920 and formulated his theories after a psychological culture shock while visiting the United States in 1950s. For example, he thought that the phrase “help yourself” was rude. He assumed it meant “no one will help you”, when it actually means “do as you like”. (Let’s also not forget that some Westerners raise their children by emphasizing “no one will help you” as a way to inculcate self-reliance.)

Lately, however, it seems that some of these tendencies might be disappearing. Perhaps this is most apparent in the way that single women now deal with men. In passing, it should be noted that people often fail to consider just how fast Japan is able to change or adapt to change, and yet retain its stability. This was still a feudal society fewer than 150 years ago, and it is astonishing how quickly it has incorporated concepts for which it took hundreds of years to evolve in the West. Thus, it’s not surprising that emotional structures in place for more than a millenium might melt in the space of a few decades.

One of Dr. Doi’s Western critics was Peter Dale, whose book The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness no longer seems to be in print. (None of the on-line descriptions I found of Mr. Dale’s objections cite his qualifications, though he must have had some.)

Dale dismissed the whole concept as belonging to the class of ideas known as nihonjinron, or theories on the Japanese people. That was once a thriving cottage industry for the presentation of claims that the Japanese were unique, which itself gave rise to another thriving cottage industry for the snorters offended by those claims.

More specifically, Dale criticized Dr. Doi for irrationally expanding the meanings of common Japanese words to convey the idea of uniqueness. He compared it to the prewar twisting of such words as kokutai (national polity) and kokusui (national essence) for propaganda purposes.

One can imagine the criticism that would have erupted had Dr. Doi analyzed the Japan-U.S. relationship through the prism of amae.

The problems of nihonjinron

Discussions of nihonjinron from either perspective have always seemed like a waste of time. First, it has little or no practical application for anyone’s life in Japan, regardless of nationality, giving the whole enterprise an airy-fairy quality. Second, some of the ideas are grounded in the social sciences, whose limits tend to be reached very quickly. Third, the debate attracts the type of people who think intellectual discussion consists of inflated claims informed by emotional predispositions, again from either perspective, and who enjoy it for that reason. We’ve all heard it said that academic arguments are so ferocious because there is so little at stake. Is it a coincidence that many of those involved seem to be either the overeducated or people who insufficiently digested what education they did receive? Given a choice, I’ll take in vito over in vitro every time.

Not to be overlooked is that those who most intensely argue against nihonjinron often use it as a vehicle for their real motive—Japan-bashing. And in turn, Japan bashing is often a vehicle for lashing out at some demon in one’s personal background entirely unrelated to Japan. Perhaps more Japanese should consider developing the field of gaijinron as it concerns foreigners’ views of them.

Nor should we overlook that those most scornful of nihonjinron somehow fail to notice the libraries full of arguments claiming a similar uniqueness for the Americans, the English, the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Koreans, and scores of small tribes throughout the world known only to their neighbors and anthropologists.

So who was Lord Jones?

A website post cannot do justice to all the issues required to fully examine a concept as important and as difficult to grasp as amae, both pro and con. That’s why journalists might honestly struggle to describe for use as corner space filler the life and ideas of Dr. Doi–a Japanese Lord Jones whom the public did not know, and whose reputation was formed in a different era for a subject with which few people are conversant and even fewer would want to be.

So how did they handle it? Here’s one example from AP (emphasis mine):

Takeo Doi, a scholar who wrote that the Japanese psyche thrived on a love-hungry dependence on authority figures, has died, his family said Monday. Doi…wrote the 1971 book, “The Anatomy of Dependence,” which introduced the idea of “amae” – a childlike desire for indulgence – as key to understanding the Japanese mind.

One wonders just how many people in journalism—helplessly watching their credibility vanish, their market shares vaporize, and their stockholders hit the silk—realize that much of the public has grown to detest them for the habitual and intentional professional malpractice the above excerpt demonstrates. There is no question that the person who wrote that–and I don’t care what her name was–deliberately chose the most unflattering way to describe the man’s work.

One also wonders if the journalists realize that for the same disgusted public, watching them commit suicide is an opportunity to pop some corn and crack open a beer. It’s obvious to those of us familiar with Japan that the journalists assigned to cover this country are (pick one or more) superficial, ignorant, incompetent, eager to play off negative stereotypes, or ready to create new ones. They have an attitude of charity towards none and malice towards all.

If all your information about Japan is derived from the Western mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

Afterwords: I was curious about the statement that Dr. Doi coined the noun amae (it’s been a while since I read the book), so I did a quick check of Japanese-Japanese dictionaries. The word does not appear in the 1984 edition of Kojien, which was the standard reference in those days, but it is defined in Sanseido’s 1984 Reikai Shinkokugo Jiten. That dictionary was compiled for younger students, but it has excellent examples and concise definitions that are useful even for adults. There’s now a fourth edition, and I highly recommend it for foreign students of the Japanese language.

Posted in Books, Language, Mass media, Science and technology, Traditions | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

The tower of logo-babel

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 19, 2009

THE UNITED STATES AND GREAT BRITAIN are two countries separated by a common language, observed George Bernard Shaw, but at least the written matter in one country can be read by the people in the other. Those two countries, along with the rest of the Anglosphere, use the same writing system.

Imagine how much greater the separation must be in the Sinosphere, where there’s more than one way to write Chinese. Many languages are spoken throughout the region that might be called Greater China, but different approaches to the lexicographic system for the written Chinese language are one manifestation of the perennial battle royale in Taiwan over the question of how closely they should associate with the Mainland. On one side are those who want to adopt the PRC’s standard writing system (now that they’ve already adopted the PRC’s Romanization system). Arrayed against them are those who think that’s just a ploy to promote unification on PRC terms. The latter group is using an argument based on the unusual combination of preserving tradition and maintaining ethnic diversity to support their claim.

First, here’s some historical background to get everyone on the same page. The Chinese have been using ideographic characters since at least the 11th century BC. They’ve developed several writing systems throughout their history, but the characters they use today became roughly standardized about 2,000 years ago. Other people throughout East Asia adopted (or adapted) them to write their own language. They were used in the earliest documents written on the Korean Peninsula, and the Koreans used them until they developed their own alphabet. The Korean writing system was formally adopted in 1446, but did not come into common use until the late 19th century. Thus, literacy in Korea until fairly recently required the ability to read Chinese characters.

The Japanese used Chinese characters to write their own language at first, but only as phonetic symbols to express Japanese pronunciation and not necessarily for their meaning. While those early texts appear to be superficially Chinese, no Chinese reader would understand them because it’s still the Japanese language. Japan later developed two phonetic alphabets to use in conjunction with the characters to express vernacular grammatical elements, and these alphabets came into general use from the 8th to the 12th centuries.

The Chinese characters are called kanji in Japanese (which is now also an accepted English word), hanja in Korean, and hanzi in Chinese, but they all mean the same thing: Chinese (Han) letters.

Some of the traditional Chinese characters are quite complicated and require many individual strokes to write. In 1946, the Japanese started modifying their written language by reducing the number of kanji they required students to learn and simplifying their written forms. For example, the character gaku, which appears in such words as daigaku, or college, and gakko, or school, once had 18 strokes, but now has only eight. Some of the modifications were so extensive it would be impossible for contemporary readers to identify the connection. (Here’s a chart comparing the old and the new, for Japanese readers.)

The Chinese started simplifying the same characters in the 1950s, but their modifications were different than those the Japanese adopted, making the divergence between written Chinese and Japanese that much greater. The Koreans still use the traditional form of the characters for hanja when they do use them, but that is seldom. The Taiwanese are the only people to have retained the traditional form of the characters in everyday applications.

But now some people want to change that.

The current president of the Republic of China/Taiwan is Ma Ying-jeou of the reconstituted Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT). That was Chiang Kai-shek’s party of the Chinese who fled China when Mao and the Communists took over to set up a government in Taiwan.

Earlier this month, the president proposed that Taiwan adopt the Beijing government’s simplified character set for writing only and retain the traditional characters for reading. The skeleton of the story is in this AFP article.

Said Mr. Ma:

“We hope the two sides can reach a consensus on (learning to) read standard characters while writing in the simplified ones…It is also our hope that the standard characters can be listed as World Heritage by the United Nations one day,” he said in a statement.

AFP is perhaps the least-bad of the major media outlets reporting on Northeast Asia, and this article gets the basic facts right. Yet they still manage to tilt perceptions in the direction they want all right-thinking people to support.

Relations with China have improved dramatically since Ma’s Beijing-friendly government was inaugurated in May 2008, vowing to promote reconciliation and trade ties.

Note that the Taiwanese president also wants the standard characters to become a “World Heritage”. He does not explain why any Chinese should think a UN imprimatur would enhance the prestige of a written language several millennia old and still in daily use by more than a billion people.

Though it’s not mentioned here, Mr. Ma also hopes that the PRC will implement two United Nations human rights covenants (the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) in Tibet in the future.

Add his Harvard Law degree to his wishful thinking about Chinese behavior and it’s easy to see why Time Magazine chose him as one of their top 100 “Leaders and Revolutionaries” for 2008.

Meanwhile, AFP chose an over-the-top yardbird to provide the only dissenting quote in the article.

“Ma is seeing China as his master. He is even trying to change our writing habits to please China, which is absolutely unnecessary,” said Cheng Wen-tsang, spokesman for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP.)

It’s not as if they didn’t have other people from whom to choose. Take this editorial from the Taipei Times:

Since taking office, Ma has been leaning toward the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as can be seen in many things, from his statement on the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre to his plans to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement with China.

This may be the trend of the times and Ma may not have a choice, but this does not mean that Taiwanese should learn only to recognize traditional Chinese while writing with simplified characters, because there is a thin line between this and unification — or, rather, being unified.

In ancient China, the standard for unification included standardized wheel width for carts and a standardized script. Today, Ma is promoting simplified Chinese without receiving any goodwill from Beijing.

This is not far from unification as seen by ancient Chinese — how can we not be worried?


Ma may see an acceptance of simplified Chinese characters as part of cross-strait economic and cultural exchanges, but it constitutes a form of political recognition.

Mr. Ma’s statement on Tiananmen, incidentally, praised the Chinese for the progress they’ve made on human rights. (One of these days, perhaps we’ll understand why the people for whom Harvard Law degrees, Time Magazine lists, and the UN are so important think it’s commendable to be friendly with the maleficent Chinese regime, yet were so outraged by the existence of the South African apartheid government, or even the comparatively benign Chile of Augustin Pinochet.)

But the KMT wanted to quickly ameliorate any concerns. They explained:

President Ma Ying-jeou yesterday proposed a concept of “reading in traditional characters, writing in simplified characters…The Office of the President today explained that the suggestion was aimed at 1.3 billion simplified character users in China, not Taiwan. (emphasis mine)

The concept aims to make Chinese people get to know the traditional character symbolizing authentic Chinese culture, said the Office. Traditional characters should be used in publications, but simplified ones are allowed in writing. It is not necessary to promote the concept in Taiwan as Taiwanese are familiar with traditional characters, the Office noted.

The Presidential Office explained that some media misunderstood that Ma intended to push forward the use of simplified characters in Taiwan, and thus clarified that the use of traditional character in Taiwan, a token of preservation of Chinese culture, will not be altered.

Most Taiwanese people are accustomed to using traditional characters in writing. But, for the sake of convenience, it is difficult to ban the use of simplified ones in writing. However, schools, government agencies, and military units should still use traditional characters at all time, according to the Office.

Do we have that right? The KMT wants people to believe the president suggested adopting the simplified PRC writing system in Taiwan so that the people on mainland China will reconstitute its entire educational system for 1.3 billion people and have them turn back the clock and recognize traditional characters?

Did they really think anyone would believe that, or, as seems to becoming common for politicians these days, did they just say it because they had to say something and didn’t care if anyone believed it or not?

But that still leaves another question: if all the books and documents in Taiwan are going to be in traditional characters; the schools, government, and military will use all trad/all the time; and since most people today usually communicate in writing by using the Internet and text messages…

What’s the point?

The Taiwan News has some other objections:

Despite hasty denials by a presidential spokesman, such an interpretation (promotion of unification) is by no means far-fetched given the apish decision by the restored KMT administration to officially adopt China’s Hanyu Pinyin romanization system and exile to the margins Taiwan’s home-developed Tongyong system on the grounds that Hanyun Pinyin was the “international standard,” presumably because of the PRC’s rising global clout. This conclusion was based less on Hanyu Pinyin’s questionable advantages than on an ideological drive to “link” the PRC’s “putonghua” with “Mandarin,” which the KMT defines as the unitary “national language” of the “Republic of China,” and ignored Taiwan’s multilingual environment, in which Tongyong could well be more suitable.

Their concerns are not unfounded. While the advocates of Tongyong pulled off some backdoor maneuvering of their own to get it adopted a few years ago, the Ma administration quickly rolled that back, ditched Tongyong, and adopted the PRC Romanization standard after taking office.

One of Tongyong’s advantages, by the way, is that it allows foreigners who don’t know Chinese to better pronounce family and place names. For example, non-Chinese speakers are at a loss how to deal with the Q in Qingdao (青島) and the X in Xian (西安). Tongyong used other spellings.

The opposition might also have a point that the PRC will see this as a concession without making any of their own:

Ma’s proposal received immediate applause Wednesday morning from PRC Taiwan Affairs Office Spokesman Fan Liqing, who gushed that “both simplified and complex characters were rooted in Chinese culture” and proposed that “experts on both sides can actively discuss how to make mutual interchanges in writing more convenient.”

Notice that Mr. Fan said nothing about restoring the use of traditional characters for reading in the PRC. He knows that isn’t going to happen.

“(A) most objectionable facet of Ma’s remarks concerned his implicit privileging of Mandarin, “the” national language in Taiwan, and his complete lack of mention of the fact that Taiwan has at least three Sinitic languages (Mandarin, Hoklo and Hakka), which do not entirely use the same Han characters, and over a dozen Austronesian languages which have no relationship whatsoever to Han characters but are equally or even more entitled to be considered as “Taiwan languages.”

The anachronistic attachment of Ma and KMT ideologues to Mandarin and Han characters as an unitary “national language” reflects their continued colonialist imposition of a racial and patriarchal conception of “Chinese” culture on Taiwan’s multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual democratic society, as reflected by the arrogant and false declaration of his inaugural address last May 20 that “all the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to the Chinese race nation (zhonghua minzu).”

How refreshing to see the bogus concept of multiculturalism put to a positive use for a change. And then they drive the point home:

Instead of compromising Taiwan’s cultural sovereignty and democratic pluralism, the KMT government should demand that the PRC should fulfill its own international commitments and “converge” with the world community by implementing full freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought.

Writing in the August 2008 issue of Voice, Omae Ken’ichi suggested that the ties between the constituent elements of Greater China will loosen, and that the Sinosphere will eventually become a confederation rather than a single nation. The article itself was poorly written and poorly argued (and a disappointment, because that’s why I bought the issue), but this lexicographical dispute presents some of the reasons that confederation might come into being.


Meanwhile, as the Chinese argue about how to best write their own language, a native of Inner Mongolia—also part of Greater China—studying in Japan is creating art by combining two different languages.

A graduate student at Shikoku University conducting research into calligraphy is presenting an exhibit of his creations in Naruto, Tokushima.

Usually I include names with these stories, but in the article this man’s name was written in katakana, the Japanese alphabet used for foreign names (other than Chinese and Korean names, for which kanji is used). It’s not possible to track back the katakana and come up with an accurate Romanization of the man’s name–and doesn’t that dovetail perfectly with the theme of this post?


His calligraphic art is the combination of the 800-year-old Mongol script with kanji. Mongolian also has a calligraphic tradition, and he is studying ways to fuse kanji with that script. Written Mongolian is one of the few vertical scripts in the world read from left to right. (You can read more about it at this website.) The student has also created some works with the two scripts side by side that show identical words and phrases.

To create a bit of Mongolian atmosphere for the exhibit, the museum is serving chai, or milk tea, and playing tapes of horsehead lute in the background.

He came to Japan five years ago and began attending a calligraphy class to improve his Japanese. He was fascinated by the strength of the brushes and the beauty of the work, so he enrolled in college to focus on those studies. He’s now in his first year of grad school.

So to sum it all up, two countries with the same basic language want to impose their own lexicographical views on each other because they can’t read what the other has written, while in Japan a man can combine two entirely different writing systems, call it art, and hang it in a museum to be viewed while drinking tea and listening to music.

And some people wonder why I don’t read fiction any more!

Posted in China, Education, Language, Taiwan | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Back to the ABC’s in Korean education?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 12, 2009

THE TERM Anglosphere is sometimes used to refer to the English-speaking countries whose culture ultimately derives from Great Britain and their shared interests. James C. Bennett founded The Anglosphere Institute and published in 2004 The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century.

How many strokes do you count?

How many strokes do you count?

There is also the term Sinosphere, which is defined narrowly as those countries with primarily Chinese-speaking residents. Some, however, define it broadly to include other countries in East Asia that were significantly influenced by Chinese culture and language—particularly written Chinese characters, or kanji in Japanese and hanja in Korean.

The broadly defined Sinosphere is unlikely to function in the role Mr. Bennett envisions for the Anglosphere because the countries don’t share the same language and the contemporary cultural dissimilarities are too great. Yet everyone in Japan and Korea is aware of the impact of Chinese characters on their languages and cultures, even though both countries have developed their own phonetic alphabets. Written communication in Korean is conducted almost exclusively in their phonetic alphabet, called Hangeul.

But an estimated 70% of the underlying words themselves in both Japanese and Korean were derived from Chinese, to which local pronunciations were applied. Thus the word for teacher, or a title of respect, 先生, is pronounced xiansheng in Chinese, sensei in Japanese, and seonseng in Korean.

Most of the South Korean public does not consider hanja literacy to be that important, though the Chinese characters are taught there starting in junior high school. But just as there is a back-to-basics movement in Japanese education, some in South Korea are promoting earlier and more extensive instruction in hanja. A brief article on that effort written by the Seoul correspondent of the Nishinippon Shimbun appeared this morning. I couldn’t find an English-language article in any of the Korean papers, so here’s a quick translation:

“The National Federation for Promoting Hanja Education in South Korea has petitioned the government to formally adopt instruction in hanja, the use of which was once widespread, as a course of study in primary schools. The federation maintains that instruction only in Hangeul, the alphabetical characters that express only sound, hinder understanding of academic and other abstract terminology.

“The application states, ‘The result of the mistaken policy of using only Hangeul has been to confront the cultural life of South Koreans with a crisis greater than the Asian currency crisis of 1997.’ It urges education in both hanja and Hangeul as the national written language. It was signed by 20 former prime ministers, including Kim Jong-pil, and submitted to the President’s office.

“A federation official states that the policy to remove hanja from South Korean society and use only Hangeul was promoted primarily by President Pak Jeon-hi (1963-1979). Among the reasons were (1) A reaction against Japanese-language education during the colonial period, and (2) The low recognition rate of hanja among people after independence.

“About 70% of the South Korean language is derived from Chinese characters, in which the characters are given a Korean reading. One example is 新鮮 (fresh), which is read shinseon in Korean (shinsen in Japanese and xinxian in Chinese). The federation points out that if people know the meaning of 乱 (meaning revolt, uprising, or disturbance, and read nan in modern South Korean, ran in Japanese, and luan in Chinese), they can intuit the meanings of words that incorporate the character, such as 混乱 (confusion, disorder) or 騒乱 (riot). (Note: That’s just how it works in Japanese, too.)

“More people are taking the hanja certification examination every year because large companies include questions about their meanings on the tests they administer to prospective employees. The application might spur a reevaluation of the ‘Hangeul-only’ Korean society.”

Afterwords: If anyone can find an English-language account of this, send me a link and I’ll incorporate it as an update. Here is an editorial by the Dong-a Ilbo supporting the effort.

They say:

Most of Korea`s cultural heritage is preserved in Chinese characters. As the number of people illiterate in Chinese character swells, precious cultural legacies of Korea such as classical literature are growing useless.

For those who read Korean, here is the federation’s website. It has a photo of their monthly magazine.

Reading this makes me wish yet again there were 36 hours in a day so I could find the time to maintain my Korean language studies. Studying from Japanese to Korean is a big help, by the way. It doesn’t take long to figure out the Korean readings for the Chinese characters working backwards from kanji, and that facilitates memorization.

Posted in Education, Language, South Korea | Tagged: | 11 Comments »

Okinawans not talking the talk

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 11, 2008

FURTHER EVIDENCE of the growing integration of Okinawa with the rest of Japan appeared in an article earlier this week in the Ryukyu Shimbun that highlights the declining use of the Okinawan dialect/language.

The newspaper reports that three graduate school students working for a master’s degree at the University of the Ryukyus conducted a questionnaire survey on the use of the Ryukyu language throughout the prefecture. They also sent questionnaires to the outlying islands, which have greater dialect variety.

The survey results prove once again the validity of the old dictum that actions speak louder than words. Here’s a look at the important numbers:

92.5%: The percentage of respondents who agreed that the support and development of Okinawa culture required the survival of the Okinawa dialect/language.
80.2%: The percentage of respondents who said they hoped the dialect would survive.
61.7%: The percentage of respondents who said they never used the dialect at home with their children or grandchildren.
66.3%: The percentage of respondents who said that they never used the dialect at home with their children and grandchildren, combined with those who said they seldom used it.

One mitigating factor might have been the low recovery rate for the questionnaires. The students selected 1,548 households at random and mailed two questionnaires to each. Only 442 households responded, and the recovery rate for the questionnaires was just 15%.

Then again, 78.1% of those responding were 50 or older. Could it be that younger people no longer care all that much? They didn’t bother to fill out and return the questionnaire, after all.

In response to the question of how often they used Ryukyan in a day, 44.2% of those who answered said from 10% to 30% of the time. Slightly less than half of the respondents said they never used it. The vast majority of those who said they used the dialect did so exclusively at home.

Not mentioned in the article, but also worth considering, is that people who say they are using the original language might really be speaking Japanese sprinkled with local terms and expressions.

The survey also uncovered further evidence of an increased willingness to abdicate personal responsibility for a task by leaving it to the government. That was indicated by the 82.3% of the respondents who said that the Okinawan language should be taught in school.

The educators’ response

The prefecture’s schools didn’t agree, however. The graduate students also sent questionnaires to all of the 460 primary, junior high, and high schools in Okinawa. They received replies from 258 schools, or 56%. Of these, 69.9% agreed that the dialect should be used in school. The newspaper report said they had a “negative response” to the idea that it should be taught as a separate course, but it didn’t reveal the percentages.

What the school response means is that teachers think it’s fine to use the language in classroom discussions or conversations with the students, but they’re not on board with the idea of separate instruction in the language itself.

The researchers were alarmed by the results. They believe the Okinanwan language will not survive unless it is taught in schools.

If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s time to discount the views of those people with Okinawan nationalist sentiments. It’s no problem at all keeping a language, a dialect—or anything—alive when there are benefits to its use. As we’ve seen before, younger Okinawans increasingly see themselves as Japanese, rather than strictly Okinawan. That would underlie a realization that standard Japanese is a requirement for functioning successfully in everyday society.

I know from personal experience with my wife’s family how easy it is to maintain a distinctive dialect if the older family members use it frequently, or in the case of my father- and mother-in-law, exclusively with their children and grandchildren. My brother-in-law and his wife live in the family home with his parents. They have two daughters in their early 20s and a son in high school. All three of their children can use the local dialect more comfortably than their peers, simply because they’ve used it every day with their parents and grandparents since they were born.

Now consider the results of the Okinawa survey. Most of the respondents were older than 50, and most of them seldom, if ever, used the dialect with their children or grandchildren. The conclusion must therefore be that the Ryukyu language is slowly but surely becoming a luxury in Okinawa.

If people won’t use it at home, where it’s easily learned and applied, there’s no point in teaching it at school. Sentimentality for a culture by itself isn’t enough—you have to walk the walk by talking the talk.


In this previous post about Okinawans creating special alphabetical characters for the Ryukyu language, one poster noted that I shouldn’t have called it a dialect because it is really a separate language. I’m sure he’s right, but I used both terms in this post because that’s what the Ryukyu Shimbun did. They called it both a dialect (hogen) and the Ryukyu language (Ryukyu-go).

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On beyond zebra in Okinawa?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 2, 2008

ALL JAPANESE ARE BILINGUAL, as a Japanese man I knew used to say, and he hit the linguistic nail on the head. Every Japanese is fluent both in hyojungo, the standard language used nationwide for the broadcast and print media and school textbooks, and in the local dialect that people use to varying degrees in their everyday life in the community. The less formal a situation, the more likely dialect, or elements of dialect, will be used.

<em>Uchinaguchi</em> in print

Uchinaguchi in print

People from other parts of the country find many of these dialects impenetrable, and the impenetrability increases the further one goes from Tokyo. For example, the dialect in Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture in Kyushu, is notoriously difficult for outsiders to understand. Even other Kyushu residents have trouble with it, and they have the built-in advantage of being able to recognize elements common to all the Kyushu dialects.

Imagine then how much the dialect of the Okinawan islands, an hour’s flight to the south of Kyushu, differs from standard Japanese and the mini-languages spoken everywhere else. Scholars say that it weighed anchor and sailed away from the main Japanese language about 1,500 years ago and never looked back. Everyone else in Japan finds it incomprehensible; CDs of Okinawan music sold with the lyrics printed in the booklet require translations into standard Japanese.

Modern living, mass media, and travel opportunities, however, have sharply reduced the use of the Okinawan dialect, and some in the islands are concerned that it might become extinct. Preserving what is locally known as Uchinaguchi has been the inspiration for some linguistic activists to keep it alive.

But a formidable obstacle had to be overcome: The dialect of the Ryukyus has 27 sounds beyond the 50 of hyojungo. It is not possible to express these sounds in written form using standard Japanese orthography. (One characteristic of Japanese is that there are no exceptions for the pronunciation of alphabetical characters. What you see is what you say.)

Here’s an example. The word omae is one of the rough-and-ready equivalents of the pronoun “you” in English. If the Okinawan equivalent were to be written in phonetic Japanese and then converted into the Roman alphabet it would look something like this: yYaa.

An Okinawan Alphabet

How the heck are you supposed to pronounce that? Well, you can’t. To ensure that the proper pronunciation of Uchinaguchi can be conveyed to younger people who might not have grown up with it in the home, Meisei University professor Funatsu Yoshiaki devised an extra Okinawan alphabet in 1986 to create symbols for these sounds. His technique was to combine two letters of the hiragana alphabet in different sizes to express them in one symbol. He also employed the older symbols of ゐ (wi) and ゑ (we), which are no longer used in modern Japanese.

Dr. Funatsu worked with another Okinawan native, Kanagawa architect Kuniyoshi Shinsei, to establish the Tokyo-based Society for Speaking the Okinawa Dialect. They used commercially available software that allowed the incorporation of end-user defined characters to create new word processing software capable of handling the 27 additional characters in Dr. Funatsu’s Okinawan alphabet.

Now, Oyafuso Keiko, a teacher at Okinawa Christian Junior College, is using the software in her classes to conduct research into teaching methods. She says that studying the characters with a PC stimulates all five senses, which makes them very easy to remember.

She told an interviewer:

I want young people to study Uchinaguchi thinking it is the language with the most immediacy for them. A person’s identity is fully formed for the first time by speaking their mother tongue. I want to create many opportunities for more people to speak it.

I realize that any negativity about this type of feel-good story is like telling the next-door neighbor that her children aren’t cute, but I think Ms. Oyafuso is going a bit overboard here.

It is a stretch in the modern era of standard Japanese to claim that the Okinawa dialect is the mother tongue of today’s islanders. To insist otherwise perhaps identifies her as belonging to the camp of those seeking greater autonomy (and in some cases independence) for Okinawa.

As this post from more than a year ago shows, however, she’s trying to swim upstream if she wants to reverse the linguistic and cultural trends in the region. Young Okinawans are less interested in autonomy and independence than their elders, and they are more likely to consider themselves Japanese.

I would also argue that a person’s true identity transcends their native language, but that opens up a philosophical/religious discussion beyond the scope of this website.

Nevertheless, the Okinawan alphabet and the software that employs it are bound to be useful for linguistic scholars and those with an interest in the dialect. Assuming that the additional Okinawan alphabetical characters are easy to learn and honestly represent the currently unrepresentable, I hope that its use grows. To expect it to be anything more than that, however, is a bit like saving Confederate money in the hope that the South is going to rise again.

Afterwords: Here’s another older post on the use of dialect in Japan.

Posted in Education, Language, Traditions | 5 Comments »

From golddigger to gold miss in South Korea

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 30, 2008

THE PHRASE wasei eigo refers to a word or words that look and sound as if they might be English, but were in fact created by the Japanese. Baseball is a natural inspiration for many of these words. One example is naitaa (nighter), which is what the Japanese call a night game.

Hello, the Gold Miss speaking

Another is “old miss”, a phrase coined some years ago to describe what native English speakers referred to as an old maid when people still used that term to describe something other than a card game.

In yet another link in the fascinating chain of one culture borrowing from another culture that which was borrowed from yet another culture, the South Koreans seem to have appropriated the Japanese wasei eigo expression “old miss” to create a new expression that describes an entirely different phenomenon: “gold miss”.

As a recent Japanese-language article by the Seoul correspondent of the Nishinippon Shimbun explains, the Korean Employment Information Service (KEIS) defines the term as that group of single women aged 30-45 who are college graduates with annual incomes of at least 40 million won (US$ 38,700). Unlike the old maid/miss, a fate that most women dreaded, the Korean gold miss has become an object of envy for her freedom to lead a carefree life unencumbered by financial or family concerns.

In fact, the article uses the gold miss phenomenon as the point of entry for a brief exposition of the changes that have taken place in Korean society over the last generation, primarily for women and family life.

The correspondent interviewed a 31-year-old woman who said that as recently as the 80s, the traditional roles of breadwinner for men and housewife for women were still the standard in South Korea. Now, she claims, it is difficult for a woman to get married unless she has a job.

By the time of the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the country’s GNP had risen to 10th worldwide, but the purchase of an apartment in a condo in that city was so expensive that both the husband and the wife had to work to afford it. Spurring the entry of women into the workplace was a law passed in 1987 that required equality in employment opportunities.

Who are the Gold Misses?

KEIS reports that in 2001, about 2,100 South Korean women were in the gold miss category and employed in seven occupational sectors, such as chef, doctor, and designer. By 2006, KEIS had expanded the range to include 36 sectors, among them teachers and writers. The number of gold miss women then totaled more than 27,000—a nearly 12-fold increase in only five years.

The author also describes two other types among contemporary Korean women—the alpha girls and the Ω girls (omega girls). The former take their name from the book by Dan Kindlon, who describes them as “the girl who is destined to be a leader. She is talented, highly-motivated, and self-confident”.

With characteristic cultural myopia, the book is subtitled, “Understanding the New American Girl and How She is Changing the World”. There were plenty of Japanese alpha girls before Kindlon claimed the type as an American pioneer. But with a previous bestseller about boys called Raising Cain, perhaps the author felt compelled for a quick follow up, causing him to skimp on the research that would have revealed the rest of the world was there already.

Now the Koreans have come up with a new twist on the alpha girl. At the end of April, the Chosun Ilbo published an article defining the omega girls as those alpha girls too incompetent to manage the affairs of daily life and unable to find mates. The Chosun article included interviews with mothers, one of whom described a doctor daughter who didn’t know how to pay the electric bill or her taxes. Another mother was anxious about her college professor daughter who “couldn’t even find a divorced man to marry.”

The Chosun piece also suggested that omega girls were a flop with men because they were perfectionists. It advanced the theory that men feel threatened by the omegas — isn’t this starting to sound like a college sorority version of an all-night bull session? — because they believe logic is required to appeal to the new breed of woman. For the omega girls, maturity rather than financial security has become the standard for choosing a mate, making it likely they would be susceptible to having affairs with older men.

Students of evolutionary biology, however, will know they’ve ventured onto shaky ground here in more ways than one. For starters, all women are susceptible to having affairs with older men, and both maturity and financial security are among the reasons. For another, logic is never required to appeal to women. No wonder they’re not getting married.

The Chosun also presented the idea that some of the alpha/omega types do not like the idea of having a relationship with men who would arouse their sense of competition, so they wind up marrying unemployed men. A more detailed explanation of the dynamics of those relationships would undoubtedly make juicy reading.

More Precious Metals

There’s more, but it gets increasingly difficult to separate the froth from the substance. Some people see a category they call “platinum miss”, which is similar to the gold miss but has a stable job at a mid-tier or large company and assets of at least 80 million won. Then there is the “silver miss”, the unmarried woman of the same age with an annual salary of at least 30 million won.

Here’s an earlier English-language article from the Chosun with additional information.

Try this passage:

Women like these are entitled to VIP “gold” credit cards, so they’re called “gold misses” — a term, created from the broken English “old miss,” that made it onto a list of fad words of 2006.

It’s a shame they can’t bring themselves to explain that the origin of “old miss” is Japanese. With the popularity of the Korean TV show “Old Miss Diary” in 2005 and a movie spinoff in 2006, perhaps their emotional stake in the phrase is too high to say it out loud in front of a Korean audience.

Believe it or not, there’s even more. As this article from the JoongAng Daily explains, Koreans have also created the terms King Kong Girl and doenjang nyeo (soybean paste girl). This is getting to be more complicated than all the words Koreans need to describe family relationships.

Doenjang is a dish in traditional Korean cuisine, but to call someone a bean paste girl means she is the familiar type of airhead known around the world for her interest in clothes, brand names, and coaxing money out of her parents and the men in her life. There must be a tasty explanation of the connection between bean paste and brainless golddiggers, but I couldn’t find it.

The King Kong girl is named after the King Kong theory of French novelist and filmmaker Virginie Despentes. Here one describes her moment of epiphany:

“I suddenly felt tired of playing the roles required of me when meeting men, of being innocent yet not a prude, the femme fatale, naturally thin with no obsessions about dieting, independent but vulnerable, seductive but not slutty.”

In other words, the King Kongettes have voluntarily withdrawn from competing in the sexual marketplace, perhaps to lead the life of a gold miss.

And doesn’t that put it all together? Leave it to the journalists to explain social trends with cute artificial phrases that will have evaporated in a few years’ time. What we’re seeing with all these gold/silver/platinum/bronze/tin misses and the King Kong/Bean Paste girls is the Korean manifestation of one of the forces responsible for the low birth rates in the advanced industrial countries.

As one of the Chosun articles explains, even the alpha girls that get married and have children will dragoon the grandparents into performing the parental chores while they pursue a career. Now isn’t that ironic? Some women wanted the opportunity to have a career, and where did they wind up? In an extended family that essentially functions in the same way their grandparents’ family did. The only difference is that the woman wears a fashionable outfit to go to work downtown in an IT-festooned office, rather than work clothes to go outdoors and toil in the fields.

To put it in brief: A lot of women just can’t be bothered anymore to go to all the trouble to have children and raise families.

Some governments think that providing financial incentives will bring the birthrates back up. They’re mistaken, of course, but that won’t stop them from wasting everyone’s money in the process.

People can’t be bribed to do what they don’t want to do to begin with—particularly when it doing it in good conscience requires one’s undivided attention for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a minimum of 20 years. If they yearn for companionship, it’s easier to buy a dog.


Here’s a two-minute video with a salsa soundtrack showing a young blonde woman describing in English her lunch with two doenjang dishes. (Northeast Asia is just full of surprises!) Was she cast to type? It seems as if she too has a bit of the soybean paste girl in her.

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Posted in Demography, Language, Popular culture, Social trends, South Korea | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

A dongba workshop in Osaka

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 13, 2008

PEOPLE WHO ARE BORED and can’t come up with a way to fill their spare hours in Japan have only themselves to blame. In every town there is at least one, and usually more, of what are known as karuchaa sentaa. There, for a modest fee, a person can choose to learn or learn about something interesting from among a cornucopia of subjects in classes offered from morning to night, all under the same roof.

It's all Greek to me!

If you want to study art, you can dabble in watercolors, oil colors, sketching with pencil (regular lead or colored), charcoal, woodblock prints, ceramics, pottery, origami, wood sculpture, and stained glass–and that doesn’t begin to exhaust the list at only one center in a small town.

There are classes in natural makeup, mah-jongg for women, chess, go, shogi, tarot, feng shui, cooking (just about anything), yoga, chi gung, exercises for the lymphatic system, and martial arts. Budding musicians can learn how to play any kind of instrument, Japanese or Western (including harmonica and ukulele), sing any kind of song, or dance any kind of dance. There are even special classes for karaoke singing.

Those interested in foreign languages can apply themselves to English (at several levels of difficulty), Korean, Chinese, French, and Italian. It goes without saying that there are classes in calligraphy, as well as classes in what’s called pen-ji, or writing kanji using a ballpoint pen.

And if you live in the Osaka area, earlier this month you could have taken part in a dongba workshop for free at the National Museum of Ethnology (link also on right sidebar).

What is dongba? The word is used to refer to the priests, culture, and pictographic script of the Naxi, an ethnic group of about 290,000 people that live in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. The dongba that drew the Osakans to the workshop was the writing system, which consists of the only pictographs in use in the world today.

The system is used exclusively by priests as a prompt for interpreting ritual texts during weddings, funerals, and other religious ceremonies. By some accounts, there are as many as 2,000 symbols. It cannot be used to represent the Naxi language, but since the Naxi now write in Chinese they don’t need to use it for that purpose.

Students at the museum’s workshop listened to a lecture on Naxi culture and the use of the characters, watched a practical writing demonstration, and tried to write a letter on their own with the script.

There is what the Japanese call a quiet boom in dongba at present. Its popularity is not hard to understand. As you can see from the accompanying examples, the glyphs are simple, unpretentious, and easy to comprehend, particularly for people who use ideographic characters to begin with.

It’s exactly the sort of thing the Japanese find attractive, and the characters are even used in this country on the labels of PET bottles and as motifs on merchandise.

Love call!

Some dongba manuscripts have been registered in Memory of the World, a UNESCO program to protect cultural heritage that the body thinks is in danger of dying out. How like UNESCO and the UN! To begin with, there are more than 5,000 dongba texts in libraries in the United States and Europe. In addition, the first photo here shows dongba used in a Kirin advertisement, and the second photo shows a dongba decal (translation: I love you) stuck on a cell phone. Since the danger that the world will forget about dongba is negligible–at least the part of the world that already knows about it–one has to wonder if UNESCO just finds it a convenient way to justify its own existence.

For those with an academic temperament, here’s a paper (.pdf file) comparing the development of written Chinese with dongba that you might enjoy. It explains that the dongba pictographs are a relatively recent invention (18th century), and their use became widespread when the Naxi prospered from the opium trade and had more disposable income to produce the texts.

Posted in China, Education, Language, Popular culture | 1 Comment »

Li Yang and Crazy English: Crazy like a fox

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 27, 2008

SEVERAL ARTICLES about China’s Li Yang and his Crazy English teaching approach have appeared on the Internet over the past few years, and he also does business in Japan and South Korea, so people in Northeast Asia are already aware of him.

I wanna speak perfect English!

But his recognition factor outside the region is likely to skyrocket now that The New Yorker has given him their full treatment. They’ve used him as the face for this report on Chinese efforts to mobilize the population and encourage them to learn English for this year’s Olympic Games. China’s organizing committee has recruited Li to provide as many people as possible with as much English fluency as possible before the world pays them a visit later this year.

Some aspects of the article will be familiar to people in Japan—the Chinese attitude toward English education is reminiscent of the Japanese approach about 20 years ago:

China has been in the grip of “English fever,” as the phenomenon is known in Chinese, for more than a decade. A vast national appetite has elevated English to something more than a language: it is not simply a tool but a defining measure of life’s potential. China today is divided by class, opportunity, and power, but one of its few unifying beliefs—something shared by waiters, politicians, intellectuals, tycoons—is the power of English. Every college freshman must meet a minimal level of English comprehension, and it’s the only foreign language tested. English has become an ideology, a force strong enough to remake your résumé, attract a spouse, or catapult you out of a village. Linguists estimate the number of Chinese now studying or speaking English at between two hundred million and three hundred and fifty million, a figure that’s on the order of the population of the United States. English private schools, study gadgets, and high-priced tutors vie for pieces of that market.

There’s a good reason why that fever is raging, but if you’re from an English-speaking country and have never lived abroad, it might be difficult to understand the imperative to learn the world’s lingua franca.

(T)he gap between the English-speaking world and the non-English-speaking world is so profound that any act of hard work or sacrifice is worth the effort.

This quote from another article five years ago goes a long way to explaining regional attitudes and Li’s appeal:

“Don’t take me as China.” Li Says. “Take me as Asia.” Because Crazy English isn’t just for the Chinese. Li believes all Asian countries are facing the same problem of speaking “terrible”, “stupid” English. So it is not surprising that Crazy English would be popular in other Asian countries. “What is surprising,” he adds, “is that Koreans would want to learn from a Chinese.”

Yet another factor is at work, though Li is more blatant about it than some Japanese teachers and students I have known:

“One-sixth of the world’s population speaks Chinese. Why are we studying English?” he asked. He turned and gestured to a row of foreign teachers seated behind him and said, “Because we pity them for not being able to speak Chinese!”

Indeed, Li’s approach highlights one undercurrent in English education throughout Northeast Asia: using English as a tool for national development and catching up to the West. According to Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Li’s personal motto is “stimulating patriotism, advocating national spirits, conquering English, revitalizing China.” He is also critical of the Chinese educational system for failing to instill confidence in the students. I’ve heard some Japanese teachers say the same thing almost verbatim.

What are some of the emotions Li is manipulating? This broader article on ESL provides a hint:

During a question and answer session with the crowd, one student told Li that he hated the Japanese for their rape and occupation of the mainland prior to World War II. The student then said he didn’t want to study Japanese because of this hatred.

“If you really hate the Japanese, then you will learn their language,” Li told the student and the crowd. “If you really want revenge against Japan, then master their language.”

Again, these are not exclusively Chinese attitudes—I’ve met a few people in Japan with an identical outlook, and undoubtedly there are some of the same type in South Korea. (Japan’s national successes have tended to dissipate the emotions that give rise to this mindset, particularly among the younger generation.)

Substitute Japan and Japanese in the above sentence with America/Anglosphere and English, and you’ll see one element of the driving force behind English education in this part of the world. The other half of this yin and yang combination is a sense of inferiority, with the concomitant chagrin over the injustice of being saddled with a sense of inferiority in the first place.

Calling the program Crazy English is a stroke of genius. It provides the students with the justification for liberating themselves from centuries of cultural conditioning that expected people to be reserved and act within a group context instead of being openly assertive as individuals. Crazy people get to do anything they want.

Therefore, Li Yang is not just an English teacher—he’s also a motivational expert. (In fact, he interpreted for Anthony Robbins during the latter’s tour of China.) The technique for which he has become famous is having the students rear back and shout English phrases–a method that worked very well for him during his own days at university. His method focuses first on pronunciation, and then progresses to the memorization and presentation of recitations.

That’s a logical progression because it reinforces the student’s budding confidence, both internally and in front of an audience. Eventually confidence grows to the point at which the student will no longer have to deal with foreigners while hobbled by a sense of inferiority.

The author of the New Yorker piece oddly overlooks this point, and in fact seems to misunderstand the confidence factor in foreign language study altogether:

He had harnessed something universal—the cloak of confidence that comes with slipping into a language not one’s own—and added a Chinese twist.

I’ve studied Japanese, watched other foreigners study Japanese, and seen (and taught) Japanese studying English for many years now. A foreign language is not a “cloak of confidence”—in fact, it’s usually the opposite, and that’s the reason Li employs his trademark technique. The confidence comes after one has mastered the language, and it transcends those occasions when one is speaking the language. That confidence doesn’t become part of the speaker’s wardrobe—it becomes part of the speaker’s skin.

If a foreign language is to be compared to an article of clothing, it more closely resembles a stage costume than a cloak because it allows the speaker to perform as someone else altogether. Scores of Japanese housewives have told me that they can say things in English they wouldn’t dream of saying in Japanese. But the mere fact that they’re speaking English doesn’t make it work–they have to get good at English first.

Watching this YouTube video of a Li lesson/performance (at least I think it’s him) makes things much clearer. Just like any good educator, he’s part showman, and he’s superb on stage. It’s also easier to see why he gets people to shout in groups: not only does it break down individual inhibitions and increase individual confidence, but the group energy and dynamics serve to amplify everyone’s confidence. Traditional Northeast Asian culture may emphasize the group and discourage individualism, but within every person everywhere is the desire to step into the spotlight and shine as a star.

It’s no wonder that so many people are so enthusiastic about studying English Li’s way. Even if they don’t become fluent in the language and never use it in a meaningful way, they will have tremendously enjoyed being a part of the experience and come away feeling good about themselves. That makes it worth the money they spend on his books, courses, and seminars.

And that’s what has made Li Yang famous, a cultural figure, and gloriously rich.

You didn’t think his motivations were exclusively patriotic, did you?

Posted in China, Education, Language | 5 Comments »