Japanese key words and core cultural values

Anna Wierzbicka
1991 Language in society  
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more » ... words, which reflect the core values of the culture. Consequently, cultures can be revealingly studied, compared, and explained to outsiders through their key words. But to be able to study, compare, and explain cultures in terms of their key words, we need a culture-independent analytical framework. A framework of this kind is provided by the natural semantic metalanguage developed by the author and colleagues over the last two decades. In the present article, the author explores and analyzes six Japanese concepts widely regarded as being almost more that any others culture-specific and culturally revealingamae, enryo, wa, on, giri, and seishinand shows how the use of the natural semantic metalanguage (based on universal semantic primitives) helps to make these concepts clear and how it facilitates better iiisight into Japanese culture and society. (Japanese language, Japanese culture, cross-cultural semantics, key words, core values) The basic thesis of this study is that every language has its own key words and that these key words reflect the core values of the culture to which this language belongs. A concomitant second thesis is that cultures can be revealingly studied, compared, and explained to outsiders through their key words. A third thesis is that to be able to study, compare, and explain cultures in terms of their key words, we need a culture-independent analytical framework, and that such a framework is provided by the natural semantic metalanguage developed by the author and colleagues over the last two decades (see Boguslawski I966, I970, 1975, I98I, I989, I990; Goddard I989a, I989b; Wierzbicka I972, ig80, i985, i987, I988a, i989a, i989b, iggia, iggib). For example, it has often been pointed out that certain crucial features of Japanese culture and society are reflected in Japanese words such as on, giri, amae, or wa, and that one cannot understand Japan without understanding the concepts encapsulated in these words. But when commentators try to explain these concepts in terms of English words such as gratitude, justice, honor, dependence, or harmony, they are in fact obfuscating them rather than clarifying. ? 199I Cambridge University Press 0047-4045/9I $5.00 + .00 333 This content downloaded from on Thu, Of course, English words of this kind are usually offered as approximate glosses, not as exact equivalents, and the use of such glosses is often unavoidable, or at least quite understandable, as a first approximation. But if one does not move from these approximations and vague analogies to something more precise, one remains locked in one's ethnocentric perspective and cannot achieve a true insight into the conceptual artefacts of a foreign culture. The point is that English words such as those mentioned are culture-laden toono less so than the Japanese words they are supposed to explain. One cannot clarify culture-laden words of one language in terms of culture-laden words of another. It is interesting to note in this connection Japanese scholar Ono's (1976:26) protest against what she saw as Western misinterpretations of Japan due to the uncritical reliance on Western words. Each Western word is loaded with cultural and historical meanings, associations. A word such as "hierarchy" means automatically an order of power relationships. It has a connotation of oppression, denial of individualism, its rights and freedom which should lead to equality of men. In Japan, hierarchy simply signifies ritual order. It defines neither the location of power nor responsibility. Thus Western words as such are not appropriate for describing non-Western reality. Many Western students of Japan are aware of the dangers involved in the use of Western words, but even when they are, they often get tangled in these words and leave their readers bewildered and confused. For example, Zimmerman (I985:74) wrote: "The Westerner is often puzzled by the Japanese use of the word 'sincerity', because to the Japanese sincerity is not openhearted truthfulness but a complex amalgam of ideas. The basic theme in this is that a 'sincere' person is one who fulfils obligations no matter what and avoids giving offense . . ., or, to put it another way, one who strives for harmony in all relationships... The Western reader may well wonder what all this has to do with sincerity and how Japanese people can use the word sincerity in those complex and unfamiliar ways. And yet it should hardly need to be pointed out that Japanese people do not use the word sincerity at all, because this is an English word, not a Japanese one. What Zimmerman was really trying to say was that Japanese does not have a word corresponding in meaning to the English sincerity, and that the Japanese word often glossed as 'sincerity' really means something different and something culture-specific. But he does not say what. A similar confusion regarding the value of 'sincerity' is in fact evident in Benedict's (1947) discussion of this subject, despite her keen awareness of the problem, evidenced in other chapters of her book. For example, she wrote (1947:217): "A basic meaning of 'sincerity' as the Japanese use it, is that it 334 This content downloaded from on Thu, JAPANESE KEY WORDS AND CORE CULTURAL VALUES is the zeal to follow the 'road' mapped by the Japanese code and the Japanese spirit." The concept Benedict really had in mind was not 'sincerity' but makoto. When modern Japanese have attempted to make some one moral virtue supreme over all the "circles," they have usually selected 'sincerity'. Count Okuma, in discussing Japanese ethics, said that sincerity ( makoto) is the precept of all precepts; the foundation of moral teachings can be implied in that one word. Our ancient vocabulary is void of ethical terms except for one solitary word, makoto. (Benedict 1947:212-13) But if makoto is a uniquely Japanese concept, very different from the English concept of 'sincerity', then one cannot explain the former by means of the latter. (The same applies to another Japanese key concept, magokoro, also usually glossed as 'sincerity'.) How can one, then, explain Japanese key concepts to cultural outsiders? It is all very well for Ono to insist that "Viestern words . . . are not appropriate for describing non-Western reality," but for Westerners, "Western words" are all they have and all they can rely on. If Japanese culture could not be explained to Westerners "in Western words," then it could not be explained to them at all. My own solution to the dilemma is this. Japaneseor any other non-Westernculture can be explained to Westerners, but not in terms of culturespecific English words such as sincerity, harmony, dependence, and so on. What we need is English words that do have their semantic counterparts in Japanese and in any other language of the world. In other words, we need a semantic metalanguage based on lexical universals. I propose for this purpose the natural semantic metalanguage based on hypothetical semantic primitives such as SOMEONE, SOMETHING, DO, HAPPEN, WANT, SAY, KNOW, THINK, GOOD, BAD, and so on. These hypothesized primitives have been given here in capital letters to signal that what is meant is not the English words someone, something, and so on, but the concepts encapsulated in these words, as well as in their closest semantic counterparts in other languages of the world (such as, e.g., dareka, nanika, suru, okoru, ii, warui, etc., in Japanese). No doubt some readers will want to argue that concepts of this kind are not truly universal, nor truly culture-independent, either. I do not wish to dispute this. For the present purposes, it is enough to agree that concepts of this kind are relatively speaking more universal and more culture-independent than honor or giri, sincerity or makoto, harmony or wa, dependence or amae. It is essential to point out that primitives of this kind, and the universal minigrammar in which they are embedded, have not been postulated on an This content downloaded from on Thu, ANNA WIERZBICKA a priori basis, but have emerged from two decades of intensive empirical work, and that the natural semantic metalanguage based on these primitives has proved itself as an effective tool in the description of large bodies of data in English (see, e.g., Wierzbicka I985, I987, I988a, I99Ia, I99Ib) and in many other, very diverse languages of the world, including Chinese (Chappell I986a, I986b, in press), Ewe (Ameka I987, i990), Australian Aboriginal languages (Goddard I985, I990; Harkins I986, I990; Hudson 1985; Wilkins I986), and the Austronesian languages Mbula (Bugenhagen I990) and Ifaluk (Wierzbicka I988b). In the present article, I explore and analyze six Japanese concepts widely regarded as being almost more than any others culture-specific and culturally revealing: amae, enryo, wa, on, giri, and seishin. The existing literature on these concepts is quite rich and often very insightful, but it lacks methodological sophistication and rigor and does not aim at articulating semantic invariants. Nor does it examine minimal pairs, try to determine the role of context, or investigate unacceptable sentences (as a source of insight and evidence, etc.). The relationship between the goal of the present article and those of the existing literature can be compared to that between phonology and phonetics. My goal is not to collect new data but to analyze the data in a way that would make sense of it all. Every language is a self-contained system, and, in a sense, no words or constructions of one language can have absolute equivalents in another. The idea that there might be some linguistic elements that are universal in the sense of having absolute equivalents in all the languages of the world is, of course, all the more fanciful. However, as soon as we abandon the notion of absolute equivalents and absolute universals, we are free to investigate the idea of partial equivalents and partial universals; and if the former is sterile and useless, the latter one is fruitful and necessary. What I mean by "partial universals" is this. Within a particular language, every element belongs to a unique network of elements and occupies a particular place in a unique network of relationships. When we compare two, or more, languages, we cannot expect to find similar networks of relationships. Nonetheless, we can expect to find certain correspondences. To put it differently, although every language has its own unique structure and its own unique lexicon (embodying a unique semantic structure), there are certain areas of languages that can be regarded as mutually isomorphic. It is this (limited) isomorphism in grammar and in the lexicon that gives sense to the notion of language universals. 336 This content downloaded from on Thu, JAPANESE KEY WORDS AND CORE CULTURAL VALUES In what follows, I illustrate this idea of limited isomorphism, first with respect to the lexicon, and then with respect to grammar. As all translators know, every language has words that have no semantic equivalents in other languages and draws semantic distinctions other languages do not draw. For example, in translating the classic texts of the Hindu cultural tradition into European languages, one must face the fact that these languages do not have words coming even near in meaning to key Sanskrit terms such as nirvana, brahman, atman, or karma (see Bolle 1979:2I9-58). But even comparing languages that are genetically, geographically, and culturally very closefor example, French and Englishone constantly encounters examples of profound lexical differences. For example, the French word malheur has no counterpart in English, as pointed out by the English translator of Simone Weil's meditations on this concept, who finally decided to use, throughout his translation, the totally inadequate English word ajfliction (Weil I972:63). One might add that the French bonheur does not have a counterpart in English either, as the English happiness is a kind of antonym of sadness, whereas bonheur can by no stretch of imagination be regarded an antonym of tristesse, the closest French counterpart of sadness (see Wierzbicka, in press, forthcoming). In a sense, all words in all languages are like the French malheur, that is, unrenderable (without distortion) in some other languages of the world. In another sense, however, there are words thatunlike malheurdo have counterparts in all the languages of the world. At least such is my hypothesis. If somebody finds it inherently implausible and unacceptable, I am happy to offer it for consideration in a milder, less provocative form: some concepts are less language-specific than others; what we should search for is a set of concepts that comes as close as possible to the ideal (and perhaps unattainable) set of concepts that are lexically encoded in all the languages of the world. Having searched for such a set for many years, by trial and error, I now propose a set of what I regard at this stage to be the most likely candidates. They are (putting them in groups of roughly comparable elements): Place and Time: tokoro (doko), toki (itsu), (V-te) kara, shita; Linkers: doo/yoo, (V-) kara; Intensifier: taihen. To anyone familiar with the four languages in question, it will be perfectly clear that the elements of the four sets can by no means be regarded as fully equivalent (if only because they can have different patterns of polysemy; the equivalence postulated here concerns only one meaning of each indefinable, not all its different meanings, if it has more than one). Nevertheless, I suggest that these four sets may be isomorphic in the way the vocabulary of emotions, kitchen utensils, cooking verbs, or speech act verbs is not. (For justification and further discussion, see Wierzbicka I989a, I988b, iggia, i99 ib.) ANNA WIERZBICKA something with some thing. To show this, one example suffices. When one says, for example, Watashi wa sore ga doko ni aru ka shitte imasujibun de soko ni oitakara. I know where it is because I put it there myself. This content downloaded from on Thu,
doi:10.1017/s0047404500016535 fatcat:nuqosfmwb5ay3iqdfjah7uua5m