Some odds and ends about Japanese Language and Culture
You can learn a lot about the culture of any country by studying its language. In this section I will try to present a few odds and ends about the Japanese language and how it illustrates various aspects of their culture.
To say Yes is not to necessarily agree.
A Japanese word for "yes" is Hai. If you are in a conversation with a Japanese person they may use that word every so often as you speak or So desu ka (Is that so?). This does not mean that they are agreeing with what you say.
One major aspect of Japanese culture is its emphasis on politeness, and to say Hai or So desu ka while someone is talking is to indicate that the listener is paying attention to what is being said, whether the listener agrees with what is being said or not.
The Japanese term for this is aizuchi or "response words." Consider that in our own culture we sometimes will add a "yep" or "you're right there" while someone else is talking, although our emphasis in using these words is to indicate our agreement with what is being said rather than just to indicate that we are politely listening.
Pointed talking is not the goal
In the Japanese culture there is a tendency to not be extremely precise in talking. For example, on our society we might say "I'll meet you at the mall at 4:00." In Japanese society, though, to make such a statement would be to indicate that you were not giving the person a choice which would be highly impolite. Therefore the Japanese add a "but" (ga) after the time to show that they are giving the person an out, an excuse to not be at the mall at precisely 4:00.
The I's don't have it
In our culture we tend to say "I did..." or "I said..." or "I believe..." or some variation on that in many of the sentences we use. This tends to indicate that we are concerned with our own importance and that, indeed, much of the universe revolves around us. In Japan there is much, much less tendency to use I (watashi, watakushi) in speaking. The Japanese culture encourages a rather humble approach when speaking to someone else. In fact in many Japanese sentences the subject of the sentence is left out and is assumed to be known by the listener.
Lack of plurals
One advantage of the Japanese language is its lack of plurals, and its lack of added words like a, an, and so on. At first this might seem confusing, for the speaker could be saying "There is a dog..." or "There are dogs..." in a sentence. The listener, though, will know whether the singular or plural is being referred to by listening carefully to the context of the words. It seems, basically, that the Japanese language has much more emphasis on listening closely than does our own language.
Just how polite do I have to be?
In the U.S. we tend to be polite to people and use one form of language, or be informal and use other terms. In Japan such levels of politeness are much more formalized. The words you use, and even some of the gestures depends upon who you are speaking to; it is someone younger or older, related or not, a superior or an "inferior" at work, etc. Mangajin magazine listed these as being in four levels:
Level 1: Rude or condescending terms. Generally insulting terms.
Level 2: Plain or abrupt. This is for informal conversations with peers.
Level 3: Ordinary polite.
Level 4: Very polite. Tends to use honorific words or humble words.
Unless you are absolutely certain using a lower level is appropriate you should at minimum use Level 3 terms. Switch to Level 4 if you are in very formal situations or dealing with superiors.
That's Mister to you, buddy
In Japan you will use the suffix -san when addressing someone. For example, if you meet Mr. Tanaka you would say something like Konnichi wa, Tanaka-san. This is very basic politeness. At the same time you never use the -san term in reference to yourself. That would show lack of humbleness.
Thanks for the other day
The Japanese people will remember favors and will thank you for them, and likewise if some Japanese person does you a kindness you should thank them then and even later. This also leads, though, to a rather complicated network of favors owed and owing, putting obligations on people to meet other people's favors with their own. This can help to hold a society together but it can also add a lot of pressure to an individual to remember all these good deeds and "balance the ledger", so to speak.
Take my wife, please!
In Japan women in general have tended to have a lower social status then men, although it has basically been the women of the household who control the purse strings and provide the pressure to the kids to do well in school.
When meeting people a husband might not even bother to introduce his wife, or mumble something indistinct while waving a hand in her direction.
Is that bow then talk, talk then bow, or do both at the same time?
A very strong Japanese custom is bowing to people. It would seem to us that this should be simple, but it isn't. (What is, really?) For example, men will bow with their arms held closely to their sides, while women bow while holding their hands clasped together in front of them.
Bows can also be of different lengths and depth. Generally the longer and lower the bow the more important/superior the person is you are addressing. You tend to bow when meeting someone, when apologizing, when thanking someone for something and at other times. One thing to do is to try and watch the other person with your peripheral vision to see how he or she is bowing and for how long and try to match that.
Another very important custom in Japan is the presentation of business cards when meeting certain people. This is a very formal action in that you take your business card and hold it so that the person receiving it could read it and hand it to them. You then accept the other's card and take a few moments to examine it. This shows you are being polite in giving and receiving the card. Don't treat business cards like baseball cards or something, taking one and sticking it in your pocket or casually dropping it on the table.
The business card helps to identify the status of the person you are dealing with, which will then affect what politeness level of language you use when addressing them.
Full Speed Ahead! Not!
When speaking to Japanese people it is a good idea to remember another cultural difference. In the U.S. we tend to try and get right to the point, basically hurrying the conversation along, trying to streamline it and save time.
In Japan this would be very impolite. You do not get to your point right away. You tend to dance around it somewhat, perhaps discussing the weather and other things first. You also should tend to avoid openly and strongly disagreeing with someone in the manner we do in the West. We tend to say things like "You are wrong, period", putting the person immediately in their place with our superior intellect and knowledge.
You don't do that in Japan. Again, even disagreement should not be open and to the point. All this may seem to be very inefficient time-wise to our Western minds, but it again revolves around the relationship of the Japanese language to the politeness needed in their society.
Yet one more thing to keep in mind is the manner of speech. We tend to be rather hurried here, and also have a tendency to raise our voices and compete with each other to get our words out first.
Again, all of those would be wrong in Japan. Think of the Japanese as reserved British people in their style of speaking and you can begin to see how things are done there. You don't go in for wild displays of enthusiasm or disagreement. You need to be more reserved.
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