Upon entering into a Japanese conversation with a native-Japanese speaker, one may find oneself at a crossroads of misunderstanding, incomprehensibility, extreme conversational nuance and tremendously polite speech. That this communicative mountain shall serve to block one’s attempts at deciphering the conversation or inspire one to imitate one’s Japanese conversant, depend on one’s capacities for minding and comprehending not just the Japanese language as such, but the character of what a conversation could be and the ways in which Japanese verbal communication may differ from one’s own mother tongue. Investigating this, architect/photographer/writer/curator and world traveler, Bernard Rudofsky, in his piece On Language, from his book “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese,” leads us through a sketch of the art of spoken Japanese with firsthand observations, linguistic insights, historical quotations and with examples from Japanese thinkers and writers.
A thesis that Rudofsky will continue to flesh out through the remainder of this piece is: “Only unimaginative people conceive of language as a means of communication (Rudofsky 153).” From this, Rudofsky begins by analyzing the the Japanese language from viewing a direct translation of simple Japanese into English. Rudofsky points out the commonly used phrase, “Nihongo de kore ha nan tte iiudesuka?” which translates literally into English as “Japan-language in, this as-for, what that say (Rudofsky 153)?” He writes that, “By merely skimming the English columns in the pages of a Japanese phrase book, once perceives at once the mock-profundity of every utterance (Rudofsky 153).” That is, by looking at the way the language unfolds, we get a glimpse into the, what appears to Rudofsky, the poetic nature of the language (“mock profundity”) and to see its difference and grammatical uniqueness when directly contrasted with the English language. That is, not only is the grammatical flow of Japanese in sharp contrast to English, the way the language calls for one’s minding of the world, is also very different.
Rudofsky continues by setting the backdrop of the origins of the Japanese language by using the Biblical story of the Curse of Babylon. He writes, “Yet, with the greatest of misfortunes often being a blessing in disguise, the shutdown of the enterprise led to the Babylonian separatist movement, which in turn brought about the discovery and subsequent colonization of the Japanese islands by a splinter group (Rudofsky 154).” The elucidation of this particular story in relation to the Japanese comes, as Rudofsky notes, from the German physicist Engelbertus Kaempfer. He goes on the elucidate the Babylonian movement in Kaempfer’s terms as opposed to the more mystical and mythical creation myths as presented by Japanese writers of old. In support of the Babylonian Curse story, Rudofsky notes, in addition to it being a more sound creation story, “It also would help to account for some of their peculiarities: their aloofness from all non-Japanese, their legendary endurance of incommodities, their addiction to pilgrimages and travel in general, most of all, their convoluted language (Rudofsky 155).”
For Rudofsky, who in the larger context of his life, I assume possessed some ability to speak Japanese, the Japanese language was particularly cursed by the Tower of Babel incident, although even so, “It is their secret strength, but it also could become their undoing (Rudofsky 155).” He goes on to write about the Japanophile-writer Lafcadio Hearn, who even though he made Japan his permanent home, married and had children, refused to learn the Japanese language, because of the difficulty of being able to not only speak Japanese, but in the seeming impossibility to think like a Japanese person. Holding this position as well, Rudofsky is hesitant to compare Japanese to romance languages like French or Italian. For Rudofsky, “It simply is not a tourist’s dish. Moreover, anybody who has acquired by some gruesome brain manipulation the faculty to speak Japanese, realizes how futile were his efforts. His difficulty in communicating with the Japanese has merely grown in depth (Rudofsky 157).”
The task of having to “think Japanese,” Rudofsky continues, presents a challenge to Western peoples in that the Japanese language relies more on strict forms of etiquette and layers of obfuscation than on lucidity and intelligibility. But, he writes, “Paradoxically, such inability to express themselves in articulate speech gives the Japanese a sense of superiority similar to that which the women of Old China derived from their bound feet (Rudofsky 157).” That is to say, it is their distinct curse of linguistic obscurity that opens up the singularity of the Japanese language. As the caption from a picture from a “Kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing) dictionary” featured says, “There are upwards of 80,000 ideograms. A knowledge of 3,000 is necessary to read a newspaper. Even the simplest of them permit several interpretations (Rudofsky 157).” Again, Rudofsky is returning to this idea that the obscurity Japanese language is the secret strength of the Japanese.
As to the obscurity of the language, Rudofsky presents three examples, the first being Japanese poetry and its importance in the realm of everyday Japanese life. As Rudofsky points out, “Pronouncements that decide the lives of millions of people are sometimes couched in poetic double-talk (Rudofsky 158).” Rudofsky clarifies this by giving the example of Emperor Hirohito, who, in trying to establish a peaceful resolution before engaging in the Pacific War, recited a poem, which unfortunately wasn’t clear enough. Furthermore, Rudofsky writes, “In their endeavors to save face, the Japanese are able to climb heights of detachment ordinarily reserved for stage characters only (Rudofsky 159).” He backs this up by giving the example of the poetic recitation delivered by the builder of the Castle of Tokyo to his assassin at the moment of death.
Continuing on his analysis of the language comes the perception that the Japanese may hold for the non-Japanese speaker and the role of the translator, Rudofsky writes, “They cleansed their language of its functional impurities and elevated it to an abstract art. They have no love for clumsy foreigners who pester them for explanations and elucidations; who dig for a meaning until it stands revealed. Hence the translator is made the whipping boy for all linguistic ills (Rudofsky 159).” For Rudofsky, the Japanese revel in verbal expression and, given the chance, are apt to spin out of control with their verbal incantations increasing the difficulty of extracting a “correct” translation into another language. In his words, “Being wordy people, they are apt to let themselves get carried away by their verbal flood and to launch into fabrications of their own. So flagrant is their license sometimes that even a person innocent of any knowledge of Japanese discovers the deceit (Rudofsky 159-160).” The example is given of Commodore Perry who, despite not being able to understand Japanese, greatly mistrusted his Japanese translator and, upon having told him so, was surprised to see his delight. For, “Accusations of this sort do not ruffle the composure of a Japanese. He may reply that his thoughts are too subtle for translation; that his rendering them into an uncongenial idiom is an approximation at best. No harm is done, he thinks, if thoughts are left unsaid, or words go untranslated (Rudofsky 160).”
For Rudofsky, the obscurity of the Japanese language blossoms in the realm of politeness instead of, like those of us in the English-speaking world, intelligence. That is, it is more important for one to be able to speak properly, following the codes of etiquette, than it is for one to speak clearly and directly. He writes, “In sum, a Japanese interpreter seems to be under a compulsion to vaporize a thought and to make the most gripping ideas sound innocuous (Rudofsky 160).” In this way, Rudofsky is returning to the aforementioned points regarding the difficulty in being able to think in a Japanese way and the struggles which one who undertakes the Japanese language will struggle with, perhaps what Rudofsky himself, as a foreigner who lived in Japan, struggled with.
As to some positive points regarding the obscurity of the language, Rudofsky says, “It sustains an even temperature of colloquy, discourages confidences, and preserves an all-important standoffishness. The supreme medium of communication is, not surprisingly, silence – a rather sullen silence, indistinguishable from boredom (Rudofsky 160).” From this semblance of silence, Rudofsky mentions the impressive nature that the Japanese language comes to have in the eyes of foreigners, that is, the image of a zen master contemplating a koan in temple. However, as Rudofsky almost humorously points out, “Usually silence means that their train of thought has jumped the track (Rudofsky 161).”
Also, Rudofsky discusses the tendency of the Japanese speaker to verbally overdue conversations that could be relegated to short responses. He gives the example of how one must be careful not to be too direct even in such simple requests as a hotel wake-up call or asking for a bill at a restaurant. His method of combating the futility of direct speech is this: “The complex message has to be chopped up into tiny earfuls, patted and moistened with generous amounts of spittle and kneaded into acoustic pellets to be dispatched one by one with perfect timing (Rudofsky 161).” In this way, Rudofsky again points to the poetic and indirect nature of the Japanese language as it is intertwined with the etiquette of politeness. Finally, Rudofsky notes to the foreigner approaching the Japanese language, “Keep in mind that they are unfamiliar with our athletic regime of hardening the eardrums, snatching the thread of discourse from others, drowning words with laughter and expletives, talking fast while trying to follow the conversation of others (Rudofsky 161).” What Rudofsky provides here is a strategic approach to the language, hints from someone who has gained an inside view, so to speak.
In closing, Rudofsky describes a huge Japanese dinner party in which many speeches were delivered and received applause and attentiveness despite the fact that the speakers’ volume was only audible to those in the first two rows. He writes, “The Japanese have a faculty of enjoying speech regardless of content (Rudofsky 162).” That is, it didn’t matter that the speeches could not be heard, for the Japanese, the murmur of the speech was enough to enjoy and, furthermore, it would have been in bad form to have requested the speaker to raise his or her voice. Rudofsky continues by giving the example of a foreign lecturer speaking about Henri Bergson (in French) and that by the end of the speech the only members remaining in the audience were Japanese, despite the fact that the Japanese in attendance could not speak or understand the French language. Rudofsky: “This makes the Japanese the world’s best listeners (Rudofsky 162).”
“To the Japanese, the thought that a speaker, celebrated or not, casual or formal, should attach importance to being understood reveals a small mind. Incomprehension on the highest level has its own merits, even when they are not discernible to us (Rudofsky 163).” It is this recognition of incomprehension that leads Rudofsky to respect the Japanese language, despite his seeming frustration with it. He closes On Language with a message to foreigners coming to Japan: “Cultural differences or no cultural differences, if we want to get along with the rest of the world, we cannot afford to be dogmatic (Rudofsky 163).”
What this end points to is, despite all of the barriers posed by the Japanese language when approached by an English speaker, one should learn to capacitate oneself to the unique, to the acceptance of other ways of conversing and, hence, being. It seems to me that in Rudofsky’s probing of the Japanese language, he has come to appreciate the differences and has come to lend his ear and heart to the difficulty of the Japanese language.
In my reading of this piece, I have come to see Rudofsky, himself, as a pure Japanese enthusiast and from re-reading this piece, I would like to offer a brief summary. By engaging and reopening the ways that other travelers have approached and been befuddled by the Japanese language, Rudofsky has drawn out several points for those with interest in learning Japanese or for those who wish to gain some insight into the angle of the Japanese character. For him, Japanese, as such, is a language much different from English. The structure is completely different, which proves the first point of difficulty, and, moreover and more importantly, the way of communicating while using this language demands a wholly new way of understanding and approaching a conversation. Moreover, it seems that Rudofsky is preparing the reader for a chance encounter with a Japanese person and, at the same time, educating the reader in how to approach the conversational situation so as to put the Japanese speaker at ease. At the same time, this text also calls for the positive recognition and appreciation of the Japanese way of communicating. That is, Rudofsky is asking the reader to allow him or herself to accept this way of communicating as something uniquely Japanese and, upon encounter with Japan, to keep these points in mind and, instead of trying to “dogmatically” adjust the flow of conversation to fit the foreigner’s way of being, to be willing to be open to the Japanese way of politeness and etiquette. Furthermore, looking at this piece in relation to “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese” as a whole, I see this as being a plea, a plea to those who would be quick to dismiss the Japanese language as a hodgepodge of other Asiatic languages and instead to see the Japanese as a singular way of expression and a challenging, yet rewarding cultural experience.
Rudofsky, Bernard. The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1965.