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The Infinite Silences of Japan (lithub.com)
47 points by acsillag 26 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments



When reading any of Pico Iyer's drivel about Japan, remember that he can't read or speak the language:

"And the virtues of when I got to Japan, finding that I was essentially an illiterate. I can't read — I can't — to this day, I can't read or write Japanese."

http://www.dailygood.org/story/1092/the-art-of-stillness-pic...

"He’s a big proponent of his own ignorance, saying he doesn’t choose to learn more than a smattering of Japanese because he needs mystery and “a sense of open space in life, something to offset the sense of the familiar.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/books/review/pico-iyer-au...

Which makes him exceptionally unqualified to spout bullshit like this:

A single verb in Yasunari Kawabata’s short novel Snow Country is translated in 29 different ways because what we would render as “I think” can in Japan mean “I remember,” “I long for” or 27 other things.

No, おもう means two things, and they're written differently so you can tell them apart:

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E3%81%8A%E3%82%82%E3%81%86#J...


> No, おもう means two things, and they're written differently so you can tell them apart

君のことを思っている You're on my mind.

思うどおりにはいかなかった It didn't go how she had hoped.

面倒だと思ったことがないよ I've not really ever felt it to be a hassle.

Context matters.

> Which makes him exceptionally unqualified to...

He's waxing poetically about his personal experience. Not sure who else would be more qualified to do that.

Excuse me a bit of a meta-comment. Why such a vicious response? A priori, the article stands on its own. It sounds to me like you're bringing in a lot of personal expectations and imposing them on someone that never asked. Bad day, perhaps? If you need a beer or a listening ear, feel free to PM me.


Not a bad day, just a pet peeve: I find the "Japanese is so exotic and mysterious and different" trope in general and Pico Iyer's writing about the topic in particular insufferable. I mean, if you're going to pontificate about Japanese literature on the world stage, is it really too much to ask that you read some of it?

Languages are complicated, translation between two languages is even more complicated. Does Japanese have "weird" features compared to English? Sure, adjectives having past and conditional tenses still does my head in. But claiming that omou has 29 radically different meanings is wrong, and using this to draw the conclusion that "Speech is dangerous in Japan" is just silly.


I'd like to chime in on 9nGQluzmnq3M's side here -- I had exactly the same reaction for exactly the same reason. It does Japan's complex culture a complete disservice to wrap it up in a neat package of "exotic" and "ineffable." You wouldn't accept an analysis of fine wine, a new medication, or graphics cards from someone who didn't bother to learn about them, so why is an analysis of an entire culture from an equally ignorant standpoint acceptable?

Is it acceptable because "being an outsider" gives him a more "objective" viewpoint? So, his ignorance gives birth to wisdom?

Or is it acceptable because Japan has a history of being labeled "ineffable" and "exotic," meaning that nobody not Japanese can ever understand Japanese culture, so anyone can say whatever they want?

Anyone who starts claiming that there's a connection between "numbers of meanings [e.g. ways to translate a word into ANOTHER language]" and culture immediately starts setting off alarms in my head, but the Language Log sums that up much better than I ever could: https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1088


I certainly get the sentiment. However, my reaction to 9nGQluzmnq3M's coment is mainly this: Why judge an article or opinion on what it's not instead of what it is?

In this particular case, the article reads to me like someone sharing their emotions and feelings, achieved by contempaling some minutiae of experience in Japan. Does that explicate an experience that generalizes? Apparently not, but this certainly seems like a different matter.

Put a bit extremely, the article is also a pretty terrible recipe for turducken. I doubt many would flay the article for this failing, but the point is that judging an article or opinion's failings says just as much about the reader's personal expectations as it does anything else.

Pretend for a moment that the article was written in the form of a poem. I seriously doubt it'd be getting the same kickback for "lack of objectivity." I would guess this is because we culturally learn to approach written language with different expectations, based on the form of its presentation. Heck, I'd not be surprised to even see some interesting anthropological theses on this very phenomenon.

Anyway, winding back the meta-levels a bit, I do get where the author is coming from, myself having lived in Japan for ten years. It's possible to find poetry or meaning in certain minutiae of daily experience, and when thinking in Japanese I certainly do interpret, feel, and use silence differently than when my brain goes into English mode.

Think for a moment about the "magic" of watching a Good ol' American Superbolw game with your friends and family, or how about drinking at Ye Olde pub down the road with yer mates. The experience is singular in a way to the particular culture it's in, and after accumulating many memories of this experience, it's common for those memories to achieve some "special" emotional quality that's diffilut to transfer to others who haven't done the same. I read the original article as an attempt to share some similar kind of feeling.


> However, my reaction to 9nGQluzmnq3M's coment is mainly this: Why judge an article or opinion on what it's not instead of what it is?

To me, I'm judging the article based on what it's claiming to be.

He starts it with a faux linguistic analysis including numbers, faux cultural comparisons, and an analysis of the Japanese language -- which he professes not to know.

> I read the original article as an attempt to share some similar kind of feeling.

The way he opened his article and continued trying to pick at linguistics is what kept me from feeling that kind of thing. His own credentials and the location of the article also contributed to that.

If it were a personal blog and he were talking about subjective feelings, that's one thing -- but when he is writing an article on lithub and starting with numbers and apparently scholarly linguistic analysis, that's a completely different thing to me.

Edit to add: And one other point is that this is all to publicize a book of his called "A Beginner's Guide to Japan," which sounds very authoritative.


> To me, I'm judging the article based on what it's claiming to be.

Rather what you, the reader, are judging it to claim to be.

> He starts it with a faux linguistic analysis including numbers, faux cultural comparisons, and an analysis of the Japanese language -- which he professes not to know.

There's a lot of flexing that goes on with expats here in Japan. Whoever speaks the best Japanese has the most social cred in many ways. Nonetheless, speaking a languages and performing linguistic analyses on the same are quite different tasks that require less overlapping skills than one might imagine at first blush.

Are you a linguist in Japanese? If not, then why does your opinion on his linguistic analysis matter?

Are you an anthropologist on modern Japan? If not, then what are your credentials for judging his ability to make "cultural comparisons?"

Those are intended as rhetorical questions.

I dunno. Your and 9nGQluzmnq3M's comments just stike me as meta-inconsistent. I'm trying to inject a little self-awareness into the discussion.

In particular 9nGQluzmnq3M's comments about the Japanese language don't line up with my own experience, having used it as the primary language in my personal and professional life for several years. Someone with only a beginning grasp of Japanese flaying someone else with a tad less Japanese; that just strikes me as... harmful.


> Rather what you, the reader, are judging it to claim to be.

Sure. I'm picking up what the writer is putting down; he puts down numbers and linguistic claims, so I pick those up and say "hmm, this looks like a scholarly article" -- that's the tone I perceive and I can't say for sure whether that's what the author intended.

> In particular 9nGQluzmnq3M's comments about the Japanese language don't line up with my own experience, having used it as the primary language in my personal and professional life for several years. Someone with only a beginning grasp of Japanese flaying someone else with a tad less Japanese; that just strikes me as... harmful.

I'm not sure where this comes from at all -- now it seems like your judgment of our opinions is stemming from your judgment of our Japanese ability, but I'm not sure how you're even doing that.


> ...now it seems like your judgment of our opinions is stemming from your judgment of our Japanese ability...

Yeah! Yeah! That's the exact kind of feeling I got from both of your comments.

Anyway, thanks for the back and forth. This subject apparently got me engaged too!


> Why judge an article or opinion on what it's not instead of what it is?

I think that's an uncharitable take. We all get that TFA is trying to be poetic, but poetic sentiments can be profound or shallow, and if someone finds this article shallow (as I do myself) that doesn't mean they're attacking it for being poetic.

Also, suggesting the commenter might be having a bad day doesn't come off at all the way I think you intend.


That's a fantastic link! I love all the hilarious historical examples where some author claims that having only specialized words for a group of related concepts means your language is dumb for not having a word for the general concept, and having only a general word for a group of concepts means your language is dumb for not having specialized.

Heads I win, tails you lose!


> Not a bad day, just a pet peeve

Another commenter hinted that my "bad day" comment might come off as condescending. If so, please forgive the oversight.

> I mean, if you're going to pontificate about Japanese literature on the world stage, is it really too much to ask that you read some of it?

This feels like a low blow to me. There are some pretty amazing linguistic ideas that have come from linguists analyzing languages they don't personally speak.

More to the point, though, in my experience there is a tendency for Japanese ability to establish feelings of superiority and inferiority amongst Japanese learners. I certainly don't know your personal psychology, but your comments in this thread remind me a lot of the hierarchy-establishing social dynamics that happens all too often amongst expats here.

> But claiming that omou has 29 radically different meanings is wrong

Maybe? I use Japanese daily in personal and professional life, and I certainly am unable to completely write off that claim as wildly innacurate. Delineating between meanings is more of an art than anything else. How many meanings does the word "talk" have? Approaching your partner and solemnly pronouncing "I'd like to talk," seems to have a different meaning than approaching your partner and chirpily suggesting, "I'd like to talk." How does the meaning change if we declare the setting to be a funeral? What about at home? What if the conversants aren't romantic partners but parent-child? What if the statement is made alone in one's bedroom?

All of those feel like they "mean" something different to me, and I would likely render some of them in different Japanese. Similarly if we reverse the roles of English and Japanese.

Anyway, you've seem to hit on a topic that I enjoy discussing. Thanks for engaging. How long have you been studying Japanese?


I’m with you. This is just another JCE who needs to disappear. The writing was god awful.


> A single verb in Yasunari Kawabata’s short novel Snow Country is translated in 29 different ways because what we would render as “I think” can in Japan mean “I remember,” “I long for” or 27 other things.

Ugh. That might be correct in the sense that a translator could defend their choice in using a certain English word or another, but that's also correct for most words in literally every language spoken on Earth.


Indeed. One wonders what the author would make of the reverse case, where someone counted up all the ways "think" can be translated into Japanese. One suspects he'd draw the exact same conclusion - how marvelously exotic that this language has so many subtly nuanced ways to express one boring old English word!


The problem is that English doesn’t have a subjunctive tense that maps cleanly to other languages. It is implicit and masked. Expressing doubt is even culturally looked down upon as incompetence. Hence the confusion by native English speakers.


I'm not sure what the particulars are in this article, but if the suggestion is that Japanese is unusually expressive and English is unusually impoverished, that probably isn't true. In general, Language A and Language B, unless they're very closely related, will always lack some grammatical categories in common that will make translation from one to the other difficult.

Eastern Pomo, for instance, requires any well-formed verb to inflect based on how the speaker learned the information being reported, with four possible values: direct, reported, inferred, or non-visually sensed (smelled, felt, etc.) knowledge. Retaining this information would be awkward in English, and encoding it in an Eastern Pomo translation would often be impossible (in the context of translating a book).

Hindi lacks articles, while English has at least a and the, which encode (roughly) how identifiable the noun it is attached to is in the present situation. The rules governing when to use the, a, or neither are incredibly subtle and complex (I'm sure you've heard second language speakers getting it wrong but not in a way you could readily explain). Going from English to Hindi, the articles can mostly be safely disregarded, but going from Hindi to English, you need to think hard about how identifiable each noun is in discourse.

I'm probably taking all this a bit too seriously, but it's frustrating to see well-intentioned but wide-eyed writers like Iyer trying to evoke a sense of wonder propped up by pseudolinguistic claims.


The breathless retelling struck me as unreliable as well, but I can concede that 思う has slightly different meanings based on context— just like any English word with a thesaurus entry or used in idiom.

思う/Omou is interesting because my brain shuffled it into the same spot as the Spanish creer (to believe) and both have a counterpart that is (roughly) more about thought process: kangaeru(JP)/pensar(ES)

The similarity meant 思う actually grounded me instead of sending me into linguistic mysticism like it apparently did to Iyer.


"Believe", in a faith without proof sense, is shinjiru 信じる in Japanese. As in English, this is a lot stronger than mere thinking.

Omou is used a lot in Japanese as a politeness marker of sorts: instead of stating flat out that the moon is green cheese (tsuki ha guriin chiizu desu), you soften the statement a bit saying that you think it's green cheese (tsuki ha guriin chiizu da to omoimasu). When translating to English, you'd often drop it entirely or at least find other ways to express it, because in English it's not natural to tack "I think" to everything you say.


Sure. Creer is very often used in a similar way to tacking on to omou to express best guess/subjectivity/lack of definition. Kirei [da] to omou can be pretty close to Creo que es bonito for thinking something is pretty.

I'm not saying it's one-to-one, just the same kind of issue and you'll see very similar conversations about both. Therefore, it feels familiar and not astounding per Iyer.


In English, think can mean lots of things, probably 27 at least.

I think about my exes a lot even though I don't think much of them. I think I'll go now. I'm thinking of a number. I'm thinking of changing careers. I'm thinking dinner at 8. I think a lot, I think. I think not. You think? Thinking of you. Think again. Etc..

Though my favorite productive English verb is still 'to get.'


It's pretty crazy to write an essay like that when you don't know the language.

I know I wouldn't be impressed if someone who doesn't speak Lithuanian wrote an essay like that on Lithuanian culture/language/literature.


> No, おもう means two things, and they're written differently so you can tell them apart:

A nitpick, but you could tell them apart even if they weren't written differently (such as when speaking).


Context. Japan has a lot of homonyms and the people speaking it tend to not use the words pronounced the same in a sentence thus the meaning can be infered from the context.


I read this from my chair in an office in Tokyo, and found it to be pretty dramatic and kind of silly. There are definitely cultural differences, but I don't feel like this article does a good job of representing them. Some of the linguistic points are a bit misleading too.


Since I moved to Japan I have always looked back at pieces like this and get a good laugh.


In contrast to the other commentators here, I enjoyed that! Thanks


9nGQluzmnq3M gave some reasons why we shouldn't trust the article based on the author's history, I'll give some reasons by comparing English, Japanese, and some other languages.

The author presents several examples from their reflections and observations in Japan, themed around "Japanese silence"; unfortunately, they speak more to the author's commitment to their colored perception than to any genuinely universal "Japanese silence".

> More important than learning to speak Japanese when you come to Japan is learning to speak silence. My neighbors seem most at home with nonverbal cues, with pauses and the exchange of formulae.

This is a point about Japanese culture. Presumably this refers to acknowledging neighbors when they meet each other without any further interaction. Regardless, I don't know enough about what the author is alluding to with this, but one can be just as surprised that one's current neighbors (while living in Japan) actually communicate or acknowledge each other if one comes from a place where neighbors don't know each other, something quite common in big cities.

> A typical sentence in India—or from my friend from Mexico—begins, “No, but . . .” Every other Japanese sentence begins, “So, so, so, so,” or “Yes, yes, yes, yes.”

This is a point about Japanese pragmatics. I don't see how this is meant to reflect silence. A recent BBC article speculates why French say "no" so much http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20190804-why-the-french-love... . It writes:

> Because often, there is hope. “Contrary to popular opinion, the French do listen, and well, but this usually happens after they say no a couple of times. It takes a certain amount of faith, and sometimes a lot of talking, but you can almost always find the yes hiding behind a French no, if it’s there,” write Barlow and Nadeau.

This sounds very much like how business writers observe that Japanese business err on saying yes, and sometimes after a lot of talking, you can find the no hiding behind a Japanese yes.

> Countries like the US and Australia are low-context cultures where people generally say what they mean and mean what they say. However, France, like Russia and Japan, tends to be a high-context culture, where “good communication is sophisticated, nuanced and layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines,” she writes.

There's more I guess I might speculate on this subject, but I don't see its connection to silence. The author presents it as an unqualified agreement "yes, yes, yes, yes". But you'd likely hear a "sore de", or "tokoro de", or "desu ga" immedately after ("so what about this..." / "however...") if there were disagreements that followed.

> Seventy percent of Japanese sentences, by one count, lack a subject, and 50 percent of all spoken sentences do, too.

This is a technical point about the Japanese language. For that matter, most Romance languages do not specify a subject when it is obvious, beyond inflecting the verb to (under)specify whether the subject is the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. On the other hand, in many situations, you would use a person's name to refer to them in Japanese (J) where in Indo-European (IE) languages (English (E) and Romance (R) languages are some IE languages) you would underspecify with a pronoun.

> Japan’s foundational novel, The Tale of Genji, is notoriously hard to translate, because proper names are sometimes avoided, the subject of a sentence changes halfway through and speakers are seldom indicated.

That Genji is not easily translatable is not necessarily reflective of some quality in J. Rather you can attribute the difficulty to three things: 1. The language Murakami uses is not modern Japanese with little extant literature in the same literary form. 2. The literary novel was literally novel, so the author may have failed to be able to develop it to communicate (even to a contemporary audience) by the text alone, without oral commentatory. 3. The problem of editing, with the original(s) no longer extant.

With proper names for one, it is reflective of that milieu, since one referred to each other in polite society primarily by their title or occupation. In that respect, it is not reflective if some tendency toward vagueness since using personal names would be the unnatural and less informative choice.

The Economist writes: "Murasaki's language was already archaic and impenetrable a century after it was written, so the Japanese have been reading annotated, abridged, simplified and illustrated versions of the book since as early as the 12th century."

https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2008/12/18/playboy-...

> Even those sentences that do have clear beginnings in Japan generally trail off, like pen-and-ink drawings that leave most of the page open for a viewer to complete. In England, I learned to start sentences by saying, “I’m not exactly sure . . .” but in Japan the studied vagueness is not just about diffidence but about allowing room for someone else to turn an opening note into a duet.

This is a point about Japanese grammar or pragmatics. I'm not too sure what exactly the author is referring to, but it's likely a technique for people to avoid committing to expressing something e.g. "sore wa na..." ("well, about that..."), that the author noticed.

> Speech is dangerous in Japan, precisely because so many unspoken rules hover around it.

On the other hand, the average Japanese fails to grasp the many unspoken rules of E, and finds it difficult to be understood in English. For example, to a non-native is not obvious why it is more natural to "put in" effort and "take out" the trash (like you take out food?) rather than the less colloquial "give effort" or "dispose trash". The difference is that most rightly chalk it up to the limits of language education and lack of interest in E, and not to E being ineffably sublime.


> It’s generally a bad idea to use the word “you”—too intrusive—and there are said to be 20 ways of saying “I.”

See formal "you" and informal "you" in European languages for a related phenomenon. It's ironic that English "thou", the informal, singular "you", became so impolite that it fell out of general use. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thou .

> Women are expected to refer to themselves in the third person, men not.

It is interesting that J has women's language and men's language, but that does not make it exceptional in its uniqueness.

> A single verb in Yasunari Kawabata’s short novel Snow Country is translated in 29 different ways because what we would render as “I think” can in Japan mean “I remember,” “I long for” or 27 other things.

For comparison, I present the E verb whose Proto-IE ancestor has had the most success in surviving among its daughter languages https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bear#Verb_2 , and all the shades of meaning in E that it has acquired in its storied history.

> One prince in Genji has never been allowed to speak with his own sister except through curtains or behind a screen. Yet men in Genji’s world think nothing of going to bed with women with whom they’ve never exchanged a word.

Rather than reflecting on some essential role of silence in Japanese culture, it reflects primarily the court customs and the religious significance of the Japanese royalty. There may be an argument that this is reflective of silence and that this role of silence survives in some form in contemporary Japan, but it needs a more comprehensive argument with more evidence.

> You can tell a Japanese restaurant in the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris, my wife points out, by the fact that (unlike the places run by Koreans or Chinese) it never says “Japanese” at the entrance.

On the other hand, many Japanese restaurants advertise that they serve ramen/udon/sushi out front. In Japan, many restaurants have a greeter actively soliciting customers that you won't find in the West.

> In Japan, more than anywhere, nothing is more fatal than thinking you know what’s being said. The English word “hip” in Japan refers to the buttocks, and “smart” means slender. “Naïve” is a good word in Japan, and so is “tension.” A “mansion” refers to a thick-walled, modern and often small apartment.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_friend False friends are a perpetual source of embarassment, and is no way exceptionally fatal in Japan.


> It’s generally a bad idea to use the word “you”—too intrusive—and there are said to be 20 ways of saying “I.”

There may be 20 ways of saying "I" but a lot of them are archaic.

There are also plenty of ways to say "you" too, depending on the person and context, and I'm sure if you count them all, including the archaic ones, there's about the same number.

It is often said that it's impolite to say "you" in Japanese, and while that might have a little truth, there are very many perfectly fine uses of some forms of "you" in Japanese.


I found this handout an interesting analysis of the contexts in which the different Japanese pronouns are being used. It explicated some of the tendencies in which they are being used.

https://people.umass.edu/partee/MGU_2009/papers/Ponamareva.p...


> In Japan, I never forget that a great conversationalist is one who listens.

This is true everywhere, and not exceptionally more true in Japan than anywhere else. Perhaps Japanese are raised in a way that they have more good listeners.

> A couple that got married in Nagasaki soon after the bomb was dropped on the city, Susan Southard reports, would mention the transfiguring event once, and then never again.

I think this refers to a specific couple from this book? (https://www.amazon.com/Nagasaki-Life-After-Nuclear-War/dp/01...) It's a stretch to say that this is indicative of a general attitude toward silence.

> “If you think, ‘I breathe,’ ” said Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen teacher, “the ‘I’ is extra.”

Zen is just about as reflective of Japan in general as the Amish are of the US.

> Perhaps the most celebrated poem in Japan is Basho’s gasp of delight at seeing the island of Matsushima.

The author overstates its high-brow-ness. It's just fun to quote. There are a lot of haiku that are primarily funny.

====

I can go on, but it's more of the same. All these observations are isolated from various contexts and loosely tied together into a theme of Japanese silence. It's fun and doing something like this helps organize things into something readable, but for the theme to reflect something innately Japanese and more than an ad-hoc organization of prima facie similar thoughts would require a proper argument.

====

> One sign that Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a Japanese movie is the fact that the audience never hears its last, and presumably most important, sentence.

Surely this is satire?

====

> A Beginner’s Guide to Japan by Pico Iyer is now available from Knopf. Featured with permission of the publisher, Knopf. Copyright © 2019 by Pico Iyer.

Presumably this article consists of excerpts from the book. In terms of literary form, it's very fun, reminding of epigrams and Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. But the person who picks up this book based on its title expecting some nuanced reflection on Japan would find the author's dogmatic ignorance most discernible in it, and nothing remotely hinting at the wisdom behind Meditations. Note that I find that Meditations suffers similarly; the observations do not exhibit blinding ignorance as some do here, but they are terribly lacking in context for many to be more universally useful than just "notes to oneself".


> dogmatic ignorance

What a fantastic phrase and way of putting it, thank you.


......




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