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Misunderstandings About the Japanese Language and Culture


A Famous Torii in the Inland Sea of Japan

It makes me angry to hear people spouting nonsense about Japanese matters they know nothing about. It is said that ignorance is bliss, but when broadcasting to millions, a sense of responsibility in regards to the facts should be paramount. Otherwise, why take the job to begin with?

On an Armed Forces Network radio program in Tokyo recently, an American expressed admiration for a HAIKU by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). He said, "It goes like this:"

A frog jumps into a pond



This misses all of the beauty and the nuances of Basho’s most famous HAIKU. But the Japanese has to be explored to discover that:

古池や Furu ike ya
蛙飛び込む Kawazu tobi-komu
水の音 Mizu no oto

Ancient pond here

A frog jumps in

The sound of water

Even this translation looks simple, but it is not. The first three words set the scene. One imagines a pristine pond that has not been touched by human hands. And the "ya" at the end is a typical Japanese emotional touch (meaning "oh my" as an exclamation of admiration), giving resonance to the previous words. There is no translation of the word "kawazu." It comes from olden times. It is not used in modern Japanese, but here it emphasizes the phrase "ancient pond." More resonance. Finally, "the sound of water" not only rounds out the HAIKU, but subtly fulfills a requirement of every HAIKU: that there is a reference to the season. Japanese are closely attuned to the seasons in their country. The words here mean that it is spring.

Perhaps this quick explanation shows how much the American missed. But he is not the only one to do this. In one of J. D. Salinger’s works, he puts in his own "HAIKU":

The girl on the plane

Who turned her doll’s head

To look at me

A touching slice of life, maybe, but hardly a HAIKU. A hermetically sealed plane has no season associated with it. Nature is absent completely. Everything is artificial here, including the girl’s doll. And the plane itself, although a marvel of engineering, is another violation of nature. Not that it is bad in itself, but it does not follow the strict rules of HAIKU.

Salinger is one of the great modern novelists. His books like "The Catcher in the Rye" and "Franny and Zooey" have sold tens of millions of copies. I admire them myself. And they have been translated into dozens of languages. But his understanding of Japanese culture was severely limited.

"The Catcher in the Rye" was published 1951, even before a formal treaty ending the war between the US and Japan had been signed, so Salinger’s mistakes (he made others in regards to HAIKU in the same short story) can be overlooked. However, foreigners living and working in Japan today should demonstrate more sensitivity.

Over and above that, there are many clubs and associations giving Japanese lessons all over the country. They can be easily contacted. A HAIKU as famous as the one described above by Basho will be recognized immediately. Many Japanese can recite is from memory. I certainly can. Asking people who speak the Japanese language fluently and know the culture well is an ideal way to determine if a translation that has been seen is accurate.

And who knows? Friendship might be found there. Japanese in general are quite intelligent and well-educated. They are also generous in sharing their knowledge with foreigners. Engaging with them in a common hobby is one of the best ways to learn about the Japanese language.

Something that may startle people is that the entire nature of Japan is misunderstood. It is considered a "modern" nation, right? But what does that mean? When people talk about modern American society, they usually are referring to the country as it evolved after the Second World War. In particular, the 1950s are considered as the period when America consolidated its power in the world and experienced rapid growth in the economy, technology and other aspects of society.

However, to Japanese the modern era began with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Everywhere one looks around Japan there are landmarks and buildings that harken back to that era. Commemorative plaques can be found on streets and buildings describing events that occurred in the area more than a hundred years ago. These can be seen on streets throughout the country, not just in places designated as historic by the government or various societies.

And, of course, there are Shinto shrines and temples located all over. This may seem to be a mirror image of the churches and synagogues in the United States, but they are completely different. In the West, religions practice the worship of one God. However, Shinto belief embraces the thought of the existence of thousands of gods.

Consider the typical Japanese garden. There are white pebbles raked in straight lines that curve around massive boulders aesthetically placed within the garden’s surface. Japanese believe that spirits reside within these boulders, and that they can be seen if one meditates upon them long enough. Why? Because there ARE gods there!

In neighborhoods all across the nation, one often comes across small stone statues. These may also be traced back to Shinto. A popular figure is that of a fox, which in the past was said to bewitch people. The statues are meant to placate the gods to prevent harmful influences in peoples’ lives.

On a grander scale are the TORII, or gateways to the gods, that have been erected in waterways like the Inland Sea and other places. They are carefully preserved and maintained as a part of Japan’s heritage. Just recently sections of the temple in Asakusa, which draws millions of tourists and Japanese citizens every year, was refurbished. That was shown on television news segments as a significant event. It is hard to imagine such attention being given to such a simple activity in the United States.

How should all of this be interpreted? Viva la difference! Modern society is becoming homogenized all over the globe these days. It is good that old traditions and language are still being celebrated.

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