Language and culture are tied to each other by a relationship based on mutual influence. A relationship which becomes even more fascinating to explore when talking about Japan.
Together with Emanuele Bertolani, a teacher “completely enthralled by the Land of the Rising Sun” and who has a degree in Japanese Language and Literature, we have explored this fascinating language which is so different from our own.
To speak Japanese well, it is essential to clearly understand the difference between honne and tatemae, that is, what you really think and what you show outwardly. For practical and ethical reasons, Japanese society gives great importance to homogeneity and cohesion; everything that is an uncontrolled expression of individuality (and which therefore comes from the honne) is not well accepted because it risks compromising the uniformity of the group.
How can this be translated from a linguistic point of view?
Let’s make a concrete example: what is the most basic expression of individuality? The wish that we usually translate with the verb “to want” for which there is no equivalent in Japanese. You can say that something is desirable or necessary, but it is not possible to literally translate a sentence such as “I want/I don’t want the truth”.
The Japanese say that if you know how to speak Japanese well, you don’t need to use pronouns because your command of the language and its registers of politeness make them superfluous.
The personal pronoun “I” is used very sparingly because, in this case too, attention is focused on individuality. This is why the Japanese avoid saying “I” unless it is essential and when they do use it, they follow some exact rules.
In fact, there is the Japanese spoken by men and the Japanese spoken by women. A bland difference during infancy, but clearly defined during school age.
When a woman is speaking about herself she can say atashi (the feminine I), while a man will identify himself as ore or boku (the masculine I). In certain contexts, women only can use the proper noun instead of the personal pronoun and only men can say jibun – “himself” instead of “I”.
Furthermore, some ways of referring to oneself are acceptable among friends and not in the workplace (and vice versa): for example, men do not say ore if they are speaking to their boss or a superior.
There is an auxiliary verb that plays this role, but it is confined to old Japanese or stereotyped expressions. In modern Japanese, if you want to say “I must do something” you use a double negation: “you must eat” translates as tabenakereba narimasen, “you cannot not eat”; or tabenakute ha ikemasen, “not eating is not good”.
In this way, once again Japanese deftly avoids mentioning the individual, leaving everything in a vague “you cannot not…”
“No” is a word that, if possible, the Japanese prefer not to pronounce. In fact a refusal is considered rude and antisocial because it makes the recipient feel uncomfortable.
Therefore “no” is substituted with expressions such as: chotto muzukashii desu ne (“this [that you are asking me] is a bit difficult”); chotto jikan kakarimasu ne (“this will need some time”); chotto muri kana (“this is a little impossible”).
Some language features taken for granted in our own language are very vague in Japanese. Nouns are genderless and numberless: for example, there is no way of knowing if sushi is singular or plural. As far as gender is concerned, the distinction between “male” and “female” does not exist even as an abstract concept, it’s as if everything was neutral, just like in English.
As well as not having a gender, verbs don’t have a subject; there is just one verb form for the entire conjugation: taberu is used for “I eat, you eat, he/she/it eats, we eat, they eat”.
Even when they are speaking about the past, the Japanese use just one verb form: tabeta is used for “I have eaten” and for “I ate”.
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