Progress and the Japanese language; will there be a computer on every tatami? Yasuko Morihara.
When I say to Americans that English is a difficult language, they always agree. They usually comment on irregular spelling or inconsistent pronunciation. But that is not the hard part. The hard part is deciding even before I open my mouth whether to use a, an, or the; whether a noun is singular or plural; which pronoun to use (especially he or
she); what verb tense to choose; A
Japanese visitor once marveled that our son who was a little over two year old at that time had already mastered the use of articles and singular and plurals. For Japanese these are the hard parts; we do not have these problems in Japanese.
Japanese does not have articles. Singular or plural is shown by context or specific words, e.g., one apple, three apple, many apple. Why do you need an s? Since pronouns are not often used, we avoid the whole sexiest problem in language use, because we do not identify the sex unless it is required. (We do not identify people by hair color either!) The time element in Japanese verbs is not elaborated as much as in English verbs.
Usually the subject is ommited (this also reduces pronoun use). The listener must figure out the subject from the context, e.g., "Samui (cold) desuka (present form of the be verb with no singular or plural distinction)?" If you are facing the person, it can mean, "Are you cold?" or it could mean, "Is it cold?" As a result, Japanese is normally much more vague than English. The listener has the liberty to interpret as he wants. Obviously, this can lead to misunderstanding, but it can also avoid conflict. It is very easy to be ambiguous in Japanese, whereas the nature of the English language makes it much more specific. We can, however, be precise if we need to be.
Most Americans agree that Japanese is also a difficult language, especially when they see the writing. The hard part of spoken Japanese for non-Japanese is not pronunciation--pronunciation is actually easy. All the sounds of Japanese are in English, although we do not distinguish sharply between I and r (you know the rice/lice jokes), f and h, b and v. Like Americans we enjoy the mistakes foreigners make in pronouncing our words. (In my college days one of the most popular chaper speakers was a certain American missionary. He usually pronounced the word kami which means God as kame which means turtle, so we would hear things like, "Turtle saves us.")
However, the part is in the "speech levels," the use of honorifics with nouns and polite forms of verbs. Before we speak, we must make a careful analysis of the human relationships involved. I must decide what my status in relation to the hearer is, what my relationship to the hearer is, what the relationships to other people we are discussing are. These relationships determine what I say and how I say it.
For example, suffixes are added to names to show these relationships: -san to names of peers, -chan to children or intimates, -sama for someone higher or to show greater respect (e.g., a salesman to a customer). Since I am the oldest in my family, my sisters and brother call me O-nei-chan, honorable older sister. In Japanese they never address me by my name, but in English they may, but not without adding -san. On the other hand, I can address them all by their names without honorifics.
The verb endings also show these relationships. The polite form of the verb is used to describe the action of the other; thus the hearer knows that it is not the action of the speaker. For example, ikaremashita (went) is never to be used for the speaker, for it is a very polite form of went. Therefore, the listener knows that someone other than the speaker went. Women use more of these polite forms than men do, especially when they address men. When men address women, especially their wives, the polite forms are not used.
Misreading a situation can result in great embarassment, the loss of friendship, and even the making of enemies.
At the point of language, Japanese are pragmatic. We know that Japanese language is difficult for modern use. So instead of trying to translate foreign words, we just borrow them. We adopted German for the medical field (Japanese doctors write their diagnoses in German); Italian for the musical field; English for cultural things (sports, foods, dating customs, household appliances) and all the technological areas.
While we do not hesitate to borrow the foreign words, we do not insist on pronouncing them our way. In general, Japanese alternates consonants and vowels. Most syllables and words end in vowels, e.g., department becomes de-pa-to-men-to. Since English has some sounds that we do not have in Japanese, we make changes, e.g., vitamin becomes bi-ta-min and coffee becomes ko-hee.
Furthermore, we shorten the words to economize on pronunciations and writing time. It is not too difficult to recognize the way they are shortened: de-pa-to for department; a-pa-to- for apartment; ko-re-pon for correspondence; pu-ru for swimming pool; pu-ra-to for platform; bi-ru for building.
Japanese accepts computer terms from America, but pronounces them in the Japanese way and sometimes shortens them, e.g., pa-so-kon for personal computer, wa-pu-ro for word processor, kon-pachi for compatibility, pu-ro for professional, so-hu-to for software. A Japanese computer dictionary contains about 8000 terms, the great majority of which are from English.
Japan did not develop its own writing system, but borrowed the ideograph system already highly developed by the Chinese. We call these ideographs kanji.
The Chinese began by drawing pictures. Over a period of time these pictures were stylized, and the forms were determined by the writing equipment: a brush, ink, and paper. If you see the picture behind the kanji, you can understand the rationale for its composition. Kanji are combined to represent more complex ideas just as in English nouns and verbs are modified by adjectives and adverbs. Since each thing and idea needs its own kanji, the number of kanji that must be mastered runs to tens of thousands and requires long training. And of course a living language requires new words, which require new kanji.
While the system many seem cumbersome to the Westerner, it does have one very great advantage: it can be totally separated from any spoken language, and thus it can transcend spoken language barriers. As a result the Chinese system was widely adopted in Eastern Asia. When East Asians gather, they cannot speak, but they can communicate through writing.
However, due to the complexity of the characters, simplification is taking place, and unfortunately, each country is simplifying in its own way so the writing consensus is beginning to break down.
When Japan adopted the Chinese characters, it also borrowed the Chinese pronunciations for them. This has caused great difficulty in reading and pronunciation. For example, the kanji that means east is pronounced to in Tokyo (East Palace) and pronounced higashi in higashi deguchi (east exit). The kanji that means capital is pronounced to in Kyoto and miyako in Miyako Hotel.
In context we can usually differentiate, but, when a word is the name of a place, a person, or a new product, it is not easy to determine which kanji is use. Sometimes both pronunciations are used. So in a conversation we often clarify a spoken word by "drawing" the kanji with a finger. Conversely, when we see a kanji, we cannot always be sure how it is pronounced, since many pronunciations are possible.
Kanji could not adequately meet the needs of the Japanese spoken language; therefore two forms of simplifed writing called kana were developed in the Ninth Century. There are 52 kana, each of which represents a Japanese syllable or phoneme. These permit writing Japanese phonetically. There are two forms of kana. One is called katakana which is of straight strokes and rather square like print. This is used for writing foreign words. The other is hiragana which is very cursive in form and is used to write all the Japanese and Chinese words that cannot be written in kanji or for the purpose of writing Japanese poems and novels.
Using kanji, katakana, and hiragana, Japanese can express fully an anormous number of new words, ideas, and information. If you open a Japanese magazine, you will find all three forms used along with untransliterated English words. We do not force new ideas into the mold of the traditional language and try to come up with new kanji; instead we add the new words to the base in katakana just as English borrows and makes new words to fit into the Anglo-saxon base. In fact, the government has limited the number of kanji for normal use to 1850 which are required for study through high school. A college student may have to learn several thousand more in order to read materials written before the 1850 limit was set.
Writing with the brush was not only a way of writing, but under the influence of Zen Buddhism brush writing became an art form and a spiritual exercise. Proper writing requires the proper spiritual attitude. Calligraphy became highly developed.
Then printing came to Japan, and a typewriter was developed sometime later. Due to the nature of the Japanese language the typewriter never came into the home. It stayed in business use. This does not mean every company and office owned a Japanese typewriter. They owned clerks--mostly female--who had very good penmanship to write and copy the enormous number of letters and documents. When a typed document is required, it is sent out to be typed. Thus, using a Japanese typewriter at home for personal use is unthinkable. Japanese students write by hand all their papers, theses, and dissertations.
You can imagine why having good penmanship is highly praised and envied. However, the flood of knowledge each child must now acquire for the entrance examinations leaves little time for the practice of penmanship, and it is now very rare to find members of the younger generation with good penmanship.
The computer with word processing may bring a revolutionary change to the business world. Even though the word processor is not yet used in business to the extent that it is in U.S., once the Japanese companies and offices begin using it, it will be adopted as standard procedure must faster than it was in the U.S. The U.S. still has highly sophisticated typewriters and many people can use them to fill the gap between handwriting and word processing. Japan will skip the typewriter and jump from long hand to word processor.
Once they see the result of a product produced by a word processor, Japanese will never want to go back to hand written documents. When the decision to switch is made, the spirit of willingness to work hard for the sake of the image of the company or institution to which one belongs will make everyone learn how to use the system. The result will be fast.
In the U.S. the typewriter was used in the business world first and then came into the home for personal use. The computer was introduced to the business world first, and now it has entered the home. This pattern is not likely to develop in Japan, at least not as quickly. It is the Japanese language that will make this switch to home use difficult.