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J-myth 9: Japanese is a vague language

It’s no secret that Japan is a society that, in many situations, values indirect communication. Because of this, it’s common to hear Japanese people refusing to directly say no to requests, instead sucking in their teeth and saying things like vague things like “soo desu ne… sore wa… chotto… muzukashii desu ne…” Another common verbal tactic is the unfinished statement: instead of making a request, you state the problem, finishing with the particle “ga…,” leaving the listener to figure out what it is you want them to do. 

Because of these kinds of , the idea that Japanese is a “vague language” has become extremely popular among Japanese and non-Japanese alike. For the Japanese, it is another reason to extol how “unique” their culture is, and for non-Japanese, it’s often just another way to feel superior “The Japanese can’t even communicate properly because their language is vague!”

Japanese is often contrasted with English in this respect: I recently read an article in the Kansai Scene (a local English-language magazine) that stated categorically that Japanese is vague and English is direct.

The funny thing is, the whole concept that a language can be intrinsically vague (or clear, logical, pragmatic, direct, indirect, whatever) has pretty much been completely rejected by modern linguistics. Human language do vary in a number of interesting ways, but they are all complete systems that can pretty much do what their speakers want them to do.

If you’ve ever lived with a Japanese family, for example, you are probably aware than Japanese people can be almost brutally direct when the situation permits it. An American friend of mine who is extremely fluent in Japanese commented to me the other day that if you directly translate certain casual Japanese requests into English like “o-shoyu choodai” (soysauce, please ), then they sound like something your mother would get angry at you for back home. Sometimes Japanese can actually sound too direct to speakers of English. 

It’s also important to remember that English itself can be a famously indirect language. Contrast “Ima nan-ji desu ka?” with “I was wondering if you had the time.” The first is a direct question about the time, while the second literally expresses the speaker’s ruminations about whether the listener possesses “the time.” Granted, any native speaker would understand that the speaker was really just asking what time it was, but it’s important to remember that similar formulaic indirect statements in Japanese are also instantly understood.

Another problem with stating across the board that certain languages are “vague” or “direct” is that language use varies quite a bit from region to region, regardless of which language is being used. For example, if you compare most typical American communication with most typical Kanto communication, I think that it’s safe to say that Americans tend to communicate more indirectly. However, comparing Kansai communication (which tends to be more direct) with British communication (which tends to be less direct), and things get much more complicated. 

A Japanese co-worker of mine had a satirical postcard in her office that showed a picture of a man who had fallen into an English river. There were two versions of the picture: the first was labeled “incorrect English” (or something like that) and featured the man just saying “HELP!” The second version was labeled “correct English,” with the man saying “Excuse me! I was wondering if it was possible for you to help me?” Now, of course this is a joke: everyone speaking every language in the world would have a very brief phase at his/her disposal like “Help!” “Tasukete!” or whatever, and no-one would bother with a complicated, polite, indirect sentence. But, it points up a couple of things: the humor of the postcard is possible partially because English (especially British English) can be almost comically indirect at times. Also, it reminds us of the basic fact that all languages can be very direct or indirect depending on the situation. Yes, some cultures value indirect communication more than others, which is why the postcard works better in a British setting than it would in an American setting. But this is a product of how languages are used, not of any intrinsic qualities that they have.

There are plenty of people in this world that believe something rather different, however: rather than “British English or Japanese have a lot of indirect phrases and tend to be used indirectly because those cultures value indirectness,” they actually believe that certain cultures communicate indirectly because their languages are indirect. In other words, the language actually constrains the thinking and behavior of its speakers. This kind of thinking shows an influence of a couple of theories: “linguistic determinism” (people’s thoughts are determined by the languages that they speak) or “linguistic relativism” (people’s thoughts are influenced by the languages that they speak). In other words “Japanese language is indirect, and so Japanese people think and behave in an indirect manner.”

Although these theories still seem to remain somewhat influential in anthropology and some other social sciences, linguistic determinism has been pretty much completely rejected by modern linguistics, and linguistic relativism survives only in rather modest versions. This does not mean that modern linguistics denies a connection between language, culture and thinking, but rather that the influences proceeds from the culture to the language, not the other way around. Human languages are often used by a variety of cultures and in a variety of situations, and they are flexible enough to do what their speakers need them to do. An indirect culture may have a relatively large number of indirect phrases and verbal tactics at its disposal, but it will also be able to communicate directly when it needs to do so. Conversely, a more direct culture will tend to communicate more directly, but its language will enable its speakers to communicate indirectly when the need arises.

Getting back to Japanese, another reason why Japanese is often said to be vague or indirect relates to certain aspects of its structure, especially the fact that Japanese sentences do not require overtly mentioned subjects and objects. Sometimes, even fairly long Japanese sentences seem to consist only of a verb with the usual assortment of endings, plus an adverbial time or place phrase, and the usual ending particles that show emotion, politeness, whatever.

Take the generic Japanese phrase “o-genki desu ka,” often translated as “how are you?” though it really means something more like “Are (you) well?” Isn’t this vague? After all, it has no subject! Well, actually, it just so happens that Japanese is one of many languages that permits subjects and objects to be omitted when what you are talking about obvious from context. The fact that the that particle “ka” clearly makes the sentence a question pretty much removes the ambiguity: obviously, you’re asking the other person or people about their health, not making a statement about your own health. The honorific “o” also makes it clear that you are not talking about yourself, because in Japanese honorifics are used only for other people (honorifics and directional verbs like kureru and ageru actually end up doing a lot of the work that pronouns do in English). I suppose you could ask who exactly is this other person that “o-genki desu ka?” is addressing, but it’s also worth pointing out that the English equivalent “How are you?” is no different, as the English pronoun “you” can refer to pretty much anyone, singular or plural, within earshot. 

Both languages (indeed, all languages) have a lot of potential ambiguity, but since human languages are heavily dependent on context, the listener usually knows exactly what the English “you” or the Japanese empty subject really is referring to. Otherwise, we’d say something like “How are you, John?” or in Japanese “Jon-san, o-genki desuka?” (more casually, “Jon-san, genki?”) thus removing all possible ambiguity by directly referring to the subject by name.

All in all, I think that it’s fair to say “Japanese is a language that is often used in a vague way,” or “Japanese has a lot of vague phrases,” and especially “Japanese culture values indirect communication, and this influences how the language is used in many situations.” But, stating across the board “Japanese (or any language for that matter) is vague”–that is an unscientific point of view, and thus can be said to be a myth.

I’ll finish here by quoting Jay Rubin, Harvard Professor of Japanese Literature and translator of several Mukakami novels: “The Japanese language can express anything it needs to, but Japanese social norms often require people to express themselves incompletely or indirectly.” That pretty much sums it up.