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Thread: Understand Japanese mentality through the language

  1. #1
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Arrow Understand Japanese mentality through the language

    Anybody having learned a foreign language will know that not all words and expressions inevitably have a translation. This is all the truer when you cross the families of languages. French, Spanish and Italian have very few non translatable expressions as the roots are more often than not identical, as Latin languages. But taken a Latin language and a Germanic one, for instance Italian and Danish, and things get a bit more complex, even though we are staying the larger Indo-European group and Germanic languages have taken a lot from Latin ones throughout history.

    Now, start to learn Japanese, and most everyday expressions are so culturally impregnated that it becomes very hard to translate them (e.g. : "irasshaimase, itadakimasu, yoroshiku, ohayo, ittekimasu, okaeri...)

    I want to have a look at some expressions that reflect Japanese conception of the world and society. Let's analyse these expressions :

    sempai/kouhai ζ”yEŒγ”y

    Could be translated as the opposition "superior-inferior/subordinate" or "senior-junior" or "older-younger" or "old-timer-newcomer", etc.

    Japanese society is hierarchical. At work, every knows their position and if they are somebody else's sempai or kouhai.

    I find this expression very confusing because we never know if it relates to age, experience, rank, or length of time spent in a place (usually in a company). That means that Japanese think that age, experience and rank are always related, which explains why it is very difficult, if not impossible, for people under 50 or 60 to attain higher spheres of power (in business, politics or anything else). There are few young politicians or ministers, but even less young manager or CEO's.

    To add difficulty to the confusion, take the case of someone having 15 years experience and changing company. This person will be considered as "kouhai" (junior ?) as they are new in the company, regardless of their age and experience. So, what if this person receives a "senior management" post ? What if this is a foreigner who had achieved a quick climb and reached a top managerial position at a young age and move to this post in a Japanese company ? This person would command people older than them and with a longer "corporate experience" (of that very company), and thus be considered both sempai and kouhai, which is no normally possible.

    If some Japanese people read this, please express your opinion.

    gaikoku(jin) ŠO‘ilj

    "foreign country (foreigner)"

    A typical trait of Japanese mentality is the opposition Japan vs rest of the world. Listening to the Japanese, one would think that the whole world is uniform, that everybody is the same, speak one language (maybe English ?) and all act the same way.

    Rather than talking of a particular region or country, Japanese are notorious for asking "how do people do this abroad" or "what do foreigner think about that" or "if I go abroad, do they have this or that" ? My answer is invariably the same "but where ? in which country ? for whom ?"

    Speaking Japanese, they often use "mukou" Œό‚€ instead of gaikoku, which means "opposite", "over there", "on the other side" (of the sea ?). I like to retort "Are you taking about Korea or China ?", as in my mind, these are the 2 most obvious country on the other side of the sea.

    There are people in every country in the world that think by opposition of their own country to the world. Japan's pride of harmony make that the utmost majority of the people think like that. I have also realised that this was typical of East Asian countries. Chinese or Thai also have equivalent words to gaikokujin that they use especially to refer to non Asian people (as the Japanese do). Chinese say "gaikuoren" (same kanji as in Japanese) and Thai say "farang" (which originally means "French", as they were apparently the first non Asians to trade there).

    How comes East Asian put so much emphasis on this opposition "own country - rest of the world". Does anyone here know examples in other languages (in India, Indonesia, Arabic countries...) ?

    kikokushijo ‹A‘Žq—

    "student, child or young person returning to Japan from studying abroad (and usually expected to speak English or another language fluently)". Someone who has an experience of living abroad. The last kanji — doesn't imply it's only for females, but the Žq restrict the meaning to children or young people.

    In relation to the Japanese opposition "Japan vs rest of the world".

    For an European, going to another European country isn't really going abroad (especially when one lives at the border). For an English person, going to Scotland or Northern Ireland could almost be going abroad, though they sty in the UK. Going to France is going abroad, though they are still in the EU. Going to Canada or Australia, they ar abroad, but to a country that speaks the same language, still have the same Queen and once was the same country. The concept of "foreignness" is different for everyone. Some Brits feel Europeans, others always speak of Europe as opposed to Britain, like Japanese do for Japan opposed to the world.



    If someone want to give other word analysis in this thread, they are most certainly welcome to do so.

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  2. #2
    Junior Member tobata's Avatar
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    As to ζ”yEŒγ”y:

    > Japanese society is hierarchical.

    And it also has some "military-type" aspects. One of the good examples would be that in most Japanese schools, students do a ceremony before/after each class: "Kirittsu (stand up). Kiyotsuke (attention). Rei (bow)"

    In my gut feeling, those aspects must have to do with the ζ”yEŒγ”y thing.

  3. #3
    Regular Member Enfour's Avatar
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    Culture and language are very much intertwined and to separate them would be impossible and too simplistic.

    This is not just in Japanese but even in English. A person's accent is related to where they grew up, their parents, level of education and socio-economic factors.

    There are certain words that cannot be translated effectively from one language to another.

    The one I find the most interesting is gambaru or gambate-kudasai

    Friends/family encouraging each other to give it their all in their regular, everyday endeavours.

    If you translate this to english as "do your best" or "work hard" or "try your utmost" and as an English speaker you said this to your friend you would sound really condescending and lame. NO-BODY says this to their friends before they head out to their part-time job, or school..

    I would say something like, "have a good day" or "don't work too hard" or "don't get into too much mischief"..

    Interesting topic and worthy of discussion. Just a comment though about the word "mentality" in the subject of this thread. It sounds like you are looking to find fault and is problematic.. perhaps the word psyche is better.. it is important to remember that words have different effects on different people.
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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Arrow tobata

    I don't know if all schools in my country where like mine, but we always had to stand up and keep silent when the teacher came in, and not until had he or she say we could sit did we do so. In primary school (mine wasn't the norm), we had to line up by class without uttering a word and if anybody dared to speak, the director would come, take him (it was a boy school) out of the rank and lift him by the cheek till the feet got off the ground, which is very painful. I don't even consider it was military style because there was no solitary confinement, latrine cleaning, press up or beatings. Another difference is that there was no hierarchy (nor is there in Japanese school, to the best of my knowledge).

    Does this experience justify my feeling that Japanese school aren't that tough in comparison ?

  5. #5
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Originally posted by Enfour
    Culture and language are very much intertwined and to separate them would be impossible and too simplistic.

    This is not just in Japanese but even in English. A person's accent is related to where they grew up, their parents, level of education and socio-economic factors.


    I totally agree. The difference in accent exist in all languages, and the wider the geographic area covered by the language and the length separating, the more important they are. At one point, they become different languages, like Latin has turned to Italian, Spanish, Potuguese or French, or Old Norse into Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic.

    There are certain words that cannot be translated effectively from one language to another.

    The one I find the most interesting is gambaru or gambate-kudasai

    Friends/family encouraging each other to give it their all in their regular, everyday endeavours.

    If you translate this to english as "do your best" or "work hard" or "try your utmost" and as an English speaker you said this to your friend you would sound really condescending and lame. NO-BODY says this to their friends before they head out to their part-time job, or school..

    I would say something like, "have a good day" or "don't work too hard" or "don't get into too much mischief"..
    I didn't take that example on purpose, because it is one of the many words that you can't translate in english, BUT that you can translate in other European languages. For example, there are several expressions in French that are used exactly in the same way as in Japanese. They roughly translate as "do some effort", "come on", "don't let yourself down" and are almsot as common as in Japanese (in my experience). That is why I don't think it is intrinsicly Japanese.

    All in all, I'd say when a word is not translatable in English it often is in Latin languages. English has very few different transitive and intransitive verbs (raise - rise => ageru - agaru), but both Japanese and Latin languages are full of them. Lot's of Japanese idioms match better French ones than English ones (common expressions like daiben ‘ε•Φ shouben ¬•Φ are used in French too, but not in English). But sometimes words or expressions that are easily rendered into English cannot be translated into French or Italian (neither language has a word for "cheap/yasui" or for "drizzle/kirisame").


    Just a comment though about the word "mentality" in the subject of this thread. It sounds like you are looking to find fault and is problematic.. perhaps the word psyche is better.. it is important to remember that words have different effects on different people.
    That strange that it should give you this feeling, as it's the opposite for me. "psyche" make me think to "psycho" or "psychiatrist", but mentality is just "way of thinking or understanding the world". especially that the verb "to psyche" can mean "make psychologically uneasy".

  6. #6
    Regular Member Enfour's Avatar
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    Originally posted by Maciamo
    That strange that it should give you this feeling, as it's the opposite for me. "psyche" make me think to "psycho" or "psychiatrist", but mentality is just "way of thinking or understanding the world". especially that the verb "to psyche" can mean "make psychologically uneasy".
    That must be a cultural difference between you and I.. because the word Psyche (pronounced sy-kee) to me is what makes a person who they are...

    "to psyche up" to me is what coaches do to athletes to get them to perform at their best. "to psyche out" is what one athlete does to another to get the "edge".

    yes the word psycho is not very pleasant...
    but to me - mentioning the mentality of a person suggests that there is a deficit in their thinking.

    So words do trigger people differently..

    Fascinating subject isn't it..

  7. #7
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Yes indeed, I had this kind of problem when I went to Australia. It seems that the meaning of English words aren't always the same there as anywhere else. You are Australian, aren't you ?

    My oxford dictionary says :

    mentality : 1) "a characteristic way of thinking" 2) the capacity for intelligent thought
    psyche : "the human soul, mind or spirit"

    Other nice related words to "psyche" are : psychedelic, psychic (supernatural faculty), psychopath (or "psycho", i.e. antisocial mental disorder ), psychosis (severe emotional disorder impairing contact with reality) and more...

    Shall we speak of "frame of mind" or just "way of thinking" instead ?

  8. #8
    Regular Member Enfour's Avatar
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    Yep I am australian and we have lots of interesting and strange slang..

    but our English is closer to British English than American English.

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    Where I'm Supposed to Be kirei_na_me's Avatar
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    I believe I would have used "mentality" in the same way as Maciamo did. It seems to me, when using mentality, that it just means the general mindset or state of mind and doesn't come with any negative connotations unless you choose it to be so. I think the word mentality can be used negatively or positively.

    In my dictionary, the first definition of "mentality" is "mental capacity, power, or activity" and the second definition is "mental attitude; state of mind". For "psyche", my dicitionary's first meaning is "the human soul", next meaning is "the intellect", and the last meaning saying "the mind considered as subjectively perceived", among other things.

    As for your original post, Maciamo, I do agree with you. Even though I don't know the Japanese language as well as some of the rest of you do, I know enough to get that same kind of feeling from what I do know now. I think I first started feeling that way when I found out the the translation for "shujin" and "danna"?

    By the way, we say the same in the U.S. as far as using "psyche" goes. We use it in reference to "psyching someone up" before a competition or something. When I was in middle school, psych(the no e form) was used for saying something was a joke. Someone would make up this whopper of a lie, get someone else to believe it, and then go, "Psych!!!" Weird kids, we were...
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    Danshaku Elizabeth's Avatar
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    Focusing just on vocabulary, the lack of native words for "identity" and "privacy" have always seemed like particularly rich clues to understanding the Japanese mentality. I also read this was true of "concept" although I may just not be familiar with the nuances between concepto and gainen.

    In addition, there is nothing to express "to miss" (someone or something) directly. You have to resort the more general feeling of loneliness or "waitekite" (sadness at the sudden realization of something's absence) which is sort of an amalgam of loneliness mixed with the pangs of yearning or "missing."

    I don't have time to write more on this, now, but it is a fascinating topic and will try to come up with more examples later.

  11. #11
    Oni me no Riven. Riven's Avatar
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    Originally posted by Maciamo
    But sometimes words or expressions that are easily rendered into English cannot be translated into French or Italian (neither language has a word for "cheap/yasui" or for "drizzle/kirisame").
    Your right, there isn't any French or Italian word to say "cheap/yasui". In French we use the expression "bon marchι" or "pas cher" which is closer to "low priced product". In Italian it is said "poco caro" which is the exact translation of the French "pas cher".
    But in fact, for the English word "drizzle", we do have a translation : "bruine" or "crachin". But is word is not common, and some people don't even know it. It is rarely used in spoken French, but you can find it in books.
    As far as I know, the italian word for "drizzle" is "acquerugiola". but I'm not 100% sure of it. But I never met it, even in a book

    In French, psyche is only used in phylosophy.

    That strange that it should give you this feeling, as it's the opposite for me. "psyche" make me think to "psycho" or "psychiatrist", but mentality is just "way of thinking or understanding the world".
    The French word for mentality ("mentalitι") also have this meaning in French.

    Great topic ! A lot of food for thought
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  12. #12
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Let's carry on with other expressions :

    gomakasu Œλ–‚‰»‚·

    Like many Japanese words it doesn't have one translation but lots of them in English. It means : dissimulate, cover, cheat (on), deceive, falsify, misrepresent, (to) doctor, cook up, camouflage, dodge, (to) pocket, shortchange, and so on.

    Consider these examples :

    ^Žΐ‚π‚²‚ά‚©‚·
    Camouflage the truth

    ‰οŽΠ‚Μ’ •λ‚π‚²‚ά‚©‚·
    cook up [doctor] the company books

    Ε‹ΰ‚π‚²‚ά‚©‚΅‚Δ‚Ν‚’‚―‚Θ‚’
    Never dodge [cheat on] your taxes

    ”ή‚Ν‚Ό‚Μ“X‚©‚η‚P‚O‚O–œ‰~‚π‚²‚ά‚©‚΅‚ďφ”­‚΅‚½
    He pocketed one million yen of that shop's money and disappeared.

    ‚ν‚½‚΅‚Ν‚ ‚Μ“X‚Ε‚¨‚Β‚θ‚π‚²‚ά‚©‚΅‚½B
    I was shortchanged at that shop.

    ”ޏ—‚Ν”N—ξ‚π‚T‚Β‚ΰ‚²‚ά‚©‚΅‚Δ‚’‚½
    She took 5 years off her age


    I believe that this "gomakasu" is representative of East Asian mentality. Contrarily to Western countries, in Japan, Korea or China, it seems normal, even necessary in order to avoid losing face or keep the harmony, for the government and companies to dissimulate information. Anyone who has read Alex Kerr's 'Dogs and Demons' know what I am talking about. As for China, it is common knowledge that all information in the country is under strict control and knowing the truth is seen as unimportant if it helps keeping the social order. Corruption in higher spheres in Japan and China is seen by the population as an inevitable part and parcel of the human condition.

    I don't want to assimilate "gomakasu" with hypocrisy. It is related, but hypocrisy usually regards personal opinions, while "gomakasu" is about hiding a fact, often to one's profit.

    Hypocrisy is considered a good thing by lot's of English-speakers, if it can avoid hurting someone's feelings. For most Europeans however, outspokenness is prefered. A Japanese or an English person would hardly ever tell their friend that they don't like their (new) clothes, even if asked, but a French person, a German or an Italian certainly would (even without being asked !).

    But nowhere in the West is hiding information or lying in public appreciated - like Clinton in the Lewinski affair reminds us. The US attacked Iraq accusing it to lie and hide facts (WMD). So, in Western minds, this ("gomakasu") is enough to declare war. Nevertheless, Japanese politicians have always hidden the truth when they found it convenient (in the nuclear incident Nortgh of tokyo a few years ago, in innumerable corruption cases). Rather that reacting violently or criticising harshly the culprits, most Japanese would just respond "shikata ga ani" (it can't be helped), "they are only humans" or "it has always been like this everywhere in the world". That is true, but this acceptance make it a typical point of Japanese and East Asian way of thinking.

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    Does Japanese language from ancient beginnings have any correlation to the local environment?

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