Category Archives: Thoughts on Japan

04 Is Japanese a Hard Language?

[First published 19 Feb 2009]

Last year I was invited up to Edinburgh to speak at a conference organised by the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, which is one of a number of centres of excellence in language-based area studies recently established by the UK government (my own department at Sheffield, together with the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds, has formed the White Rose East Asia Centre to conduct research, and train researchers, in East Asian Studies). The conference was entitled Arabic on Campus and Beyond and was on the teaching of Arabic language, so a Japanese specialist like myself might seem to be an odd choice of speaker, but the final session was called ‘Comparative Perspectives’ and for it  specialists in other ‘hard’ languages were invited to discuss what was challenging for learners of their languages, so the Arabic specialists could see if there was anything they could learn from the way these languages were taught.

The ‘hard’ languages discussed were, perhaps not surprisingly: Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, too, of course (it just so happens that those four languages were the ones I considered taking at university, before I eventually settled on Japanese – but that’s another story). Each of these languages has different features which make them ‘difficult’, although difficult for whom is another question. When they are said to be ‘hard’, it usually means ‘hard for speakers of English, or Romance languages’, because, of course, speakers of languages closely related to them often have few problems acquiring them – Korean speakers manage to pick up Japanese with very little difficulty, for example.

Russian can be difficult as its tense and aspect system is quite complex – and different from what English speakers are used to in their own language. Arabic is a challenge because you have to learn both classical Arabic – the written language of high culture and religion – and the vernacular version – what is spoken by the man, or woman, on the street – and what they speak in Morocco is very different from what they speak in Egypt, for example.  With both of these languages you also have to learn a new writing system, too, of course, although both are alphabets, and Cyrillic even has some letters in common with the Roman alphabet used by English. Chinese is usually said to be the most difficult language to learn for native English speakers, even though its grammatical structure is similar to that of English in some ways, because you have to learn the correct tones to speak it correctly, and learn a character-based writing system, but what about Japanese, though?

Well, my presentation was on the difficulty of learning Japanese – for native English speakers, that is – and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the subject with you this week.

Before I went up to Edinburgh, though, I discussed the topic with my colleagues at Sheffield. The first thing that most of them said was, in fact, what my reaction to the topic was, too, ‘But…Japanese isn’t difficult to learn – it’s just tedious.’ This is the largest secret about Japanese: in many ways, it’s not a difficult language to learn – as long as you can stand the tedium of the initial stages. Obviously, as someone who has learned Japanese to a reasonably competent level, I would say this, but let’s see if I can’t at least make a start on convincing you that I’m right.

Let’s start with the ways in which Japanese is easier than English: first, its phonology is much simpler. The number of consonants and vowels that the language uses is significantly fewer – Japanese has just five vowels, whereas English uses over forty – making it extremely easy to pronounce for English speakers. I’m sure you must have had the experience many times of tearing your hair out over some of your Japanese students’ inability to get their tongues round English words – and there’s the reason why: their native language uses many fewer sounds, and you are asking them to make sounds which are completely outside of their normal inventory. By contrast, there’s only a couple of consonants in Japanese, /f/ and /r/ – think of fujisan 富士山 ‘Mt Fuji’ and raku 楽 ‘pleasant’ – which are not used in most varieties of English as a matter of course, and even with these you can get away with using English /f/ and /r/ and not sound too odd. So, Japanese phonology is no problem – what about the grammar?

Well, again, compared to English, Japanese grammar is relatively unproblematic: there’s no number for nouns (isu 椅子 is both ‘chair’ and ‘chairs’); no gender for nouns, as in many European languages; no case endings for nouns, as in German or Russian, for example (isu is always isu, whether it’s the subject, object or indirect object of a sentence); no person for verbs (iku 行く is ‘I go’, ‘he goes’, etc.) – you should try a language like Cherokee which, if I can remember back to my first year Linguistics lectures correctly, doesn’t have person either, but does have inflections for whether an action is perceived by someone else, or is carried out in isolation; only two substantially irregular verbs (iku and kuru 来る ‘come’); only two tenses (past and not-past – and some linguists even argue that Japanese doesn’t have tense at all, just markers for completion of actions); no articles (the/a) and so on. More important than all of these, perhaps, is the language’s general regularity – once you learn a rule, you can follow it and know you won’t really come across any exceptions, so you can learn the language with a fair degree of proficiency quite quickly – unlike English, with its blizzard of exceptions to every rule, confusing nest of tenses, etc. Frankly, it comes as no surprise to me that Japanese need to make a great effort to learn it well: that’s not to say they can’t – as with anything it’s a matter of motivation and opportunity to practice. Many of the young men sent abroad to study after the Meiji Restoration learned English extremely well – keeping diaries in English while away – and they were, of course, extremely well motivated, and it’s the same today: motivated students can do it, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

So, given that Japanese is such an easy language (several of the Arabic specialists came up to me after my presentation and told me I’d almost convinced them to switch to Japanese at this point), why is it that Japanese has a reputation of being a ‘hard’ language? Why is it that that many who start give up, and many others fail to learn it well? Watch this space – I’ll talk about that next week.

03 A Love Affair in Five Acts

[First published 13 Feb 2009]

I was going to devote this week’s column to the topic of the Japanese language – and why it I, or isn’t, a difficult language to learn, but on noticing that the annual chocolate fest that is Valentine’s Day in Japan  was nearly upon us, I decided that instead this week I’d devote to some thoughts about the Japanese idea of love, although as Lewis (1996: 270) says ‘Valentine’s Day in Japan, for example, has a multiplicity of meanings that connect very strongly to issues of gender and power in that country, and that have little to do with the holiday as it is understood in America,’ or any other English-speaking country, for that matter, and has very little to do with love at all. That, however, is a matter for another time.

How you express love for another person differs according to age, sex and, of course, cultural background, and what may be perfectly acceptable and normal behaviour in one cultural context can be beyond the pale in another. It’s also true that customs change over time: I well remember an anecdote told me by one of the Japanese members of staff at SOAS, in London, while I was doing my doctorate, about her grandmother’s wedding night. It seems that upon being escorted into the marital bedroom for the first time, she found her new husband, with whom she had barely exchanged two or three words before – this being a traditional arranged wedding (miai 見合い) – kneeling seiza 正座 beside the futon with a piece of paper, a brush and an ink-stone before him. He pushed these towards her with a brusque, ‘Koi no uta o yondekure’ 恋の歌を詠んでくれ (‘Compose me a love poem!’), and so her first act in married life was to wrack her brains for memories of the classical love poems she had learnt at school, and cobble something appropriate together out of the pieces.

I have no idea how many new Japanese husbands still ask their wives to do this – almost none, I suspect – but the exchange of poems between lovers has an extremely long history in Japan, and Love is by far the most important topic in traditional waka 和歌 poetry, matched only by the combined four seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. You might wonder why this should be the case – well, the origins lie in the way relations were conducted between noble men and women in Japan’s classical, aristocratic age – the Heian 平安 Period between the ninth and twelfth centuries.

At that time, the only men a noblewoman was likely to meet face-to-face were her father, brothers and husband, unless she was fortunate enough to get a position at court. Any other men would be met through blinds and curtains, and if she was relatively senior, would only be communicated with through intermediaries – if a man called, the lady would speak to one of her serving women, who would approach the curtains dividing the room and speak to the man on the lady’s behalf. The lady herself might not even hear his voice as he spoke to her servant, and he might not even hear hers, as the servant passed on his words.

How, then, was a man to impress a lady enough that she might admit him into her bedchamber? And how was a lady to know what a man was like? On what basis could they form a judgement, when neither knew what the other looked like, sounded like, or were like? Well, the answer is that there was one means of communication open to them – writing, and more specifically, love poetry. A man would write a poem to a lady, and if she liked the sentiments of the poem, the look of his handwriting, his choice of paper, and the dress of the servant who delivered it, she might write back.

A traditional Japanese love letter, with accompanying flowers

On receiving her reply, the man would assess it in the same way, and decide whether he wanted to continue pursuing her. (If the lady was unwilling, but her serving women deemed the man a good one, they might write back on her behalf, and more than one Heian lady was surprised to find herself suddenly in the company of a man, who had been admitted by one of her servants.)

This vital role that poetry played in relations between the sexes accounts for its importance as a topic for poetic composition. Poetically, a relationship was expected to go through five distinct stages: anticipation, consummation, satiation, desperation, and separation. So, you get poems yearning for a lover who doesn’t even know you exist, poems of joy after a relationship has been consummated, poems of affection between lovers who are close to each other, poems of grief when a lover has turned cold and either refuses another meeting, if a lady, or fails to come visiting, if a man. Finally, there are poems railing against a lover who has moved on, when the relationship is over and done.

A tryst was expected to be carried out according to detail rules of etiquette: the man had to arrive after dark, but he should not keep the lady waiting too long. After admittance to her house, he might play music – usually a flute (fue 笛) – while the lady accompanied him on the koto 琴. Next, he might be permitted to approach close to her curtains, while she approached from the other side, and they would converse directly. It was then understood that he would thrust the curtains aside, and the two would become lovers. This might be the first time the pair had ever seen each other, and thus in classical texts miru 見る ‘see’ almost always means ‘sleep with’ when referring to a man ‘seeing’ a woman. After spending the night together, buried under their kimono 着物 (other kinds of bed covering didn’t start being used until much later), the man had to be up and depart at dawn, before the rest of the household was officially awake. His first task, on returning to his own residence was to write a ‘morning-after’ poem, usually about how his sleeves had got soaked with dew, that is, tears, on his way home. This was an anxious period for the lady, for until his poem arrived, she didn’t know how serious the man was, and if it came tardily, or not at all…well, that would be dreadful. Once the man’s poem came, she would reply, usually along the lines of how she grieved at how brief their time together had been, and would seek to dream of his face while they were apart. Of course, if she didn’t think much of him, she would reply late, or not at all.

All this would usually be taking place in her parents’ house, and frequently with their connivance, if they approved of the man. If they did not, then they might post guards, or take other steps to keep him out – there are any number of sorrowful poems by men whose access to their lovers has been severed by disapproving parents. Once a man had spent three consecutive nights with a lady, and both parties agreed, the pair would be considered ‘married’ (there was no religious ceremony equivalent to a wedding – the Shintō ceremony used today was invented in the early twentieth century for the wedding of the Taishō Emperor), and he might be allowed to stay on past dawn, if he was lucky.

It seems a strange way to carry on relationships, but it lasted for several hundred years, and though there was much grief and jealousy – unavoidable when the system expects that one man will have a number of ‘wives’ in different locations and visit them – there was also much joy and passion, and through reading the poems these people have left behind you can form a connection with them as human beings, despite their living a thousand years ago in a society which is alien to us in almost every respect.

If you’d like to read more classical love poetry, check out my translations on my website (there’s over 3000 translated poems there, covering the entire range of poetic topics – you can even subscribe to my mailing list to get a weekly dose of poetry). I’ll leave the final word to Izumi Shikibu 和泉式部 (?976-?), perhaps Japan’s greatest ever poetess, and a beautiful poem which I love for its simple description of a single tender moment between two lovers:

Topic unknown.


kuro kami no
midarete sirazu
madu kakiyarisi
Fito zo koFisiki
My black hair’s
In disarray-uncaring
He lay down, and
First, gently smoothed it:
My darling love.



Lewis, George H. (1996), “The Somersaults of Monkeys: Diffusion of Culture and Meaning across the Pacific Rim” Journal of Popular Culture 30 (1), 263-276.

02 Jiko shōkai

[First published 8 Feb 2009]

Why introduce yourself?

I thought I would start this column on the topic of self-introductions (jiko shōkai 自己紹介), by seeing what the average Japanese, in the person of the contributors and editors of the Japanese version of Wikipedia, think about the topic. Well, the entry on self-introductions gives quite a lot of information about all the different types of jiko shōkai: at job interviews, before large crowds, at meetings, at wedding receptions, at parties, on the telephone, and when handing over your business card. It notes that the fundamental purpose of a self-introduction is ‘so that people who basically don’t know anything about you can get to know you’ (kihonteki ni jibun no koto o shiranai ningen ni jibun wo shittemoraru tame 基本的に自分のことを知らない人間に自分を知ってもらうため) and continues, not surprisingly, that ‘people who have something amazing about them appear to want to express themselves with self-confidence, but for people who are aware that they are nothing special, self-introductions are torture’ (sugureta mono o motteiru hito wa jishin wo motte hirekishitagaru ga, nani mo motteinai to jikakusuru hito ni wa jiko shōkai wa tsurai 優れたものを持っている人は自信を持って披瀝したがるが何も持っていないと自覚する人には自己紹介は辛い).

You can also put the characters自己紹介 into any of the Japanese search engines and come up with a host of self-introduction-related websites, ranging from automated introduction generators, to any number of people introducing themselves on their own web-pages. In addition, let’s not forget YouTube, where you can watch numerous non-Japanese practicing their Japanese self-introductions, or a variety of tarento タレント doing their own, no doubt put up by adoring fans. Here, Michishige Sayumi 道重さゆみ from pop-group Morning Musume モーニング娘, rattles through a jiko shōkai in about a minute, covering her birthday, blood-type, birthplace (with some background on the local delicacies and topography), when she first joined the group, her character (even if she comes across something very unpleasant, she’s fine after sleeping on it), and so forth. That is a standard and, of course, professionally done ‘celebrity’ self-introduction, but if you live and work in Japan in a Japanese institution, I’m sure you’re familiar with this scene: someone new joins the office, and he or she is expected to stand before everyone and introduce themselves with a formal jiko shōkai, which, like the celebrity version, begins with their name, some information about where they are from, but then continues with their educational background, and concludes with a promise to work hard and a request for forbearance and assistance until they find their feet. These tend to ‘involv[e] the formulaic exchange of information including one’s name, company, and position, the jiko shokai is highly ritualized’ (Martin et al 2008: 42), but it is something ‘that a man had to learn as a first step to mastering the protocol of corporate life in the 1970s’ (Martin et al 2008: 35) – obviously, in the 2000s this goes for women, too.

You’ll see similar scenes when joining a class, or a club, or almost any type of organised activity, and I expect you’ve wondered, then, why the Japanese think this is so important – I know I did when I was first getting to know the Japanese way of doing things.

Well, there are a number of different factors operating here. First, there’s the Japanese love of formal rituals to punctuate social events – anyone who has worked at, or even attended a Japanese educational institution will be more than familiar with the run of ceremonies that mark progress through the school year, and progress through a school from entry to graduation. There’s a belief that anything important is worth marking formally, and this is where the jiko shōkai comes in. Second, I’m sure you also know that the Japanese, in general, consider it extremely important to both put effort into maintaining relationships, and to ensuring that any relationships are conducted on the ‘correct’ social footing. Finally, one of the major factors governing relationships between people is whether they can consider themselves members of the same group, or if they are in separate ones. This is vitally important because whether someone you are talking to is ‘in-group’, that is part of your own group, or ‘out-group’ – not in your group – determines what sort of language you use when talking to him or her, and what terms you use to refer to other people, both within and outside of your group. You can even send messages about the extent to which you believe an addressee is part of your group through the language you use – often in quite subtle ways – of which I’ll talk about in another column.

The jiko shōkai serves as formal way of easing a person’s way into a new group – even one that may be relatively transitory – and gives the other group members information that they can use to position themselves vis á vis the newcomer in the network of intra-group relations. In Japan’s ‘educational qualification society’ (gakureki shakai 学歴社会), for example, information about where a person’s degree comes from can help assign status – you have only to think of the numerous TV dramas which feature someone from an elite university like Tokyo taking a job, or being assigned to a department, which would normally be considered beneath them, and the shock that this causes their new colleagues, or even superiors, to see how important this is. Similarly information about where someone comes from helps to determine whether there can be any other common ground – might people have attended the same festivals, or be familiar with the same local traditions, and so forth. The final requests for help and the promise do to one’s best, of course, serve as reassurance that the new person is going to do their best to fit in, follow the group’s interests and make the effort to maintain relations both within and outside of the group.

You do have to decide, of course, how much information about yourself you reveal, particularly if your background is in any way non-standard, as this anecdote taken from Maher (2005: 87) pithily shows:

I joined a men’s suit company. The first afternoon at the company we had self-introductions ( jiko shokai). I was nearly shitting myself. Do I bring up the Ainu thing or not? I knew from past experience it was kind of risky.

Maher (2005: 87)

The question then arises, of course, of what you do in these circumstances as a non-Japanese, as, almost certainly, you won’t be expected to fit in with the group in the same way that a Japanese person would, and your Japanese colleagues can’t use the information you can supply about yourself to position you in the group in the same way that they would a new Japanese colleague. You can, however, treat the event with the seriousness it deserves, as a symbol of an entry into new relations with a group of people and a display to them that you take that relationship seriously. As I mentioned before, the Japanese place a great deal of importance on maintaining establishing and maintaining relations – you only have to think of the effort that goes into sending New Year greetings, and midsummer gifts to know that – and an indication from you at the outset that you are willing to make an effort can reassure them that it is worth their reciprocating. So, the answer to the question, ‘Why introduce yourself?’ for both Japanese and non-Japanese alike, is ‘Because it gets a relationship off to the right start.’


Maher, John C. (2005) ‘Metroethnicity, language, and the principle of Cool’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language 175/176: 83-102.

Martin, Fran; Jackson, Peter and Yue, Audrey (2008) AsiaPacificQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities, University of Illinois Press.

01 Welcome

[First published 2 Feb 2009]

I intend to range fairly widely in this column, from musings on the Japanese language, to thoughts from across the range of Japanese Studies, both modern and premodern, with the intention of providing a window of sorts onto Japan and the Japanese. I don’t live in the country, of course, and haven’t done so for almost twenty years (although I’m lucky enough to be able to visit regularly at the moment), so I don’t know much about living there day-to-day, but I have spent over two decades improving my knowledge of the language – spoken and written – and reading and researching about different aspects of Japan, as well as working with colleagues conducting their own studies of a variety of Japan-related topics, so I have a good academic knowledge of the place, and that’s what I hope to provide. After all, sometimes the outsider’s perspective can be clearer than that of someone closer at hand.

I suspect many of you are wondering about the subtitle for the column – 金額からの思い kin’gaku kara no omoi – well, that comes from a famous description of Sheffield, back in it’s nineteenth century days as a one of the most important centres of the British steel industry (‘Sheffield steel’ is still famous in precision instruments, such as surgical scalpels, and the Cutler’s Hall is still one of the city’s major buildings). But I digress: back then the city was described as ‘a grimy picture in a golden frame’, as a reference to the smoke and dirt associated with steel production, situated in some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain – the Peak District – and I thought that ‘Thoughts from a golden frame’ would be a good, if subtle, reference to Sheffield. Incidentally, when Sheffield City Council had its tourist brochure translated into Japanese, ‘a grimy picture in a golden frame’ became simply kin’gaku no naka no e 金額の中の絵 ‘a picture in a golden frame’, forsaking accuracy for the sake of not putting off the tourists!

The Peak District, of course, has been a famous tourist destination for more than two hundred years – fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will remember that Lizzie Bennett travelled to its southern parts, in Derbyshire, with her aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Gardner, and there once more met Mr Darcy at his estate in Pemberley (famously depicted by Colin Firth emerging dripping from a swim in the lake and running into a flustered Jennifer Ehle in the BBC’s 1995 version).  Jane Austen’s writing has been said to have a great deal  in common with that of Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部, the author of Japan’s greatest literary masterpiece, Genji Monogatari 源氏物語 ‘The Tale of Genji’ on the topic of which I’ll say more in a later column.

Sheffield’s own Japanese connection, however, dates back well over one hundred years, as it was one of the sites visited by members of the Iwakura Mission (1871-73) – the famous tour by Japanese government officials and experts to learn about foreign technology, culture, society and economy in order to aid in the Meiji modernisation of the country. In fact, it was possible to see the chimney of the factory the mission visited from my office window until recently. The Mission kept detailed records of their experiences, all of which have now been translated into English as the multi-volume The Iwakura Embassy, 1871-73 : a true account of the Ambassador Extraordinary & plenipotentiary’s journey of observation through the United States of America and Europe (2002: Chiba Japan Documents) with my own colleague Graham Healey as Chief Editor. The visit to Sheffield doesn’t make that interesting reading, but here’s a description of another place they visited:

Amongst the about 650 men of talent assembled, there are white haired elders, calm and virtuous gentlemen, and also prodigiously able youths. During the sparkling debates and orderly explanations, they gaze upwards, lie prone, or sit in silence cogitating deeply, or write letters, peruse documents; some among them even sketch pictures. The opinions are varied, and seem like a hundred brilliant blooms…at the most important moments, they call out, ‘Hear! Hear!’, or an even more essential expression of praise is, ‘Cheers!’, and when they good-naturedly defeat a ludicrous proposition, there are guffaws of laughter; among them yawns can be heard, and men who disagree pay no attention, and scoff, or glance at other drafts; there are even some men who seem to know nothing of their office.

I hasten to say that this translation is mine, and not the official one, but can anyone guess what this extraordinary institution was?

Well, the clue is in the number of men: 650 – and what they do – debate – so I’m sure you can guess that this is a description of the British House of Commons, and the men described are Members of Parliament! How little has changed in 140 years… I think that’s enough for a start; for my next column I’ll stick more closely to the brief and give some thoughts about why a formal Japanese relationship always starts with a jiko shōkai 自己紹介 ‘self introduction’.