Japan & America: Linguistic Differences, Cultural Differences, and Being a Foreigner in Japan

Japan and America

I just finished reading a book called Japan & America, by Bernice Z. Goldstein and Kyoko Tamura. It examines certain differences between Japanese and American linguistics in the interest of using those differences as a base for analysis of cultural differences between Japan and the United States. Their specific interest is in who is talking, how that person talks to the listener, and how they talk about a third party, when mentioned. In their own words:

We assume that any language is a pattern through which a speaker learns how to conceive of himself in relation to others and learns to think of others in relation to himself and still others. Most particularly throughout the course of this book, we suggest that Americans and Japanese see these relationships of speaker to listener and to third parties in very different ways, and we believe that the differences between American English and Japanese melt into differences between culture and personality in our two societies. Fundamentally our problem concerns the question of who is related to whom and how. This question is pertinent to the study of any language, but our focus is “who is related to whom and how” as it applies to differences between American and Japan, first from the vantage point of language differences and later as it applies to differences in culture and personality.

They conclude that American English and the child-rearing practices of the American mother serve to create a person who relates to other people by linguistically minimizing differences in rank and status, for the most part, between himself and others. Self-identity is expressed through means such as personal comments tacked on to standard polite forms. An individual may be part of a group, but group associations are often fleeting and not usually considered part of the definition of his identity.

The Japanese language and the child-rearing practices of the Japanese mother, however, teach a child from early on to be keenly aware of differences in status between individuals and the groups they belong to. Part of one’s self-identity as expressed in conversation concerns the manipulation of polite and humble linguistic forms to indicate to which groups the speaker and listener belong and how they relate to each other. Continue reading