J@pan Inc Magazine Presents:
JAPAN INC NEWSLETTER
Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 396
Friday December 8, 2006 TOKYO
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@@ VIEWPOINT: Hearing the Soul of Language
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@@ VIEWPOINT: Hearing the Soul of Language
One day 30 years ago I hopped into a cab in Yokosuka,
Kanagawa Prefecture, and uttered a single word:
"You speak good Japanese," said the driver.
The moral: Japanese have low, if any, expectations,
for the mother tongue as rendered by non-native speakers.
Which is to say they have a peculiar regard for the
The reasons are various. The claim of difficulty for
the language enables the Japanese to say they are poor at
English (they score near bottom among Asian nations on the
TOEFL) because the language is special and so different--
just look at the difficulties it presents foreigners who
try to learn it.
Then there are the quasi-religious aspects attributed to
the language by certain conservative scholars. Since
ancient times Japan has been called the land where the soul
of languages flourishes. It was believed that deities
dwelled in each of the characters of the "iroha," the
Japanese syllabary. Initiates into this language with
religious associations can't expect outlanders to know
I recalled the long-ago incident at Yokosuka when I recently
took in an exhibition entitled "Kamakura Story of
Akutagawa" at the Kamakura Museum of Literature.
Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892 - 1927), author of such masterful
stories as "Rashomon" and the "Spider's Thread," lived in
Kamakura for two and a half years in 1916 - 1919. Because
the exhibition focused on this period, as opposed to being a
retrospective of his entire life, it was popular, drawing an
average of 400 to 500 visitors daily.
I went on the eve of the final day, which was perhaps one
reason visitors streamed into the tiny exhibition room and
looked at the letters and manuscripts in glass display
cases. Outside the leaves had taken on hues of yellow and
red, and in the distance sailboats scudded across sparkling
Sagami Bay. I though it strange on this glorious day people
would crowd into a small windowless room to peruse
manuscripts they could barely read without modern
translations. Akutagawa was, of course, a superb writer
whom many Japanese first read in school textbooks, but I could not
help but feel there was yet another reason so many people
came to the exhibition.
The hilltop Kamakura Museum of Literature, the summer
residence of the former Marquis Maeda, makes an ideal
literary pantheon. Visitors remove their shoes and in
stocking feet make a tour of the great writers' photographs
and manuscripts. All speak in low voices. Visitors gathered
in the lecture room watched the video "A Literary Walk in
Kamakura" with the earnest attention of a congregation
listening to a church sermon.
I thought I understood why so many people visited this
literary pantheon. They came from reverence for the
Japanese language and from adoration for the writers who
had mastered it.
In the silence of the museum I heard the soul of language.
-- Burritt Sabin
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