Japan Society of Fairfield County
Culture Watch, Society Watch (17)
by Dr. Ikuko Anjo Jassey
Before I moved to the States, I did not
truly realize that Japanese culture was fairly negative, compared to
that of the United States. Now I am fully aware of the fact since I am
"out of the box"; however it is not easy to adopt a new culture. My
husband from time to time points out a certain expression I use as a
negative one in this country. "My pig-like son" or "my stupid wife" is
certainly classical like Latin even in Japanese society today. Nobody
uses it anymore. And yet negativism in linguistic expressions is still
lingering clearly in Japanese society and culture.
I assume that Japanese mothers still use
expressions for their children, such as "Why don't you understand it?
How many times do I have to explain it to you?" [Do shite wakaranai no.
Nando setsumei shitara wakaru no.] while helping their children do
homework or when they did something they had been told not to do.
Sometimes, after these two utterances, "You are such a fool" [Baka
nanda kara.] might be added. Japanese people do not think this remark
is particularly negative. My Japanese classmate at Columbia actually
said something like that to her son, according to her. Then, her
American husband, who overheard her, said, "Why are you so harsh on
your own child?" What was his wife's response? She told him, "I can do
this because he is my son." For many Japanese people, it is a
traditional way to encourage their children and they believe that they
can say it because the child is their own. But it is unacceptable in
American culture with a psychological reason that it discourages
children. Thus, Americans would say, "Come on. You can do it. Let me
explain it again." After these three short remarks, "Do you want a
little break?" might come. Here is one more example. My Japanese
friend, who works as a substitute teacher at a middle school,
reiterated, "I said to the students who didn't study, 'If you don't
study, you can't be anything in the future.'[Benkyo shinai to, otona ni
natta toki nanimo dekinai desho]" Japanese people do not think that
this utterance is negative but take it just a matter of fact. Most
Americans would consider, however, it is negative and even derogatory.
Perhaps, they would restate it something like, "Listen to me. The more
you learn, the better off you will be." What a difference there is in
the ways of "encouragement"!
Furthermore, several years ago, "an
apology" written in a school newspaper by a male Korean student
attracted my attention; he claimed that one of his questions used in
his interviewing a professor was negative. He used "weakness" about a
building on campus in the original interview and rectified it to the
"need to be improved." The use of the word, "weakness" is nothing wrong
in Korean culture; however, it is not appropriate for American readers
because it sounds negative. Although he happened to be Korean, this
student could be Japanese. Likewise, my experience with a person living
in an adjacent town is another example to show how his "natural"
interaction as a Japanese sounds negative for his counterpart. This man
told us that his older daughter had applied to Harvard, Yale, and MIT.
So my husband said, "You have a bright daughter." "Oh, well, you see,
anyone can apply to any university. The point is whether she would be
accepted," he said, laughing happily. I understand his rhetoric without
any problem; he unconsciously followed his native custom to show his
humbleness. After we said goodbye to him, I asked my husband about his
reaction. He said that the person's statement was odd, which I
Thus, when my husband says, "You are so
pretty today," I usually manage to thank him. Even though I feel I am
the same as yesterday or even though I know that I am just average, I
try not to say, "Oh, I'm just okay" so that I sound "positive" for my
American husband. Or, for fun I occasionally exhibit how hybrid I have
become culturally. How do I do it? Well, my husband said at a gas
station several days ago while pumping that I was pretty that day. So I
said to him, "You say I am pretty TODAY. I'm ALWAYS pretty." He laughed
loudly, making the cold air warm up.
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