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 anticipated.
     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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