Posts Tagged language

Autumn at Sheffield Park Gardens, East Sussex

In a November 4th article in the Daily Yomiuri, Mike Guest wrote about marked language: “phrases like, “Japan’s four seasons” instead of the seasons, or “American joke” for any joke told by a foreigner. Marked by redundancy. ”

Many Japanese will insist that Japan is unique because it has four seasons, and if pushed will admit that other countries do too, but that in Japan the seasons are very clearly distinguished!

And how right they are. As you can see from the photo, autumn in Britain is a very mundane affair, and no different from the other 3 seasons which are all equally miserable and quite undistinguished, even indistinguishable from each other. Autumn colours? What autumn colours?? (See more dull photos here and here).

Ode to Autumn” – John Keats (1819)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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Is fair sometimes unfair? – Part 2

This is a follow-up to my earlier blog-post Is fair sometimes unfair?

I was reminded of the article When Fairness Runs Foul, and of my earlier encounters with the Japanese sense of “fairness” when I read a chapter by philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand is here playing devil’s advocate – illustrating with an example of her own an opinion with which she in fact violently disagrees. (The opinion she is arguing against is not expressed by a Japanese but by a British journalist – Peregrine Worsthorne). Here is the excerpt from Ayn Rand:

This means that if a young student (named, say, Thomas Hendricks), after days and nights of conscientious study, proves that he knows the subject of medicine, and passes an exam, he is given an arbitrary privilege, an unfair advantage over a young student (named Lee Hunsacker) who spent his time in a drugged daze, listening to rock music. And if Hendricks gets a diploma and a job in a hospital, while Hunsacker does not, Hunsacker will scream that he could not help it and that he never had a chance…. Brain power? It’s determined by family life – and he couldn’t help it if Mom and Pop did not condition him to be willing to study. (Chapter 3 “An Untitled Letter”,  in Philosophy: Who Needs It? )

I cannot recall an occasion when I have heard someone protesting in Japan “fukouhei da!” or “zurui!” who has then been called on to explain or justify the accusation: in Japan, it seems the person who thus protests automatically has the high moral ground, and it is for the other party to explain and justify themselves.

Worsthorne is not Japanese, and is not making a pout, whining “It’s not fair!” like a spoilt child.  He is making a well thought-out logical argument, and he elucidates his rational basis for his claim:

The ideal of a meritocracy no longer commands such universal assent… It used to be considered manifestly unjust that a child should be given an enormous head-start in life simply because he was the son of an earl, or a member of the landed gentry. But what about a child today born of affluent, educated parents whose family life gets him off to a head-start in the educational ladder? Is he not the beneficiary of a form of hereditary privilege no less unjust than that enjoyed by the aristocracy?”… Family life is more important than school life in determining brain power… Educational qualifications are today what armorial quarterings were in feudal times. Yet access to them is almost as unfairly determined by accidents of birth as was access to the nobility.

(Ironically, Worsthorne, Wikipedia tells me, was knighted in 1991, thereby joining the aristocracy.)

The Japanese cry of “Fukouhei” is not so rationally based as Worsthorne’s, although it bears superficial resemblance to “the politics of envy”, and may sometimes be used for that purpose.

In her article, Elwood makes a brief reference to anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra and her book Japanese Patterns of Behavior.

Americans are sometimes confronted with the dilemma posed by the question “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Naturally at times any person may find himself or herself in a quandary regarding the best answer to this query, but perhaps more Japanese are likely to choose the “happy” option more rapidly. This attitude has been termed “interactional relativism” by anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra in her classic Japanese Patterns of Behavior.

A search on Google Books brought me to Japanese Communication: Language and Thought in Context by Senko K. Maynard (also on I haven’t read enough of either Lebra or Maynard to understand the concepts fully, but this caught my eye:

Lebra combines this concept of interactional relativism with the concept of the “social preoccupation” of the Japanese people, and refers to the combined concepts as “social relativism”.

“Social preoccupation” indeed. Japanese people never tire of telling themselves and each other that “ningen kankei” 人間関係 or human relations, is the most stressful occupation, while at the same time complex and unavoidable. In other words, it’s a pain in the ***. Or perhaps I should quote Sartre: “Hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les Autres”, Huis Clos, 1944).

In other words, the Japanese cry of “unfair” is not based on an absolute ethic but on a relativist one. What is a relativist ethic? Is there such a thing?

Ayn Rand wrote that “all human knowledge is hierarchical in structure” and that philosophers “must learn to distinguish the fundamental from the derivative.” The Japanese sense of “fukouhei” is a derivative, but I’m not yet clear what the fundamental beneath that derivative is.

A favourite saying of many Japanese is “case by case”, meaning the flexibility to decide matters on different factors each time, rather than relying on an inflexible, logical, principle or moral.

I looked up “relativism”  in the Ayn Rand lexicon, but found “pragmatism” instead. Here’s an excerpt:

[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards—that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth—that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate” … A later school of more Kantian Pragmatists amended this philosophy as follows. If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call “reality,” therefore this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism.

So perhaps the Japanese preference for “case by case” is an example of a Japanese form of pragmatism.

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Is fair sometimes unfair?

Life is so unfair sometimes (63/365)

Originally uploaded by labspics

A colleague recently gave me an article from the Daily Yomiuri. “The Language Connection”, “Cultural Connundrums: When Fairness Runs Foul” by Kate Elwood, Tuesday November 4th, 2008. It compares Western (North American) concepts of fairness with Japanese. Yes, they are not always the same!

Intercultural communication researchers Junko Kobayashi and Linda Viswat distributed a questionnaire about classroom fairness to 157 university students in the United States and 155 university students in Japan. Many similarities were observed between the groups. For example, both groups agreed that exams should reflect material covered in class and that it is unfair for a teacher to ask anything falling outside this scope. However, Kobayashi and Viswat also found some interesting differences.

In a question about a student asking information about an upcoming test after class and as a result being better prepared, many students across the Pacific thought it was fair because the student had shown resourcefulness and motivation, while many students in Japan viewed it as unfair because not all of the students had the same information regarding the test.

In a scenario in which a teacher had good readers of English read large passages in class but had poor readers fumble their way through just a few lines, many students in the United States felt this was not unjust given the clear discrepancy in skill. However, the students in Japan believed that teachers must give all students the same opportunities irrespective of capability.

Viswat and Kobayashi at least try and identify a basis for these differences. In the first example, they write,

it appeared that the students in the United States believed that it was fair for personal initiative to be rewarded even if it produced benefits that gave the seeker an edge over others.

The second example, they write,

was related to fairness in the face of differences in ability.

Viswat and Kobayashi identify two kinds of Japanese “unfairness”, as represented by the words “zurui” ずるい and “fukouhei” 不公平 (my emphasis):

Zurui, which is sometimes rendered as “sly” or “cunning,” is related to having the upper hand, or at least being seen as such. While a student at Tokyo University, Nakako Kondo conducted research regarding zurui. She notes that zurui is an emotional expression of perceived injustice that is not subject to rigorous scrutiny but which assumes a sympathetic response on the part of others. Importantly, it is viewed as an acceptable voicing of discontent while other types of negative expression are often frowned upon. Kondo surveyed university students and collected 116 examples of things that might be considered zurui. It turns out that almost anything can be zurui: attractive looks, education, age, order of birth, ability, and any garden-variety good fortune.

Fuko-hei, on the other hand, is usually used in more terms of institutionalized inequality, for example, wage differences based on worker status, gender discrimination, or geographic disadvantage.

I think the authors mean “institutional inequality” not “institutionalized inequality”. My understanding of fukouhei is that it is applied to institutions or authorities when they are believed to have acted in unfair ways, which usually means giving (or giving the appearance of giving) one person or group an unfair advantage over another. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that almost any advantage is seen by Japanese as being intrinsically unfair (whether they choose to make an issue out of it or not seems to depend on whether they are personally affected by it or not and to what degree; see the examples above for “zurui” given by Viswat and Kobayashi).

The 3 kanji for fukouhei 不公平 mean literally “not”,  “public” and  “level or flat” (as in “level playing field”). Public could mean “as seen by the public” or “applied to the public” or perhaps “as applied by public institutions”.

About 18 months ago, I blogged about a discussion I had with a mature student about taking attendance in class:

I had this exchange last year with an older Japanese woman who was auditing one of my classes: I was asking why I am expected to take attendance in class, and why attendance is given such weight in Japan, pointing out that attendance was never taken at any university class I attended in the UK. I also gave the following example: a friend of mine figured out early in his first year at university that lecturers were giving out information that was already in books in the library; he therefore studied the books and didn’t go to any lectures. He passed the final exam with flying colours. The Japanese lady I told this to was outraged: it seemed to deeply offend her sense of justice – it was unfair that he should be given the same graduating certificate as the others when he had not put in the equivalent time in class!

When I gave the example, I had no notion that it might be considered an example of unfairness. So, there were two different interpretations of “fair”: my Western/British one and the Japanese one. It seems that my example fit into the category of personal initiative … rewarded even if it produced benefits that gave the seeker an edge over others; something which many Japanese would seem to regard as “unfair”, according to the research by Viswat and Kobayashi.

Can we dig deeper than this and find a basis for the different attitudes?  (To be continued)

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