Conversation Grey Areas
I think that Japanese language allows for a lot of uncertain “grey” areas in speaking. In writing I cannot say because I do not read and write enough Japanese to have any opinion about it. This makes it difficult sometimes to have a conversation and to be sure what the other speaker is saying - or, to be confident that one has accurately deciphered their meaning from their words. As an English teacher in Japan I had to be careful when asking questions of Japanese teachers or receiving instructions from them. I had to check, and re-check, re-state, and ask questions for meaning in more than one form (with slight verbal variations each time) to make sure my understanding was equal to their meaning. And after all of that we still had miscommunication. Oh, well.
But I don’t think English is that much better in practice. Certainly, English speakers can be plenty vague if they want to be: witness the habitual doublespeak of politicians or the deliberately belligerent mumblings of adolescents. Often when I listen to and converse with English speakers - even Canadians - I don’t know what the heck they are talking about. But that could just be the devastating effect that I bring to language rather than a fault of the language itself. Oh, well. It means that I have come to expect nothing but miscommunication and incomprehension in life, and it means that life in Japan (for me) is not very different from life in Canada. I do not expect to understand things. Coincidentally, I feel that this synchronizes with my lifelong habit of underestimating and understating things. Maybe that is my mistake right there. By habitually understating things I create my problems. As far as underestimating things - I consider that a conservative safety buffer as well as simple good manners.
I have written before about the vagueness, or “aimai,” that is built into the Japanese language. I think that contrary to the cultural myth in Japanthat this is a nation of harmony and that one race of people sharing one language contributes to this harmony, the reality is that there is no harmony here at all, and that communication is actually quite poor because of all the aimai in the language.
The difference, though, is that when Japanese speakers are being vague (and making precious little sense into the bargain) they are using their language well. But when English speakers are vague there is no question that they are using the language badly (a moral condition) and poorly (a technical condition).
In daily conversation in my home I have gradually learned not to ask my wife her opinion about anything. I mean, it is a mistake leading to a quick argument to ask,
“Junko, what do you think about _________ ?”
“I don’t know.”
“I didn’t ask what you knewabout it. I asked what you think about it. It is not possible not to have an opinion.”
“Wakarimasen.” (A Japanese word that can mean either ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I don’t understand.’)
“Do you mean wakarimasen ‘I don’t know,’ or wakarimaasen ‘I don’t understand’?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you mean ‘I don’t know’ like ‘shirimasen’ (a more precise Japanese word also meaning “I don’t know”), or do you mean that you don’t know if you don’t understand the question?
“I don’t understand.”
“Me, too. What don’t you understand? You don’t understand my first question, or you don’t understand my second question?”
“I don’t know English.”
“Why don’t you have an ideaabout things?”
“It’s a grey area.”
Oh, we’re back to that again, I think. “I am not asking what you knowabout ______ . I am asking you what you think it. You must have ideas. It is impossible not to have ideas about things.”
“You are stupid.”
“Oh, really? Which one of us is the one with no ideas? Which one of us is the non-thinker?”
I think that the vagueness built into the Japanese language is for just that purpose - to prevent people from having opinions about things - or, at least, expressing them. Ideas are dangerous, after all, and for a conservative society a nimble tongue can be a dangerous thing.