A Woman of Feeling
Several years ago I sat through a presentation given to a group of ESL teachers in Tokyo by a Japanese female English teacher at a private girls high school. The woman was a doctoral of education candidate, working as a part-time English teacher while she researched her thesis. In fact, her work was her feeding trough and the engine of her research. Although I also worked at the same school, I had never met her. She had been invited to speak to our group about the Japanese perspective on education - English-language education in Japanese high schools in particular - so I looked forward to hearing what she had to say. Of particular interst to me and others was anything she could tell us about our reception in Japanese schools, and about Japanese schools’ ideas about how to use us to facilitate their curriculum, and their expectations of us. We are always concerned about how we fit in - or don’t, as the case may be - in the schools where we are placed to teach English Conversation (sometimes against the wishes of the Japanese teachers), and this was a good opportunity to hear directly from a reliable source.
She spoke for about an hour and I came away resentful and angry. My reaction was obviously bred in culture clash. The woman spoke repeatedly about her “feelings.” “I feel” this, and “I feel” that. It was obvious that she was using the word “feel” as a synonym for “think.” She was expressing her ideas by couching them in the softer vocabulary of affective feelings - like a Leo Buscaglia lecture - rather than the more direct and forward, personally proactive and confrontational word “think.” For my time - listening to a doctoral student - I wanted to hear about what she thought, not what she felt and I was incredulous that this feeling mush is what passed as academic doctoral material in Japan. I felt that by not telling me directly what she thought she was effectively admitting that she had no thoughts at all. That is not correct, of course, but it is easy for foreigners to say that that is how it looks when they first encounter Japanese comunication styles.
Come to think of it, I still feel that way. But I value this experience as another example of a lesson in culture. Japanese do not like
confrontation because it challenges the façade of harmony. The façade of harmony is just that - cosmetic - but Japanese put great stock in appearances. Similarly, talk of feelings comes across as more democratic to Japanese, I think, because for them it indicates that the speaker somehow has duly considered the humanity or the spiritual integrity of the object of consideration. Speaking of feelings is a constant reminder that people have feelings, and airing them makes everyone feel more comfortable. Contrary to the traditional Western stereotype of Japanese as monochrone, inscrutable, and unfeeling (or emotionally depressed), I have long said that they are very emotional (under the surface).
It is a strange thing sometimes, listening to or reading (accurate and reliable) English translations of Japanese. There is a weird turn of phrase or use of expression that often appears to let you know immediately that it is a Japanese person’s words you are reading even if you do not know that it is a Japanese person who said them. (When speaking or writing in English, for example, Japanese tend to use an inordinant number of conditioinal verbs and passive voice verbs. People will say things like, “I couldn’t do my homeowrk,” when what they mean is that they didn’t do it. Or, they might say that they could not enjoy the weekend when what they mean is they they did not enjoy it.)
They have a way of speaking about Nature, what is natural and normal, about relationships between people (parent/child teacher/student, doctor/patient, politician/constituent, police/public, magistrate/defendant, vendor/customer, artist/audience, individual/society, culture/state) and what constitutes propriety, about crime and punishment, humans and no-human creatures, religion and the state of humanity in the created order, about the function and role of education and business, government and professional sports, the environment and the economy, about relations between cultures and peoples, about facts and truth, truth and history and everything else you can imagine.
People are shaped by the paradigms of their culture, and their language shapes their thinking processes - their ability to think at all in the first place (not a predicate of our human condition), the manner in which they imagine things, and the manner of expression allowed for it. And, of course, these paradigms are completely different from what I knew of in Canada, or could even properly imagine before actually encountering them here. Japanese do not think like Canadians. They do not imagine things and are not capable of expressing them in the same manner - and, sometimes in no recognisable manner at all.
The same is true within the world of Western cultures and languages, though. A Frenchman does not think, imagine or communicate the same as a German or an Englishman. It is not possible given the limitations of the frameworks placed on us by language. However, the cultures of the West are often similar enough, or share enough in common, that we can easily confuse interpretation as accurate translation and then take it for granted that real translation (an impossibility) is just a facility acquired by the hard-working. Translation and cross-cultural interpretation constitute a great art, not a science. Or, at least that’s how I feel.