Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
I appreciate Ed Barron's critique ("No more ambiguous than English," November 24) of my letter ("Vagueness hinders communicating," September 12). I am aware and I agree that English is the product of the mixing of several languages over centuries of time and that, therefore, English can be said to harbor more loanwords than Japanese does. In fact, it is practically nothing but a language of loanwords.
Additionally, English speakers can be plenty vague if they want to be. But the difference between vagueness in English and vagueness in Japanese that I am talking about is that when Japanese speak in vague terms ("aimai") and making little sense into the bargain they are using their language well, as it is meant to be used. But when English speakers are vague they are using the language badly for some reason - deliberately or not. Politicians' doublespeak is meant to deceive and conceal, evade and obfuscate: the morally corrupt language of morally corrupt people. Teenagers' incoherent mumblings are meant to be incomprehensible and belligerent.
I do not begrudge vague speakers their motives so much as I begrudge them lying about their motives. People and cultures mythologize their lies to cover the fact that they are rank lies to begin with, hence the cunning implantation of cultural myths such as the harmonious society (Japan), the leadership of the free world (America), the lucky nation (Australia), etc.
I suggest that language is not really for communication at all. It is for something else.
Published on Sunday, December 5, 2004 as “When vagueness is expected.”
I have written on this point more than once, and mentioned it in other, unrelated letters numerous times. Honne and tatemae in addition to aimai are phenomena I frequently revisit. Japanese rhetoric features repetition, not logical argumentation. It is especially apparent during political campaigns. I speak against them strongly because of the extent to which they contribute to inaccurate, exaggerated or just plain false pretensions - of which there seem to be an awful lot in Japanese culture.