I’m just going to dive right in here.
As we have seen, the word ‘integrity’ is not in the Japanese language. Integrity. Wait. What? Really. Let that sink in.
The absence of the word integrity is a monumental crack in the foundation of Japanese society. How did I not know this? This begins to explain the abnormalities of Japanese society.
When I talk about integrity here I am talking about basic morality, simply put, the belief in goodness and the ability to tell good from bad or is it really the absence of religion, God or the Absolute? Taboo.
If a society is established without moral reasoning i.e. integrity, how can people function morally on the most basic level? If you do not have a word to describe something, it remains invisible. It doesn’t exist. Integrity doesn’t exist in Japan.
Let’s take for example: a pregnant woman standing in a full train carriage, all the seats are taken even the ones reserved for the elderly, disabled and pregnant. No one in the reserved seats are elderly, disabled or pregnant. Admittedly you could say not all disabilities are visible, but I digress. No one offers her a seat. The pregnant woman is ignored as if she didn’t exist. She doesn’t complain. She doesn’t ask for someone to give up their seat for her. She has no expectations that anyone will come to her aid. Of course, you would give up your seat. I know you would. Few do in Japan. This shows a lack of integrity for everyone around her. Even those standing. They could ask those sitting to give up their seat. Everyone has a responsibility to act with integrity. That’s also common decency, right?
When you speak in Japanese you have a certain personality. The language constrains you. The vowels make you talk a certain way, the pitch of your voice might change, you restrict your movements to conform to the societal habits, you become less animated to mask your emotions. You switch to your Japanese persona. You take more care to speak with the correct amount of formality for the situation. There is a lot to calculate. You calculate for the good of the group. You become selfless.
I realised early on that I couldn’t be selfless in Japan. I couldn’t fully conform to Japanese society. Some may say I was completely selfish. I couldn’t agree. Stubborn at times, perhaps. I believed that my own integrity was worth more than a bit of awkwardness for others. I kept my personal integrity intact.
Being happy as an individual seemed more important than the happiness of the collective group if it wasn’t impeding anyone else. For example: if everyone else is studying Chinese and I want to study Portuguese, then I’m going to choose Portuguese. There should be nothing ground-breaking in that.
This circles round to integrity again doesn’t it? Being honest with oneself and being able to make personal choices.
If Japanese make their own choices or make their opinions voiced, they are considered different or foreign influenced and not being true Japanese. Now that’s fucked up. Who cares? And by the way, the expression of being ‘true Japanese’ has strong undertones of nationalism and totalitarianism. No democratic thinking souls need apply.
As we know Japanese are not taught how to debate and argue in schools. They are taught to listen and comply. Meetings are usually a waste of time as very often the decisions have already been made beforehand. Opinions against a project are never encouraged. What would be the point? Have you noticed the way other Japanese people discuss topics? They don’t. One person lectures and the others nod in agreement and occasionally add encouraging words. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a real discussion among Japanese where there are opposing sides and proper debating of ideas without heated emotions. You don’t all have to have the same ideas. Where is the democracy in that? Nada.
Being bilingual or multilingual you know that your own personality changes to match the language that you speak. If one language is more animated then you gesture with your hands as you speak, if a language has more vowels or consonants then the mouth will change shape to match the sounds. Some languages are softly spoken. As you know speaking is only a part of the language of communicating in a society, Rules, hierarchies and ways complete the whole. Some languages are freer than others, some might say more selfish. We morph ourselves to match the language.
The English language is built on moral reasoning. It is bound within society through a belief in goodness, justice, religion even song and fables. God is woven throughout many aspects of the English language, in America ‘In God We Trust’ is written on the monetary notes. ‘God save the Queen’ is the anthem for Great Britain and New Zealand. When people are asked to testify in a court of law in English speaking countries, they must swear to tell the truth while they place their hand on the Bible, before they enter their testimony. Morality is the glue that holds English speaking societies together.
The way people speak to one another in Japanese depends on so many factors, the age, the ranking of the person in a company, the social status, the education and with that the language of addressing changes. There are no morals to contend with so there is no pretence of trying to have any. Without integrity then corruption, bribery, fraud, deceit, lying, cheating, deceiving, stealing is acceptable, is it not?
How does one add integrity to a language that is built without it? Integrity must be named first, then defined in order for it to be discussed and talked about. I don’t believe it can be done unless the Japanese people first believe there is a problem and second decide to do something about it. Japanese as a language may only survive as a written language like Latin or as a language like Bengali or Thai that is only spoken within the home. Only time will tell. Is it worth saving? Only the Japanese can answer that.
As we both know, Japanese as a written language has an absolute beauty and because of that I still believe we can get over all obstacles to save the Japanese language.
I have hope in you.
This is a major issue that we Japanese should seriously consider.
We need to think seriously about sincerity again.
We have to respond to Gama san’s love for the Japanese language.
I wasn’t sure whether I should write this reply in Japanese or in English, but I decided to write this in English. After all, I always felt a lot easier to express myself in English than in Japanese even when English skills were terrible. In Japanese, I’ve never felt that my opinion is welcomed and my opinion does matter. It never did in Japan. The examples you mentioned in the post resonate with my experience so well. Being ignored in train ride while I was injured, those meetings I didn’t understand why I was there, and why the word “integrity” hit me so hard 12 years ago.
In 2008, I was having a conversation with this person. I was trying to be polite and pleasant in front of him despite of my social awkwardness. Small conversation never came easy to me. Honestly, I wanted to go home, but we started to talk about “Who do you respect the most, and why?” His answer was very simple, “I look up to my father the most. He has integrity.” He started to talk about his father’s work ethics, and his father really had strong integrity. I wasn’t sure why this small conversation left me a strong impression, but I loved his father’s story. Well, I immensely liked him. I think “integrity” was the word I had been looking for in Japanese for a long time, and he said the right word at the right time. I think I had been admiring the integrity in English speaking societies for a decade at that time.
I don’t have hope left in Japanese and Japanese language. I don’t expect they will suddenly turn around and start fixing the problem. But I understand why you wrote this to your young Japanese friends. I understand why you wrote this in English. A single word can change someone’s mood, and a single sentence can give someone a reason to move forward. You believe in the power of words, and I cannot agree with you more. ~~ The thing is, ahem, the person in that conversation turned out to be the father of my child. She is 11, and I cannot be any prouder and happier. I’m speaking from personal experience 😉
I’m writing this reply in Japanese because I always felt a lot easier to express myself in English than in Japanese. In Japanese, I’ve never felt that my opinion is welcomed and my opinion does matter. Well, it never did in Japan. The examples you mentioned here resonate with my experience. Being ignored in train ride while I was injured, those meetings I didn’t understand why I was there, and why the word “integrity” hit me so hard when I was young.
I was having a conversation with this person in the summer of 2008. Despite of my social awkwardness, I was trying to be polite and pleasant. Small conversation never came easy to me, and I wanted to go home. But, he started to talk about “Who do you respect the most, and why?” next. He said, “I look up to my father the most. He has integrity.” He talked about his father’s work ethics and achievements fondly (His father really had strong integrity). I wasn’t sure why this small conversation left me such a strong impression, but I loved his father’s story. I immediately liked him after the word “integrity”. I think “integrity” was the word I had been looking for in Japanese for a long time, and he said the right word at the right time. I think I had been admiring the integrity in English speaking societies for years at that time.
I don’t have much hope about Japanese and Japanese language. I don’t expect they will suddenly turn around and start fixing those problems. But I understand why you wrote this to your young Japanese friends. I understand why you wrote this in English. A single word can change someone’s mood, and a single sentence can give someone a reason to move forward. You believe the power of words. I do, too. ~~ The thing is, ahem, the person in that conversation is now the father of my child. I cannot be any prouder and happier. Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience.
There may not be the exact term for integrity in Japanese but I believe the idea of integrity used to exist in Japanese society. I have been wondering for a few years now where it has gone. In Japanese I tend to think like “where is their moral compass?” or “If I stay quiet about this, how could I sleep at night?” I like to think it’s not the inherent deficit of the language. (But the fact that I have to use other words to try to describe similar ideas might prove that the language (hence my brain) lacks the idea itself!)
It’s true people change depending on what language they speak. I change when I speak in Japanese. I find myself trying not to argue for myself when I speak Japanese especially with older people.
I love the Japanese language. I am sad it has deteriorated drastically. People butcher words and seem to think any more when they speak. But I am more worried and sad about how the Japanese way of thinking has become so…despicable in general. Is it because the language has deteriorated or is it the way of thinking or mentality that has poisoned the language?
I think Japanese people these days are not happy. Some people are not just unhappy, but even try to prevent others from pursuing their individual happiness. It’s like they are trying to stay in collective unhappiness. They seem to be too twisted and damaged to quickly change the direction and learn to be happy but as a less damaged person, I think I can start respecting myself more and really respecting others too, not in the way what build walls between people. I think it would be more fun to be in a collective group of happy individuals than to be happy as a collective group. I know this would be a baby step but I hope it goes in the right direction. I just don’t want to give it up yet.
Thank you, James. Your writings always makes me feel at home. You wrote about the lack of integrity several times in Japanese that I would really appreciate. Reading in English let me notice how hard it was to explain something doesn’t exist.
There seems to be some Japanese don’t hesitate to lie and keep silence instead of talking to make mutual concessions. It was happening in governments, but now I face it everyday life.
You know we used to say, “お天道さまが見ている”. I will talk, think, do anything to find out the sun. Your writings give us power just like the sun. I can’t wait till your new book’s coming!
This was very interesting to me, James! I don’t speak Japanese but I was bilingual at an early age and learned other languages as an adult, so it always interests me to contemplate how language informs culture and dictates how we behave.
When Japan accepted Western culture and language it picked and chose the practical bits and discarded the intangibles thinking they weren’t necessary and in doing so unwittingly threw out the foundation of the language and culture. They threw out the baby with the bathwater.
I think everyone should be at least bilingual. It naturally teaches empathy and different view points. It works corners of the brain further than monolinguals, and exercises the tongue to shapes more sounds.
Makes me wonder if bilingualism and multilingualism pushes the chance of dementia further away perhaps 🙂