School Introduction

Dialog with an Uncertain Future / Excerp (Irregular updates)

The 24th Installment“An Engineer’s Thoughts on the Ambiguity and Logic of the Japanese Language”

by Hiroshi Hashimoto,
Professor, Masters Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering

I was writing a text for university students, which was to be published by Ohmsha as an illustrated introduction to computer science (hardware version and software/communication network version). While writing it I realized how many katakana expressions we use. One of the reasons may stem from the absence of Japanese expressions to accurately describe new computer science concepts. All we can do to describe these concepts is transliterate their English expressions into katakana. For example, “bitto (bit)” and “modemu (modem)” are coined words derived from English. Words like “channeru (channel)” and “intaafeisu (interface)” are very old and have been redefined in the field of computer science. Now these words are represented with katakana. The abovementioned katakana words have clear definitions because they have already been established as objects, and their usages and specifications are very clear.

Katakana expressions often fail to convey more than ambiguous images, however. For example, most Japanese people probably interpret “goodbye” as nothing more than a word of farewell. “Sayonara,” the Japanese translation of “goodbye,” is derived from the ancient expression “sayo naraba” with “ba” omitted. The original meaning of “sayo naraba” is closer to “Okay, then it’s decided” an expression we use before closing a meeting or suchlike. Let’s get back to “goodbye.” This word was originally a contraction of “God be with you.” It is doubtful whether many Japanese people truly understand the meaning behind uttering the word “goodbye.” Similarly, how many Japanese people would know the accurate definitions of katakana expressions like “shisutemu (system),” “puraibashii (privacy)” and “competition”? Many katakana expressions are used without a clear understanding of their meanings.

Japanese language is tolerant toward such ambiguity, which is not limited to katakana expressions. I remember something said by a German individual I met at an international academic conference in reference to the ambiguity typical of Japanese: “Language is a tool and requires expressions that are logical and systematic enough to facilitate communication. In contrast, Japanese words and expressions are inevitably conveyed in an ambiguous fashion. This is why Japanese people are not good at being logical in their expressions or communications.”

Why does any language exist? The answer is none other than to convey one person’s ideas to another (the communication of information). One person’s ideas are only in his or her mind, and no one else can see them from the outside as they are kept as some images. The only way of conveying these images as accurately as possible is to arrange strictly defined words logically before uttering them.

The following are examples of ambiguity in Japanese.
You go to the barber’s and say, “Atama wo katte kudasai.” This expression can literally mean “Cut my head off [possibly with a sickle or suchlike]” in Japanese.
The Japanese expression for hitting a home run in a baseball game is “Home run wo utsu.” But in Japanese, this can also be interpreted as hitting a ball that is named Home Run.
At a Japanese restaurant, you can order eel by saying, “Watashiwa unagi.” This can be translated literally as “I am an eel.”
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Japanese language typically involves a kind of ambiguity, as shown in the above examples.

The following kinds of ambiguity are very common to young Japanese people.
“Gosaga chotto demashita (There is a margin of error to some extent).” To what extent? A spoonful? A drum’s worth?
Someone shows you a formula and asks whether it is appropriate for the given question. You say, “Tabun Iito Omoimasu (I think it is correct).” In Japanese “Tabun” may mean perhaps, maybe, probably, possibly etc. “Omoimasu (think)” sounds too subjective, because everyone has his or her own way of thinking.
The list goes on and on. We are flooded with katakana expressions characterized by ambiguous meanings unique to the Japanese language. A prime example is “risutora.” Derived from the English word “restructure,” in Japan it is more closely associated with job dismissal.

Japanese people tend to use katakana expressions to make things ambiguous or sound gentle or disguise their true meaning. Being confused by this tendency definitely leads you to lose sight of the essence of things.

Of course, more logical and systematic expressions are possible in the Japanese language, provided that it is used carefully. On that basis, the Japanese language is capable of conveying thoughts and intentions in an ambiguous and emotional manner. In that regard it possibly outdoes German, English.

In closing, I would like to pay tribute to the Japanese language by citing some outstanding words that eloquently represent the spirit of the Japanese people. Hopefully you will become capable of avoiding verbal expressions that may be interpreted differently among people from different domains and cultures.

● Mansaku Nomura (noh performer, June 1999)
If I only do what I have been taught by my father, it doesn’t belong to me. I need to inherit the basics of what my father taught me and add something that belongs to me. Precisely this is the performance of Mansaku Nomura.

My idea: Apply the above words of Mr. Nomura to yourself. Replace “father” with “teacher” and “performance of Mansaku Nomura” with “learning.” Noh and kyogen each involve stages that are called shu, ha and ri and have the following meanings.
Shu: Learn the basics and principles.
Ha: Break up the basics/principles and add to them something that truly belongs to you.
Ri: Isolate yourself from where you have been and explore your own new ground.

● Ikkokudo (ventriloquist, January 2000)
Skills can be improved through exposure to audiences. However, what impresses audiences to a greater extent is soul, which can only be cultivated by the performer, not by the audiences. At times you may be encouraged a great deal by your audience, but don’t rely too heavily on your skills.

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  • The 25th Installment

    “Invisibility and Architecture”

    by Yukio Namba,
    Professor, Masters Program of Information Systems Architecture
  • The 24th Installment

    “An Engineer’s Thoughts on the Ambiguity and Logic of the Japanese Language”

    by Hiroshi Hashimoto,
    Professor, Masters Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering
  • The 23rd Installment

    "Learn about Information Transmission from Waka"

    by Takeyuki Nagao,
    Assistant Professor, Masters Program of Information Systems Architecture