Herald Tribune asahi
Japanese People Do Not Know Japan
In the first of four articles in the fourth series on the theme of "Japanese language and Japanese people," I wrote about Japan's distinctive geographic features which underlie the Japanese language, changes in the Japanese language and people as a result of the adoption of Chinese kanji characters, and the advantages of kana, the 50-character Japanese syllabary used to express only sounds. The other day, I was pleased to hear a comment from a Japanese reader of my column, who said that the article had given him greater awareness of the Japanese language as his mother tongue, which he had not paid much attention to before.
Some people say that Japanese people have little awareness of their own country. I feel that this is due to shortcomings in postwar education as I have written in previous columns (available at Based on my experiences of meeting many foreigners and internationally connected Japanese people as an art dealer, I wish to give my readers a true picture of the reality of Japan. In addition, I hope that many more Japanese people, like the aforementioned reader, recognize the good points of Japan that they themselves tend to forget and that they will be proud of Japan as their birthplace.
Language and image
As I wrote in my previous column, kanji's assimilation to the Japanese language developed Japanese people's ability to immediately form an image of something in their mind when they hear or read a phrase. People can usually form pictures in their mind when they chat or read something. For example, when talking about your favorite football team, you may subconsciously recall the team's logo or the scene of a dramatic goal the previous night. It is possible to do this even if you have not experienced something first hand, such as when reading a Shakespeare play, you might imagine a balcony in the moonlight in medieval Europe, all based on previous knowledge.
In this way, people's thoughts and sense of awareness are inextricably linked to images. People also recognize and think about things through images. While we memorize things through words and letters, we complement our memories with phrases accumulated in the past. Japanese people understand meaning in a mere instant by glancing at a Chinese character or character compound, because they use Japanized ideograms of Chinese characters. Therefore the Japanese language is a language that can be recognized by a kind of image information.
A large number of words and characters
In addition to the adoption of kanji, the invention of kana was an essential contribution to the development of the Japanese language. There are two types of kana - cursive hiragana and angular katakana. Usually linguistically, if two different phonetic symbols depict the same pronunciation, one is selected. However, in the Japanese language hiragana is used for words depicting genuine Japanese concepts whereas katakana is used to express foreign or imitative words. Therefore the range of characters used in the Japanese language, which includes kanji and the two kana syllabaries, is probably the most significant characteristic of the language, as well as being an interesting point.
There are 1,850 kanji designated for everyday use and a total of 100 characters in the two kana syllabaries. Combinations of kanji and kana create a vast number of verbs, auxiliary verbs and adjectives and multiple combinations. Moreover, in the Meiji era (1868-1912) 50 letters from the Latin alphabet were also introduced to depict kana. With recent globalization, this has enabled Japanese people to incorporate words from various languages into the Japanese language as they are. In this way, Japanese people speak and write using a great number of words and characters. They deal with an unusually large amount of linguistic information, and make use of their ability to process image information.

The Language
In the Japanese language, Japanese people use a great number of words and characters that include many meanings and images, and employ language that undergoes complex transformations. In other words, the language "hardware" of Japanese people that is necessary to operate the large-capacity program of the Japanese language would seem to be unique in the world. This program includes not only the separate usages of words and characters but also the features such as abbreviations and honorifics, characteristic of the Japanese language. Japanese people coin new words using abbreviations, and understand their positions by honorifics. Moreover, using words implying values enables them to communicate large amounts of information. I will write about abbreviations and honorifics in more detail in the next column.
As I have written in this and previous columns, I feel that language and characters do not only convey information, but also relate to the thoughts and feelings of the Japanese people. In Japan, there is a traditional belief that words themselves have energy and influence all things. Without even raising the example of prayer, the idea that man's consciousness creates all things has existed since prehistoric times. In other words, meaning that the energy of man's words and characters materializes. Recently I feel that the wisdom of ancient saints and philosophers and that of cutting-edge quantum mechanics is coming together.
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