Uchi.

Back in 1985, Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a review for the LRB (which sent me the link in celebration of Ishiguro’s Nobel) of Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan by John David Morley (a book I have owned for many years but have not gotten around to reading), and since the central portion of the review is language-related, I thought I’d quote it here:

Early on in the book, Morley notes the way the Japanese use the word uchi. This word means ‘house’. But Morley observes how the word is often used as a pronoun in place of ‘I’, whenever a speaker is referring to himself in the context of his household. Indeed, uchi can also be used for ‘we’, ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’ whenever the subject is being referred to in relation to the speaker’s household. If two mothers are discussing their children, each will refer to her own children as uchi rather than ‘they’. If they then begin discussing their husbands, each will refer to her husband as uchi rather than ‘he’. Furthermore, Morley notices this word for ‘house’ being used in respect not only of families but of any strongly bonded grouping – colleagues in a firm, for instance, referring to themselves as uchi. The Japanese mind, Morley argues, is dominated by the concept of uchi, giving it an unusual predisposition to see the world in terms of insiders and outsiders. This observation comes to be the cornerstone of Morley’s thinking about the Japanese, and throughout the book he applies his uchi-analysis to various phenomena he wishes to understand better.

At one stage, for instance, Morley embarks on a fascinating discussion of aimai, the well-known – and, to many Westerners, quite baffling – Japanese manner of communicating in an elegantly elliptical, non-committal way. Not only does aimai tend to characterise any conversation between Japanese whatever their relationship, it manifests itself as a central aesthetic principle in much Japanese art and literature. How did aimai come to ingrain itself so? Morley is unimpressed by the theory offered by those Japanese he consults: that centuries under the Tokugawa dictatorships during which free speech was dangerous obliged the Japanese to develop aimai. (His scepticism is no doubt correct. Japan under the Tokugawas never featured the sophisticated control of everyday life witnessed in modern totalitarian states. Directly subversive political talk would certainly have been dangerous, but ordinary people would otherwise have been free to talk much as they wished. It is unconvincing that a few taboo subjects could cause aimai to infect the whole language.) Instead, Morley attempts his own theory: it is the strength of the uchi concept within Japanese minds which underlies aimai. A heightened sense of the world as being comprised of insiders and outsiders acts against plain-speaking on two fronts. First, there is a keen awareness of the potential for conflict with anyone from an uchi other than one’s own: thus, all outsiders must be addressed in an excessively polite, careful way – above all, taking care not to express any opinion unequivocally, so as to leave plenty of room for retreat in case of offence. Second, amongst members of the same uchi, the need would arise to develop cryptic ways of talking precisely in order to be obscure to outsiders. Morley goes on to suggest – rather fancifully – that the acoustics within a Japanese house, with its literally paper-thin walls, would have facilitated this process, the frequent omissions of the subject from a Japanese clause deriving from a constant fear of eavesdroppers. Morley concludes that the uchi mentality has caused the Japanese to develop their language in such a way as to suppress meaning.

Ishiguro says “There is no doubt that at times Morley goes too far in applying his uchi-theory,” but he seems to find it stimulating; I’m curious to know what my Japanese-speaking readers think of it all.

Comments

  1. Roswitha Schnäutz-Krabel says:

    (This should go after my previous comment which somehow hasn’t shown up yet.)
    A good test would be to check 19th and 20th century documents for what East Asian students and immigrants in Japan, or colonized Taiwanese and Koreans exposed to Japanese communication, have written about any perceived differences between their own way of communicating and that of Japanese people. If they didn’t make the same observations as Westerners, maybe those are not really Japanese but more generally an East Asian / Sinosphere thing.

  2. To be honest (and this topic is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine) I am not sure there is any there there to be explained. The mention of omitted subjects (or objects, or verbs), for example, is a red flag: cross-linguistically it’s nothing special, and once you can actually use (have a free-flowing conversation in) the language, it causes no more trouble than the use of pronouns does in English. So any attempt to use omitted subjects (&c.) as evidence that Japanese is a language of concealment and shadows raises a red flag for me.

    Re uchi, let me note two things. First, its original/core meaning is “inside.” “House” is a metaphorical extension. I mention this not to be pedantic but to point out that, for example, people don’t see their companies as “houses,” they see them as “insides” in the same way as their houses. Second, this might be a bit more controversial, but most of the uses he mentions of uchi are not really pronominal. There is a lot of uchi wa, but a literal translation of this would be more like “As for us,” (uchi.TOP) and the actual subject is… omitted, because understood. Again, I’m not trying to be pedantic, but this is something that often throws people whose native language doesn’t use topic-comment the way Japanese does.

    (There is a pronominal use of uchi to mean “me,” but this is a different matter and not really relevant here, I would argue.)

    The Japanese mind, Morley argues, is dominated by the concept of uchi, giving it an unusual predisposition to see the world in terms of insiders and outsiders.

    Here I would argue that Morley has cause and effect entirely backwards. Japanese society makes the insider-outsider distinction relatively explicit (I don’t know if this is common or rare cross-culturally, but I’ll cheerfully grant that it’s a real difference from even the most reserved English-speaking culture), and that is why they use uchi that way. The word isn’t some Sapir-Whorfian parasite that restructured a previously open, unstructured culture to provide a more suitable reproductive environment. (Might there be some feedback, so that the ready availability of uchi/soto greases the wheels for people to think of things that way? Probably! But I think we can still say that the main arrow of causation goes the other way.)

    First, there is a keen awareness of the potential for conflict with anyone from an uchi other than one’s own: thus, all outsiders must be addressed in an excessively polite, careful way – above all, taking care not to express any opinion unequivocally, so as to leave plenty of room for retreat in case of offence.

    This seems fair enough, although of course “excessively” is not an objective judgment. Some of us find it quite congenial not to be expected to be best friends with everyone we meet.

    Second, amongst members of the same uchi, the need would arise to develop cryptic ways of talking precisely in order to be obscure to outsiders.

    In any culture, groups of insiders have secrets they don’t want to share with outsiders. I would need to see some specific examples of “cryptic ways of talking” that don’t have analogs in English before I took this claim seriously. (Omitted subjects, as noted above, do not in my opinion qualify.)

    Morley concludes that the uchi mentality has caused the Japanese to develop their language in such a way as to suppress meaning.

    This strikes me as a claim about the culture mistakenly applied to the language, and frankly, I’m not even sure that the claim about the culture is true.

  3. I was hoping you’d show up to ‘splain it all!

  4. This should go after my previous comment which somehow hasn’t shown up yet.

    Don’t know what happened to it, but it’s not in moderation. I guess WordPress ate it. Sorry about that!

  5. Roswitha Schnäutz-Krabel says:

    I now suspect my initial comment has been rejected by the blog software because the comment was of low quality, but its content may be gleaned from the second, much shorter one that did get posted.

    Ideally, one should also check what Japanese had to say about the way Koreans and Chinese communicated, and what all of these had to say about the way Westerners communicated. Who knows, maybe it is very common to think that furriners don’t speak straight.

  6. I don’t remember the name of the concept (and it’s hard to Google for), but as far as I remember Japanese is not unique in having some sort of more or less mandatory marking of “closeness to speaker”, be it on verbs, pronouns or otherwise. Apart from uchi Japanese also has the auxiliary verbs -ageru/-kureru, which mark whether an action is done for the benefit of someone who is more closely related to the speaker than the agent or not. I don’t think these are ever completely mandatory in Japanese, but often their omission is highly unidiomatic. They do some of the heavy lifting to make up for the strong pro-drop tendency. So do the evidentiality markers, which can be subtle and unintuitive for westerners to pick up.

    > the uchi mentality has caused the Japanese to develop their language in such a way as to suppress meaning.

    Suppress meaning, really? I think I can agree that Japanese is more contextual than Western languages, but that’s not the same as “suppressing meaning”.

  7. I was hoping you’d show up to ‘splain it all!

    What would Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro do without people like me around to “well, actually” his years-old book reviews? For my next act, I will foreignersplain the history of Japanese literature to Donald Keene.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    the frequent omissions of the subject from a Japanese clause deriving from a constant fear of eavesdroppers

    I’m sure Matt is right and Japanese is a pretty ordinary pro-drop language. A spoken Chinese sentence can lack anything (except the classifier if there’s a noun…) if it can be left to context or common sense at all. English is rather extreme in its reticence to omit pronouns & stuff, but even there “Doesn’t work.” is a common sentence.

    Some of us find it quite congenial not to be expected to be best friends with everyone we meet.

    Oh, the conflation of politeness with friendliness is (toward its extreme) an American thing. Elsewhere in the West, politeness does tend to be conflated with distance instead, but that doesn’t necessarily stop people from being frank and direct. (Berlin is the extreme there.)

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    I believe there’s quite a strong pseudolinguistic tradition in Japan itself which claims that the language is intrinsically vague and illogical and of itself conducive to (sub)In-Praise-of-Shadows meandering. I think some outsiders’ accounts have taken this on board as if it reflected an actual insight.

    From the point of view of real linguistics, it’s about as valid as the traditional French belief that the French language is supremely logical.

    MInd you, it goes back in part to perfectly valid scholarship of the Kokugaku type, and spilled over from the determination to be Not Chinese.

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    (I wouldn’t be surprised if the French myth could be traced to a similar determination to be Not German.)

  11. I now suspect my initial comment has been rejected by the blog software because the comment was of low quality
    That made my day.

  12. even there “Doesn’t work.” is a common sentence

    I think that’s not anything like pro-drop. Jespersen characterized it as a habit of anglophones: we omit the first few words of a sentence while acting as if they had been said. “[I am] Going to the store. [Are you] Coming with me?”

    comment was of low quality

    There is actually no such “quality” filter. When WordPress drops a comment, it is because of internal rumblings in its bowels over which no one has any control. If you try reposting the comment, it will be rejected it as a duplicate, but you can either send it to His Hatness or make some trivial chnage and repost it. If the comment is being moderated, you’ll be told that.

  13. Jespersen characterized it as a habit of anglophones: we omit the first few words of a sentence while acting as if they had been said. “[I am] Going to the store. [Are you] Coming with me?”

    That’s what comes of living in henges and beakers and such. Have to be careful not to let the neighbors hear the subjects of your sentences, lest they snitch on you to the Romans. Hence inscrutability of English tongue. I remain, etc.

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    I now suspect my initial comment has been rejected by the blog software because the comment was of low quality

    I have categorically disproven the existence of any such filter by rigorous experimentation.

  15. I grant the inscrutability of the English, of course. But the Americans adopted an intensely scrutable version of the language out of mere necessity: with nothing else could they even communicate with each other. (This advantage has since been adopted by very nearly the whole world, though there are other intensely scrutable languages, notably Bengali, Cham, and Swahili.) American English is the language in which, if your joke falls flat, you are compelled to explain it on pain of injuring others’ sensitive feelings if you don’t.

  16. “But the Americans adopted an intensely scrutable version of the language out of mere necessity: with nothing else could they even communicate with each other. ”

    QFT. And this is a general cultural impulse. It may be to blame for the way so many American remakes of foreign films have such a flabby feel to them. I’m thinking here of the flabby, over-explained American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo compared to the lean and elegant Swedish original.

    “American English is the language in which, if your joke falls flat, you are compelled to explain it on pain of injuring others’ sensitive feelings if you don’t.”

    QFT.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    we omit the first few words of a sentence while acting as if they had been said

    Works in German, too, though only with the first word, and only if it’s a demonstrative. Still, that allows us to sneak in verb-initial declarative sentences through the backdoor; other than that they’ve been outlawed for a thousand years.

  18. So “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch” is Just Plain Wrong?

  19. Naw, it’s just the way they speak German in the Commonwealth.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    What is the cultural significance of the Western European tendency to grammaticalize a word for “house” as a preposition meaning “in the premises of; under the protection of”?

    But I do like the idea of a pronoun meaning “my team but not (necessarily) me personally”, 1st person exclusive?

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Trond, “1st person exclusive” means ‘me and they but not you’, therefore excluding ‘you’, as opposed to “1st person inclusive” which includes ‘you’.

    I think that Spanish nosotros, literally ‘we others’ (= other than you), must have started as “1st person exclusive”, probably on the model of the 2nd person counterpart vosotros, which emphasizes the “otherness” of “you pl”.

    The Spanish pronouns have their counterpart in (dialectal) French, which has nous autres as an exclusive pronoun, while just nous is inclusive or neutral. The 2pl vous autres emphasizes the ‘otherness’ and also prevents confusion with the ‘polite’ vous for addressing a single person.

  22. Morley concludes that the uchi mentality has caused the Japanese to develop their language in such a way as to suppress meaning.

    So how does a chid (or a foreigner) learn this obliqueness? First they learn what the words/phrases mean plainly; then they learn how to suppress that meaning?

    How does anyone learn the plain meaning if everyone around them is speaking in riddles? Or do adults/carers speak to children in some ‘baby language’? (Does that carry through the paper walls?) Perhaps foreigners could get taught via the baby language?

    Is this the “Would you mind passing me the salt?” sort of indirectness? But if everybody talks like that, the ‘politeness’ just gets bleached out of it. Or half the time, the meaning is so smothered the salt is never passed.

    Ishiguro caught that ambiguity/unfulfilled emotions brilliantly in The remains of the day.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, of course. I’m colourblind. I have trouble discerning mine from yours.

    But what to call “mine but not (necessarily) me”? It’s an interesting and useful concept, and now that I think of it, I can easily imagine a word like “mine” take on that meaning. Actually I’d think this could be a way to develop plural pronouns.

  24. If we’re omitting pronouns, that too-polite-to-be-a-request could be “Might the salt pass around?”.

  25. I was going to comment about the primary use of “uchi” that has been familiar in my life–its use as part of the term “uchikomi” in judo. An uchikomi is a practice throw with a partner, where the throw is carried only the point where your partner is just being lifted up off the ground. Then you set your partner down, step back from contact, and repeat.

    However, judoinfo.com now informs me that “uchikomi” is from “utsu” meaning beat against, but the false etymology is widespread.

  26. I believe there’s quite a strong pseudolinguistic tradition in Japan itself which claims that the language is intrinsically vague and illogical and of itself conducive to (sub)In-Praise-of-Shadows meandering. I think some outsiders’ accounts have taken this on board as if it reflected an actual insight. […] Mind you, it goes back in part to perfectly valid scholarship of the Kokugaku type, and spilled over from the determination to be Not Chinese.

    I think, actually, the “we are ambiguous and shadowy” thing is more of a backlash against Meiji modern-/Westernization. (The word “bunmei,” literally “culture/writing-light,” wasn’t invented to describe Western civilization, but it certainly became associated with it starting in the late 19th C.) The traditional Kokugaku view, going back at least to Kamo no Mabuchi, was that the Japanese language was by nature simple and clear, so much so that it did not need a writing system because oral communication was sufficient for every purpose; this was (as you say) contrasted to the Chinese language, which had to be written down because it had so many words that sounded the same. Mabuchi seemed to think that the Chinese had done this intentionally, because of “takumi,” perhaps best translated as “cleverness” (in the non-complimentary, George Mikes-style sense). The corresponding (i.e. opposing) Japanese trait was “nao” 直, straightness/directness.

    This doesn’t rule out “formal ambiguity” (non-specified subjects, etc.) but I think that Mabuchi and his heirs would argue that this isn’t actual ambiguity because a person equipped with the correct Yamato-damashii would easily understood what was meant. Certainly he stresses often that in the good old days, before the Sino-Japanese layer had formed, everyone lived wholesome, upright, harmonious lives, communicating only as much as necessary but freely and without misunderstanding. And of course ever since the Kokinshu (maybe earlier?) Japanese poetry has been compared to birdsong and frog calls, i.e. something spontaneous and transparent and universally practiced, rather than artificial and obscure and limited to a select few literati.

    (As far as I’m aware, there’s no connection between Mabuchi’s opinion that Chinese is dependent on its writing system and similar opinions voiced by early Western commentators, and of course still current today. It’s also worth noting that Mabuchi’s claim is actually truthier if it’s taken to be not about actual living Chinese but “Chinese as understood by Japan,” which was Classical [more or less] Chinese, much more about reading/writing than speaking, and pronounced [when necessary] with fewer sounds and no tones. This does indeed make things a bit difficult.)

  27. David Marjanović says:

    So “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch” is Just Plain Wrong?

    Er… no. As usual I simply overlooked this construction.

    It’s similar, though: it’s the 1st-person equivalent of the 3rd-person construction with an omittable demonstrative. And it’s not quite as widespread, I think.

  28. Thanks, I’m glad to see Eliot vindicated!

  29. GT misses the significance of the first comma, and outputs “I am not a Russian woman from Lithuania, really German.” 🙂

  30. One of the striking differences between Japanese and Korean usage of basic honorifics (like -san/-sama in Japanese and -nim in Korean) is that such honorifics are not generally used when addressing in-group (uchi) elders or superiors in Japanese but they are in Korean. So, for example, you would usually address your Japanese teacher as plain sensei, but your Korean teacher as sensayng-nim (Yale romanization), your Japanese elder brother as ani, but your Korean elder brother as hyeng-nim.

    In Japanese historical dramas, though, I hear a lot of usage between members of noble families along the lines of ani-ue ‘elder.brother-upper’ and chichi-ue ‘father-upper’. And, of course, markers of social distance run a much wider gamut in those eras, at least according to current scriptwriters.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    As usual I simply overlooked this construction.

    I’m still thinking about it… and so far I’m concluding I don’t actually use it, except in space-saving styles of informal writing. There’s some subtle geographic variation hidden in there… as usual.

    A part of what’s going on underlyingly is probably the fact that most or all Bavarian dialects have lost the consonant of ich, so the cost of not omitting the word isn’t as high. (And then the habit gets carried over into the standard language, as usual.) I’m sure that’s also why futurity is more often expressed in English than in German: ‘ll is less than a syllable, while none of the forms of werden in any dialect shrink that far.

  32. > you would usually address your Japanese teacher as plain sensei

    Sensei is a honorific in itself. Sensei never take -san/-sama even if they’re not in the in-group. -sensei is also a title used for teachers, doctors and lawyers, and it’s generally considered rude to replace it with -san or -sama (at least in cases where the title is known and relevant).

    > […] your Japanese elder brother as ani

    Oni:san (: means long vowel) or oni:chan are by far the most common. Ani is mostly used to refer to your elder brother when talking to someone outside your in-group.

    > such honorifics are not generally used when addressing in-group (uchi) elders or superiors in Japanese

    Not if I’m understanding you correctly. The most common way to address your parents is oka:san/oto:san.

    It might also be important to explain to people who aren’t familiar with Japanese that the in-group changes according to your audience. If you are talking to your mother, the in-group might just be you. If you’re talking to a colleague,it could be your family, and when talking (at work) to someone outside your company, it would usually be the company.

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