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Fukushima and the language barrier

December 19, 2011

A formidable barrier


By David Ritchie

         Fukushima is more than a matter of radioactivity. It’s a matter of language, too – in particular, Japanese.

          That gives anyone in Japan who wishes to hide information two great advantages: the impenetrability and ambiguity of the Japanese language.

          What makes Japanese that way? Many things. Here are a few of them.

           First, Japanese uses a complex writing system — three different systems, in fact. Two separate phonetic systems, the hiragana and katakana, are used in combination with Chinese characters known as kanji. One must know thousands of different kanji to read and understand Japanese.

           Literacy in Japanese requires the ability to read all three systems and shift back and forth among them. Imagine trying to read a newspaper printed with some words in Roman letters and some in Greek, with Egyptian hieroglyphics scattered throughout the text. That is roughly what reading Japanese is like.

           To make things even more difficult, Japanese does not use spacing to separate words, as English does. Moreover, word order in a Japanese sentence is almost the reverse of that in English. The verb comes at the end.

           Second, Japanese is inherently so ambiguous that much meaning must be inferred from context. Here is an often-cited example.

           Tabemashita is the past tense of the verb to eat. Tabemashita means “ate.” And the verb may be all the information you are given.

           Who ate, and what, and how many or much? You have to figure that out from context. To use another rough analogy, this is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Context is everything.

           That is why so much information presented in Japanese sentences must be inferred, because it is not stated explicitly. Among the things you must infer is whether a word is singular or plural. This information is usually obvious in English, but not in Japanese. Outside context, ambiguity rules.

           The effect (if you will permit a third analogy) is this. English is to Japanese as a mountain is to a cloud.

           A mountain has solidity. In similar fashion, a sentence in English usually has specific content.

          By contrast, Japanese is more like a cloud — an amorphous puff of vapor without clear boundaries. And just as a cloud can hide a mountain, Japanese can hide information that would be much clearer if expressed in another language.

          To say the least, Japanese lacks the precision of.English, French or Greek. Combined with a complex writing system, this imprecision makes the Japanese language an effective barrier to getting information … more effective, indeed, than the containment at Fukushima was at stopping the meltdowns.

          (David Ritchie lives and works in Seoul, Korea.)

©2011 David Ritchie





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