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as is the salutation used later, " Konban-wa % " meaning
"This evening."

But when something more than the merest formality
is, or is thought by the polite Japanese to be required,
one soon sees in the phrase used what is uppermost in
the Japanese mind. This is generally the overwhelming
fear lest on some former meeting he or she may have
been guilty of some want of courtesy. Thus it is that
frequently after the low bow, with which any ceremonial
greeting is prefaced, and the polite statement that, " It is

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an over-long time since I have hung upon your honourable
eyelids " (Skibarakuo me ni kakarimashita), which means
merely, "It is long since you saw me," invariably one is
addressed after a second bow with the expression, " O
shikkei itashimashita" which is literally, " Pray excuse me
for my rudeness when last we met." And this abject
apology is made, although it is the most unlikely thing
in the world that there was on the last occasion of meeting
anything save the most delightful courtesy on the part
of one's Japanese friend.

But if in his usual or casual greetings the Japanese puts
little save the conventional idea which is exhibited by
most nations in these phrases, in his " good-bye" is trace-
able the very refinement of his philosophy of life. In the
softly flowing and liquid " sayonara " which speeds the
parting guest or friend, one has all the calm acceptance
of what life brings, and the fatalistic doctrine of non-
resistance. " Sayonara " means in reality, " If it be so,"
and thus when it is whispered at one's departure it conveys
the idea that, "If we must part, then there is no other
thing to do."

So one learns to know that just as when we have been
with them our Japanese friends have made the most of
our presence, so will they make the best of our absence,
be it long or be it short. One of the commonest of all
phrases is " Shikata ga nai" which means " There is
no way out of it." It is one of those curious Japanese
expressions which serve the quadruple purpose of noun,
verb, adverb, adjective, and interjection. If one wishes
to say, " The weather is terribly wet, or dry, or warm,"
one does so incorporating the phrase " shikata ga nai"
which adds to the assertion, " so there is nothing to be

This phrase, indeed, seems to sum up the philosophy
of most Japanese thought, and any one who wishes to Jearn


and comprehend the intricacies of the language must
learn also to be obedient to the gentle fatalism of the race,
for (as he will soon discover) there is no way out of the
multitudinous difficulties which beset this particular path
of knowledge.

Mark Twain has written a humorous account of the
difficulties of the German language. It would have been
almost impossible for him to have done this service to the
language of Japan. Even a humourist will not spend
five-and-twenty years of what we believe Mark Twain
himself has characterised as a " mis-spent life " in mastering
sufficient of a language to poke fun at it. And yet had he
commenced the study of Japanese except when a child,
at the end of even a quarter of a century, he might have
known only enough of it to be conscious of his own

Every one who wishes to learn Japanese and acquire
proficiency in it must be prepared to learn two languages-:
the written and the spoken. The one differs so materially
from the other, that if a Japanese is reading a book or
newspaper and wishes to do so aloud it will be necessary
for him to translate the written words into the colloquial.
So difficult is this dual language that many competent
authorities say that to acquire anything approaching
proficiency after attaining the age of twenty-five or
thirty is impossible, and will assuredly tax the brain
of the student beyond the endurance of average intel-
lects. It is said to take a Japanese child seven years
of incessant study to thoroughly master the absolutely
essential parts of the alphabet. And to enable one to read
such a newspaper as the Jehoya Shimbun, Jigi Shimpo> or
Kokumin Shimbun with any degree of fluency it is
necessary to master at least from two thousand and five
hundred to three thousand ideographs.

When this has been done the student of Japanese will



meet with a rude awakening, however, if he allows himself
to think that much has been accomplished. He will then
find that there are two colloquial or spoken languages, one
for use when addressing inferiors, and the other when speak-
ing to people whom, he supposes are his equals or superiors
in social position. These two tongues, too, differ not only
in their vocabularies, but also in their construction.

It will therefore be apparent that when paying a visit
it is necessary to be on one's guard lest by using the
vocabulary one should reserve for one's host when address-
ing the servants one confers upon them too much honour ;
and when in conversation with one's host to take precau-
tions lest one slip into the colloquialisms which should
be reserved for the servants. For this reason, if for no
other, the most useful sentence the traveller or student
of Japanese can acquire as a start towards mastering the
languages within a language is the one we have already
mentioned as being used so frequently — and generally
unnecessarily — by the Japanese themselves : M O shikkei
itashimashita? M Pray excuse me for my rudeness when
last we met." It will generally be a safe card to play.
The rudeness, though quite unintentional, will (if Japanese
has been attempted) in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred
have taken place. And the remark one evolved with
much care and fondly imagined was a compliment was in
reality a serious insult.

But there is worse to come !

One's labours do not cease with the mastery of the two
colloquial languages. There are, alas! degrees of both
superiority and inferiority, and to each is assigned a
language of its own. The difference which exists between
one's own goods and chattels and servants and those of
other people, for example, must be always carefully borne
in mind when one is speaking of them, and one must
choose both one's words and construct one's sentences


accordingly. There is also a fine and bewildering shade
of difference in addressing the employ^, for example, of
a large and small shopkeeper respectively.

Verbs are especially liable to distinctions of use and
rank. Not only has each verb its common and more
polite form ; but to make things more complicated for the
unsophisticated "foreign devil," those responsible for the
vagaries of the Japanese language have arranged that
some verbs, expressing exactly the same meaning, are more
polite to use than others. If, for example, one sees a
thing, the word miru will perfectly express the fact as
regards one's own seeing. But, on the other hand, if one
wishes some one else to see a thing, the polite form of
address is goran ?iasai, or "your august glance deign."
And further, if one wishes to express the fact that one
desires to look at something belonging to some one else, it
is necessary, so as to fulfil the code of strict etiquette in
such matters, to use yet another verb, and say, " haiken
suru," which means that one would "adoringly glance"
at it.

Instances of the use of several verbs in this way might
be easily multiplied, but even when this intricacy has been
mastered the would-be proficient in Japanese is by no
means at the end of his troubles. He cannot count one,
two, three, four, and so on. Not a bit. A most elaborate
system has to be mastered. u Icki" is one. But if we
wish to say one rifle the numeral is not "ichi" any longer,
but " itcho " ; and should we desire to speak of one chair it
is no longer either " Uhi" or "itcho" that must be used,
but " ikkiaku" ; whilst one used in connection with the
word " man " undergoes another change, and becomes
transformed into " ichinin" and so on.

Thus it happens that the nurnerals, which in most
languages present, comparatively speaking, few difficulties
of acquirement, in Japanese are beset with astounding


the sentence runs, " selfishness wine don't drink." While,
if another is intended, "the augustness" is the term em-
ployed ; and the third personal pronoun is supplied by the
phrase, "that honourable side," who is supposed to be
sitting in the place of honour in the house.

Carrying this method still further, in referring to one's
own possessions it is correct and, indeed, essential, if one
would be understood, to depreciate the article. Thus, if
one wishes to point out one's residence, to refer to a build-
ing as "that miserable house" would at once identify it as
one's own ; whilst, on the other hand, to speak of M that
beautiful house " would equally identify it as belonging to
some one else. By this strange complexity of ideas a
depreciatory or adulatory word is sufficient to do duty for
the personal pronoun.

Following the same system, relative pronouns are
equally superfluous. All that is necessary is to transform
the entire sentence when beginning with u who " or
"which" into an attributive. Thus, "a lady who arrives"
becomes "an arrives lady"; "a gentleman who has left,"
merely "a went gentleman"; and "the gardener who fell
into the pond and got wet" is "the fell into the pond and
got wet gardener," and so on. This language, with usually
only the verb and noun to trouble about, may seem simple
enough — until the adventurous foreigner tries it.

But in a measure the worst has yet to come. To speak
Japanese it is necessary to think in Japanese. And to do
this requires an absolute topsy-turveydom of all one's pre-
conceived notions of what logical thought consists. To
translate an ordinary English sentence literally into the
equivalent Japanese would make nonsense so appalling,
and to the native mind so abstruse, that no possible gleam
of meaning would scintillate from the bringing together of
the words. It is not merely the fact that the idioms differ,
but that the Japanese mind runs in a totally different and

* *

«.l • • •

• • • • • •



usually a reversed train of thought. If one were to tell
one's servant to go and inquire about anything he would
not in the least comprehend what was said. If, however,
one were to say, " Having listened, return," he would
understand and do what was said ; but, unhappily, it would
be exactly the opposite of what was intended. The cart
invariably precedes the horse in this method of communi-
cation. And, indeed, not only is inversion, but the most
complicated system of linguistic involution necessary if one
would express one's thoughts in the correct Japanese way.
Who, we wonder, would discover in the phrase " Kiite
itadikite goasimasu" which is " Hearing wishing to put on
the head was," the meaning, " I wish you would be so kind
as to ask." Or would deem it necessary when inquiring,
" What is the lowest price you will take ?" (for some article),
to say, " As for decisions place, how much until will you
own yourself beaten ? " Whilst so simple an assertion as,
" I have scarcely ever seen any," in its correct Japanese
form becomes, " Too much have seen fact isn't " !

It is possible that a careful and prolonged study of
these and other similar phrases will result in a mind of
acute intelligence ultimately tracing some analogy, but
such prolonged investigation and analysis is not at all
conducive to fluency in speech.

Another feature of the language which is sure to lead
to trouble is its phenomenal indefiniteness. It is quite
impossible to make a straightforward statement of fact in
it. And the sooner this peculiarity is understood the better
for the would-be learner. So simple a remark as, "He
surely knows," becomes transmogrified into "The not
knowing thing is not." It will be easily seen that the
negative plays an important part in all affirmative state-
ments ! In fact, it is almost impossible to make an affirma-
tive statement in Japanese. If one desires, for example, to
state, " There is scarcely any more " of an article, what one


has to say is, "How much even not is." After much
wrestling one may arrive at the conclusion that this
inverted and cryptic Japanese equivalent may be fully
translated into, " There is not even sufficient left to make
it worth while to ask how much there is."

A Japanese mother, wishing to warn her child against
eating too many plums, would express herself in the follow-
ing somewhat involved manner : " A great deal of not
eating those plums is good."

But involved as even the shortest and simplest Japanese
sentences will, we fear, appear to our readers, there is yet
worse to come, from the practice of the Japanese of always
attempting to incorporate the whole of any statement, how-
ever complex and however numerous in its parts, within
the limits of a single sentence whose members are all
mutually interdependent. From a Buddhist sermon we
take the following extract to show this peculiar feature ; by
which, owing to the extreme paucity of conjunctions (for
which other unsuitable parts of speech have to serve) there
occurs an inextricable tangling up of apparently unrelated
ideas as well as expressions.

The sermon in question, after explaining that it is im-
possible to instruct a horse in the ways of filial piety,
goes on to say that, on the other hand, " man has the intel-
ligence wherewith to discriminate between good and evil,
right and wrong ; and he can only be said to be truly man
when he practises loyalty towards his masters, filial piety
towards his parents ; when he is affectionately disposed
towards his brethren ; when he lives in harmony with
his wife ; and when he is amiable towards his friends, and
acts sincerely in all his social intercourse." Excellent
sentiments these, but somewhat obscure when translated
into the Japanese mind : u Whereas-man as for, right-
wrong good-evil discriminate intelligence being, lord to
loyalty exhausting, parents to filial piety exhausting,





brethren as-for, intercourse being good, spouses as-for,.
being harmonious, friends to being intimate, sincerity-
taking, having intercourse indeed, firstly truth's man that

But there are many even more abstruse meanderings
possible in a really " flowery " Buddhist discourse or
oratorical effort than the extract we have given.

It is no uncommon thing for sentences to wander with
appallingly intricate contortions through two or three pages
of closely written MS. ; which, but for the absence of the
parts of speech we have named and the inverted thinking
of the Japanese mind, might have been expressed in a few
brief sentences occupying a tenth of the space.

There are practically neither comparatives nor super-
latives in Japanese ; it is therefore impossible to say directly
that anything is better than something else. If, for ex-
ample, one wishes to say, " The cherry-blossom is more
beautiful than yesterday," one has to express it : " Than
yesterday, to-day the cherry-blossom is beautiful."

The language, however, has at least one advantage in
its inherent politeness. Such phrases as "Shut up" are
debarred to the schoolboy in Japan. He must say, "To
talk no more is good." Slang, indeed, is entirely absent
from the scheme of the language, and for it the most
extravagant expressions of consideration are substituted.
And the same remark applies to oaths, of which not a trace
is to be found in the most reliable Japanese dictionary ;
and no hint of them can be traced in the conversation of
the rudest subject of the Mikado. What may at first
appear to the foreigner in the guise of profane words are
only evidences of the simplicity of the people who have
unwittingly incorporated into their own language certain
11 swear words " of the alien. The foreign sailors of the
Treaty Ports are frequently referred to as " damyuraisu,"
which is a literal (and somewhat " Japanesey " looking)



combination of the sounds which the natives frequently heard
when the foreign sailor was addressed by his officers.

In the same way the perfectly innocent words "come
here" have passed into the language, and have become
the equivalent of "foreign dog," and not a request to
approach ; from the simple fact that the Japanese heard
foreigners frequently address their dogs in those words,
and, of course, they were foreign dogs !

It is by this elliptical construction of both language
and thought, from a Western point of view, which makes
Japanese the most difficult of tongues for the Occidental to
master. It displays itself as a language of hints rather
than of completed ideas. It is for this reason almost
hopeless for any one, who has not, as it were, entered into
the history and spirit of the race as well as given the
closest and most prolonged study to the subject, to expect
to acquire any great degree of proficiency in Japanese. As
a usual thing, to guess at the meaning is the only, and
perhaps safest, way.

Even the greetings of the people are incomplete, and
form but the merest skeleton of what they actually wish to
convey. The most important part of the sentence often
remains unspoken : as for the Japanese themselves, the first
word is often quite sufficient clue to the whole meaning of
what was once an elaborate phrase. It is indeed difficult
to arrive at the idea of a phrase or sentence which is only
just commenced ere it is abandoned. " Shibaraku " has
long ago, with many Japanese, taken the place of the
salutation, " Shibaraku o me ni kakarirnashita" meaning
"It is a long while since we have had the pleasure of
meeting." The abbreviated form meaning merely " Long
time," and leaving all the rest to be imagined !

It must be admitted that most languages practise this
system of elimination to a certain extent, but the Japanese
have reduced it to a science.


It is not unlikely that this incomprehensible element in
the Japanese tongue is chiefly what makes it almost impos-
sible for any one, save those who are endowed with unusual
powers of penetration and observation, and who by long
residence in the country and intimate intercourse with the
people themselves, to master it ; and is but another phase
of the isolation to which Japan in the past has been sub-
jected. Their life amongst themselves has been for cen-
turies so intimate and free from outside intrusion of ideas
or customs, that in course of time they have recognised
that where there is a type of mental telepathy existing — as
undoubtedly is the case with the Japanese — much of the
ordinary complications and explicitness of language are
unnecessary. Thus it has come about that often the first
words of a sentence which has been employed from time
out of mind to express a certain specific idea, wish, or
assertion, has come to be amply sufficient to convey the
whole meaning intended. The remaining words have
come to be regarded as superfluous, and have, therefore,
been dropped. And so it happens that in Japan the
foreigner finds himself more than in any other country
left to struggle with a language which has been shorn of
all the commonplaces of conversation, save certain extra-
ordinary and apparently irrelevant ejaculations. His task
in attempting to master it, as may be gathered from what
we have striven to show, will be no light one.

Those who have studied the question more deeply than
it is possible for most Europeans to do are convinced that
this seemingly elliptic and mysteriously constructed lan-
guage is part and parcel of the Japanese character, as few
other languages are of their users. To understand it, that
intimacy of thought and oneness of idea which has charac-
terised the race from time immemorial is an essential factor.
And the very complications, which present almost insuper-
able difficulties to the foreigner, are those which have


served to weld the people together in sympathetic relation-
ship of mind, ideas, and thought. And for the lack of this,
for which no mere ability nor linguistic attainments can
make up, the alien, whether he be traveller, merchant, or
missionary, can seldom, if ever, succeed in mastering the
colloquial language of Japan.

But if the colloquial language presents difficulties, what
of the written ? It may well appal the boldest and most
indefatigable of students. If the percentage of illiteracy
was always to be reckoned by the difficulty of the language
and the writing of it, then Japan should be an easy first
amongst the nations of the civilised world ; whereas she
compares very favourably with Germany, England, or
France. Indeed, except amongst the most ignorant, it is
unusual to find a man or woman who cannot both read
and write to some extent ; although the amount of study
required to acquire these accomplishments is fully twenty
times as much as that demanded of any learner of a Western
land. The Japanese schoolboy or girl must devote at least
seven years to the mere learning to recognise the characters
employed in writing, and even then the subject is by no
means mastered. Possibly at the end of that long period
of patient study the little student will be able to remember
only a tenth of the signs that are in common use. He
may now, however, be qualified to read with comparative
ease the better-class newspapers and other similar publi-
cations, which will employ only some five or six thousand
characters, but it is doubtful if any one has ever really
learned the fifty thousand which go to the perfect know-
ledge of the written language of Japan. Certainly no
Occidental scholar has yet claimed to have accomplished
such a feat, which indeed may be truly termed colossal.

That the Japanese are by no means a nation of illite-
rates is perhaps a somewhat remarkable circumstance.
But there are several things which have had their influence


in producing this result in addition to their high standard
of natural intelligence and industry. The first of these
factors is undoubtedly heredity.

The Japanese child is born into the world with a
memory for the characters which go to the understanding of
the written language inherited from generations of ances-
tors who have had these stored up in and impressed upon
their brains, so that a variety of subconscious knowledge
of their meaning and appearance is undoubtedly trans-
mitted to their descendants. Unless this is admitted as
an explanation it is, indeed, difficult to account for the
astonishing quickness with which the young children
acquire knowledge of these abstruse and confusing figures.
In addition to this inherited memory, the little students
are, no doubt, assisted in their studies by the veneration
with which they see these characters are regarded, and a
perception of their great importance and sacred character
in their lives. This idea is, indeed, inculcated in several
works used for the instruction of the young, and in that
known as " Teachings for the Young," or " Doshiko,"
which has been in great favour for several centuries, the
following passage occurs : —

" If one learns but a single character each day, behold
it will amount to three hundred and sixty-five in each year ;
and each of these is worth a thousand pieces of gold, and
each mark may be the saving of many lives."

In this reverence of the written letters or characters the
Japanese are, after all, only at one with most other Eastern
peoples, the sacredness of the written word being an almost
universal tenet of the religious faith of Eastern peoples.

A strange custom exists in regard to this attitude of
the Japanese towards writing. It sometimes happens that
a Japanese will find himself for the moment at a loss for
the spoken word in which to describe something, and will
be compelled to trace in the air with his finger what he


means or the particular written character which represents
that missing word. When he has done this he will at
once, with a sweep of his hand in the air, seek to brush out
the invisible mark which he has made. This is done
because it is generally recognised that words, even though
traced in so intangible a thing as air, are too sacred to be

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Online LibraryClive HollandOld and new Japan → online text (page 14 of 23)