Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mainichi benkyou shinakereba naranai!

First off, apologies all round for neglecting my blog. Been busy studying Japanese, 'onest guv! That having been said, I really shouldn't be spending so much time writing on this blog, given that I'm meant to be writing a book or two right about now. And of course, there's buckets of books that need reading. And a language that needs learning. Come to think of it, have I not just written about 1 book's worth in blog entrys by now? Dammit, I really need more focus.

Anyhoo, here's a little something I noticed pertaining to some encounters I had with sociolinguistics. Maybe there's something to it, maybe there isn't. Make of it what you will.

When an English speaker sallies forth on some endeavour or other, an exam, say, quite possibly the most common thing to say to him will be 'Good luck'. However, in Japanese, in much the same context as one would normally say 'good luck', one would say 'Gambatte kudasai', which translates as 'Please try your hardest'.

'Good luck' carries with it the suggestion that luck is a factor, that whatever the outcome, it's out of your hands. Failure is not your fault, you tried and that's all you could do. It's okay.

'Gambatte kudasai' implies it's ALL in your hands. Success or failure are entirely dependent on the effort you make. Failure is most certainly your own fault.

This is in stark contrast to the 'boleh lah'* attitude prevalent in Malaysia, where cutting corners and half measures is the norm, painfully apparent in every aspect of Malaysian life. Here, perfectionism and meticulousity are regarded not as virtues, but more often than not interpreted as simple anal retentiveness.

I'm not too sure how Japanese people are viewed elsewhere in the world, but where I've been, the Japanese have a reputation for working and playing harder than anyone else. They work longer hours, more intensely and are far less forgiving of failure or even mediocrity. Their society is a rigidly structured meritocracy and this mindset is further reinforced by the Japanese language, with its various degrees of politeness and accompanying pronouns. For example, in decreasing order of politeness, I can refer to myself as watakushi, watashi, boku or ore, depending on who I'm talking to. All of those words mean 'I/Me', by the way, and there are at least as many for 'You'. The point is, with Japanese, you are always constantly aware of your status in relation to the people around you, and with 'Gambatte kudasai' being one of the most commonly heard phrases, you are always being driven to work that little bit harder.

I'm not sure if this is a case of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in effect. In find that in all cases of Sapir-Whorf I've seen, one has a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Did the culture shape the language or did the language shape the culture?

Meh, I say, for now. I will figure this out at length later, after further readings into Sapir-Whorf. For the moment, here's a guy with a tree on his head:

* Literally, 'can lah', with lah giving the phrase an air of lackadaisalness. Translated more correctly into colloquial English, I suppose the equivalent phrase would be 'Can't be arsed to do better'.

No comments: