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Speaking about overseas Japanese Language Centres to the soft power of culture

by Mr Tan Jong Lek, Vice President of the Japanese Cultural Society, Singapore

The distinguishing characteristics that the Japanese language embodies are its absorptivity, flexibility, retention of tradition and innovative spirit.

On 8th January 2007, Lianhe Zaobao reported that Japan would establish 100 Japanese language centres in overseas, and published an editorial titled “welcome dominant countries to use more of soft power as a mean of competition” on the next day that further commented about the article.

The argumentation of the editorial is positive, and the writer was much appreciated.

From the past till now, there are a lot of commentaries and reviews, as well as numerous monographs by experts and scholars on Japanese culture around the world. As someone who graduated from Japan and a Singaporean who had the opportunity to come in little contact with Japanese culture, the writer would like to share his humble opinions with the readers.

To have an insight of the culture through language

A language often reflects its culture. For the Japanese language, the distinguishing characteristics of Japanese culture it displays are firstly, its powerful absorptive capacity.

Two thousand years ago, Japan dispatched large number of students to the then Han Dynasty of China, where they absorbed Chinese characters and eventually became the spiritual backbone of the Japanese language we know today.

In addition, Japan has come into contact with Western civilizations greatly over the past one hundred years or more, and absorbed the many loanwords borrowed from Europe and America through converting their pronunciations using Katakana characters in the Japanese language.

For example, ice cream is known as “aisukurimu”, mini skirt is known as “minisukato” and personal computer is called “pasokon”. Such powerful absorptivity and flexibility have enabled a rich collection of vocabularies in the Japanese language.

According to statistics, there are thousand over vocabularies that are absorbed into the Japanese language through converting into Katakana pronunciations each year.

Secondly, the Japanese language has retained many ancient characters that are no longer used in written Chinese today, such as 箸 (chopstick) and 几 (table). This is a representation of how Japan values traditions.

Thirdly, many readers might not be aware that a lot of phrases (where two or more characters are combined together to express a new form of meaning) used in modern written Chinese are actually created by Japan, which were eventually absorbed into the Chinese language and are commonly in used today.

Often seen examples include: 社会 (society), 主義 (principle), 政党 (political party), 共産 (communist), 内閣 (cabinet), 警察 (police), 銀行 (bank), 図書館 (library), 幼稚園 (kindergarten), 物理 (physics), 気圧 (air pressure), 動脈 (artery), 統計 (statistics), 建築 (architecture), 芸術 (art), 小説 (novel), 記者 (reporter) and 宗教 (religion).

The reason behind was because way back in 1868, Japan dispatched large numbers of students to Europe and America to learn about their technologies, medical sciences, constitutions, railroads and shipbuilding techniques during the few decades of the Meiji Restoration period. There was a need to translate huge quantity of English and Germen vocabularies into Japanese at that time.

Therefore, the word for law was created by combining two separate characters 法 and 律 together to form the phrase 法律, while democracy was translated by combining the characters 民 and 主 together.

“There is me in you” between Chinese and Japanese language

In comparison, China was at the end of the Ch’ing dynasty rule back then, which was busy dealing with internal unrest (Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace or 太平天国) and foreign aggression (separatism by powerful nation-states). Although a reform movement was carried out in 1898 (戊戌変法), it had unfortunately failed on the verge of success. It was only after being defended by the Japanese during the first Sino-Japanese War (甲午戰爭 or 日清戦争) in 1895, they woke up to reality and started sending many students to learn in Japan, which then drove the reformation.

The reformation at the end of the Ch’ing dynasty rule has later brought about a new height of culture during the “May-forth movement” (五四運動) in 1919, and scholars at that time decided to use materials that are already available. As such, many existing Japanese words and phrases were adopted and are used in modern written Chinese.

The above-mentioned Chinese loanwords from Japan were once included in their relevant dictionaries. The origins and allusions of these modern words and phrases demonstrated the kind of innovative spirit that the Japanese language possesses.

Up to the present, phrases such as 人気("ninki", meaning "popularity") and 写真 ("shashin", meaning "photograph") are originated from Japan as well. Loaning of words and phrases from the Japanese language is flourishing and still in the ascendant for the past two decades.

As such, it is true to say that “there is me in you” and “there is you in me” between Chinese and Japanese language. Even though it seems that China was the master and Japan was the disciple during the era of ancient text two thousand years ago, and in part of the development of modern written text, Japan is the master and China is the disciple, the notion of whether who is the master or who is the disciple is however in fact not much of a significance when it comes to language.

What is important for a language is its capacity and comprehensiveness. Looking at today’s internationally recognized English language, it has absorbed and included many words and phrases from Latin. As a result of its tolerance and open-mindedness, English has spread and is widely used throughout the world.

In conclusion, the distinguishing characteristics that the Japanese language embodies are its absorptivity, flexibility, retention of tradition and innovative spirit.

Traditional Culture Verse Fashion Culture

The exquisiteness and beauty that the art of Japanese flower arrangement (known as Ikebana in Japanese) portrays, the meticulousness and etiquette that the Japanese tea ceremony emphasizes on, the concentration and valiancy that Kendō and Karatedō demands, the rhythm and boldness that Taiko conveys, the gorgeousness that traditional Wafuku shows and so forth, I believe many of the readers are not unfamiliar.

The light flavored yet delicious, moderate yet nutrition-rich Japanese food culture that is vivid and attractive is even the favorite of many people.

Moreover, commonly regarded as the “soft power” of popular culture, such as karaoke, animation and comics, electronic games, fashion and hairstyle, were popular for a time as well.

For Chinese culture, doesn’t it have its charismatic side that is worth to be explored, look ahead to and draw reference from?

With five thousand years of long history, extensiveness and profoundness, the Chinese culture has its magnificent boldness, fine charisma, as well as penetrating wisdom. If the Chinese descendants, in the light of adoring and cherishing their own traditional culture, are able to infuse innovative spirit and cultivate it, and at the same time retain and glorify its charismatic side to the world, I believe it would definitely gain admiration and contribute to the promotion of harmony in humanity.

* Article reproduced with permission from Mr Tan Jong Lek and was first published in Lianhe Zaobao, 15 Jan 2007

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