Linguistic discomfort

Or how to be clear in a fuzzy language

By William Wetherall

It is fashionable to describe the Japanese language as "vague" while English is said to be "direct" and "logical". Why, then, can users of Japanese speak and write perfectly clear and logical prose? While even professional writers of English can write ambiguous nonsense?

"the vagueness of the Japanese language"

She spoke rapidly, in long sentences, with an unusual directness for someone of her generation. Even in uncomfortable moments, she never sought refuge in the vagueness of the Japanese language.

This is how Norimitsu Onishi -- writing in Why a Generation in Japan Is Facing a Lonely Death in The New York Times on 30 November 2017 -- characterized a 91-year-old woman who lives alone in an apartment complex in which a number of other elderly people have been found dead in their unit days, months, even years after their death in utter solitude.

The article is very readable as one expects of a veteran journalist like Onishi. The points he makes about the problem of isolated elderly people dying alone are reasonable. Isolated young people and middle-aged celebrities are also found dead by neighbors, friends, or relatives. And I have seen no evidence that dying in isolation is more prevalent in Japan. But as a piece of social-issue reportage, Onishi's article is worth the read.

What most caught my eye was Onishi's characterization of "the Japanese language". Consider these points.

・Onishi claims that women of the woman's generation are not in the habit of being direct.
・This woman, however, expressed herself directly -- presumably in the Japanese language.
・The Japanese language is therefore capable of accommodating "directness".

・"Indirectness" appears to be a characteristic of the woman's generation.
・"Vagueness" appears to be a characteristic of "the Japanese language".
・But "the vagueness of the Japanese language" is ambiguous.
・Does it mean (1), "the Japanese language can be used vaguely -- if one chooses not to be direct"?
・Or does it mean (2), "the Japanese language is vague rather than direct"?
・If (2), then how could the woman have been "direct" in a "vague" language?
・How, in any case, are "directness" and "vagueness" related?

Onishi also claims that the woman did not "seek refuge" in "the vagueness of the Japanese language" even when "uncomfortable". Why is "vagueness" something one resorts to when "uncomfortable" -- in light of the fact that graph after graph of the article is devoted to the woman's direct testimony about the discomforting conditions of her own plight?

Onishi's characterizations of "the Japanese language" appears to be illogical. But how is this possible? Is not English a direct and logical language? Or has Onishi taken refuge in "the vagueness of the English language" and discovered ways to say illogical things in English?

A more likely explanation is that Onishi has resorted to the use of a boilerplate stereotype about "the Japanese language" being somehow "vague" or "ambiguous" or "unclear" or "indirect" -- as though there was something "exceptional" about the language spoken by 125 million people.

Users of the Japanese language are perfectly capable of saying exactly what they want to say, when then want to say it. And they do say what they want to say -- either clearly or fuzzily, or logically or nonsensically, as they wish. Which is what makes speakers and writers of Japanese human, and the Japanese language like other human languages.

1 December 2017