Japanese Communicative Practices and Insubstantial Japanese Self: On the Basis of Buddhism Philosophy

Rumiko Ochiai

Japan Women's University, Japan

WS132: Cultural Values and Language Behaviour: Focus on Asia

This study investigates Japanese communicative practices from the ethnographic viewpoint. Recently, there has been much criticism leveled at linguists, anthropologists, and philosophers for applying “modern” western frameworks in order to understand Eastern language practices (Nishida 1987; Suzuki 1997; Silverstein and Yamaguchi 2007). This paper, supporting the claims of such criticism, attempts to reveal what is missing in the previous studies, most of which have employed the western frameworks for interpreting Japanese language. By showing how participant attunes herself to her interactant so as not to clarify her identity, I will argue on the self of participant, which is abnegated i.e. insubstantial, whose tendency may be linked with the Buddhism notion of the self.

The data consist of sixteen transcriptions of task management discourse between Japanese female native speakers. Pairs of informants were asked to rearrange fifteen picture cards in order to create a natural story. Their negotiation was video-taped by researchers.

The analysis shows how participant creates a feeling of indeterminacy rather than showing the individual identity. For example, by using a negative interrogative ja nai, the speaker shows her uncertainty in order to become merged to the interactant’s consciousness; when one asks which picture card could be the first, the other answers “Kore da yo, kore (This one, This one),” which is positively acknowledged by the interactant’s response “A, honto da (Oh, that’s right).” This sequence is likely to be finished here because the consensus has already been obtained. However, she continues as “Kore ja nai? (this + ja nai?),” which conveys her lack of confidence. Namely, even though her proposition is already approved, she does not move on to the next negotiation until her idea is shared i.e. grounded in her interactant’s consciousness. It illustrates Japanese insubstantial self that the speaker abnegates her individual identity, where participants create a harmonious rapport.

My claim is that this insubstantiality of Japanese self may be grounded in the Buddhism notion of the self, in which a relative self is not admitted. According to Izutsu (1977), the self is inherently insubstantial or “falls into Nothingness”, where distinctions such as I and you, or speaker and hearer, exist only for the sake of expedience. In other words, such an expedient distinction “regains its own original unity (Izutsu 1977),” so that all things are beyond separation. It can be concluded that the Japanese insubstantial self is an embodiment of “common sense ideas (Hanks 2005),” which are immanent in Japanese people who share the common world-view of Buddhism.

Session: Workshop (part 1)
Cultural Values and Language Behaviour: Focus on Asia
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 11:00-12:30
room: 18