Neener Neener, My Culture’s Older Therefore More Valider Than Yours

I can’t sleep. I think it’s because I didn’t drink enough caffeine today. Whatever the cause of this insomnia, rather than toss and turn, I picked up GACKTIONARY. To be honest I’ve never read the whole thing. When I pick it up, I usually read the headings and let that determine if I’ll read the rest. There’s some good stuff in there, but there are also things I don’t agree with. And usually, I leave it at that. But it really annoys me when GACKT asserts as facts things that he has no qualifications to say. Take this passage from entry #32:

「日本人は態度がすごく消極的で、欧米人はすごくジェスチャーが大きいって、よく言われるよね?何で欧米人はジェスチャーが大きいか?って、簡単な理由だよ。何でアメリカに住んでいる連中はジェスチャーが大きいか?簡単だよ。要は英語には僕らの言語に比べて、男言葉も女言葉も文法的な細かい表現が少ないから。彼らは身振りや仕草でそれを表すしかない。だから、女らしさを体で表現する。彼らは、体と共に語ってる。言葉じゃ足りないからボディーランゲージが必要になってくる。でも僕らは、もともとすべてを言葉だけで補えるだけのものがあったから、手の動きがなくても、言葉の美しさだけで伝えることができたんだ。」

It’s often said that Japanese people’s mannerisms are very passive, and Westerners’ gestures are very big, right? If you ask, “why is it that Westerners use such large gestures?”, the reason is simple. Why do those people living in America use such large gestures? It’s simple. It’s because, in short, compared to our language, English has few expressions which are grammatically specific as masculine speech or feminine speech. They can do nothing but express that through gestures and mannerisms. So, they express femininity through their bodies. Their bodies speak with them. Body language is necessary because their words are lacking. But from the start, we’ve had something that could be sufficient for everything through words alone, which is why we could express things through just the beauty of our words without the need to move our hands.

Perhaps I should’ve started off by saying that this entry is about how he likes for women to speak “properly” or “beautifully,” which to him means “like a woman should.” Ignoring the issues of restrictive gender roles and the fact that no one ever said the sole purpose of gestures was to constantly be slapping people over the head with gender expression (since you can’t see my gestures, let me tell you since apparently it’s crucial that you constantly be reminded of this, but I’M A WOMAN! </sarcasm>), what bothered me about this was the Japanese Exceptionalism (better known as Nihonjinron). Whereas I as a biased Westerner would say that gestures enrich our communication, perhaps GACKT as a biased Japanese sees this feature of English through a lens of deficiency stemming from Nihonjinron: English has X. But Japanese doesn’t have X. There’s no way any language can have something over Japanese, so there must be something wrong with English that requires the use of X.

GACKT has never (as far as I know) lived in a Western country. If he had, he would know that what most Japanese people are taught in schools about gestures is exaggerated; furthermore he would be aware that despite the fact that he can communicate to some extent in English, he is nowhere near fluent, thus he would kindly refrain from educating people about a topic he can’t really instruct them on. How could someone who doesn’t know the difference between calling your S.O. “baby” and calling a mass of people “babies,” or the huge semantic difference between a sentence-final “anyway” and the same word at the beginning of a sentence, think that he knows the nuances of what makes gendered speech in English, or even how much of it exists? GACKT has come a long way in his English expression ability, but realistically it doesn’t take that much to communicate. Babies do it without using words at all. Let’s see newborns get Holier Than Thou about that!

As for the gestures, I think Western gestures aren’t as big as most Japanese people apparently imagine them to be. As a Westerner who had the privilege of judging middle school English recitation contests in Fukuoka, I saw that children were trained to gesture through speeches to the point it went from oratory to mime. Nobody delivers a speech like that! Watch J.K. Rowling’s Harvard speech, which was used for the prefectural high school speech contest in 2011, and you’ll notice that she doesn’t even use her hands; she speaks with her eyes. When comedians do impressions of Obama or Bill Clinton or other modern politicians, they do that thumb pointing thing, and we can immediately recognize it as a politician’s gesture because most people don’t move their hands that way when talking. The mime thing isn’t as bad at the high school level (at least, it wasn’t in my experience), but the tendency for Japanese Teachers of English to tell students that they have to gesture is still there, but they don’t offer concrete examples of how to go about doing that in a way that’s natural for them and appropriate to the setting. Even in more casual social settings, which are likely more what GACKT was thinking of when he wrote this, you don’t have people turning to mime to express themselves, though some people certainly get more animated than others.

As far as traditional binary gender expressions go, I think most Americans are able to tell whether a person is a man or a woman from things like voice pitch, consistency of said pitch, number of words used, and certain vocabulary choices. In the traditional gender binary, I wouldn’t expect a man to walk into a room and greet his male friends with “Hey Guys!♪” in a singsongy voice; he might say it in an excited voice, but there wouldn’t be as much variation in the pitch within those two words as there would be were a woman saying the same thing to the same people. Grammatically, written Japanese can be vague about gender because it’s unnecessary to state the subject of a sentence in many occasions. (Side note: I wouldn’t want to leave out that saying that Japanese “omits” the subject is, potentially, viewing Japanese through a lens of deficiency. Maybe subjects don’t exist in Japanese!) So sure, “atashi” is the feminine “I” while “ore” is the masculine “I” in informal speech, sentence-final “wa” is a marker of feminine speech outside of certain dialects, and women are in general expected to be more polite. So let’s look at English. Sure, “I” is unisex, but in situations where Japanese would make no gender nor marital status distinctions by addressing people as Last Name-san, in English there’s Mr., Mrs., and Ms. Last Name. Women’s greater vocal pitch variation or the fact that they get associated with vocal fry despite the fact that men do it too is sort of like a “wa” at the end of a sentence. And in the Western world as well, women traditionally weren’t “ladylike” if they cussed or otherwise spoke rudely.

Those are just some examples, but if we put more on the scales, I think they’ll still even out. I don’t say “Such language has to do X because it’s deficient.” I say “X is a feature of such language because it is.”

I tend to refrain from saying “Japanese is such and such” and “Japan is this and that” because I know that four years in Japan is a very short time in terms of truly mastering a language and culture at the level a native speaker would. I know more than someone who’s never lived there, but I still tend to present my experiences with that caveat, because I think it’s important to say. Also, the suburbs of Fukuoka City are culturally not the same as Tokyo. Many non-Japanese in the blogosphere and vlogosphere talk about “In Japan” when really they should be saying “In the Tokyo metropolitan area.” Then there’s the issue of being in the global eye. I remember how that video was making the rounds during the World Cup (IIRC) of Japanese fans picking up after themselves in the stadium in Brazil even though they’d lost the game. “Japanese are so clean and respectful!” was the message. And they were in that instance, most definitely. But do all Japanese act like that at home, which is the implied message? I went to several baseball games in Fukuoka, where one of the features is that fans buy long balloons to blow up then release during the 7th inning stretch, and again at the end of the game if the home team wins. The balloons aren’t tied; the point is to have them fly around as they deflate, then they fall down unto the stands. Nobody picks them up. There would be spilled food and drinks on the stadium floor too. It was what you’d expect to see in a stadium. While there I thought, “See, Japanese are regular people too. They’re not these perfect stoic Zen drones, they make and leave messes.” Then that video was going around, and Japanese people who’d I gone to baseball games with were posting it on Facebook like “See how wonderful we Japanese are! ♡” and I was like “…So we’re just gonna act like Yahoo Dome isn’t always a filthy mess at the end of SoftBank Hawks games? Okay cool gotcha.”

Hahh, let’s see if I can sleep now. ^_^;

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