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Sunday, May 6, 2007

COUNTERPOINT

New clarities set to cloud smoke screens of ambiguity


Special to The Japan Times

Last month, on April Fool's Day to be exact, I revealed some terms and expressions appearing in the forthcoming Japanese government publication, "The Dictionary of All-Too-True Japanese Words and Phrases." Actually, there is far more than meets the eye in this groundbreaking, earthy volume.

Some have called the Japanese language dishearteningly mysterious, deeply unfathomable and tantalizingly vague. Actually, there is some truth to these allegations made against an otherwise perfectly innocent tongue. But now that the Japanese government is on the brink of publishing "The Dictionary of All-Too-True Japanese Words and Phrases," the smoke screen of ambiguity will be blown away and this exotic vernacular, hitherto considered beyond foreign comprehension, will be accessible to anyone who has the odd 15 years free to master it.

Here are some additional all-too-true words and phrases for your Edo-fication.

Nichibei kankei: Literally, this means "Japan- U.S. relations," and it has been defined in gov- ernment publications in the past as "the most important bilateral relation between Japan and a foreign country in the world." This old definition has happily been updated, and nichibei kankei is now officially defined as "the only important bilateral relation between Japan and a foreign country in the world." (For refer- ence, see the recent Japanese Foreign Ministry publication, "I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag.")

Kaiken rongi: Translated character for character, this comes out as "debate on constitutional revision." The government has rightfully called for a national debate on issues relating to the revision of the Constitution, particularly its Article 9, which affirms the nation's commitment to non-belligerency. They have done this knowing full well that the Japanese people naturally shy away from all debates, while the media sees its primary role as "never upsetting a single Japanese person over anything." [See NHK, below.]

Debate on constitutional revision

It has now become clear, however, that when the government announced, at the end of 2006, an "animated" debate on constitutional revision, they were referring to a feature-length cartoon, set for release later this year, titled "Revising the Constitution and Rearming for Peace: The World is Our Co-Prosperity Sphere."

NHK: These three letters stand for Japan Broadcasting Commission. NHK is the national broadcaster and sees its role as providing quality television and radio for all Japanese. It prides itself on its "steadfast refusal to air anything that would insult, offend, excite or displease any viewer or listener" (quoted from the 2007 official NHK Pamphlet "Kamaboko Kokka o Tsukuro (Let's Turn Japan into a Nation like Fish Paste)."

Cited in that pamphlet are examples of programs that were produced by NHK but subsequently axed due to their sensitive nature:

* "I Want to Put You on a Slow Boat to China — Re-election Strategies of Shintaro Ishihara."

* "Fifty Thousand Years of Japanese Whaling."

* "Embarrassing Karaoke Scores of Leading Japanese Politicians."

* "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Architectural Regulations Concerning Earthquakes in Japanese Cities."

Terebi bangumi: This means "television programs." As NHK is covered above, this entry clarifies the nature of TV programming in Japan as seen on the commercial channels.

Content on TV is defined as "a combination of quiz programs presenting trivial, fun information and talk shows where celebrity experts interrupt each other before serious points can be made." The most vital role in TV programming and production in Japan is not played by producers and directors but by the all-important and indispensable car drivers. If it weren't for these selfless chauffeurs, the comedians and celebrity "experts" who dominate the programs wouldn't be transported from one commercial station's studios to another's in time for their next show.

As one TV executive recently put it, "It is important for the Japanese people that they see the same faces on whichever channel they watch. This leaves us broadcasters free to compete on what really counts: Who can air the most commercials and still squeeze something amusing between them."

But not all the definitions in "The Dictionary of All-Too-True Japanese Words and Phrases" have to do with political and public issues. Some go right to the core of the private life of the Japanese people.

Here are just two of those:

Kateinai rikon: Literally, "divorce in a domestic situation," kateinai rikon denotes the state of conjugal affairs in the Japanese household in which a man and a woman are still married to each other but living their lives under one roof as if divorced. Described by one pundit as "having the best of both worlds," this marital arrangement has had an effect on modes of communication between husband and wife.

Words spoken between spouses

A documentary film produced in 2005 by the Nega Genzo Institute of Photographic Social Research revealed that . . . the number of words spoken between spouses in the average Japanese household is 17 per diem, starting with "Morning," and working through "See you," "Tired," "Bath," "Beer" and "Well, night." Among the other most common 17 words and phrases were "Where's [daughter] Sumiko?" "Not cold enough" (referring to the beer) and "We already did it last February" (see sekusuresu, below).

The fascinating Nega Genzo film reports that "in marriages where there is a domestic divorce situation, the average number of words passed between husband and wife went from 17 to zero." Many domestically divorced couples have found this level of communication very satisfying. As one wife in the documentary said, "Not a harsh word passes between us. If that isn't an ideal marriage, I don't know what is."

Sekusuresu: Derived from the English "sexless," this term denotes the state of a relationship between two partners who enjoy either no or only highly occasional sex. ("Highly occasional" here is defined as "so long ago that neither party remembers when, where or whether it took place.") Surveys comparing frequency of sex acts between heterosexual partners in the top 25 developed countries of the world have revealed that "the Japanese people have the lowest percentage of such encounters of any developed people."

A government study, however, claims these surveys to be grossly misleading and part of a subtle Japan-bashing policy pursued by certain foreign journalists. "The Japanese people are not 'sexless,' " it asserts, "and if they are, it's because all Japanese gird their loins entirely for the good of the nation anyway."

When it appears, "The Dictionary of All-Too- True Japanese Words and Phrases" is bound to go a long way in explaining the true nature of life in Japan today. But I'm afraid this column won't be taking up any more words from it.

When you're dealing with something as definitive as this, all you can do is let it speak for itself . . .

COUNTERPOINT will take a break next week, but Roger Pulvers will still appear on the page with a work of fiction instead.


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