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Sunday, Sept. 23, 2007

Linguists gutted by body-talk blight

Traditional expressions are dying out as thought patterns change


Staff writer

Imagine a nation of people who no longer know where their center lies. That's what Japan has become in recent decades.

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This elegant Chinese character instantly means "stomach" to any Japanese person, but to many nowadays, traditional wisdoms in which it figures are as incomprehensible as double-Dutch.

One of the major casualties of the Japanese language's rapid and ongoing evolution is the diminishing use of body-related phrases — a phenomenon that reflects how Japanese people's once-visceral connection between their bodies and minds is these days rapidly attenuating.

Although it is of course fallacious to generalize, people past working age nowadays tend to have a far better perception of their bodies than their younger contemporaries. Evidence of this is clear in the kind of language they use.

Well-known writer and Meiji University literature professor Takashi Saito, 47, states in his book "Karada Kankaku wo Torimodosu (Restoring Your Body's Feeling)" (2000) that "people in their 80s and 90s use relatively more phrases that include the word hara (stomach) than people of younger generations."

Nowadays, ask a Japanese person where their soul is, and they will probably respond by either pointing to their head or heart. But there was a time when Japanese people believed their soul resided in their hara. This is not really surprising, as the area around the stomach is the physical center of gravity of the human body, and thus in mechanical terms the center of a person's being.

In romantic days of yore, for example, samurai and others would commit suicide in a gruesome manner by slicing themselves open across this key body area in a terminal rite termed hara-kiri (belly cut) that served to show the world their soul.

However, Japanese do not own the copyright on this line of thinking. In English, too, there are various phrases that make use of this central part of the body.

To "have the guts to do something" is to have the resolution to carry out something difficult or unpleasant; and when a person feels something acutely, they will say "I feel it in the pit of my stomach."

If two cultures as different as Britain's and Japan's both place importance on the same part of the body, it suggests there may be some kind of universal significance lurking there.

In Japanese, many other terms using hara still exist. There is, for example, hara wo kimeru, literally meaning "decide in your stomach," which denotes that you have made a firm resolution. Then there's hara-guroi, literally meaning "black stomach," an adjectival phrase for someone who is evil-minded.

Meanwhile, when you want to know what a poker-faced person is really thinking, in Japan you would be well advised to indulge in a little hara o saguru, meaning "looking for the stomach." A less commonly used phrase — and one that is particularly hard to translate into English — is hara ga dekite iru, which literally means, "stomach is complete" but has nothing to do with having a finely chiseled six-pack.

On this point, Saito says: " 'Hara ga dekite iru' refers to having a calm mind even in times of urgency — meaning someone who is able to deal with any situation calmly." To put this in its cultural context, he explained: "In the past in Japan, training in Zen or the martial arts strengthened your spirit and allowed you to keep your presence of mind even in the face of death."

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So many linguistic gems are in danger of extinction in Japan these days as people cease to use marvelously evocative old expressions relating to their bodies. JT ILLUSTRATION

Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, however, and the abolition of the samurai system and the Westernization of lifestyles, there was a sharp decline in Japan's "body culture," of which hara had been the central focus. This mass spurning of traditional ways then became even more pronounced after World War II, when Japanese by their millions shunned their age-old traditions.

Nowadays, according to Saito, the reality is that Japanese people have forsaken their time-honored ways of using "body language" — "because they have not realized its value."

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of Japanese phrases in daily use whose approximate meaning people will know, even though they may lack any deeper understanding.

For example, there's fu ni ochinai (literally, something "doesn't fall into the bowels"). Few are aware that the kanji (Chinese character) used here for fu is the one meaning a person's intestines, and the place where their thoughts reside. Thus, in fu ni ochinai, something just doesn't quite fall into place or make sense.

Similarly, the verb neru is now rarely used by young people in their everyday lives. Most people know it as meaning "to knead" (think dough), but it originally refers to a process whereby a lot of strength is applied to soften something such as cloth, metal or earth.

The way of the dinosaurs

Yet again, there was a time when people would solve a problem by putting it into their hara, expressed as hara ni shimau, and work on it there — or, as in hara o neru, they'd simply "chew it over."

But is there really no place in modern Japanese for these body-related expressions? I for one will not be able to stomach it if they completely go the way of the dinosaurs. Imagine a nation of people who no longer know where their spiritual or gravitational center lies. At present, such wisdom — as the language evolves in an increasingly denaturing way — has primarily become the preserve of the elderly, with younger generations losing that once-solid connection between body and mind.

As an English soccer manager might say in such circumstances: "I'm gutted."



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