Unexceptional: Part 1
I’m going to take a few posts to talk about the Japanese language. My comments in this post, Part 1, are going to be preliminary.
I hesitate to get into this subject. It has been my experience on other online forums that the nature of the Japanese language, how it is viewed, and its relationship to other languages, particularly English, give rise to a lot of less than considerate interaction. Perhaps I should forget about it; perhaps that would be wiser. But here I go.
My main reason for posting these remarks is that there is a line of argument that asserts that Japanese and English are so different that one cannot really compare the two. Therefore it is wrong to mimic the Japanese counting in English because what the Japanese count, when they are counting in order to compose Haiku and Tanka, is quite different from what English speakers are counting when English speakers count English syllables to compose English Language Haiku or Tanka. The consequence of this kind of analysis is that the conclusion is drawn that mapping the counting procedure which is foundational for Japanese poetry forms, such as Haiku and Tanka, onto English is at best a misunderstanding, and shouldn’t be adopted by those with a deeper insight into the Japanese language.
The therefore is crucial here. The argument is that because English and Japanese are so different, that therefore one should not compose syllabic Haiku or Tanka. The argument is that a syllabic approach to Haiku is based on a misunderstanding of the Japanese language. In other words, the view that Japanese is essentially different and unique is used as a foundation for a critique of a syllabic approach to English Language Haiku and Tanka.
This idea has a lot of traction; it appears in a significant number of Haiku manuals. In addition, one runs into it on the web here and there, and not infrequently at poetry forums where someone, commenting on an English Haiku, written syllabically, will say something like, “You cannot compare the two languages.”
Let me be upfront: I have a different view. My view is that the Japanese language is unexceptional. My view is that Japanese count syllables just like English speakers count syllables. My view is that the Japanese language is an ordinary language spoken by ordinary people in an ordinary culture. My view is that not only can you compare the two languages, but also it is easy to do so. I do it all the time. A lot of people do.
However, and I want to emphasize this, I do not conclude from my view, I do not construct a therefore, that people should not compose free verse Haiku. In other words, these comments I am making are not meant to undermine a free verse approach to Haiku. There are excellent reasons to take a free verse approach to Haiku; there are examples of Japanese who take such an approach (not many, but there are some). For example, free verse Haiku gives a poet the option of a more concise, focused, presentation. At its best, free verse Haiku has a snap and energy that can be amazing. Free verse haiku also allows for flexibility of expression in response to what is being written about. These virtues, when used by a good poet, do not depend on the nature of the Japanese language; they are sufficient unto themselves.
In other words, I am not saying that because I believe that it is easy to compare Japanese and English, and because I believe that both languages count syllables, that therefore people should not compose free verse haiku. That’s not my purpose.
My purpose is apologetic. My purpose is to argue that it is legitimate to adopt a syllabic approach to English Language Haiku (ELH), that a syllabic approach is not based on a misunderstanding of the Japanese language, that it is not misguided and/or naïve.
My overall view is that the idea that the Japanese language is somehow deeply alien to English is rooted in the view that Japanese culture is unique. Now, every culture is unique. But when Japanese assert the uniqueness of their culture, and when westerners buy into this assertion, they are asserting that Japanese culture, and its language, is uniquely unique, that Japanese culture is incomparable. In the case of language this view means that the Japanese language is literally not comparable to other languages such as English.
There is a large body of literature which discusses this view. It is referred to in Japanese as nihonjinron; and, again, there is a large body of literature both in Japan and in the U.S. that discusses the widely held Japanese view that as a people they are utterly unique, or uniquely unique. The most entertaining book I have read on this subject is by Robin D. Gill, an American who speaks fluent Japanese and lived and taught in Japan for many years. He has also done a lot of translation; both from English into Japanese and from Japanese into English, including numerous translations of Japanese poetry. His book on this topic is Orientalism and Occidentalism; and it is written with good humor and, at the same time, deep insight. If you are interested in this topic I highly recommend it.
Let me say at once that this view of one’s own culture as uniquely unique is, paradoxically, unexceptional; it is not unique to Japan. As an American I am well aware of how my own culture configures itself as uniquely superlative. In the U.S. this doctrine is known as American Exceptionalism; it is the view that the U.S. is the best, most advanced, greatest nation that has ever existed on earth. President Obama has publicly stated that he is in agreement with the view of American Exceptionalism. It is a very widely held view in the U.S. with deep roots in doctrines such as Manifest Destiny. So I am able to sympathize with the Japanese culture when it makes assertions about its culture being superlative and incomparable. I get it.
However, I don’t think either view is true. From my perspective both Japan and the U.S. are just ordinary. Both countries have done some wonderful things and some horrific things; just what you would expect of any culture that you are not identified with or defensive about.
My first experience with the linguistic aspects of nihonjinron go back about forty years. In the seventies I was the Abbot of a Buddhist Temple in New York City. My teacher was Korean. At that time a Japanese Zen Master had set up a Zen Temple in New York. At the morning and evening services they chanted a short Buddhist work known as The Heart Sutra; in Japanese. The Zen Master’s American students wanted to chant in English. I was drawn into these discussions because of my role as Abbot, because I was a white guy, and because my teacher was Korean and therefore not part of the Japanese Zen hierarchy. The Zen Master was adamant about sticking with the Japanese. When his students pointed out that Chinese chant in Chinese, Tibetans in Tibetan, etc., this did not persuade him. The Zen Master was quite blunt; his view was that English was ‘primitive’, ‘combative’, and ‘incapable’ of communicating the subtleties of something like the Heart Sutra. It happened that I knew that the Zen Master was fond of Shakespeare (many Japanese are). So during the discussions I mentioned Shakespeare in passing, and that Shakespeare wrote in English. Interestingly, this seemed to have an effect. I am not sure, but I like to think that my little contribution softened the Zen Master’s stance and allowed for the chanting of the Heart Sutra in English, which eventually happened.
I tell this story because I believe that when Americans take a stance on the idea of Japanese linguistic uniqueness, they have absorbed some of the linguistic views of Japanese nihonjinron. I believe this has been done unknowingly. I say ‘unknowingly’ because I suspect that most Americans studying Japanese arts are not aware of how widespread the negative stereotypes of foreigners in general and Americans in particular found in nihonjinron are. It resembles someone studying in the U.S. who is unaware of how pervasive the idea of American Exceptionalism is and how deeply embedded the history of this idea is in aspects such as manifest destiny. A foreigner resident in the U.S. who might be studying aspects of U.S. business and finance, might uncritically absorb some aspects of American Exceptionalism; like the idea that American Democracy is the purest and most advanced form of Democracy that has ever appeared in the world. In an analogous way, I think some Americans who have studied Japanese poetry have uncritically absorbed the idea of Japanese linguistic uniqueness.
In a strange way, Americans are primed for such misunderstanding because the idea of American Exceptionalism creates a psychology that is sympathetic to the world view of nihonjinron. Particularly if an American has not critically examined Exceptionalism, then the idea of Japanese being uniquely unique will seem oddly familiar. And the linguistic aspects of nihonjinron do not threaten an American’s view of American Exceptionalism because American Exceptionalism is not linguistically based. That is to say the English language is not a specific cultural artifact of America; it came from England and is used by millions of non-Americans throughout the world. In contrast, Japanese language usage maps almost perfectly onto the Japanese nation. In a way, Japanese linguistic exceptionalism actually re-enforces American Exceptionalism by encouraging the view that different peoples are essentially different and estranged from each other.
In future posts I want to discuss specific aspects of this idea of Japanese linguistic uniqueness. Part of this will be an open-ended inquiry into the idea of ‘syllable’. And another part will be centered on the speed of Japanese and how that measures up to other languages.
In closing these introductory remarks, I want to restate that my purpose is not prescriptive. I mean that I am not arguing for a particular approach to English Language Haiku or Tanka. But what has happened is that a particular view of the Japanese language has been consistently used, and is still being used, to marginalize a syllabic approach to Haiku and Tanka in English. I believe that this argument, this line of reasoning, is misguided. Putting aside uniqueness, putting aside exceptionalism, I believe we have much more in common than is often acknowledged.