Front text

Introduction to my homepage


Learning Japanese is a transcultural effort for all those not raised in a context where this language is used, and where norms formulated in this language have a decisive impact on individuals.

Getting to know vocabulary, grammar, and the writing system are basic elements of this effort, without which no learning progress could follow, and it goes without saying that language acquisition needs to be an interplay between active (speaking, writing) and receptive competence (understanding, reading). However, we should not forget that without language competence neither reading nor adjustment to a communication partner are possible, preventing us from negotiating, amending, expanding, clarifying, or shifting our focus according to the realities that take shape around us.

In this context the point that interests me particularly is what lies beyond the aspects of language acquisition mentioned above, beyond the Japanese language as we tend to think of it superficially from the perspective of a learner.

When people communicate, a countless number of factors are involved, shaping and determining what, how, where, when, or if something is said, written or otherwise signalled. Moreover, language is not just a tool like a hammer or a pencil, language is the very person him/herself using it, and it is not separable from a person's individual physical and emotional identity. This is true also in factual information, where we often enough shake our heard at the lack of clarity, and it remains true also when the user wishes to modify or conceal aspects of his/her identity; a person is always a 'self'. For this reason, real-life language cannot follow a rigid abstract pattern and remains open to interpretation. Even in ritual (including such common activities as greeting), where the overt meaning of an utterance is less important than its formal and temporal structure, interpretation is imperative. Always, however, this interpretation needs to be done without losing sight of the fact that human beings are subjects with an individual will and a bodily self. Learning a language therefore demands both knowledge and competence – knowledge about others and about self, and competence in producing as well as receiving information.  

What is said or not said, how and why it is said (or written) is very largely determined by topics and narratives undulating and pulsating around those who communicate, and it can not really be isolated from what preoccupies a person and serves immediate emotional or factual interests. It is not rare that these topics and narratives go back hundreds of years, as in the case of beliefs in human and world order. For an outsider and learner of a language, such often subconsciously held notions, and with them the historical developments of a language community, need to be fathomed. How, then, can we become acquainted with what will strike a chord in the mind of the speaker of a given language and what he/she will recognise as relevant?

One of the characteristics of language in its most natural shape is that it is embedded in a flow. Also activities like running or playing a musical instrument take place in the shape of a flow, without one being aware of each single element that makes it up. I shall use the term competence to refer to this flow, in the sense that human beings are capable of producing and managing a very complex string of activities in a correct and appropriate way, and to do this spontaneously and with a minimum of effort required at the moment of production. By speaking of cultural competence I wish here to emphasise the fact that language as a flow needs to be guided by very much more than what we commonly think of merely as language.

How, then, may we acquire competence in the Japanese language? What can we do to make a few small steps towards competently speaking, writing, understanding and reading Japanese?

On my homepage I have put together some papers I have written in an effort to catch a glimpse of what is behind the Japanese language (in a narrow sense) and what might serve us to gain a deeper and more comprehensive view of those who use that language in a natural way, and, where this is altogether possible, to adopt some of these insights to serve our own productive and receptive activity.

I have organised the papers into a few distinct categories depending on their principal thrust, although the circumstances in which they were written did not always permit outspoken reference to the topic of communication and competence.

 In his diary, the artist, painter and draughtsman Paul Klee (1879-1940) does not speak of having a specific way of expressing himself, he says:

I am my style (1902)



Communication, cultural competence and racial prejudice

Racial prejudice is, unfortunately, far more pervasive than we might imagine. When we encounter persons from distant regions who from their appearance seem 'not to belong here' our prejudice is linked to the fact that 'we' and 'they' have forms of self-representation which are difficult to interpret, have unfamiliar meaning, or violate taboos.

Racial prejudice often takes the shape of self-affirmation and self-assertion in an arena where the other side is only marginally or vaguely present. Prejudice is easy to maintain here since the other side is not actually interacting with us. Therefore, real-life encounter and interaction is essential in order to emerge from the trap of developing a neurotic relationship between one self and some phantom.

As mentioned, real-life encounter, however, also has its potential for developing and maintaining prejudice. Although it is quite likely that the specifically racial aspect will gradually recede into the background, this is not at all the case with the impact a person's self-representation exerts on us. Competence in adjusting self-representation therefore is, for both sides, a first step to overcome racial prejudice. Self-representation includes, but goes far beyond language.

When a person realises that exchange and negotiation of positions – the back and forth of feedbacks – is possible, this quite probably will absorb one's interest and energy far more than abstract notions of race. In other words, communicative and cultural competence are the essential tools we need for any sort of satisfying encounter.

I cannot get rid of the suspicion that many of our most prestigious institutions tacitly expect non-Western cultures to acquire communicative and cultural competence – and that includes patterns of self-representation – as it is practiced in the West. Such expectation, I maintain, is unrealistic, since what makes up the feeling of 'self' can hardly be manipulated even when foreign languages are mastered. Moreover, we need to more carefully determine what 'West' altogether stands for - social, regional, confessional, national and many other differences can be very decisive. There is, however, a common historical root and a common awareness of certain key terms that determine the constitution of 'Western' consciousness.

If tacit expectation that others will adapt to Western notions proves to be an illusion (and I would not hesitate to maintain that this is the case in the course of a deepening exchange with Japan) this forces a Western learner of Japanese to reflect on his/her forms of self-representation, which in turn can lead to a severe culture shock when one comes to realise that communication would require another understanding of 'self'. Direct encounter with the other on the other's terms and in the other's language, where we on our side make the experience of being on the weaker side, therefore, is an essential step towards perceiving the futility of any expectation as to how 'Western' the other side is able or willing to become.

In fact, racial prejudice against us can be a very real factor when we on our side make efforts to approach the other side. Perhaps the only thing we can reasonably do on our part is to link our communicative competence, and with it our capacity to appear 'human', that it, to enter into the flow and dynamics of exchange, to the search for an appropriate form of self-representation (including language).

The necessary steps of carrying out this search, the obstacles we face in doing so, the costs involved in time, energy and also money, the temporal and local structure conductive to this search, and also the activities we need to maintain the results of any progress particularly in the face of continuous change of the outer world and the succession of generations, must be carefully considered. This, combined with the hope that levels of competence can be reached in which racial prejudice fades into the realm of irrelevance, is a central point of my research.