Monday, February 16, 2015

'The War That Was Lost' or 'The War That Was Finished': How A Single Japanese Character Can Alter Education

Given their relatively rapid rise from the (literal) ashes of post-World War II, the Japanese people have always been obsessed with the end of the war, and consquently its meaning for how they should consider their lives. Sometimes it's instructive to see how a culture teaches various aspects of history to its youngest citizens, which is why I'm leafing my way through a Japanese book written by Ryuichi Narita, aimed at students age fourteen and up, whose title roughly translates as: "The Way To Think About, And Learn About, Post-World War II Japanse History". One of the most fascinating arguments is expressed in one of the first chapters, and involves a knotty linguistic problem that probaby couldn't be replicated (or en be much of an issue) in English language materials. Maybe by looking at these two seemingly plainspoken phrases we might learn something about how the Japanese try to regard themselves and their past.

Because much of Japanese vocabulary is composed of Chinese characters that have a visual meaning completely independent of any phonetic pronunciation, it's relatively easy to combine these kanji together to create a new word, one whose meaning is quite clear to process and comprehend, even if you're not exactly sure how it's supposed to be said by your lips. (This is also why both Japanese and Chinese are so useful on Twitter; concepts that would require dozens of characters to express via English can be succintly summed up in these Asian tongues without too much fuss.) An early chapter here focuses on how, exactly, to define the period of time that occurred after the conclusion of the war, during the American occupation.

The chapter's heading, translated, would read something like: "The War That Was Lost? The War That Was Finished?"

Admittedly, in English, this chapter-heading reads (and sounds) rather awkward and confusing, but in the Japanese language, the distinction between the two terms has certain implications for how one should linguistically (and thereby historically, intellectually and even emotionally) process the events that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki's final booms of intent. 

"The War That Was Lost" requires seventeen alphabetical characers in English, but in Japanese, we need only two pictographs -- one representig 'lost'. the other representing 'war'. You slot those two babies together, and you get the word 'haisen', which literally means 'lost war'. The next part of the chapter in question, namely 'The War That Was Finished', is also composed of two Chinese characters, one meaning 'end', the other signifying 'war'. Combine these pair of kanji, and we're left with 'shusen', which translates as 'finished war'. 

So the chapter poses this dilemma: Is it better to refer to this war as a 'lost war', or a 'finished war'?

In English, such a problem most likely wouldn't even come up, because there's any number of ways in wihch one can refer to events that chronologically follow the conclusion of a war, and it's not all that important to rigidly define how such a period of time should be classified and represented. For example, the United States, by pretty much unanimous agreement, lost the Vietnam War, yet when historians, journalists, novelists or laymen refer to that time, they could choose to say 'post-Vietnam', or 'after the war', or any other number of rather innocuous expressions. The Japanese, too, have a phrase for 'postwar' -- 'sengo' -- which literally means 'after the war', and it's also in common usage in the media and textbooks, but there's a larger linguistic issue at stake regarding the problem that this chapter is gingerly trying to explore.

To wit, he Japanese language seems to require a kind of solidity and squareness that English does not require. By that I mean, the very nature of kanji (those pictorial characters imported long ago from China) implies a fixedness -- these images are pictorial, and they have distinct meanings. You join one 'meaning' with another 'meaning' and a third 'meaning' is created; it's a very logical, cohesive process, resulting in a rigid definition that allows no leeway or slant. It's thus ironic that Japanese is considered (rightly so) a very vague language, but it is, paradoxically, the concrete nature of their expressions that allows such ambiguity to surface. 

When you're language is flexible and loosey-goosey and can boogie-woogie like English, you can slip and slide all over the place, and in that relaxed mode of expression, any number of interpretations of thought can be processed and discussed. In Japanese, the use of kanji, more often than not, creates a kind of codified standard that says 'this means THIS', period. By employing these terms, one thereby becomes sort of stuck. It means what it means; it is what it is. Yet it's because of this solidity that one can then allow a door of interpretation to be opened, because ten different people might hear or read this same expression, and thus come away with ten alternate beliefs in what is being said. By being so broadly direct, the listener or reader is forced to ponder what other ambiguities might exist underneath such firmness.

So, for example, if the phrase 'lost war' comes to be known as the de facto means by which the Japanese language (and people) term that time in the past, that repeated emphasis of 'lost', as part of the fabric of the word, stresses something, by its very usage -- namely, the fact that Japan did, in fact, lose the war. The 'loss' becomes all important. Every time the term is employed, it will be 'lost' that is seen as part of the word, and thus, being a language that thrives on ambiguity, the reader (or listener) will necessarily wonder in each context that it's being used if this 'lost' aspect has relevance to the larger point being made. (Of course, this may all be happening at that subconscious level where language seems to dwell inside us.)

Similarly, if the phrase 'shuesen', or 'finished war', is more often employed, then the fact that Japan 'lost' the war is no longer as relevant to the greater points that are under dicussion. The linguistic implications of that one word, 'finished war', are that Japan may not have won the war, true, but it's the 'finished' part that's important -- not the fact that it was a defeat. 

These may sound like enormously fussy arguments to be made for a concept that pretty much means the same thing -- we are, after all, simply talking about words that refer to the end of a war. Yet they could have ideological or political ramifications, depending on who's using them. For example, if a particular Prime Minister of Japan is notoriously right-wing, and he chooses to use the phrase 'shusen' when talking about post-World War II society, wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that he's not so sure that in fact Japan's 'loss' should be stressed? Or, conversely, if a left-wing journalist repeatedly uses the phrase 'haisen' to explore that very same period of time, we might think that he or she is indeed emphasizing the fact that Japan lost that conflict. 

Again, all of these assumptions of ours (and theirs, the users of these words) would probably be existing on some unconscious level, but that might be the point of this chapter -- that kanji is such a visually striking element of linguistics that employing the proper Chinese character must be dealt with in a considered fashion. If children are being taught about their own country, and its own past, which aspect should be stressed -- the fact that the war was 'lost', or the fact that it was 'finished'? This is semantics (quite literally so!), but it also shapes in some ways how their citizens start to think.

I don't believe that Ryuichi Narita, the author of the book, comes to a conclusion one way or the other; like many Japanese books (and the tone of this one in particular), the ideas seem to be meandering and questioning, broadly exploratory and discursive, rather than firmly instructive one way or the other. (In the same chapter, he brings up the notion of 'destruction' and 'humiliation' -- that these were vocabulary children after the war habitually came to think of when considering Japan's post-war era, and it seems like Narita is stressing repeatedly the importance of language itself in how history is projected.)

Trying to understand how one culture teaches what it does. the extent of its self-introspection and objectivity and using which particular vocabulary, is a goal that right now is, admitteldy, a little bit above my pay-grade (in Japanese-language-comprehension terms, that is). My insights here might be far off the mark. Yet I do find the broader implications of 'lost war' and 'end of war' enormously interesting, both as examples of the Japanese language's dexterity and possibilities, and also as indications of how language and its usage can almost telekinetically connect to actual human responses, as well as link to those real emotional states of consideration that affect how one chooses to look at life as it was lived.