spaceCenter for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)

Articles on the Japanese Language and Culture


Clancy, P. M. (1986). The acquisition of communicative style in Japanese. In B. B. Schieffelin & E. E. Ochs (Eds.), Language socialization across cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 213-250.

The introduction points to differences between American and Japanese conversation -- that for instance, Japanese culture holds that silence may be golden, and finds Americans see to talk endlessly and compulsively at meals, perhaps trying to compensate for the comparative silence of the Japanese conversational partner.  Japanese multiple negation is seen by Americans as reserved, cautious, and even evasive.  Japanese see it as being polite.  The authors also suggest that since Japanese culture has reduced numerous situations to a few pat phrases, they need only indicate the right formula briefly while Americans may feel the need to differentiate greatly -- for example, in distinguishing different ways of giving thanks, depending on the situation.
      Japanese communicative style, such as indirect both in giving and refusing directives, is seen to derive from a society in which social group status is paramount.  Members of the society are expected to be empathetic and to conform, in order to preserve group harmony and group values.  These patterns can be seen in mothers' socialization of children through their speech routines from an early stage in interaction with their children, which in turn impacts on child language development.  Clancy draws from her sample of data from Japanese mothers and their 2-year-old children.  For example, the mother tells the child what others were thinking and feeling, socializing them to empathize with others.  Pointing out what behaviors could be seen as strange, frightening, or shameful socializes them to conform.  Also, they themselves model indirectness in making and refusing requests, as well as giving direct instruction in how to use and interpret language appropriately in context.  It is important not to violate the right of freedom from imposition.  The chapter gives numerous examples from Clancy's data set of ways to listen and respond, directives, empathy training, conformity training, and saying no.


Lakoff, R. (1984). The pragmatics of subordination. Berkeley Linguistics Society, 10, 481-492.

Lakoff makes the case for why it is necessary to go beyond the grammar of the language to learn how to encode meaning as a pragmatic system.  The main distinction she makes in this article is between speaker-based and hearer-based cultures.  In the former, the speaker is to be explicit and clear; otherwise they will be perceived as devious.  In hearer-based cultures, on the other hand, being ambiguous and imprecise is valued.  While the speaker-based cultures are seen as "distancing," the hearer-based ones give deference to the hearer and let this person determine what is meant.  She goes on to note that the latter type goes against the Gricean (1975) Cooperative Principle which holds that explicit expression of meaning in discourse is universal in its applicability.  Her conclusion is that this principle is short-sighted in that it doesn't reflect deep understanding of non-Western cultures. 


Lebra, T. S. (1976). Japanese patterns of behavior. Honolulu, HI: University Press of Hawaii.

Chapters 2, 3, 4 are on belongingness, empathy, and dependedness respectively, in Japanese society.  Belongingness:  Lebra gives the example of belonging to a particular company and how this helps one establish self-identity.  And belongingness should be unambiguous which helps explain Japanese discomfort with people of multicultural backgrounds -- hybrids.  Solidarity, loyalty, and priority of group goals -- sense of collectivism, compared to the American individualistic, competitive society.  E.g., Japanese prefer to travel in group tours.  Pride, shame, and suffering are collectively   shared in Japan.  Empathy:  Maintenance of consensus, avoiding displeasure, self-restraint are important, and a lack of aggression is taken as a sign of maturity.  The priority for nonverbal communication is that "an intuitive, roundabout form of communication based on empathy is necessary to maintain the Japanese way of life; a verbal, explicit form may disrupt it" (p. 47).  Unthoughtful vocalizations can endanger harmony, especially when people live in close spaces.  Dependency:  In Japanese society the inferior in status is dependent upon the superior for help and support.  The superior is expected to exercise power in favor of the dependent, thus forming a patron-client tie.


Meier, A. J. (1999). Identifying and teaching the underlying cultural themes of pragmatics: A case for explanatory pragmatics. In L. F. Bouton (Ed.), Pragmatics and language learning. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois, 113-127.

Meier gives an overview of studies that engage in explanatory pragmatics, namely, relating underlying cultural beliefs and attitudes to linguistic behavior.  She notes there are relatively few such studies.  They identify cultural orientations (e.g., collectivism vs. individualism, high-context vs. low-context) and themes or dimensions (like time, space, personal responsibility) that differentially inform the linguistic behavior of the speech community.  Included in her study table is a study she conducted in Austria and the US (1996), contrasting the two cultures.  Five of her 16 studies dealt with Japan vs. the U.S.  Barnlund and Araki (1985) found Americans complimented more because there was no problem in elevating the status of the other person.  White (1989) found more backchanneling by Japanese to signal understanding the other's view.  Barnlund and Yoshioka (1990) apologized more for failure to fulfill social expectations.  Americans were less willing to admit guilt in order to protect their self-esteem.  The Japanese used more expressions of compensation.  Cupach and Imahori (1993) found the Japanese to apologize more for their actions than Americans -- they apologized to save their interlocutor's face.  They also maintained harmony through using silence -- not saying anything.  Finally, Takahashi and Beebe (1993) found Japanese to use more formulaic expressions while Americans would personalize and individualize them.  Japanese used a question to elicit self-correction so as to avoid direct disagreement.  Americans were found to use softeners more to cover up status differences. 
   The author picks up on the Olshtain and Cohen notion of speech act set as a means of being more accurate and less simplistic in describing cross-cultural situations.  In other words, in a context with properties A, B, and C, where your relationship with the interlocutor has characteristics D and E, and you want to be appropriate, you may say X.  The idea is to resist the temptation to simplistically assign linguistic forms in a situation where they may not apply.  We must avoid being prescriptive, would be her main message.


Okabe, R. (1983). Cultural assumptions of East and West. In W. B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Intercultural communication theory: Current perspectives. Beverley Hills, CA: Sage, 21-44.

The author considers the concepts of homogeneity and verticality (hierarchy) as important for understanding Japanese society and culture.  While American culture reaches outward, Japanese culture draws inward.  The author sees academia in Japan as staying within self-sufficient cubicles.  The American values of independence and individualism are contrasted with the Japanese ones of interdependence and conformity; also American informality vs. Japanese formality.  American rhetorical patterns (according to Robert Scott): Americans are confrontational, persuasive, demonstrating difference from opponent's views, while the Japanese approach is for harmony and consensus, with the communicative form being cautious, tentative, complementary, incomplete, seeking the other's support to make it complete.  The author contrasts American and Japanese written rhetoric, with the former striking a balance between process and product, and the latter going right to the product (p. 30).  Useful contrast between the American value on precision and hence matching rhetoric: "absolutely," "certainly," "positively"; overstatement, exaggeration, and oversimplification -- "the greatest," "biggest," "longest."  Also, the use of "I" a lot.  The Japanese because of their interdependence and need for harmony qualify more with "maybe," "perhaps," "probably," "somewhat."  Also by leaving out "I," there is room for ambiguity.  America is seen as a low-context, highly elaborated culture, whereas Japanese is high-context, where there is no need to elaborate their speech codes (p. 35).  Given the Japanese appreciation of nonverbal communication, verbal communication is seen as only one means, while for Western rhetoric it is the dominant means of expression (p. 38).

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