Is this the Japans? Social English – Preparing to be a Culture Vulture on Japan: some picks & pointers by Steve Nugent - Profesor de inglés

Is this the Japans? Social English – Preparing to be a Culture Vulture on Japan: some picks & pointers

Part one of this blog focussed on how enterprising Business people, from Spain or elsewhere,  might better prepare themselves for doing business with their counterparts in Japan.  In anticipation of business opportunities that might spring from the  delayedTokyo Olympics due to start on July 23rd. Referring to instructive models we saw that both Japan & Spain are categorized as HIGH CONTEXT CULTURES where building trust & developing both working & social relationships are seen to have a higher premium than in LOW CONTEXT CULTURES such as The United States & Germany.  Meaningful business transactions might then follow from a good impression made in a social context such as at the restaurant, the bar or even at Karaoke. These 'Social English' contexts present a great challenge for any speaker of English as a Second Language but what, aside from business & family, could business travelers talk about? Showing some appreciation of the host culture always helps, of course, & so we have prepared a primer on Japanese cultural highlights here which will certainly help to NAME DROP some reference points where appropriate.

Ikigai - work-life balance, life expectancy & being centred


First of all, let us look at work-life-balance. Unravelling the stereotypes is key. Just how much time (& money) do business people have to enjoy a ´hinterland´ for the social side of business life?


Like most modern liberal democracies, the expectation in both Japan & Spain are that companies offer standard working contracts or around 40 hours a week.  It is Japan, however, that has the reputation for unrealistic demands on its workforce.  A recent official (2016) survey showed that 25% of companies in Japan demanded 80 hours of overtime every month.  


Contrastingly in Spain many ´expats´ from around the world have arrived on the basis that the country offers a different set of priorities & so a far better quality of life than most.  On arrival, though, many are surprised to learn that Spain has some of the longest working hours in Europe with reformers including the lobby group the ‘Association for the Rationalisation for Spanish Schedules’ citing a host of contributing factors for its ´quirky rhythms´ - being the wrong time-zone, the symbolic significance of the lunch break, & the problem of ´presentismo´ – the expectation that workers will stay (some possibly pretending to be busy) until their boss leaves.  Whatever the reality is – in both cases long hours can clearly eat into productivity & impact negatively on family & social lives, & also on the capacity of Corporate & Social Responsible (CSR) projects or civic society manifested in volunteering & skill-sharing.    


Yet both nations top the league tables for life expectancy. Elsewhere in Oxinity materials we have asked our students to speculate on why Spain might even take over Japan & move into the top spot.

Clearly diet figures strongly - around half the output of Japanese television is said to be food related Japan, & of course Tokyo can now boast more Michelin stars than any other city for its approximately 160,000 restaurants.  Unlike ethnically diverse cities such as London, Toronto & New York most of these restaurants specialise in classical Japanese cuisine supplied by Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market.  

However, perhaps only
Okinawa in Japan can match or exceed Spain & parts of the Mediterranean in terms of the promotion of a relaxed way of life.  Interestingly readers could follow up on the recommended reads that follow here with books on this subject by two Spanish writers. They suggest that diet is fundamental as part of the condition of ‘Ikigai’ that has been trending in wellbeing circles in recent years alongside the Danish terms ´Hygge & Lykke´. It is defined variously as ´a reason for being, found during a search for self & purpose´.

But diet is only part of the picture as shown in the graphic & by two Spanish authorities on the subject -
Héctor García & Francesc Miralles in their books including ´Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long & Happy Life´ (also listed below).

In conclusion from their interviews with residents of Okinawa García & Miralles talk of the importance of curiosity & intuition as powerful internal compasses in finding our inner “Ikigai”. This is consistent with the models on ´High Context verses Low Context Cultures´ featured in part one of this blog where both the Japanese & Spanish are seen to be more intuitive & relational (or lateral) in their thinking & less logical & linear than their ´Low Context´ counterparts (in countries such as the United States or Germany).

Blogger Kyle Kowalski has picked up on these discoveries as life changing & cites key material on similar localities of calm including in the Mediterranean  defined as “Blue Zones” by Dan Buettner a leading innovator & consultant on the design of holistic policies for reclaiming & remodelling our cities to our kitchens as healthy & sustainable environments geared squarely at healthy living & longevity.


In his blog Kowalski reprints a communication sent back to his father The 10 rules of ikigaion his discoveries:


I would say Ikarians (from the Blue Zones) are the most sane humans on the planet. Long healthy life, minimal impact on the planet, meaningful relationships (“us” vs. “me”), plant-based diets, drink wine and tea with family and friends, clear purpose based on satisfying low-level needs, no care about time, walkable communities, gardening, enjoy physical work and find joy in everyday chores, enjoy being outside, etc.”



We can cut here to other Oxinity materials in anticipation of the 2021 European Championship. ´World Cup Food´ was an innovative resource put together by top pollsters that had both Japan & Spain topping their respective groups of five nations not on the quality of their football teams, but on the perceived renown of their cuisine.  Students are  encouraged to voice their opinions using verbs of perception & review superlatives at the same time.


Aside from a topic to engage the ´foodies´ as a factor to measure general wellbeing what else could a prospective business partner (& culture vulture) delve into before doing business with the Japanese? In what area would they like to become more expert in?


1. Music, Dance & Theatre or Musical Theatre

According to a 2010 piece in the Guardian the phrase 'Big in Japan' dates back to when Japanese record-buyers were seen as ‘kooky’ or unfashionable in their tastes - aiming their affection for western culture at the 'wrong targets'.  We can, of course, detect a touch of snobbery filtered through a bit cultural relativism.  There should be something for anyone with a cross-cultural palettes here:


- The Ventures. In 1962, US instrumental rock band the Ventures were the first Western band to find an unexpectedly enthusiastic audience tin Japan, & have toured the country extensively ever since, their albums said too have outsold the Beatles two to one.


- J-Pop or Kayōkyoku, Ereki or Group Sounds – the terms originated from these times as a Japanese language response to English language so-called British invasion & particularly the Beatles & the Rolling Stones.  What had changed from previous incarnations of Japanese popular music was that the pronunciation mimicked sounds in English, whilst as a detail for ‘musos’ - the use of ‘the major second’ or the interval between the first & second degrees of a major scale became standard.  Website gogonihon has helpfully produced a contemporary listening & viewing guides for ‘newies’.  

One recommendation that I did have in my collection from that earlier era is: Nippon Girls – Japanese Pop, Beat & Bossa Nova 1966-70. The CD sleeve mention that the Beatle’s Japanese tour in 1965 kickstarted this ‘Ereki’ (electric rock) boom to the detriment of the Enka (traditional) scene.  As in the western world ‘teenagers ruled’ & the ‘Group Sound’ Japanese bands included ‘the Spiders, Tempters, Tigers, Jaguars, Out Cast & Carnabeats’ whilst teen singer Jun Mayuzumi cutting her hair off ‘Twiggy-style’ was to become ‘queen of Japanese beat’ ushering in a new wave of popular girl singers parallel to what was happening in the West.


- David Bowie - started to gain a cult following in Japan from 1972 - the country's Kabuki theatre, fashion designers (Kansai Yamamoto) & hair stylists feeding into the creation of his Ziggy Stardust alter-ego: "Ziggy really sang, screwed up eyes & screwed down hairdo. Like some cat from Japan".


More detail on the more expressive forms of dance in Kabuki can be seen here alongside other tradition forms of dance & instrumentation. Interestingly aficionados have also commented on links between Kabuki & Flamenco from the common song themes of life, love, hard labour tragedy & death, to a focus on some of the lower rungs in society & to the expressiveness in faces & arm movements, the dramatic poses & even the traditional use of decorative fans.    


A documentary Ricochet – follows Bowie during his tour dates in Hong Kong, Singapore & Japan in 1983 as a fascinating insight into a modern day “Anjin-San”. At an interview Bowie confirms that it was exposure to Kabuki on British TV that first made an impact on him whilst he is also on a quest to find out who sung an old Chinese 50s tune that he could remember from his childhood.  He finds his answer with Yao Lee recording under the name of  Miss Hue Lee for western audiences before the melody was adapted for an English version called ´Rose, Rose I Love You´.  More telling still was the in-joke feature on some young Hong Kong Chinese covering the eponymous song from Ziggy Stardust – the bass guitarist ´had to break up the band´ (practice) with a nod to the famous work ethic in Japan: “Sorry you guys….I’ve got to go to work now”.

- Bowie acolytes - Bowie spawned a number of British devotees slavishly following what the great man was into. A British fetish with the east could be seen in British pop culture in the early 80s with new bands & singers including Alphaville – Big in Japan, Wang Chung, Aneka – Japanese Boy & China Crisis. Most notable was a group from the same part of south London as Bowie himself calling themselves simply 'Japan'. They had respectable success in the country - with their final album ‘Tin Drum’ being heavily influenced by obscure Chinese recordings found on albums apparently found exclusively in London’s Chinese supermarkets. The touring band then included influential Japanese guitarist Masami Tsuchiya as a kind of counter to charges of ‘cultural tourism’.

Bowie’s own self – referential homage in early 1980 came in the form of an instrumental “Crystal Japan” titled in Japan as “Fuji Moto San” or "The money is a useful thing" for a TV advert for the shochu manufacturer, Crystal Jun Rock, filmed at a Kyoto temple. Shot shortly before MTV revolutionalised music video, Bowie later recollected that he was getting more airplay via TV ads that he did with radio. 

- Karaoke various guides are available to prepare the business traveller wary of having to step out of their comfort zones & try & sing a song fairly tunefully. The growth of karaoke as a Japanese phenomenon seems to have mirrored the development of J-Pop.  The idea has been attributed to Kobe-based singer Daisuke Inoue who built & rented out an unpatented coin operated machine to play his own records, minus his voice, at bars & hotels. Filipino inventor Roberto del Rosario then developed & registered a similar system called “less one” in 1975.  As a session could be in the firmament of any social activities organised by potential business partners as hosts - the international business traveller should really have at least one tune ´up their sleeves´.  Lists of the current most popular eastern & western tunes are readily available – Yo Hitoto – “Hanamizuki” (translated as ´Flowering Dogwoods´) & Kenshi Yonezu´s “Lemon” have topped recent Karaoke charts for the former, whilst the latter tunes feature Disney heavily as well as 70s era Queen.  What seems to be consistent in another blog listing the variously popular - Disney showtunes, Abba, Celion Dion, The Carpenters, Taylor Swift misc. boy bands etc. is what a curious Western audience might categorize as ´HIGH CAMP´.

- New young bands – impressive Japanologist Will Heath (featured below) namechecks girl band Triko & orchestral progressive rockers Mono as worth checking out.


2. Film - Nagisa Ôshima. The singer-songwriter of the band 'Japan' David Sylvian went on to befriend Ryuichi Sakamoto formerly from the pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra who tellingly worked both as an actor alongside Bowie & as a composer of the soundtrack respectively, providing the music for perhaps his & Sylvian’s best musical offering in the film 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' (1983) directed by Nagisa Ôshima. In a rare televised interview at that time Bowie was asked about the contrasts between east-west film direction:

"Ôshima (filmed) inherently from a Japanese sensibility. He's got such a peculiar balance in the movie between the stylistic acting of the Japanese and the neo-realistic acting of the westerners & kept them almost against each other to produce this almost dream state..."


Akira Kurosawa. Perhaps the most influential Japanese director - Kurosawa  is said to have given birth to a genre that would flow through the rest of the century - 'the Hollywood remake'. His fingerprints can be seen on a number of westerns & war films - "The Magnificent Seven”, "The Dirty Dozen" ,"The Guns of Navarone," & the first significant Spaghetti Western with the samurai adventure "Yojimbo" (1960) remade by Italian master Sergio Leone giving Clint Eastwood his first major break in "A Fistful of Dollars".  Various heist & caper type movies resembled his style whilst "The Hidden Fortress" (1958) was referenced by George Lucas as a influence for his "Star Wars" series.

Yasujiro Ozu - Tokyo Story (1953) is perhaps the one movie that every visitor to Japan should see.  It is said to be a ‘profound evocation of elemental humanity & universal heartbreak’ featuring the director’s recurring theme of generational conflict as it follows an aging couple’s journey to visit their grown children in bustling post-war Tokyo, creating a cinematic masterpiece.  Cross-generational conflict is perhaps more subtly nuanced in Japanese society than in the West & the phenomenon of the ´Hikikomori´ or extreme social isolation & loneliness has been written about elsewhere in Oxinity materials.


A carefully curated top twenty of important Japanese epic movies is listed here - Best Japanese Movies.   

3. Animation, Anime & Graphic Novels

Manga - translated as 'whimsical pictures' are comics & graphic novels read by the Japanese of all ages in a style said to have developed used in the late nineteenth century but with a gestation dating back to scrolls from the twelfth century. Creators of manga are called mangaka. Mangaka are both authors & illustrators of their works, each with their own unique approach such as Tezuka Osamu (“Astro Boy”), Akira Toriyama (“Dragon Ball Z”) and Naoko Takeuchi (“Sailor Moon”). JW Web Magazines has put together a top 25 list here.

Studio Ghibli - One of the most acclaimed studios in the world, Studio Ghibli is home to of some of the most revered & beloved animated works in the history of cinema. The pick of the bunch might be Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning 2001 anime feature "Spirited Away" said to be an extraordinary gateway into anime as a unifying form with pervading themes of environmentalism, supernaturalism & humanity.  Asher Isbrucker has provided a fantastic appreciation of Ghibli’s unique approach to ‘immersive realism’ through highly skilled ‘world building’ so that the delicate balance between fantasy & realism is consistently just about perfect.  

4. Martial Arts

The informative link here mentions that the origins of martial arts in Japan can, of course, be traced back to the role of the samurai, the highly trained, elite level, warrior class in hierarchical medieval Japanese society where the samurai prized their extremely sharp "katana" (Japanese swords) as closely as their fascinating code of honour.

"Bushido," or "way of the warrior” is seen to have included the principles of discipline, frugal living, honesty, honour, & the mastery of martial arts into their training & everyday life. Although the samurai class was abolished during the Meiji period (1868 - 1912), the respect towards the moral code remains, any many people, of course, practice martial arts today to train their bodies & minds.

The principal Japanese codes detailed here are Jujutsu, Judo, Aikido, Karate & Sumo & with weapons – Kendo, Naginata (popular with women) & Kyudo.

Of interest is how Chinese-American Bruce Lee might be perceived in China. His brand of mixed-martial arts clearly drew from Japanese traditions, but his principal method of Kung Fu is of Chinese origin. He was born in San Francisco but spent his formative years in Hong Kong. Certainly in the 1970s there was, of course, a remaining anti-Japanese antipathy in China dating back to WW2 & critics have noted that Japanese natives are often portrayed as the bad guys in his movies.  However, he is also deeply revered across Japan for the mastery of his skills & as a trailblazer for Asian actors & just plain Asian cool as since reflected in movie homages such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill.  

5. Sport & sportsmanship - a story that football fans might recall about the Japanese seems to be consistent with these notions of honour & high principles seen in Martial Arts & Samuria. Japan won a lot of new fans at the 2018 Men´s Football World Cup in Russia when, due to the fair play-rule, they had qualified to the knockout stages & faced one of the favourites Belgium. Remarkably after an hour the Japanese team was two-nil up, yet did not choose to close down the game with the now common-place, cynical tactics of the various ´dark-arts´ of time-wasting & feigning injuries etc. as practiced by most nations. Partly resultantly perhaps, the Belgians made an impropable comeback to win the game 3-2 in the final seconds. Of course the Japanese team & their fans were DISTRAUGHT yet both proved to be admirably MAGNAMINOUS in defeat. The classiest touches perhaps illustrated by the team leaving their changing rooms spotless alongside a thank-you note (written in Russian) for their grateful hosts, as well as scores of fans doing their bit to clear the stands of litter.



Some excellent journalist pieces have been commemorating the last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics in 1964.  Well worth taking a look at is Kon Ichikawa’s official documentary which captures skilfully & artfully Japan at such an important crossroads. From the Guardian:

“The official film of the ’64 Olympics opens with a match cut; it jumps from the blazing white sun to a wrecking ball demolishing a bomb-ruined block of Tokyo city. Walls fall, dust rises. The ’64 Olympics cost $2.8bn, which made them the most expensive in history. They came on a wave of poured concrete, 100km of new super highways, a new sewage system, two new subway lines, a new monorail to the refurbished airport, a new Shinkansen line to Osaka. The Games were, sports historian David Goldblatt wrote, “both an instrument and symbol” of Japan’s rapid economic development and its post-war rehabilitation.

At least, that’s the official narrative. The story told in the documentary is more complicated and ambiguous. It was directed by Kon Ichikawa, who had only just won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival for his film Odd Obsession. The organisers had originally hired Akira Kurosawa, but dropped him when he insisted on having complete creative control over the opening and closing ceremonies as well. It paid off. Ichikawa, who had made his name with two anti-war movies, The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain, ended up making one of the great sports films. It won two Baftas, including best documentary”.

6. Comedy - The Asia Society has produced an excellent guide with the help of the novelist Hisashi Inoue from the northern region of Tohoku, & the storyteller or ´rakugo´ said to have orginated from Kyoto & Osaka.  ´Stand-up´ comedy is rare insofar as the storyteller is sitting down – tall tales are delivered from a raconteur sitting on a purple cushion.   

The Brits assign their own perceptions to the idea of the ´northern comic´ - probably old fashioned, cruel & offensive to minorities.  Hisashi Inoue appears to be a different beast but he has his targets.  When asked about the apparent strict rules of decorum in Japanese society he answers:

“It's more a matter of caution than decorum. In a sense, you assume that strangers are hostile until proven otherwise. There used to be a saying that a samurai could lift one side of his mouth in a grin once in three years; a whole laugh was all right every five or six. That tradition is still alive: the samurai in modern Japan -- the bureaucrats, the white-collar employees in the big companies have no sense of humour at all. The more important you are in some organizational way, the more serious you have to be. Japanese humour comes from ordinary people like me who work for themselves”.

- Clive James on TV & the Japanese Game Show Endurance - Back to my formative years & to the much-missed Australian critic, novelist & poet Clive James who became something of a natural treasure in the UK. The premise of this particular show which originally ran from 1982-+ to 1988 was to poke gentle fun at the broadcasting commissioning decisions that had produced these seemingly odd television shows from around the world. A regular highlight were the featured clips from the Japanese Game Show ´Endurance´ in which contestants put themselves through extreme discomfort in ludicrous situations such as dipping their heads in glass cases full of live insects or having ice dangled over their ‘private parts’ The implication was heavily implied - only the Japanese were crazy enough to do such things.  Years later, of course we have similar shows aired in the West such as "I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!" - the slightly condescending humour is targeted closer to home. The show did not seem to play very well at home but Japanese business people of a certain age might have faint recollections & be interested in how this shaped perceptions of their country.

- The Strange Art of Chindōgu or How to be ´Unuseless´ - No. 6 in the 10 tenets of Chindōgu, as translated in the “Observer Book of Invention” states

“Humour must not be the reason for creating Chindōgu. The creation of Chindugo is fundamentally a problem solving activity. Humour is simply the by-product of finding an elaborate or unconventional solution to a problem that may have not been that pressing to begin with.”

What is Chindōgu? Literary it means ´unsual tool´ & the phenomenon displays just how playful the Japanese sense of humour can be.  The story goes that in the same decade – the (late) 1980s intellectual & amateur inventor Kenji Kawakami decided that failed or CRACKPOT type inventions inhibited a certain charm & that the ´art´ of the ‘unuseless’ or the ´almost useful´ deserved to be championed. Devices mentioned in the Observer book included here are an Eye Protector for Chickens, the Fingertip Toothbrush, Butter on a Stick & the Back Scratcher´s T-shirt featuring a handy grid to better locate the itch.

Interestingly neither Japan nor Spain had an invention deemed important enough for the Observer’s list of ‘the 100 most important inventions of all time’.  However millennials in particular might beg to differ.  The number of the innovations in the arts & in pop culture featured here – martial arts, comic books, manga (not to mention Pokémon & Hello Kitty), revolving stages (Kabuko), Karaoke etc. but also we need to focus on the field of electronics – the pocket calculator, the Walkman, Nintendo PlayStation & gaming culture often populated with androgynous heroes self-referential to Mangaka. This subject of Japan’s ´pop-media complex´ being so successful in re-fashioning global culture has inspired Matt Alt to produce a book– ‘Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World’  that very ably catches the ZEITGIST.

As for Spanish inventions – ‘anything with a stick’ is a RUNNING JOKE that I use in ESL classes when Spanish students get  little  too COCKY in any review of superlatives. They tend to self-ascribe themselves (granted – with some truth), as having the best food, best weather, best football, most beautiful women etc. but then I counter ´good´ weather might be bad for creativity.  When Spanish University students are asked for their greatest contributions to improving our quality of life, they inevitably come up with a ´lexical set´ that includes some of the mop, the lollipop, table football, the cigarette, & possible helicopter blades, before I ask them what these have in common & whether or not we could live without them.  The siesta (the Romans), irrigation & the cultivation of rice or the ‘Spanish’ guitar (both Arabic?) I duly disqualify.

7. Best (mainly) non-fiction books on Japan Will Heath has produced a fascinating & immersive written & video guide to 13 essential newly published titles on Japanese culture & history.  Heath demonstrates that he is a personification of the trend described by Matt Alt – a young millennial increasingly obsessed with this immerging group of pervasive pop-art forms which have triggered many to delve much deeper into their research.  So much so, that he is immerging as a true ‘Japanophile’ or ‘Japanologist’, another modern-day ´Anjin-san´ from Shōgun.

Culture -

Pure Invention – How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World by Matt Alt (2020)

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr (2016)

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton (2019)

Japanese Tattoos – History, Culture, Design (2016)

Forest Bathing: the Rejuvenating Practice of Shinrin Yoku by Héctor García & Francesc Miralles (2020)

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long & Happy Life by Héctor García & Francesc Miralles (2017)

History -

Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Woman’s Life in Nineteenth Century Japan by Amy Stanley (2020) – a Historical Novel

Japan Story: In Search of a Nation 1850 to the Present by Christopher Harding (2019)

The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives by Christopher Harding (2020)

A Brief History of Japan: Samurai, Shogun & Zen: The Extraordinary Story of the Land of the Rising Sun by Jonathan Clements (2017)

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time & City by Anna Sherman (2019)

Bending Adversity: Japan & the Art of Survival by David Pilling (2015)

A History of the Samuria: Legendary Warriors of Japan by Johnathan Lopez-Vera (2020) Translated by Russell Galvert

8. Best Novels set in Japan Russell Thomas opens his Guardian 2020 piece with: “When Japan was forced to “open up” in 1853 following more than 200 years of its Sakoku policy, the country was a mystery to the outside world. In some ways it still is..”  He goes on to curate this list of novels written by its natives:

Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami (1980)   

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace by Yukio Mishima (1963)

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (2013)

I am a Cat by Natsume Soseki (1906)

Some Prefer Nettles by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1929)

The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (990-1000?, 2006 translation by Meredith McKinney)

choolgirl by Osamu Dazai (1939)

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (1985)

9. Feminist & Feminine Voices

Introducing rising literary & cultural star Mieko Kawakami.  We have seen that observers have treaded carefully when broaching the area of gender equality in the in Japanese boardroom & beyond.  Mieko Kawakami has ´pulled no punches´ & seen to have made her name articulating Japanese (working-class) womanhood better than any other. She has respectfully challenged the role of women in Haruki Murakami´s fiction but has remained a harsher critic of much more of her country´s literary canon as detailed above as ´full of stock imagery of geisha & Mt Fuji´.  In her recent novel “Chichi to Ran” (“Breasts & Eggs”) & in her interviews she has challenged what she sees as the pervading patriarchy in the Japanese publishing world. 

How then could a visiting business person broach such a controversial subject or workplaces justify rules that are trying to force women to wear heals & not wear glasses?  Even the BBC has entered the fray producing copy on the subject of Why Japan Can´t Shake Sexism?

Endpiece: ´Pushing Ahead of the Dame´ - Gender Politics in Language


Back to Bowie or his affectionate pet name to many fans ´the Dame´.  Most will know his hit ´China Girl´ - the opening number on his 1983 far-east tour diary as shown on Ricochet.  A song about the dangers of cultural exploitation of the East by the West, the lyrics were actually written by his 70s ´partner in crime´ Iggy Pop. Iggy in turn was inspired by a big crush on Kuelan Nguyen, the Vietnamese girlfriend of French actor/singer Jacques Higelin after they met whilst recording at the Château d’Hérouville near Paris in 1976.  The excellent blogger Chris O´Leary ´takes up the chase´:


“Nguyen spoke no English, Pop no French, so the two communicated in gestures, expressions & pidgin reductions of each other’s language. Pop would grow frustrated trying to get through to Nguyen in sign language and brutalized French; she once put a finger to her lips & shushed him”.


Less well referenced is Bowie´s own ´It´s No Game´ – two different versions of the song bookend his 1980 offering Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps).  Interpreted by O´Leary as consistent with Bowie´s then preoccupation on protest songs with a twist – Part One of the song carries a more powerful electric charge amidst the barrage of amplified guitars (Robert Fripp´s finest moment?). Of prophetic note was that Bowie had spent much of 1980 in New York recording, then acting on stage in a minimalist production of The Elephant Man. Since around 1974 he had forged a strong friendship with his ´most important mentor´ - famous Soho residents John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono and had hooked up with Lennon for a few days holiday in Japan that year and a few years later as drunken revellers on another holiday in Hong Kong.  Even before he met Yoko it seems that Lennon had shared a fellow fascination with all things Japanese.   Chris O' Leary continues:


“The first voice on the track is the Japanese actress Michi Hirota (she’s on the cover of Sparks’ Kimono My House)  snapping “Shirueto ya kagega!” (“silhouettes and shadows,” full translation here). Hirota originally was to coach Bowie in voicing the Japanese translation (by the professor Hisahi Miura). But as the translation was literal, it was hard for Hirota to make the lines fit the vocal melody—there were just too many syllables. The obstacle became an inspiration: Bowie asked Hirota to recite the lyric herself, but in an aggressive “masculine” manner, shouting & barking out the words.

The Japanese language has a sharply defined gender separation, with men & women (and older men/younger men, etc.) using different words, tenses and phrasings. If a woman was to speak the way Hirota does on “Game,” it would still be startling in today’s Japan; more than that, it just wouldn’t be done. For example, Hirota says “ore,” the pronoun for “I” which only an older Japanese man would use; she also uses more direct verb endings than a woman typically would. Her whole delivery is an aggressive, exaggerated masculine tone (it’s basically how a Japanese teenage boy would speak).

So Bowie intended Hirota to be the song’s secret revolutionary: I wanted to break down a particular type of sexist attitude about women. I thought the [idea of] the “Japanese girl” typifies it, where everyone pictures them as a geisha girl, very sweet, demure & non-thinking, when in fact that’s the absolute opposite of what women are like. They think an awful lot!, with quite as much strength as any man. I wanted to caricature that attitude by having a very forceful Japanese voice on it. So I had [Hirota] come out with a very samurai kind of thing”.


Should then a (Spanish) International Business Traveller, & particularly a confident & assertive business woman, be advised to avoid this most delicate of subjects or on the opposite scale consider ´playing devil´s advocate´ so to enliven a social encounter? Is a middle way the wiser? For a Spaniard this could take the form of a conversation starter that references feminist assertions that the Real Academia de la Lenqua (RAE) in Spain has been criticized as an outdated & institutionally sexist body. It could be noted that its official dictionary defined the Spanish word for “femininity” as “an abnormal state of the man.” The RAE actively preserves the Spanish language worldwide & some of the same discriminatory defined gender separations exist within the equivalent promotion of standard Japanese language or ´Hyojungo´. This has been bravely picked up on by the Japan Times which references the key outsider text first published in 1987 - “Womensword: What Japanese Words Say About Women” by Kittredge Cherry.

In polite conversation where we are conscious of the need not TO LOOSE FACE we could also cite a recent review of the book that reminds us that many gender biases also exist in English & that much progress might had been made in the 30 years the revised text took to reach its thirteenth edition.   

Last words & music then including a call to arms that falls somewhere between aggressive & assertive curtesy of David Bowie, Robert Fripp & Michi Hirota:

It’s No Game

The Japanese lyric of “It’s No Game Pt.1” (via Stephen Ryan).

shirueto ya kage ga kakumei wo miteiru

(Sillouettes and shadows are watching the revolution)

mo tengoku no jiyu no kaidan wa nai
(free [as in without restrictions] steps of heaven are no longer there/here)

ore wa genjitsu kara shime dasare
(I [a ‘tough’ masculine 'I’] have been excluded from reality)

nani ga okotteiru no ka wakaranai

(I don’t understand what’s going on)

doko ni kyoukun wa aruno ka hitobito wa yubi wo orareteiru

(where is the lesson [moral] people’s fingers are being broken)

konna dokusaisya ni iyashimerareru no wa kanashii

(to be abused [taunted] by this strong-willed leader [dictator?] is sad)

nanmin no kiroku eiga

(documented films of refugees)

hyouteki ni se wo shita koibitotachi

(lovers are set as a background to the target)

michi ni ishi wo nagereba

(if you throw a stone into the road)

konagona ni kudake

(it is shattered into a powder)

kino ni futa wo sureba

(if you cover up [put a lid on] yesterday

kyoufu wa masu

(the terror [fear] grows)

ore no atama ni tama wo uchikomeba

(if you shoot a bullet into my head)

shinbun wa kakitateru

(the newspapers will write about it in an exaggerated way)

Part one of the blog:

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1ª Clase Gratis