Circumspection, circumlocution, irresolution, and indecisiveness in Japanese

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I don't recall how I learned first-year Japanese half a century ago (perhaps through self-study), but I remember very clearly my ascension to second-year during 1972-73 at Harvard University.  My teacher was young Jay Rubin, and our textbook was the famous Hibbett and Itasaka*.  It was a veritable baptism by fire.

[*Howard Hibbett and Gen Itasaka, ed., Modern Japanese: A Basic Reader, 2 volumes (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 1965).]

This was real Japanese, no more made-for-gaijin pablum.  It was a big book with a wide variety of humanities and social science genres, and no punches pulled.  All of the texts seemed very difficult, and I will explain the main reason why below.  One of the essays haunted me for years, and still sometimes it comes back to fill my mind with melancholy and morbid thoughts.  It consisted of the reflections of an author on the best way to commit suicide.  He dwelt on all aspects of the act of suicide.  Surprisingly, the emphasis was not on which method was least painful or most effective, but rather — at least as I recollected his thought process — more on which act was most elegant or least repulsive.  Reading that essay was so wrenching that I was almost afraid to decipher the next sentence after having figured out one with great effort.

Even if I could decode all the words of a sentence, I couldn't always get the gist of what it was about.  It was necessary to get beyond the surface significations of the words to apprehend the meaning of the sentence as a whole.  That was partially a matter of catching the nuance (nyuansu ニュアンス) of the entire utterance, but also of all its individual parts.  Beyond that, however, the hardest aspect of grasping the overall drift of a sentence was capturing the true intent of its author, since indirection, obliquity, and circuitousness was a hallmark of so much of the Japanese prose (let alone poetry!) that I was reading.

It was maddening.  Often, I would puzzle over a sentence or a paragraph for hours, asking myself, "what is the author really trying to tell us?"

The effect was something like this:

It's possible that she may (not) come over this evening, but it's hard to say, because she might change her mind at the last moment, who knows?

This is a problem for me even now when I read academic Japanese prose, e.g., Sinology or history or anthropology. 

Russian is hard and so is Sanskrit, but once you have a solid grasp of the lexicon and the grammar, things usually fall into place and make sense.  In comparison, English is a straightforward breeze, if that's what you want it to be, though of course if you want English to be ambivalent and ambiguous you can make it that way too.

Such perplexity frequently overwhelms me when I contemplate the essence of Japanese writing.  Today I came upon a single word that helps me express the feeling of being betwixt and between that I ofttimes experience when reading Japanese:

Decoder

Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

"The Good, the Bad, and the Bimyou:  Neither yes nor no, this idea can take you far in Japanese politics." [VHM:  and lots of other things!]

By Sarah Hilton, the Asia editor for Rest of World.

January 7, 2022, 12:05 AM

In Japan, you will regularly be given offers you can’t refuse. With a straight “no,” after all, you might invite confrontation or offense. Instead, say bimyou, a word as indistinct as a wisp of cloud, as nonbinding as a weather report.

During the October 2021 general election, much of the Japanese media restrained themselves from making risky predictions. The situation was bimyou, said one earnest news anchor. Bimyou, echoed headlines that announced pre-polling results. Here, the word was used to mean “unclear.” The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had been in power since the 1950s—apart from two brief and unimpressive handovers—but due to the quirks of parliamentary numbers-gaming, the party faced the possibility that it might miss the majority and be forced to cut a coalition deal.

The LDP would go on to win a handy stand-alone majority. The situation, it turned out, wasn’t unclear at all. But using the word is a protective shield: something that helps the speaker not have to come down on one side. Bimyou is a kind of negative space, a vehicle for doubt or uncertainty or anything counter to the expected flow of an interaction.

There was something bimyou about Tokyo over 2020 and 2021. Near my neighborhood of Sendagaya, the national stadium stood, freshly built and pristine. Immaculately paved roads stretched, unused, into the stadium complex. Unseasonably cheerful flags emblazoned with the Olympic logo fluttered over the streets, branded Tokyo 2020 even after the year ticked over, frozen in an eerie timelessness. Cranes halted and then resumed work for a spectacle that nobody was quite sure would happen.

Borders slammed shut, but within them, the country continued in a sedate, unalarmed emergency. Tokyo spent the majority of 2021 in a twilight state: shops and schools never quite closed, restaurants open into the evening. Workers continued to stream into offices. The largest companies held a startlingly high attendance rate of around 70 percent. My favorite bar continued to operate at full speed even when harsher restrictions were put in place, serving to a packed house of slickly dressed Tokyoites until past midnight. I was torn over how to understand it; closure wasn’t exactly enforced, though the bar could face a fine if found out. The situation seemed to reflect the ambiguity of Tokyo’s pandemic experience.

Bimyou has roots in the Buddhist concept mimyo*, referring to something of an indescribable wonder. Its widely used meaning is “subtle,” which has a pleasant literary quality. By 2000, it had morphed into something more colloquially, dismissively bland and was the most widely recognized piece of slang in a 2015 survey by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs.

[*VHM:  This has now been displaced by "bimyou" to such a degree that it has become an archaism.]

The word has a place in written Japanese. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro characterizes the relationship between the main characters of his book Never Let Me Go as “fragile and bimyou.” (The characters themselves are, unknowingly, clones: disposable bodies playing out real emotions.) The avant-garde artist Taro Okumoto once described a woman’s kiss as the moment when her “mind and body are subtly”—bimyouni—“intertwined,” a visceral statement couched in soft words.

The intricate first kanji of the word on its own means “fine” in the sense of “delicate,” while the second combines the symbols for “female” and “small” to land somewhere between “exquisite” and “mysterious.” Together, the meaning resembles something like “delicate mystery.” The same pairing exists in Mandarin.

In speech, it can be used to describe anything from a sensitive issue (bimyou na mondai) to a tricky political relationship (bimyou na kankei). More recently, young people began using it as a way to express negativity or apathy, a kind of verbal shrug. This is how it’s used casually today.

“It basically means ‘iffy’ or ‘questionable,’ but it’s often used to avoid saying something bad,” said Aya Apton, a Japanese American advertising creative in Tokyo. Apton runs the Instagram account @ko_archives, dedicated to the personal histories of Japanese women in photographs. “If I asked you how a restaurant was and you replied with ‘bimyou,’ I’m not going there. If I gave you a gift and you called it ‘bimyou,’ I’d think: ‘Great, she hates this gift.’”

Bimyou also describes the unwillingness of young people to engage with politics. Japan’s 2017 general election saw a low turnout of only around a third of people in their 20s. They feel they have little at stake with parties chasing the votes of a massive aging population.



It would be fatal, though, not to recognize something steely in being bimyou. There’s a determination not to be drawn into something that would make one vulnerable. Fukushima [nuclear disaster] was a good example; the Olympics were another. Japan waited for an answer. Putative deadline after deadline passed. Both issues limped on, and both are now long forgotten. Neither was a triumph nor a loss—the result for both was a kind of win by default.

And there’s a comfort in not being made to feel off-axis. If you receive a sense of bimyou in Japan, in politics or otherwise, move on. It is unlikely that you’ll get the answer you’re looking for. There is that kind of clarity to the word, after all.

"Bimyou [bimyō]" and "mimyo [mimyō]" are written with the same characters:  微妙.  Let's go back and look at all the Sanskrit terms 微妙 was used to render in Chinese:

sūkṣma, praṇīta, valgu, kalyāṇa; amānuṣa, udāra, cāru, divya, nipuṇa, niruttara, paṭācārā*, parama, pradhāna, pravara, pravarāgra, bhadra, mañju, mañju-ghoṣa, madhu, madhura, mano-jña, mano-rama, mṛdu, rucira, virāj, śūkṣma, śreṣṭha, śreṣṭhaṃ praṇītam, sat, su-, sukhuma, snigdha

(Source:  Akira Hirakawa, Buddhist Chinese-Sanskrit Dictionary [Tokyo:  The Reiyukai, 1997], p. 457b and 34 trisyllabic or greater compound expressions on pp. 457b-458a.)

If there's one word that embodies or encapsulates the Japanese ethos of what I would call dǎ bùdìng zhǔyì 打不定主意 ("indecisivenessism; like an ass between two bundles of hay") in Chinese, this is it — something that is ineffably subtle.

 

Selected readings

[Thanks Don Keyser and Shuheng Zhang]



21 Comments »

  1. Bathrobe said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 1:38 am

    Interesting that someone decided to do an entire news report about a commonly-used term in Japanese.

    I always thought of 微妙 meaning something like 'equivocal'. You don't want to say yes; you don't want to say no. That is why people use it in the sense of 'non-committal'. Of course it has other nuances as well, for example subtle hints or flavours — as if it's hard to say whether they are there or not.

    The standard translation of 'equivocal' is 曖昧 (aimai), meaning 'vague, hard to pin down', a sense that is partly shared with 微妙 bimyō.

    微妙 is, of course, not quite the same as aimai. A bimyō relationship could be one in which several, possibly contradictory, elements are combined, and could easily be upset by some change in the balance. An aimai relationship suggests that it is hard to pin down and might be improper. (In Chinese 暧昧 àimèi means 'dubious, ambiguous, shady', and an àimèi relationship straight out suggests an improper sexual relationship.)

  2. AG said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 3:37 am

    Brutally unnecessary spoiler for "Never Let Me Go" in there!

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 8:12 am

    From Bob Ramsey:

    My goodness, Victor, what a wonderful little essay–yours as well as Sarah Hilton's! And oh my, do I ever remember that essay in Hibbett and Itasaka…

    One of the points I talk about with undergraduates in my East Asian classes when discussing Japanese is that in Japanese culture vagueness is prized. In fact, ellipsis, leaving elements of the sentence or even the essay, unsaid is considered elegant. Your English teacher would have failed your essay if it had included incomplete sentences, but that's not what happens in Japanese culture. As you know, one of the mistakes Western learners of Japanese habitually make is to use too many pronouns. They may be required in English (or German, etc.) grammar, but not so in Japanese, where we instead find ellipses for what is understood from context. –Please, stop overusing that anata! Here's a little bit from a couple of PowerPoint slides I use in my intro class when talking about Japanese:

    Kindaichi Haruhiko has noted that the Japanese try to avoid the clear-cut ending of the sentence-final verb: “They dislike the sentence that ends so distinctly, for it looks stiff, formal, and brusque–or, in more modern terms, dorai [= ‘dry’]. “The telephone rings and a woman answers: Hai, hai, Watanabe de gozaimasu keredomo … ‘Yes, yes, this is Watanabe but …’ Foreigners often ask the meaning of keredomo. It does not have much meaning. The woman merely avoided being stiff and formal. Or perhaps it would be better to say that she omitted some expression that might have followed, such as “What can I do for you?” At any rate, it is clear that she kept the sentence from ending at the point where it should have. The result is that the sentence ended halfway through. Things of this kind are especially common in the expressions of women. …”

    That quote comes from the English translation of Kindaichi's wildly popular book, The Japanese Language. (And by the way, he always insisted that the reading of its title,日本語, was Nippongo…)

  4. Scott Mauldin said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 8:45 am

    The colloquial negative usage sounds pretty similar to "meh".

  5. Jim Unger said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 8:56 am

    The difference between /bi/ and /mi/for 微 is an example of go'on 呉音 vs. kan'on 漢音. In the Buddhist context (except in the Tendai sect), the older go'on readings are preferred.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 9:22 am

    From Bernard F. Cadogan:

    Very interesting. Thank you Victor. I do not know Japanese, nonetheless I have before me the dialogue which explores these issues between Martin Heidegger and a Prof. Tezuka of Tokyo University from 1953. An English version of it appears in "On the Way to Language" ( Harper and Row, NY 1971 ) and the German in "Unterwegs zur Sprache" ( Verlag Günther Feske, Pfüllingen 1959).

    "Nice" is a strange English word which I offer to complement yours. From the Latin nescius meaning not knowing or ignorant, it developed means of reservedness, shyness, reticence and subtlety, in medieval Latin, while in Middle English and French it could mean outright "stupid" or "dumb". The scholastic sense won in English and it went through an Early Modern period of referring to precision and neatness and exactitude.

    But look at it now. A " nice" man is almost a man you suspect, almost the sort who is a charming swindler, or who frequents parks, to use that Police expression. A "nice" woman is one you suspect might be a stickler for rules and propriety but has unbent, condescended. A nice boy is one who uses manners. "Nice" is faint praise, tending to complete irony. But " Nice One !" is a warm commendation. A nice day is OK but not a beautiful day. The temperature may be 18 C and the sky might be clear. Niceties are never nice. It implies the appearances of meeting a standard, or of barely meeting it, or of fulfilling it with aplomb and panache and bravura.

  7. Frank Chance said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 9:59 am

    I too have memories of Hibbett and Itasaka from my studies of Japanese language at the University of Kansas. It seems particularly appropriate that that venerable textbook is used to introduce bimyō as that word precisely describes how many of us remember our relationship to it in our intermediate Japanese language classes. I wonder where my distressed copy is today – no doubt somewhere between forgotten storage shelves and treasured preservation.

  8. julie lee said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 10:38 am

    Back in the 80s when I worked for a management consulting firm one of the management consultants told me: "It's very hard to do business with the Japanese. Negotiations drag on because they will never say no. They just won't say no." On the other hand a management consultant who did business with China said: "It's very hard to do business with the Chinese because you are expected to give bribes but you never know how much bribe to give. " (Of course things in China may have changed since then.)

  9. Theophylact said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 10:46 am

    Didn't know that Chinese had the exact equivalent of Buridan's Ass.

  10. julie lee said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 11:11 am

    What a delightful post by Professor Mair !

    A suggestion for the English equivalent of the Japanese word Bimyou: it's the English word "interesting". I remember when I worked in public relations, we writers hated the word "interesting" when it was used as a response to something for which you expected a "Yes" or "No" or a "Good" or "Bad". What do you think of the proposal? "Interesting". What do you think of the outrageous scandal? "Interesting". Or today, what did you think of Biden's speech / Trump's speech? Splendid? Horrible? "Interesting". Gr-r-r-r-.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 12:28 pm

    To julie lee's point I recall hearing as a gaijin child in Tokyo in the '70's that newly-arrived American businessmen inevitably had to be educated that "hai" didn't really translate smoothly as "yes" because due to politeness norms (which included some degree of taboo against saying the word that literally translated as "no") Japanese businessmen would routinely say "hai" in situations where an AmEng speaker would not say "yes," maybe including some situations in which AmEng speakers might affirmatively say "no." One explanation I recall was that "hai" didn't presumptively mean "yes I agree with you" and didn't even necessarily mean "yes I understand your point/proposal" but sometimes meant merely "yes I acknowledge that you attempt to be communicating with me, and I haven't fallen asleep."

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 12:34 pm

    J. W. Brewer: Compare the ambiguous or even negative meanings of "OK", as in "OK boomer".

  13. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 12:50 pm

    Also "(a) so desu (ka / ne)", said sagaciously, perhaps while thoughtfully and slightly quizzically stroking one's chin.

    "oh really?" "hmm?" "is that so?" "I see"

    "yeah" "uh-huh (but polite)"

  14. DMcCunney said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 12:54 pm

    @julie lee: "On the other hand a management consultant who did business with China said: "It's very hard to do business with the Chinese because you are expected to give bribes but you never know how much bribe to give. " (Of course things in China may have changed since then.)"

    A friend in the UK who was in international education said "Don't get me started on the Chinese!" Bribes were necessary, as they were in all Asian countries. What made China special was less the amount of the bribe than the *order* in which palms were greased. That order was determined by internal status in China that would be quite opaque to you. To do business, you needed a native guide who knew the hierarchy and could tell you who to bribe first.

    That came as no surprise to me. The Communist Revolution created a society that was nominally egalitarian and classless, but the Chinese were still obsessed with rank and precedence. They had simply abolished the visual indicators of rank and class that told non-Chinese what the hierarchy was.

    Another old friend worked for decades in finance. The topic of bribes in Asia came up, and she said her employer would not pay them. Again, no surprise. Her employer was one of the larger and more prestigious financial houses with a world wide reputation.. Doing business with them was important enough to China that bribes were foregone because they needed the services her employer offered too much to refuse to deal without being bribed. A smaller, less known and prestigious firm in the same industry might find itself frozen out of consideration if the right palms were not greased.
    ______
    Dennis

  15. julie lee said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 2:13 pm

    J.W. Brewer:

    Couldn't help chuckling at your explanation of how a Japanese "yes" can sometimes mean a "no".

  16. Noel Hunt said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 4:30 pm

    While nyuansu, ニュアンス, 'nuance', has had currency for a long time now in Japan, the actual Japanese word would be hibiki, 響き, 'an echo of/a note of [something or other]', the verb 響く, hibiku, meaning 'to echo, resound'. The substitution of an opaque foreign word (gairaigo, 外来語, 'word coming from outside [of Japan]') for a perfectly good Japanese word, is one of the unfortunate tendencies of the last 40 years or so. There are various reasons for this, journalists and politicians and academics in particular displaying their recondite knowledge of English, for example, or using an English word or phrase (or its acronym) to obscure the graphic sense of the equivalent Japanese, e.g., DV, ディヴィ, as opposed to kateinai bouryoku, 家庭内暴力, 'violence in the household', i.e., 'domestic violence'.

  17. david said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 4:44 pm

    Can anyone explain meaning of the white kana on the interesting image by Ryu Mieno at the beginning of Sarah Hilton's nice article?

  18. Markonsea said,

    January 12, 2022 @ 7:39 pm

    David:

    It's not kana!

    Put the black marks and the white ones together (that is, overlaid as they are) and read them as grey and you get 微妙!

    Grey? Some intriguing symbolism there!

  19. Victor Mair said,

    January 13, 2022 @ 7:07 am

    I made plenty of documentaries in China in the 90s, 00s, and 10s. Every film crew and production company I went with always had a shadowy Chinese figure called a "fixer" attached to it. I never knew exactly what they did that was so essential for our work, but I did know that without them we would not have been able to accomplish anything. They were pros who "knew the ropes". They always carried large stacks of RMB with them.

    As for myself, when I directly negotiated on projects with my Chinese counterparts. they would ask me for "contributions" of one sort or another, and I would refuse. Then they might say, "What's wrong? The Japanese know how to give". To which I would reply, "We Americans don't understand that kind of giving".

    If the project was important enough for the Chinese side to really want it to happen, it might still work out.

    On the unfortunate occasions when I was tricked into making a contribution that should have been something good (e.g., nitrogen-filled exhibition cases for museums, publication funds for books, etc.), it usually ended up in the pocket of some corrupt official. As I became more savvy in the system, I learned how to make donations and ensure that they were actually used for what I stipulated. But those were hard lessons to learn.

  20. julie lee said,

    January 13, 2022 @ 7:05 pm

    @ Victor Mair:

    Re the "fixer". The "fixer" is indeed essential to the success of a foreigner starting and conducting a business in China. A manager consultant who was very successful in doing business in China told me: "A foreigner doing business in China must go through a local intermediary ("fixer") who knows the ropes, including negotiating officialdom. You can't just go and start and conduct a business yourself, even if you are a Chinese from, say, America, and are very good in Chinese. You have to employ a local intermediary who knows the ropes. There are sad experiences of people who didn't do that and as a result lost all their money.

  21. David Marjanović said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 11:44 am

    "yes I acknowledge that you attempt to be communicating with me, and I haven't fallen asleep."

    "…right."

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