If you have landed on this website looking for the reasons why the Japanese behave differently to your eyes, this is it.
Working as an interpreter/translator for about 30 years, I’ve come to find the most fundamental difference between the two languages, and I think it explains a lot about our cultural behavior:
English language is for identifying the difference in rational way of thought, while the Japanese is the language for finding what we have in common.
Let me demonstrate a couple of examples here. When you meet a person for the first time, say on a business occasion, what is the first information you give to that person?
When Westerners meet for the first time, the first thing they deliver is usually their name, the fist name to be more exact, followed by family name, and then on a business occasion, the position in the company followed by the name of the company they work for. Here in Japan, the order is entirely reversed. Japanese people do not usually say their name upfront. There always is something else before their name when they introduce themselves. It can be occupation, place of residence, or maybe relation to other person or organization, depending on occasions. This little information placed before their name quite often facilitates smooth conversation in Japan.
Another example is “Ohayo” in Japanese, which is an English equivalent of “Good morning.” “Ohayo” means “(You’re) early” and it implies “I am early, too.” Therefore, if a person comes to the office late, he/she cannot say “Ohayo” to others and no one in the office will greet him/her with “Ohayo.” Oh, by the way, “Ohayo” or “Ohayo-gozaimasu (polite expression)” is a legit greeting words even in the afternoon and evening hours, depending on business hours of the workplace.
So, why don’t you try the reversed order when you introduce yourself to a Japanese next time? I know you will feel uncomfortable when you do so, because it does not conform to your natural train of thought in English. The point I wish to make here, though, is that the difference between the two languages is so large that there is no “direct translation” or “word by word” translation in many cases. If you are a believer that you don’t have to know the background of such tiny details as far as we understand each other, I really wish you reconsider the meaning of “understanding each other.” I believe the root of uniqueness of our cultural behavior is hidden behind those tiny details.
This website is being created wishing to bridge the cultural difference between Japan and English speaking countries. Being fluent in the second language does not necessarily mean that he/she is culturally competent, but I can share my experience and thoughts based on the experience, and I am determined to make it my life work.
(Updated on Jan. 31, 2017)