ChiJi/Zher4zi4 How the Difficulty of Language Mastery Affects National Attitudes

The traditional communications link between cultures is formed by non-native speakers, that is, individuals who are completely fluent in one (the native) language and proficient in another (the non-native language). Beyond translation, these individuals are also asked to provide cultural analysis and interpretation, even though their training is typically limited only to language study.

A curious twist stems from the fact that foreign speakers of Japanese and Chinese have invested heavily in the current painful learning process, and now enjoy a near-wizard status. Because they are taught to feel respect, gratitude, and an unpayable debt to their language instructors and the native speakers who have helped them, they tend to accept and repeat mainstream or official cultural explanations, mostly as written in language textbooks and a few major works. Thus, foreign speakers act as apologists, explaining the less admirable sides of Japanese or Chinese culture to other Americans in "Oh, you just don't understand..." terms.

A more sophisticated scholarship and critical understanding of Asian cultures will require wider access to native writings than is now possible. For a fascinating discussion of this phenomenon, see The Enigma of Japanese Power by Karel van Wolferen, New York: Knopf, 1989.

See also: James Fallows, "Containing Japan", Atlantic, May 1989: 40-54, and "Looking At The Sun", Atlantic, November 1993: 69-100; Chalmers Johnson, MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-75, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1982; Clyde V. Prestowitz, Jr., Trading Places: How We Allowed Japan To Take the Lead, New York: Basic Books, 1988; and "The Japan Problem Revisited", Foreign Affairs, 69(4) 1990: 42-55.

This background information is provided to help those unfamiliar with the Chinese or Japanese languages understand the terms and concepts discussed in the Apropos Smart Characters product literature.

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Last Modified: August 28, 1996

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