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East meets West; complains about the food

The Guardian has an interesting piece on Asian footballers playing in Europe, and some of the difficulties they face when adapting to western cultures. Hidetoshi Nakata, probably the most high-profile Japanese player outside of Asia at the moment, has some interesting things to say about the linguistic differences:

Nakata has had plenty of time for cultural reflection, having spent seven years in Italy. He thinks back to his arrival, in 1999, when he signed a £2 million deal with Perugia. 'The most difficult part of communicating was having to put your own opinion forward, not hold everything back as we do in Japan. Self-assertion is very important in Italy. Everyone is, "Me! Me! Hi!" So I had to change. I think now I am more Italian than Japanese, you can see that when I talk - now I use my hands to be more expressive. That is very un-Japanese.'

But Nakata expresses his frustration at the western way of communicating, especially in a formal encounter. 'So, it's hot today...?' he says, waiting for a response. 'You see how difficult it is to answer? I get this kind of question all the time in football, like 'So, you drew 2-2 today...?' We ask these questions in Japan, but only between people who know each other very well. How am I supposed to know what you are talking about when I have only just met you?

[emphasis mine]

It's an interesting point; context is all-important in Japanese, in no small part because the bare language itself is often so unspecific (few verbs have explicit subjects, no articles, etc.) and so much is implied instead of directly stated. So if you find yourself having to communicate in an unfamiliar language, and with strangers, to boot, deprived of the contextual and linguistic cues that you usually expect to pick up... well, it doesn't make things any easier.

As a non-native Japanese speaker, I'm always trying very hard to listen out for these cues, because they're sure as hell not in the spoken language half the time. Presentations given by colleagues in Japanese can quickly become impenetrable if you're not following them absolutely from the outset; I often find it much harder to come in halfway through a Japanese conversation than I would an English one. But

One slight pickup in the article: tatemae (建前) and honne (本音) aren't quite "inside" and "outside"; those would be uchi (内) and soto (外). The tatemae/honne distinction, which is what Nakata is talking about, is more about the discrepancy between your private, true feelings (honne), which in Japan are typically kept strictly to yourself or only shared with very close acquaintances, and the public face that you present to the outside world (tatemae, literally "facade"). As Nakata notes, this exists to some extent in probably all cultures; the Japanese just seem to be famous for it.

But uchi/soto is certainly a closely related topic. Jeremy Antipixel has an interesting explanation of uchi/soto here, and I guarantee that it's one of the few times you'll see Japanese cultural values referenced by way of a John Ford western.

Here's a brief Wikipedia page on tatemae/honne, and another on uchi/soto.

Oh - and I liked the bit in the article about the Korean player who mistakenly became captain of Manchester United for seven minutes. Although I'm a little puzzled how anyone can say "I'm a good cook - especially miso soup...", which is surely a little like saying you make a mean instant coffee?

[many thanks to Dave for the link]

Posted by chris at October 25, 2005 03:45 PM | Permalink


Unfortunately, some of us can spoil even the simplest of dishes. I think I'll stick to the coffee.
Onions and extra salt for your miso soup, sir?

Posted by: Rich at October 25, 2005 11:14 PM

Onions? But surely they're already in the sachet, no? You want *more* onions? Freak.

Posted by: chris at October 25, 2005 11:30 PM

Of course some people, fools that they are, make miso soup using the real stuff, rather than the processed muck from a sachet - bit like instant coffee vs freshly gound beans and an espresso machine.

Posted by: tokyobogue at October 27, 2005 11:19 PM

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