Dolly on Ambiguous Japanese

Seeing Transcendence in Nature
Seeing Transcendence in Nature

Cure Tadashiku’s recent comments on ambiguity and Japanese really help me in learning to hear (聞き取る — there really isn’t a good English word for the Japanese kikitoru, “hear-catch”, is there?) Japanese.

As Cure Tadashiku says, at the upper reaches of understanding nothing can really be put into words. Words are only signposts to the ineffable Truth. But does that have anything to do with everyday Japanese? I think it does because all the things of life have an inner core of Truth, and the more language tries to nail them down to exact formulations, the more we lose that Truth.

Of course we need exactitude for many purposes, but we also need to be able to see things in the light of their transcendence.

If I may make so bold as to quote from one of the founders of the English Romantic movement (Coleridge in the preface to Lyrical Ballads):

Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

In listening to Japanese anime with a higher, more childlike tolerance of ambiguity, I believe I come closer to freeing myself from the mask of “familiarity and selfish solicitude”, which to a large extent is created by language. We see a tree or a flower and say “oh tree”, or “oh flower” and having put it in its verbal box we may well feel we have done with it, rather than standing in awe before its astonishing wonderfulness.

English, I believe, has this effect more than most languages, since it is so very geared to the matter-of-fact and practical. Japanese may be one of the least “familiar and self-solicitous” languages (I say this with no authority but just a feeling) languages, and I think that may have a lot to do with a certain aversion to over-specificity.

Also — and I think in one’s personal experience the two things are linked — by listening in a more childlike way, not expecting to understand everything, accepting one’s toddler-status in Japanese, as it were, one can come closer to a child’s pre-diseducated appreciation of being in all its amazing wonder and generosity.

I think this is especially true in shows like Doki Doki Precure where the disruption of the instant-categorization that is near-forced by native English allows one to experience the rich symbolic depth of the show — symbols like the Heart which appear in so many ways and always in ways that connect them to the Universal and not merely the incidental.

Opening like a child to the symbolism of the Heart

It even opens one to a fresh appreciation of English as Wasei terms like “cure lovies” and “lovely compact” help us to return the word “love” to its magical significance as a universal and beautiful power manifesting among us.

The frankness and straightforwardness (non-cynicism) of much of the language is also, from an English-language point of view childlike (it is often changed in translation because it is just too “uncool” for even standard modern English). From a Japanese point of view, and I would say from a natural point of view, it is — just natural.

Interestingly, on this front, I think one might argue that Japanese is more direct and straightforward than modern English, which seems compelled to “mask” expressions of sentiment — especially pure and good sentiment — with a veil of cynicism.

But that is a topic for another day. For today I would like to suggest that learning to live with ambiguity and listen like a child is not just a useful language learning exercise but, given fundamentally good material, a way to open oneself to the dream-like depth of things.

See also:

Ambiguity and Japanese