By Lisa Shoreland
Despite its reputation for outlandish costumes and outrageous practical jokes, traditional Japanese culture is one of nearly unmatched gravity and obsession with honor. Although tourists can easily learn simple phrases like “Thank you” (arigatō) and “Excuse me” (sumimasen), serious Japanese language learners benefit from understanding the history of the nation’s shame culture.
On and Debt in Japan
Even arigatō and sumimasen—two of the first words any Japanese language learner must master—illustrate a key concept in both Chinese and Japanese culture. The word in Japanese is on, although any literal translation to English bastardizes the concept since Westerners do not share the Far East’s attention to indebtedness. This hasn’t stopped translators, who try to explain that on means “obligation.”
Ruth Benedict, renowned author of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, says that “Because Westerners pay such extremely slight attention to their debt to the world and what it has given them in care, education, well-being or even in the mere fact of their ever having been born at all, the Japanese feel that our motivations are inadequate. On is in all its uses a load, an indebtedness, a burden, which one carries as best one may.”
Hachi the Dog
Benedict cites the story of Hachi—the loyal dog made famous to Westerners by the 2009 movie Hachi: A Dog’s Tale with Richard Gere—which Japanese teachers often tell younger children in ethics classes. In the story, a stranger takes in a stray dog and nurses him to health. The dog feels indebted to the human, his master (nushi), and follows him to and from the train station every day. One day, the man dies while at work; the dog waits at the train station nevertheless, waiting for his master’s return. He repeats the habit daily until he dies nine years later.
Hachi’s romanticized sentiment—as sad, futile, and even masochistic as it may seem to outsiders—is an example of on.
On as a Burden
Because on is a burden, Benedict says that the Japanese are leery of getting entangled in situations requiring it. Even accepting a cigarette from a kind stranger makes a traditional Japanese individual uncomfortable. In such situations, one may say, “What a poisonous feeling” (kino doku). Although kino doku roughly translates to “Thank you” in English, the underlying concept remains foreign to most Westerners.
Benedict explains: “‘It’s easier to bear,’ a Japanese said to me, ‘if you come right out and acknowledge how bad it makes you feel. You had never thought of doing anything for him and so you are shamed by receiving an on.’”
Even a word like “Thank you” (arigatō) carries a deep sense of on masked by its common usage. Traditionally, the word can be roughly translated into English: “What a difficult thing.” The “difficult thing” is receiving the on. Also, sumimasen literally means, “This does not end.” Although commonly said when squeezing through a crowd or thanking someone for a gift, the understood meaning (often forgotten in modern usage) is that “I can never repay you for this debt.”
Although modern Japanese citizens and Japanese language learners have no need to flagellate themselves, Japan’s culture remains one tightly bound to its notion of shame and honor. To receive an on is still shameful in varying degrees but usually accompanied with a feeling of warmth and gratitude more than guilt these days. Still, any arigato or sumimasen might be said with sincerity in appreciation for the nation’s culture of dignity.
Lisa Shoreland is currently a resident blogger at Go college, where recently she’s been researching Nursing Grants & Scholarships and blogging about student life. She has also blogged for Lonelee Planet. In her spare time, she enjoys creative writing and hogging her boyfriend’s PlayStation 3. To keep her sanity she enjoys practicing martial arts and bringing home abandoned animals. To read more about language learning and English Language Teaching, take a look at the OUP ELT Global blog.