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Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Yasuko making the gesture for "me"

Yasuko making the gesture for "me"
Originally uploaded by timtak.
For me this is the most important of Japanese gestures, that indicates a clear and important cultural difference from Western cultures. I suggest that for a Westerner to point to their nose to indicate themselves is unthinkable or at least laughable. Indeed the first time I heard of this gesture was from a friend that was teaching English to Japanese students in the UK., who said, laughing, "And you know what?! The Japanese students point to their noses, like this, to indicate themselves, ho, ho, ho!"

Many years later, the cultural difference indicated by this gesture, its relation to Western philosophy and Japanese mythology was the subject of my first poster presentation to the Japanese Association of Psychology.

At the top of the presentation were two photos. One of me pointing to my chest. The other of a fellow graduate student of Japanese nationality, pointing to his nose. This was the beginning of what I have since called the "specular self" theory of the Japanese.

It goes like this. In a great deal of Western literature and thought, the self is represented as a narrative. Since even before the word became flesh (John), thought is the minds dialogue with itself (Plato), children learn to think eventually and maturely using language (Piaget), language is the vector by which we internalise society (Mead, Vygotsky, Lacan), and according to these and other narrative psychologists, humans are those beings who identify with their "cogito" or their narrative about themselves.

Not so the Japanese. The Japanese, since before Amaterasu came out of that cave in search of her own reflection, and Wastuji theorised that the Japanese self is like a Noh Mask, or Barthes who argued that Japan is the "Empire of the Signs," the Japanese have identified with a face of their own imagining. They exist not in their narrative but in the mirror of their mind. My wife, in the photograph above is pointing to herself, yes, her SELF, that which we see, and she can imagine.

I think that Westeners point to their chest to indicate themselves to indicate, metaphorically, the dialogue that they are having within their "heart". They do not mean to say that they are their chest but rather that they are a spirtual (read linguistic) entity that can not be seen.

In order for Westerners to accept the gesture above as one indicating oneself, they would have to overcome the following hurdles.

1) We can not see what the finger is pointing at. I cannot see my own face. So by indicating my nose I would pointing something that does not exist for me, only for the person that is looking at me. Arimasa Mori has argued that the Japanese "I" is one which only exists as a "you for you." This gesture would seem to be indicating a "face for a face" or at least a nose for some eyeballs. When I point to my noise I am pointing to an emptiness that only exists for the person in front of me. In the case of my chest however, I am in the position to look down and see it too.

2) In contradistinction to the Western gesture where we point to our chest, in the case of the above gesture, we can see the hand that is pointing. Because we can see the hand that is pointing, we are not free self referentiality of indicating oneself with onelself, and we are left in a quandry as what is pointing at what. Is my nose pointing to my hand? Or my hand pointing to my nose? The hand that approaches the nose, driven as it is by our will, is myself but not myself as an extremity. The nose that it approaches is at the center of where I am aware I do my thinking, but it is not visible. The visiblity of the hand draws further attention to the invisibility of the face for the person whose face it is.

For westerners however, the gesture above is indicating ones nose. It might be used to indicate that something smells, that ones nose hurts, or occasionally that something is a secret (the latter gesture is rare, and I am not confident that Britons would understand it).

I wrote the below when I was Tim Leuers, for the Gaijin Gleaner.
I like the Japanese pointing gesture. Japanese often point to their nose to indicate "boku" or "atashi" i.e. "I", themselves. Gaijin reactions to this gesture vary. Some think it is cute, funny or idiotic, others have thought that "boku" is the Japanese word for nose. The Japanese gesture system is definitely confusing. The Japanese sign for "No thanks" (waving the flat of the hand held vertically in front of the face) might be taken to mean "that stinks" and the gesture for "money" (holding the tip of the forefinger and thumb together) could be more insulting; it resembles the British gesture meaning "onanist". The nose pointing gesture should not however, be dismissed as merely an idiosyncrasy - it may reveal the nature of the Japanese self. Surveys show that nose pointing is more common among Japanese women and children than adult men and that it decreases with social status. Japanese children learn this gesture at an early age; when just learning to speak, toddlers may point to their mouth and say "kuchi", their ears and say "mimi" and their head and say "atama" but pointing to their nose they often say their own name. Men with high status between about 30 and 50 seem to be the most likely to point to their chest in a Western fashion. This could mean that the difference between "nose pointing" and "chest pointing" is linked to a person's degree of self confidence or individualism. But even a Japanese who points to his chest to indicate "watashi" is different to a chest tapping English speaker because the latter will say "me" and not "I". For Westerners "I" can not be pointed to. "I" is the name for our inner identity while "me" is the name for ourselves that can be pointed to and seen by others. The Japanese, however, use the same word for "I" and "me". Perhaps because the Japanese feel a much stronger identification with their nose, face or visual image in general. This is probably not because they think they have cute noses. But it could be because the Japanese think that they are essentially something which can be seen. If so, this difference has important consequences. It is said that while Westerners feel guilt, the Japanese feel shame. But what is the difference between the two? The sense of guilt arises when the voice of our conscience cannot justify our behaviour and it can be argued that we feel guilt because we have internalised (or there exists) a super ego (or God) who listens to our thoughts. Shame, in contrast, arises when we feel someone's stare. But when no one is around to stare at us we do not feel shame. What about the Japanese? They do not seem to have much problem with guilt. But they do feel shame even when no-one else is around. This could be because they have internalised a "super ego" who rather than LISTENS to their thoughts, WATCHES them. Hence, they feel there is ALWAYS someone watching, that they are ALWAYS seen. And hence they point to the centre of their visual image, their nose, to indicate "watashi". I point to my nose and say "boku", I am ashamed to say. This does not mean that I have thrown off guilt and taken on board shame. But I do have an ungainly nose.

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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.