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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.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Savage Thought and Myth in the Structure of Japanese

Denotation and Connotation in the Structure of Japanese
Originally uploaded by timtak
This post layers Suzuki Takao's layered theory of Japanese, onto Roland Barthes theory of "myth" and Levi-Straus's theorey of "the savage mind."

Levi Strauss argued that "savages" are "bricoleurs" (people that use the tools and materials to hand to get a job done), in that they use things, usually found in the natural world, to categorise and organise their societies.

Thus *savages* in totemistic societies may have "Black Hawk" and "White Hawk" groups, and be called by names like "Sitting Bull." They use species of bird and animal as names for clans, families and individuals, because these things are useful to get the job of social categorisation done, and thus "good to think."

Had Levi-Strauss been more rigorous (I jest) he would have noted that some totemist use mythical and corporeal, artificial signs. There are "Water Flask" and "Dragon" tribes. Concentrating on these man-made signs Levi-Straus' definition of "the savage as bricoleur" starts to become rather vague. If the savage can make up entities (such as dragons) to use as names then how is the savage different from "Levi" named after some ancient Jews Straus? If the savage can use man made objects as names, then why not use patterns, and write his name "LEVI" and be done with it. And if he did, would he still be a savage? The problem with Levi-Strauss for me is that I can't find the place where he compares savages to himself, or where he explains what we are doing, and whether and in what way what they are doing is different. (As far as I am aware, I am a bricoleur too. My name is Timothy, the name of a semi-mythical 'beast' found in the Bible.)

Then Roland Barthes comes to the rescue with his theory of "Mythological" signs. I think that despite the fact Barthes analyses magazine covers and pasta advertisements,he uses the word "Mythologiges" because he is harking back to Levi-Strauss above, and providing a semiotic distinction between us and them, between anthropologist and the mythologist, the scientist and the bricoleur. The distinction of myth, mythological thought, and the savage mind is that it uses signs in combination at a two teired level of "denotation" and "connotation." The briocoleur/mythologists uses second level, connotative signs, that is to say signs in combination that are already signs for other things (see diagram, inset bottom right).

Hence, the black boy and the saluting (a flag) shown on the cover of Paris Match, are in themselves signs. We recognise them and their meanings, of respect, youth, and Africa etc. The cover becomes mythic because it combines these signs to present a new meaning: imperialism is good, all of France's colonial subjects respect the French flag.

Suzuki Takao argues that the Japanese language is appropriate for use as an International Language. I happen to agree. The principle reason he gives is interesting, one that I had not grasped, and relates to the discussion of myth, or savage thought above. Suzuki argues that the advantage of Japanese is in the two-teired way that it is "agglutinative". A simple definition of aggluntinative is that, in ancient greek (soci-ology) and modern German (auto-bahn) one can form words by joining other words together. In Japanese however, the situation is a little more mythological, the process of agglutination often involves an extra layer. In Japanese, while there are cases in which one simply joins words together (e.g. torihiki, pull-push meaning negotiations), one can form complex words by combining the signs, or Kanji, for everyday words.

This layering of Japanese can be discussed at two levels.

At the level of discussion of the merits of the Japanese language, or German and Japanese respectively, the layered nature of Japanese makes it a lot more compact. Complex German words are formed by joining shorter simple, everyday words together, resulting in some very long compound words. Japanese on the other hand uses the signs, or Kanji, for the everyday words and joins these together instead. Since the Kanji have shorter (kun yomi) names of their own, long compounds can be said using far fewer syllables. In Suzuki Takao's example the round lighting devise used above operating tables in hospitals is "Schattenfreie Lampe" (Shadow-Free-Lamp) in German, and "mu-kei-tou"(無影灯)in Japanese. It gets to be a lot shorter in Japanese because mu, kei and tou are the names for the signs that represents "no shadow lamp" (nai, kage, akari). So while learners of Japanese may think it a pain in the neck that Japanese not only has Kanji, but also has more than one name for each, Suzuki argues, quite successfully in my view, that it is this layered structure that makes Japanese so successful in expressing complicated meanings, using few simple buildings blocks, without resulting in some very long words.

At another level, it seems to mean that Japanese are always being "mythologists" or "bricoleuers" as defined by Roland Barthes and Levi-Strauss in that they are using the denotive signs for every-day things in combination to connote new meanings. They are still engaging in "savage thought."

And so what? I am not sure, but I think that it relates to:

Roland Barthes claim that Japan is "The Empire of the Signs"

Jane M. Bachnik's discussion of the prevalance and importance of "indexes" in Japan, in her opening chapter of "Situated Meaning." (Would Barthes have written "The empire of the indexes" had he been more precise? Are totems indexes? Are indexes always dual, dennotive and connotive?)

My claim that Shinto is a form of totemism that stopped using stones and branches and grass (as related in detail by Kunio Yanagita, back in the days when "everything used to talk") as their totemic badges, and started to use Kanji for their names (when, thanks to the ordered rule of the emperoro "everything stopped talking")

The fact that Japanese superheros are totemists.

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