J a p a n e s e    C u l t u r e

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.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Situated Meaning in the Empire of the Indexes

Situated Meaning in the Empire of the Indexes
Originally uploaded by timtak
I have been claiming that while the Westerners tend to be very "logocentric" or linguistic, Japanese are more inclined to concentrate on visual information, especially when it involves themselves. Hence Westerners care about linguistic self-expression, and carry around with them an "Other" or "Superaddressee" that reflects their speech acts upon themselves. And Japanese care about visual self expression (clothes items, things, pointing) and carry around with them, a "mirror in their head" (Heine and Takemoto, et. al).

However, lately I have been forced to realise that Jane Bachnik is right and I was wrong: It is not that the West is linguistic and Japan is "occular," nor even that Western signs are sounds rather than images, but rather it the difference is in the way that Japanese and Westerners use signs, or the type of signs that they use.

Jane Bachnik claims that Japan is (to paraphrase Barthes) "the empire of the *indexes*".

What are indexes? Indexes are a type of sign, in American linguist Pierce's taxonomy of signs. Their most famous subgroup are icons, such as on your computer screen. Icons are strictly speaking, indexes that have a resemblance to that which they represent, such as the famous trashcan which represents the deletion of computer files and thus has a likeness to its meaning. More purely indexical is the Nike logo, called a "swoosh," which gets to mean "Nike" by virtue of the fact that it is printed on all their products and displayed at the end of their adverts, rather than by its similarity to a running shoe. Indexes get their meaning by their "contiguous relationship" with the thing that they refer to. That means that they are often displayed at the same time in the same place, or immediately before or afterwards in time and space. Many of the typical examples of indexes are natural phenomena related causally, hence smoke is an index for fire, thunder an index for lightening (and vice versa), and the mercury in a thermometer is an index for the temperature. Perhaps the important thing about indexes is that they have a direct, one-to-one relationship with that which they represent. As mentioned in my previous post, indexical thought may have a lot in common with "savage thought" as defined by Levi-Strauss. Indexes are one part of the word, used as a sign for another part.

What other types of signs are there? That a sign has a direct one to one relationship with that which it represents may seem pretty much the way that all signs are. But Saussure, and even ancient Buddhists have pointed out that linguistic signs (at least in the West!) are defined by their relationship to other signs, "cat" is understood by its relationship to "bat," and "dog." Phonemic words (at least) mean, have meaning, by virtue of not being other words.

Returning to indexes, another famous example of an index is a pointing finger. It has meaning because you can see what it is pointing at. Jane Bachnik proposed the theory that indexes are important to the Japanese from consideration of the importance of such words such as inner and outer ("uchi" and "soto") or front and back ("omote" and "ura"), which are used extensively to describe social interactions. Like pointing fingers however, these spacio-metaphorical words have meaning in contextual locations, and shift their meaning depending upon who is saying them. Inner (uchi) e.g. my family, for me will be outer (soto) for you and vice versa. Bachnik struggles with this shifting aspect of indexes, and I believe emphasises their shiftiness more that I do. Indeed, I think that is were Bachnik and I differ. For Bachnik indexes are inherently shifty and subjective, but for me, I think it depends upon the culture from which one looks upon them. I will come back to this point but first I will introduce some examples of where Bachnik's theory of Japan as the empire of the indexes is useful.

A few days ago I was out in a river bay on my kayak and at 6 o’clock, or one or two minutes before or after came the sound of the tannoy sound system that announce this time (and perhaps that it is time for dinner, time to go home from the rice fields) to the local inhabitants. Some of the 6-oclock-sounds were simply sirens, others were the melodies from folk songs (often Scottish, for reasons unknown) and there was one sound of someone ringing a temple bell. Since they localities around the bay were slightly out of sync, the continued for about 5 minutes, before the bay returned to silence. These sounds can be heard at least twice a day, also at noon. In some rural prefectures the local town hall will make announcements such as "the primary school children have all safely returned from their school trip." Sticking to the noon and 6pm sirens, it is clear that that they are phonic not visual signs, so bang goes my theory that the Japanese are into their visuals. This is a very Japanese, very phonic sound. It is also an index. The sounds get their meanings (certain times of day) by occurring at those times of day, contiguously with the little hand of the clock pointing at six.

More importantly, it would be very untrue to suggest that the Japanese do not place considerable significance on language, but the way that they do it is different. It is easy to point to areas in which, from a Western, logocentric point of view, the Japanese do not seem to place a great deal of importance upon language. "Japan is a society without dialogue" as Nakajima points out, (Taiwa no Nai Shakai), in which university students never ask questions, decisions are made before committees deliberate (and debate) on the issues, political debate tends toward the grey with the manifestos of all parties being very much the same, rules are often reinterpreted in surprising ways (e.g. "scientific whaling"), there is a lot of flattery ("oseiji"), and there are books extolling the vagueness of the Japanese. At the same time however, there are some instances in which it is clear that Japanese take words *really* seriously.

Today there was a tragic story in the only English language "Japan Today" news site. An eight year old Japanese girl committed suicide apparently because she had been the victim of bullying. And the bullying consisted (perhaps solely, since the culprit remains unknown) in finding the word "die" written on her pencil case and books. As the father of a daughter my heart goes out to the parents. At the same time, as a Westerner I find myself confused. In Anglophone countries it has become vogue (and the subject of pop song lyrics) to tell people to go away and die in far more offensive language, but I doubt that many or any of the "victims" feel as traumaticised as this 8 year old did. It is clear that some words can be very offensive in Japan, and that the Japanese can take them very seriously with tragic results.

That Japanese take bad words seriously is supported by the fact that there are few expletives in Japanese. Instead of accusing someone you intensely dislike of being incestuously involved with their mother, one claims that their mothers belly button sticks out. The word for the female sex organs is felt to be so rude that it can not be used, so that Japanese sex educators have had to experiment with the use of "girl willy."

A Japanese teacher of debating skills bewails the aforementioned lack of debate in Japan, ascribing it to the belief in the spirit of words. He argues that debate requires that one examine the pros and cons, the positive and negative outcomes of an act. Japanese do not like to talk about negative outcomes, lest they come true as a result, so debate is often avoided. Hence it is precisely the belief in *the power of words* motivates the avoidance of dialogue.

This phenomena again relates to the theory of indexes. Indexes have meaning by their direct relationship with that which they mean, rather than by their position in a language or discourse. Thus the word death may conjure up the state and event of death far more strongly among Japanese (who avoid even homonyms of the word), than among Anglophones for whom death is associated with life and birth. Speaking the word "death" to an indexical thinker may even bring death upon them, but speaking the word death to a linguistic dialogic thinker may bring them to life.

That Japanese see words as being particularly disturbing is often related to their belief in "word-spirits" (kotodama, shinko). This is the ancient belief that words hare imbued with spirit such that their utterance can make the word come true. Hence for this reason, certain words weakly related to the concept of divorce (such as "go home") are avoided at Japanese weddings lest they encourage the bride to "go home to her parents" and divorce the groom.

Finally, returning to Bachniks feeling that indexes shift more than other types (our types) of sign, I can not agree. Words in western society, even those that underpin our society, such as freedom and justice, good and bad, are interpreted in many ways. That they share particular interpretations, and remain important to us, is the result of a cultural practice of internalising language via the "Other" "Generalised Other" or "Superaddressee" of language. This linguifying of the psyche does not have to be done, and the Japanese do not do it. On the other hand, that Japanese identify far more greatly with the visual self representations, theire face, and with "lococentric" (Lebra) clasifications of society such as inner and outer (uchi and soto) does not imply that Japanese society is more shifting, but rather that they have learnt to internalise a co-experiencer, a mirror in their head (Heine and Takemoto et al.), something with which to nail the context down, to sew the subjective worlds of experience, these fish-bowls together.

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