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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.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Signs and Indexes

Signs and Indexes by timtak
Signs and Indexes, a photo by timtak on Flickr.
Top left: A Western floor sign that is positioned on the floor, telling those that are there what floor they are on! (A bit like hearing oneself talking?)
Top Right: A Japanese floor sign that is positioned on landings pointing (indexing) to the floors above and below. These floor signs are indexes.
Middle Left: A Western street map superimposed with a street sign. The streets are named but spaces not. (Does space even exist? Do lines?)
Middle Right: A Japanese street map which doubles as a street sign (there are no signs on Japanese streets) with the spaces named, but the streets (mainly) not. Both the Japanese floor signs and streets signs in the form of neighbourhood maps are positioned away from that which they name, but while the former is indexical, a map is iconic (being isomorphic which that to which it refers)
Bottom left: A Western floor plan, with the distance between the walls marked or named. The lines matter, the space does not.
Bottom Right: A Japanese floor plan with the spaces named, sized, marked and named not merely as square metres, but as rice mats, as spaces, spaces spaces. These last two are not signs, but maps, but like in the case of the street maps, the Western maps emphasise the lines (walls, streets) and name them or the distance between them, whereas the Japanes maps name or give the size of the space itself.

Jane Bachnik (J. M Bachnik, 1998; Jane M. Bachnik & Quinn, 1994) is so clever one can smell it. But, I don't quite buy Pierce(1894).

Building upon Nakane's observation (Nakane, 1972) that place (or frield originally Nishida's "ba") is plays an important part in structuring Japanese society (Japanese people feel that they belong to places, e.g. houses) Bachnik argues that this corresponds to a difference in type of signifiers that people use to represent themselves. Focussing on the inside-outside (uchi-soto) distinction, Bachnik argues that Japanese signs are "indexical," one of Pierce's three types of sign.

Pierce (1894) argues that there are three types of sign: icons that resemble that which they refer to, indexes (or pointers) which have a physical connection to that which they refer to, and symbols (think language) which is connected to that which it refers only through usage (i.e. the connection is "arbitrary").

The thing I object to is the relativity, or subjectivity of the index but not of the symbol. According to pierce. The symbol we are told is not a "cline",or gradient, a somewhere to somewhere else. The symbol does not, we are told, require a point of view or context (because there is Yahweh?). Hence only the Japanese are relative, inter-subjective. Space we are told is relative. Pointing requires (as Bachnik quotes Doi), "a point of view".

But what of our self referential signs, such as "I"? I think therefore I am? Benveniste (1971) is right to say that "I" is only meaningful reference to you. But then as Mori says, Westerners assume that there is a third person, a thou, an Other, a super addressee that prevents the I from being at all indexical. If such magic is possible for linguistic first person pronouns, then it is possible for "pointers". Doi was a Christian. He believed in the third person of language, but he did not believe in the eye in the sky, even though he was Japanese.

Bachnik is right but there is something wrong with Pierce's definition of signs and indexes. The latter imply relativity no more than the former.

This is like shame and guilt. Benedict would have it that guilt is objective while shame is inter-subjective. If shame is also objective, or felt when completely alone, what is the difference? What is the difference between the sign and index?

My take, as always, Nacalianly, the difference depends upon whether one simulates a generalized ear or eye but I don't think that I have managed to explain the differences observed in the images above. Are there any other systematic differences between Japanese and Western signs? I am going to add house door signs.

Street sign image is Millfields Rd NE street sign , E5 by O, F.

Bachnik, J. M., & Quinn, C. J. (Eds.). (1994). Situated Meaning: Inside and Outside in Japanese Self, Society, and Language. Princeton University Press.
Benedict, R. (2006). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1st ed.). Mariner Books.
Benveniste, E. (1971). Problems in General Linguistics. (M. E. Meek, Trans.) (Vol. 3). University of Miami Press Coral Gables, FL.
Nakane, C. (1972). Japanese Society (1st pb ed.). University of California Press.
O, F. (2010). Millfields Rd NE street sign , E5. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/sludgeulper/4882259125/
Peirce, C. S. (1894). What is a sign? Theorizing communication: readings across traditions, 177. Retrieved from http://www.semioticadelprogetto.it/download/CSP%20-%20What%20is%20a%20sign.pdf

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