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.

Friday, July 13, 2012


The Japanese Feel Voices: Nacalian Meltdown and Oral-Centrism

The Japanese Feel Voices: Nacalian Meltown and Oral-Centrism by timtak
The Japanese Feel Voices: Nacalian Meltown and Oral-Centrism, a photo by timtak on Flickr.
Continuing with some phenomena that do not conform to the Nacalian, Japan as ocular-centric culture theory proposed on this blog, Tanaka's recent research on incongruent expressions of emotion in voice and facial expression is even more damning.

Tanaka and colleagues (Tanaka et al., 2010) first videoed a Japanese (as shown above) and Dutch woman say a linguistically neutral phrase ("is that so", "sou nan desuka") in a happy and angry voice. They then created voice-face incongruent stimuli by swapping the sound track between the two videos. Dutch and Japanese subjects were then asked to judge the emotion of the face (and ignore the voice) in the face task (left hand side of the graph) and to judge the emotion of the voice (ignoring the face) in the right hand side of the graph. The time to judge the emotion in the voice-face congruent video was substracted from the time to judge the emotion in the incongruent video, giving the extent to which the back-channel, to-be-ignored information (voice, or face) slowed the subjects responses. The above graphs show the size of the error that the ignored channel resulted in.

As can be seen, both groups found the voice more difficult to ignore but, the Japanese found it far more difficult to ignore voice than face. And the Dutch were significantly worse at ignoring faces and very significantly better at ignoring voices than Japanese.

Upon a straightforward Nacalian interpretation (that Westerners are logo-phono-centric, while Japanese are visio-centric), these results should have been reversed. These results would seem to agree with those of my previous post regarding the McGurk effect, which shows that Japanese are less effected by facial information, and more attentive to voice, when interpretting phonemes. Taken together with Ishii's research, which showed that Japanese pay more attention to voice than words, one might conclude that Japanese cultural communication is centered upon tone of voice: an oral culture.

I can think of other anecdotal evidence to support this view.
1) The Japanese are fond of stage plays featuring their (super) heroes, such as bean-bread-man (Anpanman), Power Rangers (supa-sentai), Ultraman, and Masked Riders (Kamen Raida-). When these plays are performed the stage actors dress up in the appropriate costumes and masks, and then mime to a audio recording of the authentic voice actors voices. I do not know of a similar genre of drama in the West, but if there were to be a play of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, or The Incredible Hulk, I presume that the viewers would be satisfied with seeing costumed actors play these heroes parts and would not mind if these actors used microphones to voice their own words rather than demanding that they mimed to the voices of the actors that play these parts in recent movies featuring the same heroes. The Japanese demand for vocal miming on the part of the stage players, suggest again that if the voice is different then the self or persona of the hero is different. At the same time it is notable that even the "authentic" heroes of Japanese TV programs, partly as a result of their faces or masks having NO MOUTH, are miming to voice actors themselves.
2) I feel that more traditional, or more-Japanesey- Japanese speech presentations, by older Japanese, who while remaining fairly straight faced use their tone of voice more than I was used to in the UK.
3) Similarly non-Japanese that have been acculturated to Japanese culture, use more vocal intonation than I am used to in my Western upbringing. I get this feeling when I watch David Spectre and the two Kents (Kent Derricot, and Kent Gilbert) all of whom, especially since they appear Western having Western faces, sound strange to me, or appropriately Japanese to me in that they vary their vocal intonation greatly.
4) When watching Western movies dubbed into Japanese the extent to which the Japanese voice actors vary their intonation far more (it seems to me) than the Western actor is striking. I had interpretted this (to my ears) excessive vocal intonation on the part of dubbing voice actors to Japanese perceptions of Westerners being more unihibited, and this may be part of the reason for this phenomena, but perhaps also the dubbing voice actors are simply giving the Western actors a more typically Japanese vocal-expressive range.
5) Again when watching Western movies dubbed into Japanese, the males are given deeper voices (especially if they are strong) and the women are given more 'feminine' higher voices exentuating their gender differences in voice.
6) Japanese men and women at least in the media, especially evident in period dramas (jidai geki) and Yakuza movies, and perhaps in real life tend to speak in more gender differentiated -- deeper for men, higher for women -- voices. I am not sure if Western men have a tendency to gender-neutralise their voices, or if Japanes men have a tendency to speak in deliberately more macho tones, or bothy. Certainly young (but not necessarily older) Japanese women have a tendency to speak in higher voices in order to be attractive, at least so it seems to me.
7) Japanese female shop assistants (I am not sure about the men) raise their tone an octave in an attempt to make their voice more polite and appealing. I find this affectation somewhat too self-debasing. I find myself wanting to say "No, please do not go so far as to alter your voice. I don't want you to be so ingratiating. Be your own voice. I am not so grumpy and authoritarian a customer as to require this degree of self-debasement."
8) The Japanese are more fond of singing, in the form of Karaoke, as a post alcohol consumption, probably courting, pleasure activity and this of course results in their using their voice as a means of self expression (whereas Westerners are more likely to dance in similar situations for similar reasons).
9) The Japanese use 'stomach drama' (hara-gei) to convince others of their point of view or their sincerity. This is something I have read. I am not sure if or when I have witnessed 'stomach drama', but the use of extreme vocal intonation in this form is well documented.
10) Japanese emotive expressions, such as those expressing cuteness (kawaii--) or delisciousness (oishii---) often sound to my ears as being over-the-top in their use of vocal tone.

Whatever the fate of my Nacalian theory, the research by Tanaka, Sekiyama, and Ishii, point to cultural differences in sense (oral/visual) or channel (oral/visual/linguistic). As such I find them very exciting: a break from the individualism vs collectivism mold. This genre of reseach raises the possibility that Japanese have a different type of communication, and a different type of non-logocentric, individual self.

Image top from monthly spotlight, Image bottom from (Tanaka et al., 2010, p1261)

Tanaka, A., Koizumi, A., Imai, H., Hiramatsu, S., Hiramoto, E., & De Gelder, B. (2010). I Feel Your Voice. Psychological science, 21(9), 1259.

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