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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, January 27, 2015


Circada do not Speak to the Japanese: The Japanese don't really speak to each other!

Circada do not Speak to the Japanese: The Japanese don't really speak to each other!
Tadanobu Tsunoda (e.g. 1975) using data on the identification of sounds presented monaurally to both ears, claims that the Japanese, unlike speakers of Indo-European languages process natural sounds such as of insects (e.g. cicada) with the left hemisphere that is usually associated with language processing. He claims that this is due to Japanese attentiveness to nature and the characteristics of the vowels in Japanese and other East Asian/Pacific languages.

His research was dismissed as pseudo-science by some (Dale, 1993), but with the recent boom in research into cognitive styles (e.g. Masuda & Nisbett, 2001), and recent research into culture and the brain (e.g. Kitayama & Uskul, 2011), his research may come under reappraisal.

As noted Tsunoda (1975) found that among Japanese, natural sounds such as those of insects and music were processed more effectively by the left brain which is more generally associated with linguistic processing. He concluded that the Japanese were hearing nature speak to them.

However, other research has suggested that the Japanese thought processes are disrupted, as opposed to enhanced, by phonetic speech (Kim, 2002), that the phonetic word content is less important that vocal tone (Ishii, Reyes, & Kitayama, 2003), the Japanese show an amazing ability to ignore phonetic language (Nakajima, 1997) such as all the announcements, that there is a lack of dialogue in Japanese society in general (Nakajima, ibid), and that Japanese thought may be particularly visual in nature (Takemoto and Brinthaupt, in preparation).

So it may be the case that, rather than that insects are speaking to the Japanese, both cacophony of cicada and phonetic speech are not speaking to the Japanese for whom phonemes are sound and fury signifying very little. On the contrary the Japanese, due to the visual nature of the culture and the use of Sino-Japanese characters which (unlike their Chinese counterparts) are not associated with single phonemes (Wydell, Butterworth, & Patterson, 1995; Perfetti, 2002), may do more of their symbolic processing in the visual, right hemisphere. Or again put another way it is not that insect sounds processing have swapped to the language hemisphere but that a greater degree of symbolic processing may take place in the visual hemisphere - as may also be the case with speakers of sign languages. It certainly appears true that Japanese read Kanji at least partly from their shape (Wydell, Patterson, & Humphreys, 1993). This would also explain why Barthes, who did not believe in meaningful visual signs, felt Japan to be "The Empire of the Signs" (Barthes, 1983) which were yet "empty signs," signifying no-phonemes, with no gloss, but to the Japanese replete with meaning.

This view is supported by the fact that cicada create a brain-numbing cacophony, as suggested by the famous Haiku by Matsuo Basho
silence - the screams of cicadas seep into the rocks,
and that traditional Japanese music such as Gagaku and Kagura Uta tends to be less symbolic (compared to Bach at least) more directly emotive or atmospheric nature. As Dale (1993) points out it is rather preposterous to suggest that the Japanese are simply better at deciphering the sounds of nature and music. But it may be the case that nature does not speak to the Japanese, nor in a Western way do the Japanese speak to each other, but that the Japanese hear and understand the tone of nature's -- and each others' -- voices (Ishii, Reyes, & Kitayama, 2003). That is to say, the Japanese cognise their environment in a different way (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001).

Barthes, R. (1983). Empire of Signs. (R. Howard, Trans.). Hill and Wang.
Dale, P. (1993). The Voice of Cicadas: Linguistic Uniqueness, Tsunoda Tananobu’s Theory of the Japanese Brain, and Some Classical Perspectives. Electronic Antiquity: Communicating the Classics, 1(6).
Kim, H. (2002). We talk, therefore we think? A cultural analysis of the effect of talking on thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Kitayama, S., & Uskul, A. K. (2011). Culture, mind, and the brain: Current evidence and future directions. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 419–449. Retrieved from www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-psych-12070...
Ishii, K., Reyes, J. A., & Kitayama, S. (2003). Spontaneous Attention to Word Content Versus Emotional Tone. Psychological Science, 39–46. Retrieved from php.scripts.psu.edu/users/n/x/nxy906/COMPS/indivdualisman...
Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R. E. (2001). Attending holistically versus analytically: comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(5), 922. Retrieved from psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/81/5/922/
Nakajima, Y. 中島, 義道. (1997). 「対話」のない社会―思いやりと優しさが圧殺するもの (A society without dialogue: Things wiped out by sympathy gentleness). PHP研究所.
Tsunoda, T. (1975). Functional differences between right-and left-cerebral hemispheres detected by the key-tapping method. Brain and Language, 2, 152–170. Retrieved from www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0093934X75800617
Wydell, T. N., Butterworth, B., & Patterson, K. (1995). The inconsistency of consistency effects in reading: The case of Japanese Kanji. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21(5), 1155. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1996-13614-001
Wydell, T. N., Patterson, K. E., & Humphreys, G. W. (1993). Phonologically mediated access to meaning for Kanji: Is a rows still a rose in Japanese Kanji? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 19(3), 491–514. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.19.3.491

Image copyright
Image Copyright: Circada by Michael Lacey, on Flickr

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