Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Big Ben: Japanese boasting and sex
Linguistic self-enhancement has generally been considered to be rather disgusting in Japan, or at least something that the Japanese have avoided. In my experience, and in historical accounts of Western impressions of Japan, boastfulness is almost completely, and notably, absent.
One of the few accounts of Japanese boastfulness is that of a highly Westernised scholar of things Western (rangakusha). After several months in captivity in Japan, the Russian spy Vasiliĭ Mikhaĭlovich Golovin remarked in 1811 that the Japanese geometrician and astronomer, Mamia Rinso (Mamiya Rinzo) "manifested his pride, however, by constant boasting of the deeds he had performed, and the labours he had endured." (Golovin, 1824, p284) but further that, "I must here remark, that this was the first Japanese ventured, in our presence, to swagger and assume // importance on account of his military skill, and his vapouring made not only us but even his own countrymen sometimes laugh at him. " (Golovin, 1824, pp. 285-286). In other words, the only Japanese person to boast, in Golovin's experience, was one who had been influenced by Western culture.
I have found two other records of instances of boastfulness in Japan in the pre-twentieth century historical record and both of them relate to sex.
"One old couple, who kept one of these shops, we were on intimate terms with; that is to say, we seldom passed without a few words to them. One day, seeing the old woman by herself, we asked her wherever husband was, and were told that she supposed 'he was after the girls', after which she laughed, as if delighted at the idea of having such a gay old dog for a spouse...
The next time we visited the shop, we rallied the old fellow on being such a gay Lothario; be he did not seem as proud of the reputation as his wife was, and indignantly declared the aspersion cast on him to be totally without foundation. We were half inclined to believe him, and even now think that the old woman's statement may have only been a vainglorious boast"(Cortazzi, 2013,, p67)
Edward de Fonblanque writes, in 1860, of another rare instance Japanese boastfulness, which is also sexual.
"Nor were business wants alone consulted, for the Government had considerately provide a magnificent building, all lacquer and caving and delicate painting, in which the Tojin [Foreigner] might pass their leisure hours in the company of painted musume [literally daughter, but the meaning her is girl], dressed in gorgeous robes, and coifées in the most wonderful manner.
I visited the Gankiro, taking the precaution to go there in broad day, and for my character's sake, in good company, and was a little startled at the systematic way in which the authorities conduct this establishment. Two officers showed us over the building, and pointed out its beauties which as much pride as if they were exhibiting an ancient temple sacred to their dearest gods. This was the court-yard; that was to be a fish-pond with fountains (the building was still incomplete at this time); in this room refreshments might be procured -that was the theatre; those little nooks into which you entered by a slide panel in the wall were dormitories, encumbered with no unnecessary furniture, there, affixed to the walls, was the tariff of charges, which I leave to the imagination; and in that house, across the court, seated in rows on the verandah, were the moosmes themselves. We were invited to step over for its was only under male escort that they might enter the main building? My curiosity had, however, been sufficiently gratified and I departed, quite ready to believe in anything that might hear as to the morals of the Japanese. (Cortazzi, 2013, p274.)
The Japanese are perhaps similarly reserved towards boastfulness and sexuality. Japanese humour, unlike that of the British, rarely revolves around innuendo. But in my experience (and research on the latter), both sexuality and boastfulness do appear when the Japanese have been drinking.
For example when attending a party with some Japanese sports persons, I found myself invited to drink at a table of similarly inebriated Japanese. It was late in the day, we had all had a few glasses of sake. One gentleman asked mischievously "So you are English? (omitting the subject and particles) England has Big Ben doesn't it? / You have a big ben don't you?" （イギリス人ですか。*ビッグ・ベン*はありますよね？）. I think my host repeat "big ben", nodding in a conspiratorial way for emphasis. This was a very rare case of innuendo and inviting the opportunity to boast, once again on a sexual topic, which from a Japanese perspective may regarded, with some disdain - but at times enjoyment - to be of similar ilk.
Is there any inherent connection between linguistic self-enhancement and sex? Or on the contrary between visual self-enhancement and the storge appreciation of cuteness? Some theoreticians of language, its origins and merits suggest that it may have something do with peacocking. Derrida argues that linguistic thought, as self addressed love letter, is like onanism. One of the characteristics of linguistic as opposed to visual self-enhancement is that it takes places inside rather than outside the head. While linguistic self love becomes silent, ashamed, and interior (see Vigotsky on self-speech and the way it becomes hidden) visual self-love always presupposes an exterior, viewer. Does the interiority of self-serving interior dialogue, knowing oneself via ones self-narrative, imply or promote a sexual "autoaffection"? I tend to think so.
I think I told my hosts that I had not seen Big Ben. Lame!
Image of Big Ben from Wikimedia
Cortazzi, H. (2013). Victorians in Japan: In and around the Treaty Ports. A&C Black.
Golovnin, V. M., Rīkord, P. Ī., & Shishkov, A. S. (1824). Memoirs of a Captivity in Japan, During the Years 1811, 1812, and 1813: With Observations on the Country and the People. H. Colburn and Company.
This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.