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Features Communication and the Japanese Language
Failure to Communicate in the Social Media Age

Miscommunication has always been a problem, but it seems to be magnified in the online world. Dictionary editor Iima Hiroaki, who often posts about the Japanese language on Twitter, gives his perspective on poor listeners and others who regularly get the wrong end of the stick.

Online communication, even between native speakers, sometimes feels like talking to someone from another planet. Perhaps you make a comment and a respondent complains about not understanding a word you use, rather than simply looking it up. Others might completely ignore the context when making their replies.

Veteran Japanese dictionary editor Iima Hiroaki discussed the issue of miscommunication—both online and offline—in a series of 2017 tweets. In one category, he offered ボルダリング (borudaringu, “bouldering”) and 時系列 (jikeiretsu, “time series”) as examples of words native Japanese speakers might not know. He identified a second category of cases where the respondent does not really know the meaning of a word, as illustrated in the following conversation, where one participant fails to accurately understand the meaning that the other speaker expresses with the term tabi tabi, meaning something like “repetitively” or “frequently.”

A: My parents often (tabi tabi) call me.
B: It must be a hassle to deal with that every day.
A: I didn’t say it was every day.

In a third category Iima included conversations where the respondent cannot grasp the speaker’s intent. In the exchange below, B misunderstands A’s polite social formula as an invitation to make a firm plan.

A: Let’s have lunch sometime.
B: Sure. Next week or the week after?

People Who Don’t Understand

As a long-standing editor of the popular Japanese dictionary Sanseidō kokugo jiten, Iima has been influential in shaping attitudes to language. This sometimes leads him into awkward situations. The common phrase 的を射る (mato o iru) means “to hit the target” or “to be pertinent.” In a 1980s edition of the Sanseidō dictionary, Iima wrote that the slight variation 的を得る (mato o eru) was incorrect usage. However, on later reconsideration he decided that there was no reason to disallow it and edited the 2014 version of the dictionary accordingly.

Iima often discusses how he reaches his decisions on Twitter, retracting previous positions and apologizing. However, a number of readers have persistently opposed his new acceptance of expressions they continue to view as fundamentally incorrect.

“It’s partly the problem that I can’t convey my meaning in the brief passages allowed by Twitter, but I really wish people would look at the whole thread rather than reading tweets out of context,” he says. “Many readers seem to end up talking right past my points.”

Iima also faces mystifying levels of confusion at his university lectures when teaching about usage of 全然 (zenzen; “completely” or “not at all”). Many Japanese people learn that the word should be used only in negative phrases, such as zenzen wakaranai (I have no idea whatsoever) or zenzen omoshiroku nai (not at all interesting). There is a tendency to look down on positive forms like zenzen ōkē (totally OK) as incorrect usage. I myself feel a little guilty when using them.

However, there is no reason for me to feel that way, as Iima explains. “This way of thinking only became common in the postwar period. In the Meiji era [1868–1912], zenzen wasn’t only used in negative contexts. In fiction by Natsume Sōseki and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, phrases like zenzen warui desu [really bad] and zenzen shihai sareteiru [completely controlled] were used quite naturally. Japanese linguists now believe that there are no grounds for the idea that zenzen originally belonged solely to negative statements. The accepted view is that this became the mainstream usage in the postwar era.”

Even when Iima explains this in his lectures, though, a considerable number of students write in their feedback that his talk has taught them that “zenzen is to be used in negative contexts.” He wonders, “How can they have possibly come to that conclusion? I’ve been baffled on so many occasions.”

  • [2018.03.05]
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