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.”

Why So Many Tweets Are Negative

Social media is now impossible to ignore as a venue where language is used and processed. As guardians of the language, how do dictionary editors feel about this?

In his Twitter posts, Iima acts as a spokesman for Japanese and for dictionaries. He finds that it is difficult to have a discussion given the volume of new posts constantly pouring through the service. He also feels that unless posts use the right hashtags and words to match the platform and make an impact, they often end up unread. This means he is constantly worrying about how best to express himself.

There are many posts about language on social media, but the ones pointing out errors get shared the most.

“Critical posts are more likely to go viral. For instance, someone might stir up gossip by posting that that some celebrity used a certain phrase on a television program instead of a different, more correct phrase. ‘Isn’t it awful that someone who speaks Japanese so poorly appears on TV?’ This kind of tweet is likely to be heavily retweeted. If I wanted to get my posts more widely read, I could easily come up with similar nit-picking examples. But I don’t do that.”

The desire to go viral fuels the spread of critical tweets. Iima thinks that the nature of the Japanese language plays a part in this tendency. He says there is a much greater variety of words with negative than positive meanings, so it seems easier to pick one of these. Upbeat adjectives like ureshii (happy) and tanoshii (exciting) are outweighed by such gloomy options as tsurai (tough), kanashii (sad), sabishii (lonely), setsunai (heartbreaking), wabishii (dreary), kurushii (painful), kuyashii (mortifying), hazukashii (embarrassing), and many more. “I also think that the reason that there are more negative adjectives is that people are in the habit of speaking up when they are dissatisfied and feel a need to do so.”

Certainly, people often simply “like” posts they agree with or approve of, only writing comments when they want to criticize or disagree.

Keep Trying to Explain

Negative and critical tweets often lead to flaming attacks when shared widely. In 2017, the Agency for Cultural Affairs conducted a survey on the Japanese language. Among the more than 2,000 responses from Japanese people over 16 years old, 2.8% came from people stating that they often or sometimes join in mob flaming attacks.

“I have a feeling that up to around 10 percent of replies to popular tweets are thoroughly mistaken opinions or abuse. You shouldn’t engage with them—in fact, taking them seriously is actually bad for your health. When communicating on the Internet, you have to be able to ignore things.”

He adds, “Even so, it is possible to get on with some poor listeners. While bearing in mind that they’ll never fully understand what you say, I think it’s important to make the effort and keep trying to explain.”

Iima Hiroaki’s Tweets

People who don’t get what you’re saying (1): Not understanding a word.

Ex. 1
A: I do bouldering.
B: What’s that?

Ex. 2
A: Examine the problem in terms of a time series.
B: What’s a “time series”?

Note: There’s a big difference in vocabulary levels between the two participants. Speakers should use words that their listeners understand, but it can be hard work when there’s a major vocabulary gap.

People who don’t get what you’re saying (2): Incorrect understanding of a word.

A: My parents often call me.
B: It must be a hassle to deal with that every day.
A: I didn’t say it was every day.
B: Oh, well since you said “often,” I thought that’s what you meant.

Note: People tend to adhere to personal interpretations of a word’s meaning. In this pattern, B gains an understanding that differs from the original intent.

People who don’t get what you’re saying (2b): Not understanding contextual meaning.

A: You know, I’ve been thinking more and more that Santa Claus has got to be real.
B: What are you talking about? It’s just a story, and . . .

Note: People can fail to understand how a term is used in context. B doesn’t understand what A means by “Santa Claus.”

People who don’t get what you’re saying (3): Not understanding the expressed intent.

Ex. 1
A: Let’s have lunch sometime.
B: Sure. Next week or the week after?

Ex. 2
A: I brought you some perfume as a souvenir.
B: Are you saying I stink?

Note: B finds it difficult to grasp the speaker’s intention. If someone often makes this kind of misunderstanding, it might be wise to keep one’s distance.

Iima Hiroaki

Japanese dictionary editor and member of the editorial committee for the Sanseidō Japanese Dictionary. After earning a degree in literature from Waseda University, went on to complete his doctorate at the same institution. Works include Jisho o amu (Editing Dictionaries), Jisho hensansha no Nihongo o tsukaikonasu gijutsu (Japanese Language Techniques of Dictionary Editors), Shōsetsu no kotobajiri o toraete mita (Finding Slips of the Tongue in Fiction), and Kokugo jiten no yukue (The Future of Japanese Dictionaries).

(Originally published in Japanese on January 31, 2018. Text by Okajima Kaori. Banner photo © Graphs/Pixta.)

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