Monday, April 24, 2006

Banning Keigo

The Los Angeles Times features an interesting obituary for a man named Otis Cary who was a Navy translator during World War II. He served with Donald Keene. Cary supposedly could get POWs to "convert" and assist the occupation:
Cary's deep understanding of the Japanese enabled him to help the POWs overcome their shame at having been captured and their fears of returning home in disgrace. He encouraged them to see themselves as patriots, who had given their all to their country and who now had a duty to support its reconstruction.
After the war, he worked for Doshisha University in Kyoto, helping to start a graduate program in American Studies and running a dormitory called Amherst House:
For 32 years, he was director of Amherst House, a dormitory where he encouraged Japanese students to dispense with customs that he considered obstacles to modernization.

One of his targets was honorific speech, which mandates different degrees of politeness depending on a person's social rank. To put students on an equal footing, Cary just gave them nicknames.
I wonder what sort of psychological effect it would have for Japanese to have to use plain speech with everyone in their dorm. Would they really start to see themselves as equals?

4 comments:

Matt said...

It does seem doubtful, doesn't it? A bit of a Sapir-Whorfy approach... OTOH, if people were choosing the Americanized dorm for themselves (rather than being assigned to it), it wouldn't be that surprising if everyone who went there was all enthusiastic about the project and not a bit uncomfortable about having to use nicknames.

amida said...

Maybe Sapir-Whorfy, or maybe Skinnerian--every time you go to use a polite form, you force yourself to examine the issue. Going the other direction, I find myself thinking "Am I boku or watashi now? Can I drop the -masu?" when speaking Japanese.

Azuma said...

A little late on the boat, but I think there's something there in his idea. To my suprise I recently got annoyed at myself for getting annoyed by a fellow (but younger) adjunct teacher suddenly dropping keigo with me. I usually relish the sudden melting of tension when the honorific is dropped, and I enjoy plain speech about a thousand times as much as keigo.

When this teacher, who all last year used keigo to me ( and basically everyone ), was assigned to sit next to me for this new school year, thinking, "Well, we're going to be neighbors for a while, might as well be more friendly," I took a number of opportunities to speak to him, hoping to break the honorific barrier. But then one day he did start using plain speech--and only to me. Unexpectedly, I felt somehow insulted, not successful. Since then when I think of it I've been struggling between feeling vaguely abrased or silly for feeling so. Very strange.

Long story short, though I think that even within plain speech there are levels of respect, so the idea would probably fail, I think there's a point in this: the keigo between you and one other doesn't exist in a vacuum. Thus, in spite of your personal choices of usage, you can't help but feel the effects and relative effects of the usage of others beyond your control. Thus only by elminating the choice period for everybody in a community could you safely tiwst the system to promote a sense of equality. Otherwise, as I realized recently, you're never quite sure with some people whether you've opened up, or just unilaterally disarmed.

Too long.

amida said...

azuma: That's ok, we don't run at internet speeds around here anyway.

That's an interesting point that maybe many of us "gaijin" miss about keigo--that it carries more meaning than just "respect."

I wish I could say that while I was in Japan my Japanese was to the point where I could anticipate and relish such things.