Japanese "Language"

In anime, when a character makes an impassioned speech on a subject, other characters are often highly impressed and respond with comments like “Well said!” This occurrence has always intrigued me, as speech-making is not highly valued in American culture. I think the difference is that here, we are automatically suspicious of any claim a person makes. It doesn’t matter if it’s put well; if the content is off, we won’t approve. Because of this, the speeches of persons such as politicians aren’t seen as art forms, but as manipulations. Speechwriters have to focus not on writing clever turns of phrase, but instead conversational speech that sounds natural and unpracticed. This is still a form of crafting…but instead of crafting something unique, it’s crafting something that any average Joe on the street might say. Whether or not the loss of speech as an art in American culture is a good or bad thing, I can’t really say.

I am interested, though, in how these “well said” and “well put” Japanese speeches and writings get translated into English. Often they come out sounding ridiculously philosophical and vague. Take, for example, this mission statement from Ikenobo, the most prestigious of Japan’s ikebana, or traditional flower arranging, instructional institutions:

Ikenobo’s history of over 500 years is a history of searching for essential truth in the life of flowers and plants. Ikebana’s essence and wellspring exists in the human heart before an arrangement appears as form. If one has a beautiful heart, the form of ikebana will also be beautiful. Ikebana enriches both the spirit and our daily lives, and in so doing it brings deep meaning to the joy of being alive. This essential equation is unchanging, regardless of place or historic period. Through the study of ikebana our hearts become benevolent, and we are filled with admiration for nature and the love of humankind. Thus, the creation of a beautiful cultural tradition brings bright promise for the future, a promise especially important for us today.

In this block of text, there is a focus on the divine, the emotive, the beauty of the inner self and the connection among human beings and the natural world. This sort of philosophizing sounds just like what you’d expect concerning an art form–something that can easily be dismissed as “dreaming” or “idealism”. But this sort of truth-seeking and passion can be found in writings on widely-varied topics. While most larger companies apparently have hired English copy editors who tailor the spirit of the company’s mission statement into language that is meaningful and “correct” in terms of the expectations of native English speakers, many companies seem to simply be literally translating their mission statements, resulting in pieces like the above, or this blurb from Matsushita Electric Works:

We strive for the creation of new values, by pursuing user-friendliness and accomplishing high-tech mindset, driven by challenging spirits and full speed of actions.

This particular quote appears to be a merging of literally translated Japanese with English buzzwords like “user-friendliness” and “high-tech”. “Challenging spirits” is questionable to the English speaker. It’s easy for us to simply decide that it must mean they are enthusiastic about their work, but I feel that the choice of the word “spirits” speaks to some underlying, emotively-connected-inner-selves meaning for the Japanese. As I said, this appears to be a literal translation. If the closest English phrase is “challenging spirits” and not, say, “enthusiasm” or “high work ethic”, then I think there is more to it, something cultural.

I wanted to use the original Japanese page as reference and see what word they were actually using that became “challenging spirits”, but the Japanese page doesn’t seem to have a mission statement. Perhaps the idea of a mission statement is a Western one, but what the companies feel should go into a mission statement is tempered by culture.

Another good example of this apparent “buzzword + literal translation => mission statement” phenomenon is this piece from the JT Group‘s mission page:

In JT Brand-ing Declaration which is our new global-wide mission issued in April 2002, we promise to deliver ” irreplaceable delight” which means pleasurable surprises, something surpass your expectations, joy to all our stakeholders and to be an” irreplaceable company “.

JT Group specializes in tobacco, pharmaceuticals, and foods.

1 comment

  1. Original comments from BlogKomm

    The only thing sublime about Mission Statements is their sublime silliness, but the Japanese variety is infinitely more pleasing than the Western “buzzword” variety.

    Every company in the West is “market-driven” and “customer-oriented”.. ;-P

    Here’s a mission statement I’d like to see — just for a change:

    “It is the goal of Enron to rapaciously plunder the pockets of unsuspecting small shareholders, corrupt the stock market, to manipulate the public trust and energy policy. Our mission is to never cease to find new means of deception and outright theft. Above all we value honesty. We honestly are crooks.

    Enron: We care about taking your money and bringing it to the Cayman Islands bank account.”

    A.R. Yngve[@][H], 04.03.2004, 6:49 am

    LOL. Nice.
    Heather[@][H], 04.03.2004, 7:28 am

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