Being a kanji party organizer: The constructivist nature of honorifics

Yesterday in a writing class I pointed out that the correct pronoun to refer to a company is “it,” not “they,” as many of my students had written in their homework. This is true, and when I’m writing I adhere to it, but the fact is that when speaking I often say “they” without thinking. Similarly, and more significantly, I flip-flop when I’m talking about culture, more than I’d like. One of the basic disparities in the field of intercultural communication is related to the notion of cultural systems itself. It’s common to consider culture from a positivist perspective. From this standpoint, culture is “out there,” waiting to be observed, classified and reified. It’s hard to get away from this way of thinking, and without it, it becomes difficult to say anything about a given culture, or indeed, about culture in general.

However, some specialists in intercultural communication like Milton Bennett have continued to put forward a different, constructivist way of contemplating culture, in which culture is continually constructed: a process, not a thing. Anyone who has felt that a cultural description sounded a bit too pat has likely experienced this clash between positivist and constructivist views.

Japanese honorifics are a case in point. To ask their rules is to take the positivist view that the rules have an independent existence and, having been analyzed by linguists, are now ready for students of the language to dutifully gnaw on and eventually digest. And, in fact, guidelines on when and how to use honorifics work pretty well — up to a point, and then it all gets interestingly muddled, and rules are revealed to be fuzzier than expected.

A few years ago, sociolinguist Jun Ohashi wrote a refreshingly personal analysis of a specific experience of honorific usage. Ohashi played soccer together with a bunch of friends in junior high and then they reconnected about 20 years later, meeting up every now and then, and communicating via email in their interaction leading up to these events. As boys, the friends had spoken plain Japanese with each other, and they continued this casual way of communicating. Then one of the former soccer buddies, Morita, “emerged” as a kanji.

In many companies, one of the younger employees is assigned this party-organizer role, but in the case of Ohashi’s group, Morita naturally came to the fore as the person disposed to make arrangements, and this willingness gradually solidified into a bona-fide kanji role. Ohashi tracks Morita’s emails and those of others written in response over four years, with sub-sections like “Organizing a party in a ‘non-kanji” style”; “Organizing a party in a ‘non-kanji” style — Take 2”; “Morita’s changing styles — early signs of kanji role-identity”; and “Morita’s debut as lifetime kanji.”

As both a non-kanji and as a proper kanji, Morita organized the parties. What changed is how Morita presented himself in the emails. In the first email, Morita addresses his friends breezily: “Uissu! O-hisa!” (Yo! Long time no see!) and the rest of the message follows suit. In the next email, however, Morita continues to write in a generally frank and casual style, but for the first time uses the more formal “minasan” (fellow members) and “sate” (by the way).

The next year, Morita makes a notable change in his style, beginning his email with “Minasama otsukare-sama desu. Gobusata desu ga ikaga osugoshi desho ka,” which basically is saying “Hello, it’s been a long time, how have you been?” but uses the polite forms “sama,” “o” (twice), “desu,” “go,” “ikaga” and “desho.” The rest of the email goes on the same way. Morita is performing the same task that he has all along, but he presents it linguistically in a very different way. Two others in the group pick up on it, referring to him as the kanji for the first time. Finally, at the end of an email in the fourth year, Morita closes by identifying himself as the lifetime kanji, fulfilling this role not just by taking responsibility for organizing their get-together as usual, but by communicating in honorifics.

Ohashi’s research question is, basically, what the heck is going on with Morita? He’s rather put out by this transformation, feeling that Morita sounds cold and distant. Ohashi even sends Morita an email telling him to lay off the honorifics and suggesting he use “Akatsuka Fujio” style instead, referring to a manga artist who concocted silly endings to utterances in his works. In his reply, Morita humorously but ambiguously begins in a polite style by acknowledging Ohashi’s request and promising to be careful and then switches to the Akatsuka Fujio style, saying, “Oh, I mean I will be careful.”

In the end, Ohashi probes Morita in person about his honorific style. Morita claims that it slipped in without his noticing, allowing Ohashi to recognize that his usage was functional rather than relational. Ohashi essentially concludes that sometimes an honorific style is just an honorific style. Because culture is not “out there” but rather right here, among us in real time, we’re all negotiating identities and relationships, not always even fully aware ourselves of the culture we are constructing.