Saturday, June 4, 2011

o, be some other name!

I'm going to dwell on the way Japanese people-especially the media and the government- name things. I sometimes suspect that many Japanese unconsciously believe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines thought and perception, or even that those who have faith in the hypothesis are called authentic Japanese. I'm joking. But, I'm a bit tired of that any debate here in the media only revolts around interpretation of an event, and appears not to reach the event itself.

Of course, in every country, the authorities try to let the people follow a certain version of interpretation, and also to limit what the people can see. And those who oppose to the authorities bring up another story. Especially in those countries including Japan, which claim to be a 'free country,' a battle revolving around interpretation of an event always takes place.

My complaint is that explaining what's going on in Japan to English speakers by translating what the Japanese media say often entails adding rather silly footnotes.

For example, I have to add that the term 'meltdown' became a kind of a Japanese word during the 1970s or 1980s and ordinary Japanese people, who are not scientists, associate this word with a catastrophic event. Last month the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) finally started to use this word. Until then, it had used roshin-yoyu (炉心溶融), which refers to that the core of the reactor has melted. What's the difference??? In March, when the government and TEPCO announced that the roshin-yoyu occurred, the world media already used 'meltdown,' or, some of them used 'partial meltdown,' or 'partially melted,' trying to be precise. The thing is, in March TEPCO estimated that the core partially melted, and then now it estimates that the core already entirely melted immediately after the coolant system was broken. (Note that no one can see inside the reactor anyway.) I certainly criticize that the government and TEPCO always downplay the accident and its consequences. But I also feel that it is rather silly that the Japanese media too much focus on the word.

When the units at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant exploded, TEPCO and the government did not call those explosions explosions. An explosion can be translated into Japanese as bakuhatsu (爆発), but they called those bakuhatsu-teki-jisho (爆発的事象), and I pondered how to translate this into English. A jisho(事象) can refer to an event or a phenomenon -in short, they said that "something like an explosion occurred." But, we saw this anyway.

By any other name would smell as an explosion. An explosion can be either serious or not. There are useful explosions as well as harmful ones. Watching the images of those explosions of the reactors and hearing 'something like an explosion' at the same time, I felt that it was rather surrealistic.

The 2008 financial crisis was called 'Lehman shock' by the Japanese media. And I disliked this name because that Lehman Brothers went belly up was just a part of the symptoms of the financial institutions. That time many ordinary Japanese people who had no idea what Lehman Brothers was suddenly started talking about this investment bank, and that was rather strange for me. Even calling it a financial crisis was not really right, because it focused only on the financial sector. It should have been called an economic crisis, regarding that many people lost jobs, pensions, and home. In fact the governments only tried to save the financial sector, but not the people. I once pointed out at a translation class that majority of the world media didn't call it 'Lehman shock,' but the instructor didn't try to discuss this. It was just a name.

Slavoj Žižek has recently talked about a World War II anecdote-Germans sent a message to Austrians: "The situation is serious, but not catastrophic." Austrians responded: "The situation is catastrophic, but not serious." Being in Japan, these days I hear a lot of "the situation is catastrophic, but not serious."

Well, just random notes...

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