Dictionaries and International
contribute to the promotion of mutual understanding between different
cultures by enabling transfers from one linguistic system to another.
At the same time, however, I think that not enough attention has been
given to the frequent role of dictionaries as a structural cause of
cultural friction and international misunderstanding.
consist of taking words and phrases with about the same meaning from
two different linguistic systems and lumping them together in a one-on-one
list. But the very essence of language means that the words and phrases
of two different linguistic systems are not simple items that can be
interchanged on a completely level field. To use a mathematical expression,
the substitution of languages at most gives no more than an approximate
value. In other words, even if a dictionary states that this word in
Japanese has the same meaning as this word in English, strictly speaking
it is actually saying not that A equals B but only that A is similar
If dictionaries give
only approximations, it follows that words and phrases also always have
some different meanings and symbolism. I believe that, at the present
stage, a correct understanding of these differences is becoming decisively
important for ensuring mutual understanding among diverse cultures.
That is to say, it is becoming extremely important to explain the differences
in meaning between the words of different linguistic systems that dictionaries
say are identical. Unfortunately dictionaries in general are so engrossed
in giving one-on-one lists and showing that words have the same meaning,
they almost never explain the essential differences in meaning that
the words have in their own linguistic cultures. This is, I think, a
structural fault of current dictionaries.
In his book titled
Toyo no kokoro (The Minds of East and West), the Buddhist philosopher
Daisetsu Suzuki referred to the difficulty of achieving mutual understanding
between different cultures, mentioning in particular the differences
in meaning between "freedom" and "liberty" in English
and jiyu in Japanese, which is usually given as their equivalent. The
historical and cultural background of the word jiyu, which comes from
the Buddhist term jiyujizai, sometimes gives it the meaning of salvation
or liberation from lust and desire. Suzuki drew attention to the fact
that this can be the exact opposite of the Western meaning of "freedom"
as the fulfillment of desire.
This acceptance of
the English word "freedom" and the Japanese jiyu as having
completely the same meaning, without understanding the historical and
semantic differences between the two words, gives rise to an even more
important misunderstanding. The British, who believe wrongly that "freedom"
and jiyu are completely identical, criticize the Japanese for not having
any concept of freedom, for adopting voluntary restraints without asserting
themselves, for their spirit of self-control, and for emphasizing only
the importance of cooperation. And the Japanese criticize the British
and other Westerners for their frequent confusion of freedom with self-indulgence
and for their excessive worship of desire.
Unless we are aware
of the differences in the concepts of "god" under monotheism
and under polytheism or natural faiths, it is rather pointless for us
to make criticisms of one another's religions as exclusive, intolerant,
unprincipled, or vague. I would probably fill a whole book discussing
how the misunderstanding that the Japanese word kami equals "god"
has complicated, for example, the controversy about the separation of
religion and state.
Whenever I invite
foreign acquaintances to come firefly viewing (Hotaru-gari, which literally
means firefly hunting) at Chinzan-so Garden, I always make a point of
explaining to them beforehand the different symbolic meanings of the
hotaru and the firefly. For example, when the Japanese bid farewell
to one another, they sing a song called "Hotaru no hikari "
(The Glow of the Firefly). This tune comes from the Scottish folk ballad
"Auld Lang Syne," but the latter does not mention fireflies
at all. The idiom keisetsu jidai (literally, the firefly and snow age)
is completely meaningless when translated directly into English; it
actually refers to studying by the glow of the fireflies and the snow&in
other words, diligence. Westerners also fail to grasp the elegance of
the Firefly Chapter in eleventh-century classic The Tale of Genji. The
reason is that, in some cultures, fireflies do not necessarily have
a positive symbolic meaning. In one case, for example, a large firefly
crawling by the riverside evokes the image of a "messenger from
hell." If a foreigner with this rather sinister image were invited
to go firefly viewing, cultural friction would be the inevitable result.
For a long time I
have had the idea of compiling, with the cooperation of acquaintances
in several different fields, a special dictionary focusing on the differences
between words of different linguistic systems that ordinary dictionaries
say have just about the same meaning. I still have not realized my dream
of putting together such a dictionary. But if GISPRI would take up the
project, I would certainly like to see the idea brought to fruition.