GISPRI No. 10, 1994

Message from the Top

Dictionaries and International Misunderstanding

Dictionaries certainly 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.

Basically dictionaries 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 to B.

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.