Japanese Is Incomprehensibly Vague–Just Like the People


Japanese is a terrible language.  And I’m not saying that just because I haven’t been able to master the language due to my elementary school slackery.

Even if you set out to intentionally create the most vague, indefinite language, you couldn’t have done better than Japanese language.

It fits the people perfectly.

The Japanese are people who will nod their head up and down while you explain something you want them to do–and won’t do it because they were nodding their head in understanding, not in agreement.

The Japanese are people who’d rather not call when you ask them for a favor because they can’t do it and it would be rude to say no on the phone.

The Japanese are people who say no when something is offered when they actually want it because it would be unbecoming to be so forward.

Communicating with the Japanese is  like playing the TV game show Pyramid, except only the Japanese can play because only they can understand the subtleties.

I always knew these games played by the Japanese, who, incidentally, think the least of people like me who were born in Japan then left.  Native-born but foreign-grown Japanese rank somewhere between Koreans and Chinese on the raking of people the born and bred Japanese like.

It wasn’t until recently, though, when I engaged in two translation exercises that I realized how truly awful the Japanese language is as well.

To be fair, part of the problem is that the Japanese didn’t have a writing system, so they looked overseas into China, took their writing system, and forcefully imposed it into the language they already had.  That’s like installing the terrible Windows on a beautiful Mac, or the beautiful Mac OS on a PC, depending on whether you ask the Chinese or the Japanese.

But it’s clear you can’t just blame Chinese advancement on the confusion that is the Japanese language because the Chinese aren’t the people who created a language where neither a subject nor an object is necessary to have a sentence.

Consider this:  in English, a sentence usually takes the form of “Who Did What to Whom.”  It at least requires the  “Who” and the “Did.”  In Japanese, the Ws get omitted and “Did” essentially suffices to have a complete sentence.

It’s an exaggeration for sure, but the point is that English is a subject-centric language and Japanese is verb-centric.  And this causes a mountain of headache when you’re attempting to translate from Japanese into English.

I experienced this first hand a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to translate a brief e-mail.  It was shockingly difficult.  The Japanese, as written, obviously made sense.  I read and I understood.  When I went to translate into English, though, I got stuck.

The most obvious place to begin a Japanese-to-English translation is to just translate the main words in the sentence.  While English tends to go subject-verb-object, Japanese tends to go subject-object-verb, if there is a subject, so usually, it’s more efficient to start the translation at the beginning, skip to the end, then come back to the middle.  That’s the standard formula, anyways.

Where you get into trouble is when the subject is missing.  In Japanese, this isn’t a problem.  The sentence reads fine and makes perfect sense without it.  In English?  Can’t do it.  You need a subject.  This is where the guessing game begins, because, as much as Japanese sentences makes sense without a subject, someone is doing the action.  That the language often omits the subject just means the identity of the actor is inferred.  And while you may think you know the identity of the actor, you can never be sure because, after all, this is the language of the people who say “no” when they mean “yes.”

This is a concept that Americans simply won’t be able to grasp, because all English sentences, without exception, have a subject.  Even the command, “Do this” has the silent, but certain, subject “You.”  To get a feel for what Japanese is like, Americans should imagine a parade of passive sentences where the passive subject is a vague “it.”

You add the round-about, as indirect as possible expressions the Japanese mistake for politeness, formality and respect and the vagueness inherent in the Japanese language simply becomes incomprehensible.

Just like the people.

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7 Responses to “Japanese Is Incomprehensibly Vague–Just Like the People”


  1. 1 Ezzard April 18, 2009 at 2:42 am

    One might say that your post happens to be accurate. *nods head*

  2. 2 joesas April 18, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Is your nodding Japanese nodding or American nodding?

    And the Japanese way would be even more round-about. “It could possibly be said that your post may not be completely missing the mark.”

  3. 3 Joseph Lee April 30, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Haha, when I was in Japan, I was uncomfortable the whole time because I was certain that I was constantly doing something rude without knowing it.

    • 4 joesas May 1, 2009 at 2:24 pm

      Normally, foreigners have it easy, but you’re an Asian foreigner so I think that places you very close to me in the list of people they like–and no one wants to rank that low in such closed-minded society. I’m sure you were fine. They’re often plenty rude to me, so the feeling’s somewhat mutual.

  4. 5 hoihoi May 3, 2009 at 12:37 am

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/06/roots-of-langua/

    • 6 joesas May 4, 2009 at 6:43 pm

      Whoever you are, thanks for the link. It was intriguing. After reading that, you’d expect the japanese language to be simple. It’s now clear that the japanese manage to be vague inspite of the grammar, not because of it.


  1. 1 To Tokyo, for New Challenges « The World According to Joe Trackback on February 14, 2011 at 12:24 am

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