Japanese Is Backwards

In the years I've spent practicing in Japan, I've always assumed that what I am learning here is applicable in the West, because, as they say, the Way has no North or Southern ancestors. But recently I've been wondering, what if the cultures are just too different? Even if dharma is ultimately the same everywhere, what if I'm dealing with two, mutually exclusive cultures and spiritual practices?

I'm taking a class on translation right now, and while studying for a test this week, I was struck by the profound difference between the two languages. In Japanese the verb is at the end, and unlike English, the modifier precedes what is being modified (so adjectives and things are at the beginning of the sentence usually). Japanese is backwards. Or, English is backwards, depending on your point of view.

Take for example the opening of the famous novel Snow Country:


A literal translation might read: National border's long tunnel (object marker) come out (conjunction that indicates consequence) snow country (mystery particle... someone teach me about で) was.

It takes some brain acrobatics to unscramble the Japanese to get a translation that people can actually understand: "The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country." Ahhh. Much better. 

But looking at the original Japanese and the English translation, it's clear to me- as it is to anyone who can read the Japanese- that this English translation is just one option. There is actually no one, correct translation. I suppose you could say this about any language and any translation; the translator always has some poetic license. But in romance languages, the difference is less pronounced, because the syntax is so similar. For example, the first line of one my favorite poems by Pablo Neruda is:

Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente.

In Spanish, the order of words is basically the same as in English: "I like it when you are quiet, because it is like you are not there." Subject (I). Verb (like). Object (when you are quiet). "Callas" could be "silent," "quiet," or "still," and the phrase "estás como ausente" could be translated as "it is as though you are absent," depending on your poetic inclination, but basically, the sentence in English is going to follow pretty closely to what Pablo Neruda meant. 

Not so in Japanese, unfortunately, which is basically backwards compared to English. I started off talking about sentence structure, but I think this is true about Japanese and Western culture and Buddhism as well. Because language shapes and creates meaning, I think it's possible that these two cultures put forth two opposing ways of understanding what things are, what they mean, and the best way to relate to the world around us, in no small part because of the language that structures them.

When I compare my experience training in Japanese Zen monasteries to the norm in Western practice settings, I can't help but think that the two cultures are doing the opposite things, or at least, the same things in the opposite order. The following are just a few examples, and I acknowledge they are kind of (okay, very) simplistic and over-generalizing:
  • In the West, people practice for several years before ordaining.
  • In Japan, people ordain and then train for several years before usually moving into a temple where they will live and practice the rest of their lives. 
  • In the West, transmission is viewed as the marker of a certain level of maturity or understanding.
  • In Japan, transmission is usually viewed as the beginning of a lifelong process. Sometimes people will get transmission before they even start training. Receiving transmission does not necessarily mean someone is qualified to teach. 
  • In the West, the emphasis is on understanding and/or personal, subjective experience.
  • In Japan, the emphasis is on enacting form with your body. You do things with your body first, and then later you might understand something.
  • My experience practicing in the West is that there is some concept of personal growth, development, or self-actualization which is elevated and frequently talked about.
  • My experience in Japan is that "self-actualization" (in the monastic setting at least) cannot be understood outside of one's relationship to the group. One's maturity and level of understanding is measured by how one works with and participates in group life. 
  • A Western response to "To study the self is to forget the self" might mean: "In order to forget the self, we have to first spend a lot of time reflecting on how our limited, relative self manifests in the world, and figure out ways to deal with and manifest our relative self better."
  • The Japanese response to 'To study the self is to forget the self" usually manifests as ignoring/ overriding the limited, relative self in hopes that it will kind of... go away eventually. 
Okay, I'm done making sweeping, vaguely offensive generalizations now. Not all Japanese teachers give transmission to beginners, and some do withhold ordination. There is always an exception to any stereotype or generalization. But culture is real, and practicing in both Western and Japanese contexts, it's hard for me to ignore the huge cultural differences. For me, the difference in the two ways of practicing has to do with two contrasting cultural views of the self, and two ways of understanding the self's highest potential. From my viewpoint at least, Japanese and Western culture do not really share a common understanding of what the self is or what to do with it.

So what is there to do? Should I think that a) Japanese (Buddhism and language) is backwards, and it's my job to turn it right-side in, to restore Buddhism to its original nature? Or b) Western culture is backwards, and really Japan's got it right? Or c) there should be some kind of cross-cultural communication, a middle way, some sort of meeting point between cultures, a third language? Or d) recognize that any expression of the dharma, any transmission between cultures or between master and disciple is inevitably act of translation?

And does any of this matter? If dharma is everywhere, if waking up takes place in the present moment wherever we are, maybe it's not even necessary to study ancient traditions. Maybe we don't need to try and translate Asian Buddhism into a Western context at all. Maybe we can just create something new and be done with it.

It's tempting to think this, but actually, I am still an optimist about intercultural exchange. I do think these two cultures can enrich each other; Japanese culture has much to teach us about humility, respect, and embodied understanding, and I also believe that Western culture's emphasis on civil rights, self-reflection, innovation, and creativity is much needed in traditional Japanese training environments.

The literary theorist Judith Butler wrote, "Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something." When I encounter a foreign culture, language, or even another human being and try to understand them on their own terms, this knocks me out of my normal, conditioned ways of seeing the world.

And since this stepping outside of myself and seeing the bigger picture is so crucial to Buddhist practice, I do think it's worth the time to try and study a methodology in which everything is "inside out." Not necessarily so that I can turn it right-side in again, not so that I can make a perfect, literal translation, but at least so that I can know my own language-- my own way of organizing and creating meaning-- is not the only one in the world. It's useful to know that in some part of the world, "National border's long tunnel come out snow country was" makes perfect sense.


  1. check out David Loy. he lived, meditated, studied and taught in Japan for 15 years and lives in Boulder,CO now. Zen trained, philosophy professor and popular, right now, in the Western engaged Buddhism scene. And I wouldn't hesitate to email him if you wanted.

  2. Of the examples you list, I have to say I find some of the japanese approaches more sensible than the western ones. Guess I'm not from California ;-)

  3. That de up there is part of a word, dearu, the ancestor to da. Etymologically it's "to be at"; but in meaning, the word dearu is just a literary equivalent of da or desu. So de-atta is the same as datta.


    [[state border]'s long tunnel] (from) leave (when,) snow country was.

    When (the train) left the long tunnel at the state border, it was the snow country.

    This particular example is actually famous in translation studies, as it is difficult to retain the same flavor in English without making it sound unnatural. The progression and point of view of the Japanese version makes you feel like you're inside the train: first the state border and the long tunnel, then the coming out, and then, hey!, it's the snow country!

  4. I'm not a language expert, but English syntax seems more similar to Chinese than to Japanese, at least to me. Dogen seems to play with the differences between Chinese and Japanese in a way that almost resembles midrash. Maybe a more indirect approach. Poetic and confounding.

  5. The author David Hinton translates ancient Chinese poems into English. I was reading his book "Hunger Mountain" when I came upon this quote concerning translating. "In my translations, I feel that the ancients speak in my voice, and I in theirs. So translation itself always opens for me that space between identities."

    It appears the middle way is the path.

  6. David Hinton translates ancient Chinese poems into English. I was reading his book "Hunger Mountain" when I came across this passage concerning translations."In my translations, I feel that the ancients speak in my voice, and I in theirs. So translation itself always opens for me that space between identities."

    The middle way seems to be the path.

  7. I'd be curious to know if, during retreats, lay Japanese participants ask the same kinds of questions as American lay participants.

    1. No one asks questions because sesshin is silent and also... it's Japan.

  8. I'm neither Japanese nor American and just out of sesshin.

    I stronly suspect that many of us were sitting silently with these questions.


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