Bridge-building Books

by Doreen Simmons

“Building bridges between cultures” has been a safe subject for talks and textbooks for many years; how far is an outsider justified in interfering with work in progress? Our pensive old tabby weighs the pros and cons.

Dear Aunt Eva,

I’ve been asked by a publisher friend to give an opinion on a supplementary textbook, the sort that teachers like to use as a basis for discussion in adult classes or women’s colleges, and I’m not sure how to proceed. It is a very interesting book which has been put together by an international women’s group somewhere in the Kansai, I believe, and it is clearly based on real experiences of their own.  Even better, it has been written in English as a unified whole by one Japanese woman and then checked by a native speaker. An especially good point is the introduction of many different nationalities and cultures, since so many books of this kind make comparisons only between Japanese and a generalized American culture.

But I have two problems, and both are sort of ethical. One is that the book is full of the ‘ware-ware nihonjin’ mentality— “we Japanese…,” even when the author is trying to help Japanese explain themselves to foreigners. How far do I go, Aunt Eva, in making this criticism, when it is part of the fabric of the book?  The other problem is that the native speaker checker has been too pussy-footed. He isn’t incompetent, but there are places where he should have wielded the knife rather than the feather duster. For instance, there is a problem of register:  quite a lot of rather bureaucratic language (suitable for government publications!) mixed in with colloquial expressions like ‘kick off the conversation’ and ‘be on the ball.’  Worse, many of the things the foreigners say are quoted in slightly strange English. I wonder if they were actually speaking in intermediate-level Japanese which has been translated too literally. To give just one example: “Thanks to the teacher’s effective guidance, they can learn keenly.” Pure Japanese! Was it left like that because the checker, in what may have been his first professional job, was a little over-awed?

In this situation, Aunt Eva, what would you do? My opinion will be the last stage before printing and marketing.

Gloria Mundy

Aunt Eva answers:

Dear Gloria,

How to help the well-meaning person who hasn’t quite got there yet but has already produced a book—ah, that’s a thorny problem. And here you have two of them: a potentially good author who hasn’t quite broken out of the box, and a potentially good checker who isn’t sure how far he should go. Ah well, Aunt Eva, in an unusually surgical mood, finds herself sheathing her claws and reaching for the scalpel.

If the book is otherwise viable, tell the publisher what you have just told me, but   expand it with specific illustrations, giving page and line, of exactly what you mean.  In Aunt Eva’s experience of these small publishing companies, it’s never too late to rewrite,  so long as you are not changing the lineage. That is, if you can make a neat change that takes up the same amount of space, it can generally be accommodated even at quite a late stage.  If it can’t, how about suggesting some extra advice in the teacher’s notes that will surely be provided to accompany the textbook? This refers, of course, to the unnatural utterances that should have been changed by the checker at an earlier stage. Don’t do the whole rewrite yourself; two or three examples will suffice, if the checker is to learn from the experience. Show him how to do it, then leave the rest to him. Either he gets the message or he goes back to teaching English full-time.

Aunt Eva herself has had quite a bit of experience with the same kind of book, and can sympathize with all concerned, especially if it is a first attempt. Books that attempt to build bridges between Japan and a number of other cultures are to be encouraged, and if positive feedback can be passed back to those who have worked hard to produce it, so much the better. They will be encouraged to produce a much improved Book 2.
One problem with this kind of collection of anecdotes is that it is often not made clear that each example is not a generalization about all non-Japanese, and that not all foreigners have the attitude mentioned. British people, for example, often find that they have an attitude closer to that described as ‘Japanese’ than the one generically described as ‘Western.’  Books of this kind are sometimes produced by collecting individual stories, but a much better way of going about it is to have cross-cultural discussion groups in which all the nationalities present offer opinions and explanations of some failure to communicate. Then the leader summarizes and ties the whole discussion together and writes another chapter of the book.

The ‘ware-ware nihonjin’—we Japanese—mentality can be a real drawback, if it permeates the book.  Foreign instructors using a textbook like this are likely to be annoyed by it and treat it in a negative way, while Japanese teachers will be confirmed in their own set habits of thought.

One textbook I recall was permeated by the assumption that Japanese people’s words and actions are based on consideration for the other person’s feelings. Most foreigners with a meaningful experience of Japan will criticize this as false. The reason for Japanese agreeing with the foreigner, or flattering him, for example in saying “Nihongo o-jō-zu desu, ne” (?????????) to a person who has just spoken two words, badly, or in appearing to accept when they are really refusing, or appearing to invite when they are not actually expecting a visit, is based on the desire to appear kind and helpful and avoid confrontation. That is, the Japanese are actually showing consideration for themselves and their own appearance, and not for the foreigner. If you want to refuse something and say ‘No,’ the foreigner may try to persuade you; whereas if you say ‘Yes,’ you will be far away when the foreigner discovers that you were lying.

Aunt Eva was tickled pink by a letter that appeared some years ago in one of the English-language newspapers describing the situation of a lone missionary who settled in a village, made friends with everybody, and when he judged the time was ripe, invited all the neighbors to a meeting. They all accepted with smiles and promised to come; but in the event, nobody turned up, and the missionary was deeply disappointed after being elated by all the acceptances.

What was significant was the alleged reason: The writer of the letter explained that all the neighbors had promised to attend because of their consideration for the missionary’s feelings, and that foreigners must understand this attitude of the Japanese— but of course, to anyone in the missionary’s shoes, the really considerate thing to do would have been to attend his meeting, and the second-best thing would have been to make an excuse for not being able to attend. This would have disappointed him, but not as severely as he was disappointed when he faced an empty hall. The neighbors were not showing him the slightest kindness; on the contrary, they were saving themselves the pain of seeing his disappointment— for they were not there to see it.

Aunt Eva has retold this cautionary tale to several budding authors like the one who wrote your textbook, Gloria. If they are unable to see the point, but try to make you understand how the neighbors had the missionary’s best interests at heart and were truly showing consideration for him, give up. Warn the publisher if it’s a friend, and make your own getaway. If a prospective author is unable to start questioning some of his or her own assumptions, it is difficult to see how a genuine cross-cultural book can be written. In one case Aunt Eva ended up: “It’s too late for this book, but this is clearly an intelligent lady with a lively mind, and I think she will go on to write more interesting books.”

Eva Hartupp


From Newsletter Number 99 (December 2002)