Why Japan Has No Identity


I thought I’d squeeze in another translation before work. This one’s by KURE Tomofusa, in his A Decoction of Language (言葉の煎じ薬, 2010). Kure needs no introduction.

In September 2006, the new Abe cabinet took office. Leftists and revolutionaries denounced him as a hawk and a nationalist, but how did he do really? Starting by confronting the issue of North Korean kidnappings of Japanese, he said things that naturally needed to be said all over Asia. He did, however, use an inordinate amount of loanwords in his inaugural speech; I didn’t think that very patriotic of him.

The one that made me uncomfortable above all was the phrase Country Identity [in English]. In the first place, it’s an oddly invented loan word, and furthermore isn’t the use of a loanword here an affront to Japan’s own “Country Identity”?

I had trouble getting used to the phrase “Country Identity” from the very beginning. It seems like he really just wanted to say “patriotism”, but that would invite a rain of punishment from the leftists and revolutionaries, so he used this ever-so-slightly different “Country Identity” instead.

There are three different words to refer to a country in English. The first is “country”, broadly 国. Its meaning is essentially derived from a place on the earth, and it also means the countryside, with some rural flavor.

The second is nation, which implies 国民, a conglomerate of people.

The third is state, the political 国家.

The Abe cabinet seemed to choose the term “Country” to demonstrate that they were not nationalists but wanted to emphasize Japan’s cultural and historical strong points. But using English to do that is an elementary contradiction.

Identity“, on the other hand, seems like a more necessary borrowing here, because there is no appropriate translation for this word in native Japanese. The root word is form, idem, which in the original Latin meant “sameness”. When we translate its biological and chemical meanings, we have words like “confirmation” and “speciation”. “Identification” of a person or thing is translated into terms like “self-confirmation”, or “self-sameness”, or “self-verification”, or “independent being”, or even “individuality”. None of these words, though, are quite appropriate. Those all simply state that a thing is itself, but we are looking for a term that more approximates “Japanesey” (日本らしさ).

This loanword began being used in the 1980s. In English, of course, it’s been around a lot longer, but when I looked at English-Japanese dictionaries written before the 1980s, along with “the thing in itself”, I saw the term 正体,true form! It was so spot on the mark that I laughed.

The true form of the big Cyclops was a trickster raccoon.

If we translate this “true form” back into English, it would be “identity“!

The foreigner, whose true form could not be established, slipped through airport security.

Here, too, it wouldn’t be strange to use “identity” for true form正体.

It is quite meaningful that the usual Korean translation for “identity” is 正体性 (true-form-ness). I think this is a very powerful word.

You won’t find the term true form in Chinese dictionaries; it was invented in Japan. If you see any Koreans using it, I’m afraid that is a loanword from the colonial period.

But at the same time, I think this term reflects the “form vs. function” thought of the Shushi (Cheng-Zhu 朱子) school. The Shushi school was a branch of Confucianism that was exceedingly systematic and was exceedingly influential in China and Korea as well as Japan. In Korea it grew out of a political system and had an influence on customs and culture as well.

“Form vs. function” thought distinguishes the essence of something from the purposes it is put to. The modern Japanese grammatical terms for uninflected words [“essential words” 体言] and inflected words [“functional words” 用言] are derived from this way of thinking. When we append true 正 to form 体 like in the Korean “true-form-ness”, we get a translation for identity that, much more than “self-confirmation” or “self-samedness”, may be meaningfully applied to culture and history.

Posted: February 20th, 2013 | Kokoro 2 Comments »

2 Comments on “Why Japan Has No Identity”

  1. 1 Avery Morrow said at 6:04 am on February 20th, 2013:

    Why did Japan borrow the word for “identity” in the 1980s? Hmm.

  2. 2 Kazuyuki Ogawa said at 10:30 pm on February 22nd, 2013:

    I think it’s because the psychological term “Identity” derived from E.H. Eriksson prevailed not only among psychologists but also among Japanese society in general. This word was spreaded by Keigo OKONOGUI (“OKONOGI” – 小此木啓吾), a psychiatrist and ex-professor at Keio University.
    I was much impressed with your thought about the use of this word instead of patriotism (愛国心).