The Japanese Romaji is beautifully clear
There are specimens of handwriting by writers of various nationalities, all of them writing a personal letter in which they have no need to be formal or precise. They are written by an English publisher of academic books, a French editor, a Polish scientist, an Indian philosopher, an English sportsman, an Iranian secretary, and two Japanese, one of them a former Sportsman of the Year, and the other a Culture Medalist.
Which are the two Japanese? It is easy to find them — they are the two which are easy to read, with all the letters well formed. If an English schoolmaster were marking these, he would at once give almost full marks to the two Japanese writers, and the others would get anything from 30 per cent to 80.
The next thing we notice is that the other handwritings are different from each other and from the Japanese. The two Japanese pieces are rather similar, though written by two people very unlike each other; both of them however have published books in English, which they know well. The Culture Medalist knows words that I have to look up in the dictionary. Their Kanji writing is quite different, but their Romaji is alike. In fact we foreigners sometimes say, “All Japanese write English in the same hand.” And it is not interesting.
The Japanese Romaji is beautifully clear. One may say, “Then what are you complaining about?” We are not complaining, but what I want to point out is, that the handwriting is not at all expressive. I can imagine some Japanese professor saying irritably, “Well do you want us to misform the characters so that you cannot read it?”
No, not that. The letters should be indicated even if not fully written, something like the Japanese Gyosho writing. If each letter is meticulously traced out, however, it is not expressive; it is like a musician who plays each note with equal strength.
In comparison the Japanese script seems to us somehow too stiff—in fact, it is TOO GOOD. It is like a man who is always sitting in perfect ‘seiza’ and using ‘gozaimasu’ forms all the time even when talking to his friends.
I have presented this comparison of handwriting because it also applies to speech. Japanese, when they speak English, seem to think that they must enunciate each word perfectly.
But this — even when they succeed in doing it, as they surprisingly often do—only leads to a rather unexpressive speech. I have seen a Chinese who knew only five hundred words of English point to the sky and say:”Sun. ..hot…me…ice cream!…” and act as if he were ice-cream melting in the heat of the sun. Everyone laughed and there was a friendly feeling. With his mere 500 words, he was not afraid to speak, and he was expressive. Whereas a Japanese professor, knowing tens of thousands of words and classical phrases, in the same circumstance may pause and then bring out, with laboured precision of utterance: “The weather lately has been oppressively sultry.” After a remark like this, there is generally a heavy silence. It is completely unexpressive.
The truth is, that the English is TOO GOOD. It is not appropriate to a conversation, and it makes us uneasy. We feel the tension of the speaker, and that makes us tense too, like when one is watching an acrobat doing something difficult and dangerous. Some of the best English I ever heard from a Japanese was that of Professor Chikao Fujisawa, whom I knew a long time ago.
He had a beautiful Oxford accent, and I never heard him produce an ungrammatical or loose sentence, though he could speak very quickly. In a way, I suppose he would have been the ideal of a Japanese professor of English. But the fact is, that I used to feel uneasy when I talked with him. It was as if I were back at school, talking to the head-master. A head-master always speaks very clearly and perfectly, one reason being that he has been used to giving dictation exercises to pupils. When we speak to the headmaster, even in conversation outside school hours, we feel that inwardly he must be noting all our careless sentences and slovenly pronunciation. That makes us feel constrained —he says nothing about these things, but that is our feeling.
So I would say this to any Japanese who really is perfect in English: do not use classical sentences and difficult words, and furthermore, please deliberately sometimes make a mistake in sentence structure or pronunciation. Then we shall feel at home, and not at school.
There is an old saying of the Soto Zen sect: 80 per cent is perfection. We have something similar in English: Too good is no good.
I think it is specially important for Japanese to speak their English expressively, even if the grammar is sometimes rather loose; the reason is that Japanese are a people of strong and sensitive feelings. If they do not express feeling in their conversation, they are not expressing their nature.
Swiss people and Swedish people do not impress us as people primarily of feeling, and if they speak English perfectly grammatically and mechanically, that seems suitable. But Japanese must speak expressively.
Let me illustrate a parallel point from a quite different field—music. In May 1980 Rostropovich made a visit to Japan. He is one of the most famous living cellists, and also a well- known conductor. When he arrived, he gave an interview to the press, which I read with interest because I expected that he might say some things of great value to a nation like the Japanese, who are building up a great musical tradition.
One thing he said was this: “Many musicians believe that to get the notes right is almost all that matters. They play the notes correctly, and as for expression—well, they simply copy the interpretation of some great musician, as it has been recorded. But that is a big mistake. I would rather hear a piece played from the heart, even if there are one or two notes wrong, than hear a technically perfect performance which is only a soulless imitation of someone else.
When I read this, I could imagine thousands of Japanese parents shaking their heads, and saying to themselves, “No, no, no.” Their children are learning a musical instrument, and they are taught to concentrate on getting the notes perfectly correct.
A Japanese friend of mine came to London for three or four years, bringing with him his wife and daughter, who was very talented at the piano. He asked my advice about getting a good teacher. I discovered that Harold Craxton, who was the most famous pianist in Britain in the 1930’s, and a great teacher, was still alive.
Many of our best pianists and teachers today were once his pupils. He was over 80, but he agreed to hear the little Japanese girl. He complimented her, and found a good teacher for her. She made good progress. Then one day my Japanese friend told me, with some anxiety, that this teacher had said to his daughter: “You have spent a good time learning this piece of Chopin, and you can play it accurately.. But this time I want you to play the piece with your whole FEELING—without concentrating on getting the notes right. If you make some mistakes, it doesn’t matter. Play the piece expressively this time; play it with your soul.”
The father said to me, “He cannot be a good teacher if he allows my daughter to make mistakes. He has told her that mistakes do not matter! I must find another teacher.”
I told him, “Don’t do that. The teacher is not saying that the correct notes do not matter. But he is saying that expression must be developed, as well as the notes. Just occasionally he will ask your daughter to play it FREELY, without worrying. Nearly all child pianists are too anxious and tense about the notes; if they just get the notes right, they think they have played the piece well.
“Probably your daughter plays the piece in a stiff style, like Kaisho writing. He wants her to play it in a Sosho style—in Sosho some of the Kaisho strokes are omitted, aren’t they?”
He said, “It cannot be right to omit notes in music.” I replied, “No, it is not right. It is only sometimes that he will ask her to play it expressively, without worrying about the notes; immediately afterwards she will again attend carefully to them. But to become tense and anxious about the notes can become a habit, she will never be a first-class musician. She will play all the notes correctly, but it will be like a music- box or a Swiss chiming clock.”
He was an intelligent man and I think that remark about the Swiss clock convinced him. (Stravinsky first made it.) She continued with the teacher, and has become a fine musician. I wonder whether she or her father read the interview with Rostropovich that I quoted before.
He also made some interesting remarks about tempo, saying that young musicians tend to copy the tempo in which a famous musician plays the piece. But, he said, that was wrong, FOR THEM. And he added that he believed that the right tempo for each man is a tempo which fits in with the tempo of his heart-beat. He did not mean that a musician ought to take his own pulse before beginning a piece. His idea was that for each musician there is a tempo which feels right for the piece, and that tempo will be connected with the tempo of his own heart.
Rostropovich laid great stress on the importance of getting a ‘right feeling.’ He even went so far as to say that in some cases one might deliberately do something technically wrong, if one’s feeling prompted one to do it.
I believe that most Japanese would think this a very bold idea.
He gave an example from his own experience as a conductor. His illustration was the very beginning of Puccini’s opera TOSCA. Unlike many operas, this has no overture; there are simply five chords from the orchestra, and then the opera begins.
Rostropovich remarked, “When I conduct TOSCA, I make the orchestra play these chords slowly, very very slowly. Technically, that is wrong; the compposer has not marked them to be played slowly. But I feel that these five chords ARE the overture; it has no overture, so these chords must play the role of an overture. They have to set the mood of the opera. As the conductor, I feel that they should be very slow, to create the feeling of expectancy in the audience. I may be criticized for doing something which is against what is written in the musical score. Well, I must be judged by the effect on the musical feeling of the audience.”
This is one of the great musicians of the world, who deliberately interprets a particular phrase of music wrongly—that is to say, against the composer’s intentions—because he feels it is more expressive. He knows the rules and of course he generally follows them; but on exceptional occasions, he can ignore them. As he says, the test is, whether what he does is expressive.
In the same way, Shakespeare in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE wrote ‘between you and I.’ This is ungrammatical; it should be ‘between you and me’, as Shakespeare knew well. But in this particular passage, his inner feeling told him that the ungrammatical phrase would be more expressive. ‘You and I’ becomes a unity, a single word so to say; perhaps this is the feeling he wanted-to give. And he broke the rule of grammar to give it.
© Trevor Leggett