Warukuchi from the English Heart of Tradition

It is difficult to translate the Japanese word warukuchi into English; as often in translation, there is no exact equivalent. The dictionary gives various words: abuse, slander, calumny, defamation, scandal, backbiting. But no single one of them is exactly right.

Abuse has the sense of shouting, coarse language, and insult. But warukuchi is not necessarily in coarse language.

Slander carries the nuance of a lie; the reply to an accusation is often: That is a slander.’ The meaning is, that it is a spiteful lie. Warukuchi may be true.

Calumny is a purely literary word, and now very old-fashioned. No one would say it in conversation today.

Defamation is a legal term, and only a lawyer would use it.

Scandal refers to some incident. To say of a man that he is as slow as a tortoise in his work could not be called scandal, though it would be warukuchi. To add that he only retains his job because he knows a secret about the boss, would be scandal.

Backbiting again is a literary word, with vague Biblical associations. The ancient Jews, and some of the early Christians, had a tendency to backbiting, according to St. Paul, who was himself both a Jew and an early Christian.

(This last remark of mine is, I suppose, defamation, calumny, probably scandal, and possibly backbiting; it is not abuse, and can hardly be called slander, because it is true.)

There is a special kind of warukuchi, which is: something self-critical, said by someone about himself, and then repeated maliciously by others.

For instance, there is a famous remark said to have been made by Lord Chesterfield in the 18th century. He was regarded as the model of a British gentleman, but he said: “A gentleman is a man who, even when doing something that no gentleman would do, succeeds in looking like a gentleman while he is doing it.” No one knows whether he really said this, but it is quite famous as a warukuchi about gentlemen. A famous French writer said about Britain: “When I am in a good mood, I think of Britain as the country of gentlemen; when I am in a bad mood, I remember Chesterfield’s remark about gentlemen.”

Now a Chinese example. Western people are often very impressed by the traditional literary culture of China. But a Chinese writer once cynically wrote a little story, to illustrate what he called ‘the true Chinese attitude to culture’.

Once upon a time, a poet and a rich man were arguing which of them was most important to the people. The poet claimed that he elevated their souls, while the rich man said that by his trading, he made their bodies prosperous. They asked a friend to decide, and he proposed a test. There were two small hills outside the city. A proclamation was made that on the next full moon day, the poet would stand on one of these hills declaiming his verses; the rich man would stand on the other hill, and give away money. The number of people on each hill would be counted, and the point would be decided.

When the day came, no one at all was on the poet’s hill. But there was a tremendous crowd round the rich man on his hill. In the front rank of the crowd was … the poet.

This story, said the Chinese author, is the true Chinese character. It was reproduced by a British writer, and became quite well-known. It is a very bitter story indeed. But still, it is not so shocking as one about the Iranian character by a great Persian poet, Sa’di, who lived in the 13th century.

A master of wrestling had a very promising pupil. He taught him 99 out of the 100 tricks of wrestling, but he kept one trick back. This trick he did not show him. When the youth became strong, he challenged his teacher to a contest before the king. The young man, confident in his strength and skill, charged at the teacher. But the master now used that last trick, which he had kept secret. The pupil was completely surprised, and thrown heavily. When the king reprimanded him for daring to challenge his teacher, the young man said: “He has not been an honest teacher. At everything he taught me, I can beat him. But he kept this trick secret. He was not a real teacher to me.” The king asked the master why he had kept back this trick. He said, “I kept it hidden just for this occasion”.

The point of the story is that the teacher could foresee that his pupil would turn against him, when he had mastered the tricks of wrestling. So he kept one trick hidden. The fact that he could foresee it means that disloyalty to the teacher was then very common. I was talking one day to a member of the Iranian Section of the BBC; he was telling me something about the tradition of poetry in Iran even today. “Many of the letters from our listeners in Iran”, he said, “are written in verse”. He was interested to know that I had read some of the works of Sa’di, and the wrestling story came up. He remarked: “Perhaps it seems very cynical, but it was the Persian character which Sa’di so skilfully portrayed in that little piece.”  Then he added sadly: “And, I’m afraid, it still is.” What would be a comparable warukuchi said by a Japanese about Japanese?

I heard this one, intended to shock Westerners who were complimenting a Japanese on the great politeness of his own people. I think he had become a bit irritated by all the praises. Westerners often suppose that these polite phrases are meant literally; we may not realize that they are purely conventional, like the ‘Dear Sir’ and ‘Yours faithfully’ with which we English people begin and end a letter to someone whom we have never seen in our lives. We have never seen him, and yet we still write: ‘Dear Sir’. How ridiculous! But we do not notice the absurdity, because it is just a convention.

Anyway, this Japanese suddenly said, “Yes, we Japanese are polite. Do you know, when a Japanese assassin knifes a man, he always says Shitsurei! as he drives the blade in? It means: Excuse Me”. His listeners were duly shocked.

I heard something about the American film industry which reminded me of the Japanese terrorist’s Shitsurei! The people in the US film companies address each other by their first names: Harry, Jane, Al and so on. And in their letters they constantly put little phrases like ‘Please give my best wishes to the family’. The phrases are simply conventional, but sometimes they can be terribly inappropriate. One actor received a telegram from his film company at the end of the year, which read:



The seemingly friendly first and last sentences are completely contradicted by the ruthless middle one, which is clearly unexpected by the actor, and will come as a fearful shock to him. And at Christmas time. After reading this, whenever I heard of some cruel betrayal in business or diplomacy, conveyed in apparently amiable words, I used to think of it as a MERRY CHRISTMAS HARRY!

Some years ago, when I was still working full-time in the BBC as the Head of the Japanese Service, I happened to be sick for a few days, near the end of December. My colleagues sent a telegram to my home. I opened it, and read:


I was relieved to find that there was no further message.

© Trevor Leggett 1987



Index for this series of articles
1 Foreword
2 Consideration for Strangers
3 Social Conventions and Surprises
4 Cruel to be Kind
5 Losing to Oneself
6 North-South-East-West
7 It Likes That
8 Warukuchi
9 Japanese Logic

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