Reflections on being bilingual and bicultural

Having parents from different racial backgrounds has meant that I have spent most of my life comparing the social customs of England, where I have lived for my whole life, and Japan, my mother’s country.

There are a number of ways in which the linguistic differences between English and Japanese highlight cultural differences between the two societies. Japanese differs drastically from most European languages due to its grammatical ambiguity.  There are no articles, no distinction between singular and plural, no genders for nouns, pronouns are used only in exceptional circumstances and there are few verb tenses. The ambiguous nature of the people reflects this linguistic ambiguity. Questions that the British believe to require a direct response are approached with extreme caution in a Japanese context.

This difference attitude is illustrated by the following story. My mother’s Japanese friend came to Britain to study English and when asked by her host family whether or not she wanted some cake she declined the offer. In truth, she had been craving a slice of victoria sponge all week, but she felt that she could not accept the offer, especially after only being asked once. A few hours later, she returned to the kitchen to discover that the family had devoured the entire cake and that there was not a crumb left for her to eat. She was shocked. In some regions of Japan, anyone who accepts an offering of food before being invited to eat at least thrice is considered to have the social awareness, emotional sensitivity and self-restraint of a hungry elephant.

Japanese is also unusual in that the speech of women collectively differs from that of men and vice versa, a convention to which even toddlers adhere. There are many words and grammatical structures which a man could use without disapproval but would be considered vulgar should they be uttered by a woman. In my opinion this reflects the position of women in Japanese society, who are subject to a great deal of injustice, whether it be with regard to employment or a general sense of inferiority. For example, it is still common for women to be excluded from conferences, even if they hold the same positions as men within the company.

These are but a few examples of how the linguistic disparities between English and Japanese reflect differences in cultural norms as well as how people wish to present themselves to others.