The weight of words

Once upon a time my Japanese manager said to me, “Print me out yesterday’s newspaper article about [a prominent politician] and Japan.”

Lamely, I googled it.

Eventually, through sheer dumb luck or divine intervention, I found a newspaper article dated the previous day in which [a prominent politician] said something about Japan.  Triumphantly, I laid it on my manager’s desk.

“Wrong newspaper,” he said.

So ESP is important when you work in a Japanese office.  But that’s not why I’m telling this story.

The point is that a politician, during a campaign, said something negative about Japan.  Now in America, when a politician says something negative and possibly untrue during a campaign, you can bet that either 1) Nobody cares; or 2) Someone will retaliate with an insult.  What doesn’t happen in America is what happened next in this case.

“What she said about Japan isn’t true,” my manager said.  “We’re going to contact her to correct her mistake.”

It seemed to me a touchingly naive response.

But the Japanese are very touchy about their image–and about other people’s, too.  In Japan, people go to great lengths to avoid saying anything negative about someone else, even when that person isn’t in the room.  Even when that person is someone they’ve never met.  Even when that person has obviously done something really wrong.

There’s a lot of beating-around-the-bush and looking-on-the-bright-side when it comes to talking about other people in Japan.  It’s almost comical, until you realize that it’s actually really nice.

So I imagine American politics carry a lot of culture shock for the Japanese.

After I returned to the Catholic Church, I read the Catechism and learned words like “calumny” and “detraction” and how it’s of grave importance that we tread lightly around the reputations of others.

Oh, I thought, it’s like that thing they do in Japan.


2 comments on “The weight of words

  1. Americans are really good (in general) about minimizing the weight and responsibility of words. In a culture of imposed relativism, it is as if even the most articulate people don’t actually accept that words “mean things.” (What does “it” mean anyway? Who are you to say that dog means dog and cat means cat?) One of the reasons why I like this blog, is because what you mean seems to match up with what you are actually saying. That’s intellectual honesty, a rare commodity in social media and media in general.


    • Rose Marie says:

      Wow, thank you for the amazing compliment! I think there is definitely a temptation to say whatever sounds cool or gets you off the hook, but if we don’t look squarely at reality, we miss out on its real beauty.


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