Monday, October 11, 2010


Language is an integral part of culture. A culture evolves language to express the values that it deems most important, and in turn, the framework of that language allows people to express those values more easily. By comparing different languages, we can see which values are important in different cultures. English, like most other Western languages, is concerned with defining specific notions of identity (a banana, the banana, some bananas, and so on), while Japanese is dominated by different levels of politeness (the word taberu, to eat, can be more politely expressed as tabemasu, to name but one of thousands of examples) to suit different societal relationships.

It is also vital to examine the extent of a language’s lexicon. Cultures create words to define those concepts that are most relevant to their lives. Consider some words expressing different manners of death in both Western and Japanese culture:

If a person goes with minimal or no food for a prolonged period, resulting in extreme malnourishment as the belly extends grotesquely outward and the skin becomes tightly shrunken around the victim’s increasingly brittle bones as the lack of caloric energy to fuel the body’s basic functions results in a slow, agonizing death, we say starvation. Japanese say ue.

If a person becomes submerged in water, even if they are capable of swimming for short or long distances, the desperate exertion to stay afloat eventually becomes too much to bear, and their body becomes weak and tired as the victim’s energy dissipates and the exhaustion becomes so much that they slide below the surface allowing the water to flow freely through their nose and mouth into their lungs, simultaneously suffocating and choking them, we say drowning. Japanese say oboreshinu.

If a person’s upper body comes in contact with a sharp object traveling at a rate of speed sufficient enough to slice off the victim’s head in a quick or gradual manner (as for such purpose as the French designed the guillotine) so that the brain cannot communicate with the rest of the body, leaving the victim’s eyes blankly empty as the brain’s neurons sputter and cease function even as blood spurts relentlessly from the victim’s still-warm neck, we say decapitation. Japanese say kubi o haneru.

If a person is prevented from breathing normally by any number of methods (such as having another person’s hands clenched around his or her neck, squeezing the windpipe sufficiently so as to cut off all oxygen; or having a pillow forced over his or her face so tightly so as to render respiration impossible) reducing the victim’s inhalations to quick, desperate gasps, so that said breathing eventually ceases as the brain becomes completely deprived of life-giving oxygen and the victim falls down dead, we say asphyxiation. Japanese say chissoku saseru.

If a person is subject to spending prolonged periods at their stressful job, where they are constantly belittled and talked down to by stern bosses, piled upon with unreasonable deadlines, and constantly engulfed in an atmosphere of absolute loyalty to the company so that they become obsessed with fulfilling their workplace duties, forcing the victim to work hour after agonizing hour of overtime, neglecting proper nutrition, exercise, and fresh air for the stuffy confines of a crowded office late at night, until the victim can focus on nothing but achieving the company’s goals to a point where stress, nervous tension, exhaustion caused by lack of sleep, claustrophobia, hunger, and eye strain combine in varying amounts to cause any combination of heart attacks, strokes, or serious illnesses leading to the victim’s untimely death; there’s no single word to explain this in English because most self-respecting Westerners possess the common sense to escape such a horrible fate.

Japanese say karoshi.

1 comment:

The Tominator said...

Language is Culture. Karoshi is Japanese culture, as intertwines and enmeshed with it as chopsticks and sushi! We SHOULD discuss this particular topic in more detail. For now, let me point out the most disturbing thing: The Japanese culture refuses to evolve. Karoshi is here, and it is here to Stay!