Archive for the ‘japan’ Category

Japan's new jury system

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

Japan has inexplicably decided to experiment with copying one of the worst aspects of the American legal system: juries.

As reported in the NYT earlier this month, the new system, to be introduced in 2009, involves citizens called “saiban-in” (“lay assessors”) who will sit on panels together with judges on the more serious cases.

According to the article, “a jury is one of the most important protections of a democracy.” Really? A random group of biased, cherrypicked, uneducated people off the street are going to decide on matters of life and death? For every high-profile case where the jury obviously got it wrong, how many hundreds or thousands do we never hear of?

The Supreme Court recently ruled that it was OK for relatives of a murder victim to sit in court with big buttons featuring the face of the deceased, and that this did not unduly influence the jury. (Carey vs. Musladin.) Maybe or maybe not. But this case raises the deeper issue of how we can possibly know what does or does not influence a jury. Do they really get “innocent until proven guilty”, or even “beyond a reasonable doubt”? I doubt it.

The Founders were quite certain that the jury system was important. After all, they wrote it into the Bill of Rights not once, not twice, but three times. But let’s remember: they were reacting to very particular abuses of the judicial system under colonial English rule. Juries were the only way to absolutely prevent such misuse of government power. And recall, the jurors back then were landed and educated.

There’s no need for a jury system in America today. We call up people with no expertise whatsoever and waste their time to help us condemn one of our underclass to prison for a decade for possessing a rock of cocaine.

There are those who say juries form a key part of the democratic system. The author of the NYT article goes so far as to say “if Japan’s effort to introduce a jury system fails, democracy movements elsewhere in Asia will suffer a serious setback.” But representational democracy and the jury system are similar only in the superficial sense that they involve citizen participation.

The article goes on to say that “it’s hard to imagine how Americans could fulfill their role as democracy advocates any better than by helping the Japanese become jurors.” Well, I don’t think the Japanese need any lessons from us in democracy. If we really wanted to help them become more democratic, why not push for a nationwide referendum on the US troops in Okinawa and elsehwere in Japan, then insist that the two governments actually abide by the results?

Studying Japan's living ex-Gods

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

What does it mean to say someone is divine, a living God? That they share God’s infallibility, or compassion, or wisdom, or omniscience, or power?

From the neurotheological standpoint, the question we want to ask is what mental state do people enter when they view a human they consider godly? This should be easy to “divine” with current neuroimaging techniques. And the results might well cast light on the experience of the non-embodied divinity as well.

We have such a living God in the form of the late

Showa Tenno (picture), commonly known as “Hirohito” in the West. Although he renounced his divinity in the famous ningen sengen, or “declaration of humanity” (人間宣言), there are still many Japanese, most already in their 80s or 90s, that continue to believe him an arahitogami, or “human god” (ç?¾äººç¥ž), the latest in the long line of descendants of the mythical Amaterasu. And no small number may believe the same of his son and current Tenno Heika (official site), no matter what the Constitution may say.

As part of our program of neurotheological research, let’s grab those old Japanese folks before they die, toss them in an MRI machine, and make sure we take a neurological record of their reaction to viewing pictures of the man they believed was God.

Neurolexicography, or I kangaeru ergo suis

Thursday, May 19th, 2005

Look up the word “think” in an English-Japanese dictionary and you’ll find two main alternatives: “kangaeru” and “omou”.

Often when Japanese splits a concept more narrowly than English, native English speakers have a horrible time learning to make the distinction. I’ve never known of anyone who had trouble with “kangaeru” vs. “omou”, though.

That’s because the difference is clear. “Kangaeru” refers to a higher-brain process, “omou” to a lower-brain one. “Kangaeru” is linear and deductive and rational, it figures and reckons, it is based on assumptions, reaches conclusions. “Omou”, on the other hand, is an attitude, a stance, a belief, almost a feeling.

Descartes famously asserted, “I think, therefore I am” (or, “Je pense, donc je suis”). Inexplicably, this has been translated into Japanese as ‘’ware omou, yue ni ware ari”. That’s right—”think” (or “cogito” in “cogito ergo sum”) has been rendered as “omou”, instead of the obviously correct “kangaeru”. I would like to track down the Japanese scholar responsible for this original mistranslation, which has certainly confused countless Japanese students of philosophy over the centuries.

Talking about my cat’s behavior in Japanese, I never use “kangaeru”—that’s simply not something cats do. But I use “omou” all the time: “gG [cat’s name] thinks he’s going to get fed.” So this mistake in translating Descartes’ phrase is by no means benign. The mistranslation has the effect of making Descartes’ proof of existence apply to my cat!

Dying in spring

Tuesday, May 17th, 2005

Full moon overhead
In the waning days of March.
Yes, dying in spring
Beneath a blossoming tree
That would be the choice I’d make.

This is my translation of a famed waka by Saigyo (see picture), the 12th-century Japanese poet/monk:


The knowledgeable reader will notice that I’ve completely reversed the order of the lines, although I’ve maintained the 5-7-5-7-7 meter. It turns out when translating from Japanese into English, reversing the order is often the key to a more compelling, readable, or understandable rendition—not only for poems, but computer manuals as well.

This technique applies to everything from two-word pairs, to clauses in a parallel construction, to phrases in sentences, to sentences within paragraphs. Even entire sections can often be usefully reconstructed by moving the last paragraph in the Japanese to the top, and vice versa. I haven’t yet experimented with reorganizing the chapters of a book along these lines, but it seems worth a try.

Perhaps we should try this with Dogen’s Shobo Genzo as well—moving Genjo Koan from the very front to the very back, where it would serve as a thundering conclusion to the masterpiece, rather than a mere introduction.

For extra credit, I’ll accept reader hypotheses, involving your favorite theories of evolutionary linguistics or neuropsychology, as to why Japanese should exhibit such a radically reversed order from English at all levels.

Saigyo’s wish was granted: he died on the 16th day of Kisaragi (translated as “March” above).

Body and mind, or body and soul?

Sunday, May 15th, 2005

Dogen keeps talking about shinjin , inevitably translated as “body and mind”. The fascicle of Shōbō Genzō named Shinjin Gakudō (身心学é?“) is translated by Tanahashi as Body-and-Mind Study of the Way . The word also forms a part of Dogen’s trademark phrase shinjin datsuraku, of course, which in an earlier post I analyzed as Dogen telling us we should “drop out of the body/mind game”.

Today let’s delve more deeply into shinjin. The first character is 身, pronounced shin in Japanese; it’s also used to write the native Japanese word mi. Mi is a great example of how Japanese assigns single words to broad swaths of meaning. In English, we break things up right away into little pieces, assigning a separate word to each; in Japanese, they group things into big catch-all lexical categories, then let the context do the disambiguation. If necessary, they’ll narrow down the meaning by tacking on words (or, in some cases, by choosing one out of several alternative Chinese characters to write the word).

The broad category that mi covers is primary physical content. There is a nuance of substantiality, as well as of centrality. There is also a connotation of an underlying process, probably intentful, which has given rise to the content. Thus, mi is used for “fruit”. In other words, behind every mi is a kind of spirit or essence—in the case of the fruit, the tree that bore it. Of course, mi is also commonly used to refer to the human body.

We thus see how the dichotomy between form and essence is embodied in the Japanese language, with mi corresponding to form.

What then is essence? That’s kokoro , the native Japanese word written using the shin (心) character. To find out about kokoro , let’s ask 100 Japanese to point to their kokoro, and watch as every single one points to their chest. We hear couples pledging love from their kokoro, or politicians apologizing for scandals from their kokoro. A nationalist might refer to the kokoro of Japan. No question about it: this kokoro maps very closely to the English “heart” or “soul”.

So why do Dogen translators always render this as mind? Applying the “point to it” test, we find English-speakers point to their head when asked to indicate where their mind is. Whatever mind is, it’s connected to the brain somehow, and involves cognition, mentation, and intention—not the feeling we associate with the heart. Which leaves us with the very simple conclusion that translating shinjin as “body/mind” is wrong.

So Western students of Dogen, struggling fruitlessly to “cast off body and mind” as they believe the master instructed, have been betrayed not only by an incorrect syntactical analysis of the phrase, as I have pointed out earlier, but also by an egregious lexical mixup in translating the individual words and characters that form the most important half of the phrase shinjin datsuraku, the mere hearing of which is said to have nudged Dogen into enlightenment. Rather than “body and mind”, it must be “body and soul”.

Sitting on their cushions, Western practitioners can somehow imagine what it means to cast off body and mind, or even to cast off the body/mind dichotomy. But what on earth does it mean to cast off body and soul, or the body/soul dichotomy? The utter strangeness of this concept is what probably prevented translators from getting it right. They translated kokoro as mind because they themselves simply weren’t capable of imagining how you could cast off your soul.

The key is to remember that kokoro means essence. Mi means the physical expression of that essence. Thus, the two characters forming the compound shinjin refer to the essence and its expression. But in the context of shinjin datsuraku, it’s clear that shinjin cannot mean “essence and expression”—how could one possible cast that off?—but rather the dichotomy between the two. That is what Dogen is counseling us to cast off. He’s teaching us, in one memorable four-character phrase, not to segment the world into ideas vs. objects, concepts vs. physical reality, the ideal vs. the concrete.

Of course, the characters in shinjin, in addition to having the general meaning of essence and expression, do possess strong associations with the human body and spirit, yielding an additional layer of guidance: we should apply this insight to our own views of ourselves.

My new translation for shinjin datsuraku is thus: dropping out of the body/soul game.

Calligraphy by K. Kuwahara.

A New Kana

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2005

I’m extremely pleased to announce the on-line availability of my important proposal for a major reform of Japanese orthography: A New Kana (PDF, 646K).

Based on a sophisticated statistical analysis of the pronunciation profile of Sino-Japanese compounds, this innovative proposal promises to dramatically simplify the Japanese writing system while preserving its spirit and uniqueness.

Konowata: cured sea cucumber entrails

Sunday, January 30th, 2005

I still remember the first time I saw and held a sea cucumber. These preternaturally squishy, elongated, leathery life forms evoke a combination of repulsion and wonder.

Sea cucumbers are of the genus holothuroidea, and thus are sometimes called holothurians; other names include beche-de-mer and trepang. These bottom dwellers are found across the Pacific Ocean, their home of 400 million years, in an amazing 1400 varieties: brilliantly colored or dull gray, smooth or spiked. (They are one of the six species in the phylum Echinodermata, or echinoderms, which also includes starfish and sea urchins.)

For those interested in neurobiology, I note that the sea cucumber has no brain whatsoever, not even the start of a ganglia. I guess it doesn’t need a brain since it has other ways to satisfy all its basic needs: to reproduce, for instance, it just shoots eggs and sperm out into the water. What intelligence it has is built into its body parts. For instance, it defends itself by ejecting certain body parts from its anus, whereupon they grow long and sticky, entangling the poor crab who thought he had found his dinner.

A particularly succulent part of the sea cucumber is its intestines. The Pacific Islanders have developed a technique for plucking out them out—squeezing a finger into the underside usually does the trick—taking advantage of the fact that the animal auto-eviscerates in response to rough handling, a defensive mechanism against predators. They then throw the animal back in the ocean where, miraculously, it regenerates its own intestines overnight or within a few days (all echinoderms can do this). The Islanders prefer the guts of the curryfish variety of sea cucumber, S. variegatus, which they eat fresh, cooked, or pickled in lime juice.

In Japan, the marine beasts, known as namako, genus Stichopus japonicus, are valued for their chewy, almost tasteless flesh (body wall), often eaten as sunomono (in vinegar sauce)—but then Japan has a distinguished history of preferring foods for their texture, not taste, tofu being the obvious example, fugu (globefish) another. Records dating back to the 1600s record the export from Japan of sea cucumber flesh, mainly to China, where it plays a key role in the cuisine.

But the Japanese also did not overlook the entrails, which they extract, salt, and cure (see picture). The result: konowata (æµ·é¼ è…¸), considered one of the three major chinmi (delicacies) of Japan.

Specifically, the Japanese take sea cucumbers, extract the visceral mass (alimentary canal and reproductive organs) wash it, drain it in a bamboo basket, salt it, then ferment it for one week. The result is marketed in bottles that for top-class Hokkaido product can be surprisingly expensive, up to $50, although our sushi chef told us he got some konowata from Aichi Prefecture, said to be the top producer at present, which cost only $20, even with konoko dried sea cucumber ovaries mixed in. These ovaries, a delicacy in themselves, are also known as hoshiko, kuchiko, or bachiko.

So what does konowata taste like, anyway? Whether or not you believe in qualia, describing the taste of konowata is simple: it’s the taste of the sea, or more specifically, the taste of the iso. Iso is a uniquely Japanese concept, not present in English. It’s often translated as beach or seashore, but actually it’s that area of a rocky shore where land meets sea: the surf washing in and out over the rocks, crabs and tiny fish and water insects darting around and under them. Think of the smell of the iso and you have described the taste of konowata precisely.

New Kanjis for the Rest of Us

Monday, January 24th, 2005

I’ve often thought over the years of coming up with a new ideographic written language. Now I find a man named Charles K. Bliss has already done this, creating something called Blissymbols (or “Semantography”).

One useful-looking book is Heffman’s Biosymbolics: Speaking without Speech, which talks about using Blissymbols to help handicapped children to communicate.

For more information, visit Douglas Crockford’s site (Blisssymbolics link is on the left). (You may also want to check out his amazing materials on Javascript, of which he is doubtless the most advanced practitioner in the world.)

TODO: Check out languages mentioned by Umberto Eco in his book The Search for the Perfect Language.

There have been any number of proposals for visual alphabets, some quite recent. We might cite Bliss’s Semantography, Eckhaardt’s Safo, Janson’s Picto and Ota’s Locos Yet, as Noth has observed, these are all cases of pasigraphy (which we will discuss in a later chapter) rather than true languages. Besides, they are based on natural languages. Many, moreover, are mere lexical codes without any grammatical component (p. 175).

Crockford comments that semantography (Blissymbolics) does not belong to the class of visual alphabets that Eco is dismissing.

Eating sideways, writing sideways

Tuesday, January 18th, 2005


Foreign languages offer interesting, useful words, like gambari, with nuances and shades we sometimes cannot find in our own language, and it is not surprising that we end up borrowing them. Gambari has not entered English yet, but it should and probably will.

William Safire, our friendly NYT columnist whose ignorance of multilingual computing we pointed out in a recent post, recently took up this topic in his weekly column in the New York Times Magazine.

Introducing a Japanese example, he starts off with an astonishing assertion:

Many foreign languages are difficult for the Japanese to learn because their language is written vertically.

Now, I have heard many theories as to why Japanese should be so poor at learning foreign languages, but this one is brand new! For one thing, it’s based on a false assumption, that Japanese is written vertically. In fact, vertical Japanese is found only in novels, a few literary magazines, school textbooks, and station nameplates hanging vertically on pillars in train stations.

It’s true that Japanese was originally written vertically, as was Chinese of course, and I’ve been unable to find any information on why this might have been the case. What is known is that horizontal writing first appeared around the beginning of the Meiji period, and became widespread (in left-to-right form) after the war. The most common theory is that this is another example of the well-known Japanese inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West. Psychologists have found no evidence that either horizontal or vertical writing is superior from the cognitive standpoint.

Off topic, but there may be cognitive differences between left-to-right and right-to-left writing. One researcher points out that since most humans are right-handed, left-to-right is a more natural direction, but in that case, why were the first written languages apparently right-to-left? One possibility is that writing was originally localized in the right hemisphere of the brain, and the shift to left-to-right writing (around the time of Greeks) coincided with a shift in hemispheric dominance for the literacy task (which is a huge topic in itself).

This would be consistent with the timing of the emergence of Chinese characters and the fact that the vertical columns in which they were written also went from right to left. Of course, writing with a brush instead of a quill eliminated some of the logistical problems with right-to-left writing, like dragging your sleeve through the ink you just put down on the paper.

Returning to our friend William Safire, he seems to be getting more and confused as time goes on. The example he trots out for a Japanese word describing a concept not in English is:

They have come up with the phrase yoko (‘’horizontal’‘) meshi (‘’boiled rice’‘), meaning ‘’a meal eaten sideways.’’ Yoko meshi evokes the stress that comes from trying to make oneself understood in a foreign language.

Unfortunately, neither myself nor any native Japanese informant I consulted has ever heard of this word. It gets only 51 Google hits. From the references on the web, the tiny number of Japanese who have used this term do not themselves seem to agree on its meaning, and none of them think it means Safire’s “stress coming from trying to speak a foreign language”. The dominant nuance is of trying to talk with foreigners while eating, while another meaning is apparently simply “Western food”.

Where did you come up with this word anyway, Bill?

Kanji Topology

Sunday, January 2nd, 2005

Every Westerner exposed to Kanjis immediately senses their topological nature. But this inherent aspect of Kanjis is still not reflected in any fontographical computing model. Bob has now put on-line his unique, if dated, survey of research into models of Kanji topology (PDF, 612K).