V. M. Alpatov
Primordial and Borrowed Features in the Japanese Culture
47th Meeting of the PIAC, Cambridge 2004
Every observer feel the specific character of the Japanese culture. This culture is alike neither the Chinese culture nor the culture of the Altaic peoples. However almost all the features of it were borrowed from China or from the USA. How the specific character of the Japanese culture goes with the non-Japanese origin of it?
This problem is discussed in Japan since the XVII–XVIII centuries. The scholars of the Kokugaku school tried to single out the primordial components of their national culture. They could find only two such components: the traditional beliefs and the language. They studied traditional popular beliefs and constructed the Shinto religion in its modern form. They studied the Japanese language too and founded the national linguistic tradition. They felt considerable differences between Japanese and other languages and formed the conception of the uniqueness of Japanese. However they ignored the numerous borrowings from Chinese and preferred to study the most ancient texts because they contained few loan-words.
Japanese changed considerably after the adoption of the Chinese characters, the influence of American English during the XX century changed many features of it too. However there are three strata of vocabulary in Modern Japanese: the primordial stratum, the Chinese stratum and the borrowings from English and the other western languages. These strata do not mix and provoke different associations. The borrowings from English are associated with the mass consumption, the high technologies and the modern amusement; the Chinese stratum connected with the characters is associated with the different spheres of the bookish culture. However the sphere of feelings, moods, communication with relatives and friends is almost completely served by the primordial, especially Altaic vocabulary. Almost all the grammar is alike the Altaic one. The ideas of the Kokugaku school were caused not only by their nationalism but also by their intuitive notions about the center and the periphery of their language.
Undoubtedly the Japanese language reflects general features of the Japanese culture. Japan is a solitary insular country. It was occupied only once in its history. Japan was under influence of different cultures but the extend and the limit of the influence were determined in Japan with the exception of some periods. As the result many borrowed elements took root in Japan and some of them changed beyond recognition. The Japanese language is a good example of it.
Unlike some other cultures the Japanese culture does not avoid external influences and borrowings. All the borrowed elements take their places but some primordial kernel is preserved. The Japanese people do not like to show this kernel to aliens. The Japanese culture is adopting different borrowed elements but the identity of this culture is preserved. Therefore the borrowing of different elements of the western culture from coca-cola to democratic procedures does not mean the complete westernization of the Japanese culture.