Actions without actors

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

It was October 1970 when the Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, visiting Washington for a summit meeting with the U.S. President, uttered what he intended to be diplomatic words: “I will do the best I can.” The words were in response to the request from President Richard Nixon to do something about the trade imbalance between the two countries as low cost textile products from Japan were flooding the U.S. markets. Needless to say, President Nixon was acting on behalf of the U.S. textile industry, whose viability was threatened by a rising economic power from Asia.

Prime Minister Sato’s original words in Japanese were: “zensho simasu (善処します)”, which the interpreter translated into: “I will do the best I can.” There was nothing wrong with the translation, except that the interpreter failed to convey, intentionally or unintentionally, that Prime Minister Sato was politely saying, “Let’s see what can be done,” without actually mentioning who would be taking what action. The Japanese would know that these words, when spoken by a politician, actually mean “doing nothing”. In fact, the lack of action on the part of Prime Minister Sato to force the Japanese textile industry to exercise export restraint went on to aggravate the trade friction between the two countries.

This episode illustrates the importance of paying attention to the cultural context behind the use of words. While Prime Minister Sato was using the words, “I will do the best I can,” in the context of Japanese culture in which such ambiguous expressions abound, President Nixon was interpreting the same words in the context of American culture, in which they would mean: “I will personally see to it that something is done to remedy the situation.” The English translation, “I will do the best I can,” leaves no doubt who will do the best. On the other hand, the original Japanese expression leaves who will do the best ambiguous as the personal pronoun “I” is omitted.

Omitting personal pronouns is a rule in the Japanese language, not an exception limited to this episode. The issue, here, is not the right way of speaking but the way the Japanese actually speak in daily conversations, which Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a Swiss linguist who is widely recognized for his pioneering work in modern linguistics, called the parole, as opposed to the langue, aspect of the Japanese language. When you ask your friend, “Do you like apples?” it is clear to whom the question is addressed. Or is it? When a Japanese asks this question, he or she will typically omit the personal pronoun “you” and simply ask, “Like apples?” And the person to whom this question is put will usually answer, “Like apples,” omitting the personal pronoun “I”.

It goes without saying that, when personal pronouns are omitted, who is asking the question to whom becomes ambiguous. When you are proposing that someone marry you, it is vitally important to make clear who is proposing to whom. In English, there is no ambiguity as to who is proposing to whom, for the question is expressed as: “Will you marry me?” But in Japanese, the same question gets condensed into a single word: “Marry?”

There is thus an inherent ambiguity about persons behind actions in the parole aspect of the Japanese language. In contrast, it is almost imperative in the English language to make explicit persons behind actions. A typical sentence in English has a “subject-verb-object” structure. While this structure makes explicit who does what, it can create other problems, as David Bohm (1917-1992), a theoretical physicist, points out: “This (the subject-verb-object) is a pervasive structure, leading in the whole of life to a function of thought tending to divide things into separate entities, such entities being conceived of as essentially fixed and static in their nature.”1 In the case of a marriage proposal, “Will you marry me?” the person who is asking the question and the person to whom the question is put are clearly separated. In this case, the fixed and static nature of things in a sentence is essential, for you would expect a specific person, not just anyone, to return your question with an answer: “Yes, I will marry you.”

The “subject-verb-object” structure in English reflects the underlying culture of English-speaking societies, where a person is regarded as having a distinct self, separate from others. This is in sharp contrast to the Buddhist conception of self, which is regarded as arising out of cooperation of five elements called panc upadanakkhadha, or the “five aggregates”: rupa (form), sanna (perception), vedana (feeling), sankhara (volitional formations), and vinnana (consciousness). The ordinary person, whom the Buddha calls assutava puthujjana, or “the uninstructed worldling”, views self as arising out of these five aggregates: “Here, monk, the uninstructed worldling … regards form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. He regards feeling as self … perception as self … volitional formations as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness.”2 But the Buddha reminds us that nothing that comprises the five aggregates is “self”: “Monks, form is nonself … Feeling is nonself …Perception is nonself … Volitional formations is nonself … Consciousness is nonself.”3

This is the Buddhist idea of anatta, or “non-self”, namely, the idea that self is an illusion. We humans are, like other things that exist in the manifest world of conventional reality, composite entities consisting of five factors, which together define what we think we are. But there is nothing behind any one of these five factors, as each factor is empty of a separate self. This is not to deny that there are actions such as speaking, walking, and meditating. What is denied is the existence of a self that controls each of these actions. As the Buddha reminds Moliyaphagguna in response to his questions about who is behind actions with respect to the four kinds of nutriment, “there are actions, but no actors.”4

In omitting personal pronouns, the Japanese seem to be following this Buddhist dictum that “there are actions, but no actors.” But are they? Do they omit personal pronouns in their conversations because they are following the Buddha’s teaching about “non-self”? To be sure, there are some Japanese who omit personal pronouns out of their homage to the Buddha’s teaching. But for most Japanese, omitting personal pronouns is a way of conveying to others that they are not self-centered individuals. In a society where “a nail that sticks out gets banged down,” omitting personal pronouns is one way in which the people make sure that they do not “stick out”.

Today, the traditional Japanese value of humbleness and modesty is being undermined by the influx of foreign cultures into Japan with globalization. With the spread of English as the language of global business, the Japanese, are beginning to adopt the custom of making explicit personal pronouns in their conversations. The prolifertion of English in business and other areas of social life may lead to the erosion of the Japanese custom of omitting personal pronouns. That erosion, in turn, may lead to the erosion of the Buddhist idea of non-self among the Japanese as they live in a country where exposure to the Buddha’s teachings is limited among small numbers of practitioners. Indeed, English, with its pervasive “subject-verb-object” structure which divides things into separate entities, may also lead to the erosion of another important idea in Buddhist thought, namely, paticca samuppada, or the idea of “interconnectedness of all things in the universe”.

  1. Bohn, David, Wholeness and The Implicate Order, New York: Routledge, 2002, Chapter 2.
  2. Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005, p. 340.
  3. Ibid. p. 341.
  4. Nidanasamyutta, Samyutta Nikaya Part II. Chapter I.12.