Japan: Volunteer efforts and the Emperor’s Visit

Today’s episode of Nihon Terebi News is a very interesting one to watch, particularly for Japanese language students. Today’s episode shows many efforts by volunteers in Japan to help cleanup the damage from the Great East Japan Earthquake,1 both young and old. As the news show states, volunteers have been flooding in and helping, but they still need more volunteers. They then give advice to people about what to do if they want to volunteer. I really am happy to see so many people helping to rebuild, but also that the transition from damage control to restoration is happening.

Also, residents in Chiba Prefecture, were treated by a visit from Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.2 You can see this around 10:30 on the video. The Imperial couple came and spoke with people who suffered there, as part of their tour along Eastern Japan which will extend through other prefectures hard-hit by the disaster. Although I am not particularly interested in royalty, I was interested by the different in language used when describing the incident.

If you notice carefully, the language used to describe what the Emperor and Empress did is more polite, and often uses passive voice, which is a kind of keigo or polite language. For example, the Emperor is described as tennō heika (天皇陛下) where heika (陛下) is a title of respect meaning something like “majesty” in English. Also, as mentioned earlier, passive voice is often used to describe what he did. For example, instead of saying “he visited” (hōmon shimasu 訪問します) the newscaster said “was visited by (the Emperor)” (hōmon saremasu 訪問されます). Also it was interesting to hear the Imperial couple speak with residents. Obviously, the language is very polite on both sides. The Emperor speaking with one elderly man about his health, simply said go-kenkō wa (ご健康は) which is another excellent example of Keigo language.

In English, you almost always have to be explicitly about everything, but in Japanese, this can sound pretty wordy if the topic is already understood. This is a frequent mistake Japanese-language students first make: saying too much, repeating things already known. So, here, when the Emperor asked about the man’s health, he didn’t have to say ‘you/your’ or ‘how is it [your health]?’. It was implied, and sounds nicer in Japanese when people are less direct.

Anyhow, while Japan is building, food and agriculture remain a challenge. The last third of the news segment shows shortages of basic staples like rice and vegetables, and challenges with distribution. The Tōhoku area of Japan is an important agricultural center, and this could mean the next few years will be difficult as food prices fluctuate and shortages of some items may occur. As logistics improve, things will recover of course, but as you can see it will take a little while.

I just wanted to post another update. A few people have told me these are useful, so I will do my best to keep them up for a while (schedule permitting). As a language student (and a poor one), the extra listening practice is always useful for the JLPT. :)

Have a great weekend!

1 I think this name is a bit long, but news sites like Asahi Shinbun use it. I think Great Tohoku Earthquake makes more sense, but maybe it won’t stick. Here, “Tohoku” means the area to the north and east of Japan. Also, the damage of the earthquake extended far beyond the Tohoku area to all of Eastern Japan, so maybe Asahi Shinbun is right…

2 Interesting discussion in the comments section about how to properly refer to the Emperor. Thanks to Robert for the helpful information. I certain learned some things! :)

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
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4 Responses to Japan: Volunteer efforts and the Emperor’s Visit

  1. Robert says:

    Hi Doug. Interesting post as always.
    One thing. I thought that the era name was only used posthumously for the Emperor. (the wikipedia article you point to also states this) The English style is to say Emperor Akihito. (Japanese Newspapers such as Mainichi Shinbun do this in their translations and use 天皇陛下 in the Japanese version)

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Robert, interesting point. I am not sure why they have that inconsistency. In Japanese language itself, you never hear people say “Akihito Tennō”, it’s usually either “Tennō Heika” or “Heisei Tennō”. Also, the traditional calendar shows this year to be Heisei 22, and the Emperor hasn’t passed away yet, so I wonder if Wikipedia is wrong. :)

  3. Robert says:

    It may be a case of “citation needed”.
    While it is now the Heisei era, I don’t think the Emperor will properly be referred to as 平成天皇 until after his death. (Although the practice is fairly recent starting with the Meiji Emperor. It is possible that something else could be chosen.)
    I couldn’t find an authoritative source or style guide, however the Imperial Household site only uses 天皇陛下 and in a reference in English to his father they say “Emperor Hirohito (posthumously Emperor Showa)” and refer to the current Emperor in English as Emperor Akihito, from which we might infer correct usage. But yes never 明仁天皇.
    Doing a quick google, to my eyes more often than not 平成天皇 seems either a disrespectful usage in Japanese (uncyclopedia and various political rants in comment threads for instance), or a usage in Chinese. 明仁天皇 is used in Chinese and also ranks high as a book title on amazon.jp strangely enough. Overall I think the Imperial household can be a sensitive subject.

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Robert, excellent point. I will amend that in the blog post. In the news segment they did refer to the current emperor as 陛下 (the Empress as 后皇) and I’ve been corrected by my better-half about it before but now that mention it, I don’t think I heard the name Heisei used, so I think you’re right.

    It’s a subject I don’t know too well so this time I opted to leave most details out and stick with what I directly observed. Probably advice I should follow more often. :-)

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