Upside Down Japanese

The other day in my online Japanese lesson, we were doing a JLPT reading comprehension question. For those of you not familiar with the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), the reading comprehension portion consists of short, medium, and long passages of Japanese text, followed by one or more multiple-choice questions about the passage.

This passage was a reading on Buddhism, so not only were the sentence structures difficult, but there were new vocabulary words and concepts. In all, it was a difficult Japanese reading problem for me.

When it came to answering the question, I was confused. The question concerned the central point of the essay, yet I couldn’t find the right answer. That’s when my teacher led me through to the answer, and, in the process, showed a fundamental difference between Japanese and English.

Japanese is upside down, or backwards to my way of thinking, if you will. This passage on Buddhism—as most Japanese writing—is structured in almost reverse order from a typical English counterpart.

I don’t mean simply that the verb comes at the end of the sentence in Japanese, or that there are Japanese particles with no English translation tacked onto the end of words.

I mean that the author’s conclusion appears at the end of the passage, and that his supporting statements appear before his conclusion. Most English writers would start an essay with a brief statement of their opinion (the thrust of their argument), and then follow that with their supporting reasoning and description of the overall situation.

Japanese is just the opposite—a Japanese writer will describe the situation, briefly point to opposing views, and sum up his opinion as a conclusion, often by way of a rhetorical question (~でしょうか or ~だろうか).

From Upside Down to 起承転結 (kishoutenketsu)

Good Japanese writing is supposed to follow the sequence of 起承転結 (kishoutenketsu), a four-step process as follows:

  1. (ki, to occur or arise): The story’s beginning. Introduce the reader to the situation and characters involved.
  2. (shou, to receive or accept). “Receiving” the material introduced in, dig deeper in this step. Give a full, objective explanation of the situation, so your reader understands the context and detail of your topic.
  3. (ten, to turn). The crux of the writing, is where you grab the reader’s interest with a surprising or novel “turn.” The section often starts out with しかし (however ...) or そして (and...), meaning the writing is about to guide the reader in a direction the reader didn’t necessarily expect.
  4. (ketsu, to conclude or tie together). With the unexpected turn of in mind, draw your final conclusion. This is where Japanese opinion writers will state their opinion, as a natural follow-on to the explanation of and the twist of  .
The Roller Coaster of 起承転結 (kishoutenketsu)

起承転 can be compared to a ride in a roller coaster: 

  1. is the start of the ride, as the chain starts pulling your car up that long hill. You’re going slow, getting used to the new environment.
  2. takes over as you get higher up the hill. You’re still moving slow, but you’re up high now, and can see the landscape much better.
  3. hits when the chain releases your car, and you start speeding down the hill. Just when you thought you knew the landscape (going up, up, up slowly but surely), the whole scene changes, and you’re experiencing an entirely different side of the roller coaster.
  4. is the coasting from the last hill to the end of the ride, a chance to wrap up, cool down, and take in what you’ve just experienced.
If you’re a manga fan, you probably know that 4-cell manga usually follows the 起承転結 sequence as well. Indeed, the four-step sequence of 起承転結 is the very reason for the popularity of the 4-cell manga!

So maybe Japanese isn’t upside down after all (roller coasters are a lot of fun, too), but my English-thinking brain still gets easily led astray when I try to tackle a Japanese essay.

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