Language and culture: an intrinsic relationship

Japanese: a Ural-Altaic or Nipponic language? The controversial and often debated phylogenesis of this language makes it as individual as it is difficult to identify within the genealogical tree of languages. It is an extremely contextual language, the study of which reveals the intrinsic appeal of its complexity. By way of example, only some its characteristics features are listed below:

  • Phonetics: poor in sounds and rich in homophones, this could not exist save for in a language which is closely linked to the circumstances in which the conversation is taking place.
  • Syntax and Grammar: beyond the various grammatical constructs which do not always have a corresponding structure in our language, making translation difficult, the Japanese language possesses several peculiarities that differentiate it from other languages like Italian, for example: first of all, it is a language which respects the SOV word order (Subject-Object-Verb) and the only punctuation marks used are the full stop and the comma. Furthermore, Japanese does not conjugate verbs according to person, it does not have a definite plural form and it does not distinguish the gender of masculine, feminine and neutral words.
  • Script: the complexity of its script compensates for its phonetic simplicity. Developed over more than 500 years of history, the Japanese script is today composed of four inter-connected systems: hiragana and katakana (phonetic transcriptions of syllabic sounds), romaji  (transliteration in Latin characters) and kanji the so-called ‘sinograms’ or, more simply, ‘characters’). To understand a text written in standard Japanese, knowledge of this system must extend to around 2000 characters.
  • Honorific language: Keigo is a Japanese ‘language of respect’ which, by using a peculiar grammatical system, reflects the complex hierarchical social relations which are intrinsic to the Japanese culture. Keigo is divided into three levels: kenjogo (humble language), teineigo (respectful language) et sonkeigo (honorific language), which, in turn, possess various nuances. The use of keigo, with its many facets, makes Japanese a language which is difficult to comprehend yet, at the same time, telling us a great deal about the hierarchy of interpersonal relations and behavioural dynamics.

From this, it is obvious that communicating with Japan, making contact with a culture which is completely different from our own, but just as articulate, is an extremely difficult and delicate task. Fostering relationships with Japan on a communication level is thus, no longer a simple translation activity: it is a complex process of mediation and cultural adjustment, of reformulation and the localisation of concepts according to the different linguistic and social norms. In a professional context, this involves the use of expert mediators, in order to avoid unhappy ambiguities (linguistic and/or behavioural misunderstandings) which may compromise the good outcome of business negotiations. But how does Japan present itself to the world? We try to illustrate briefly the country’s real social and economic situation.

Monetary policies and international: in which direction?

With one of the most advanced technological developments in the world (primarily with regard to electronics, information technology and mechanics), and a GNP of more than 5,390 billion US Dollars(1) Japan is perceived as the third world economy, close behind the USA and China, revealing an attractive yet demanding market, which is very difficult to penetrate. It is not only difficult due to cultural differences, which certainly have a significant effect on commercial relations with a country that is as complex as it is avulsed from our own mentality, but also due to economic and monetary differences.
Having overcome the so-called sakoku, centuries that is, the Japanese isolation, after the forced opening to trade by Commodore Perry (opening sanctioned by the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854)(2), Japan is today, a global economic power. In reality however, the balances are not well-defined. We have taken only a few facts into consideration to demonstrate this.


  • Until only a few decades ago, Japan was a bubble economy(3) a speculative bubble which, once burst – towards the middle of the nineties – caused the Land of the Rising Sun to fall into an economic crisis between 1997 and 2000, which worsened public debt. One would add that although there was some discrete recovery following the crisis, an enormous public debt still remains today.
  • The currency: the strong tendency to overvalue the Yen does not show signs of diminishing (notwithstanding the US and other countries’ commercial interests in importing Japanese products without counting the repeated attempts of national and international monetary policies to undervalue major currencies).
  • Demand: what has been mentioned above is in part due to the fact that Japanese consumers tend to be cautious and sensitive: afraid of the uncertainties of the future, they are cautious savers. The insufficient liquidity on the market therefore leads to the inevitable increase in the value of money. As proof of this, it has been argued that, between 2009 and 2010, despite timid Japanese recovery in response to the recent global crisis, internal consumption maintained a deflationary tendency and still does not seem to increase, in fact, they are falling. This has caused national policies to steer investments overseas (around 43.9% are destined for overseas against 5.9% left to the national market)(4).

Unfortunately the steep rise in the Japanese currency has contributed to a drastic fall in exports of every type of product in a significant way. Those linked to the automobile sector, part of the bedrock of the national economy, have been particularly affected and have been damaged further by the temporary closure of some important factories following the Sendai earthquake, not to mention the safety measures put in place as a result of the Fukushima nuclear incident, which are also causing many complications for food-farming exports. These are highly significant factors which risk invalidating the most recent policies oriented towards exportation.
As a partial solution to these problems, the G7 is weighing up the possibility of operating joint manoeuvres between the EU, the US and Japan to encourage the circulation of Japanese money, in an attempt to slow the rise of the Yen, which is predicted to reach record levels. This is also because, with the persistent devaluation of the US currency, the USD/Yen exchange has returned to historically-low levels, wavering around 80 Yen to one US Dollar in March, and reaching the lowest value in history of around 76.5 on 17th March, despite an initial, drastic fall in the Tokyo stock exchange due to the tsunami which took place on 11th March 2011. Before this point, a figure such as this has not been registered since 1995, when the USD/Yen exchange reached a value of 83.19. (5)
Its relationship with the European currency follows an analogous negative tendency, even if it is slightly more contained in this case: it is enough to recall that in the last four years, the Euro/Yet exchange has gone from around 165-170 in 2008, to 135 in 2009, arriving at just above 120 last year. The equivalent Euro/Yen exchange is around 115 Yen to 1 Euro.

We thus find ourselves face-to-face with an outlook which is as interesting as it is controversial: on the one hand, the historic attempt of foreign trading powers to encourage Japanese export (an attempt favoured by the actual necessity for the Japanese to direct its market overseas), on the other hand, a monetary policy constantly aimed at halting the overvaluation of the Yen. An overvaluation influenced by insufficient internal consumption and destabilised by recent events. The professionalism and preparation of a country which, despite everything, is still an economic leader within Asian markets, are today put very much to the test, as expert voices remain in disagreement over the future.


(1) Data: International Monetary Fund estimates, 2010.
(2) In the last three centuries of the Japanese feudal period, the Tokugawa period ?? (1600 – 1868), the government promoted an isolationist policy, aimed at blocking international exchange. It was the USA to put an end to this line of self-exclusion, forcibly opening the Japanese coasts to trade and sanctioning such an act with the Convention of Kanagawa, which together with other similar documents, was included in the list of irregular treaties stipulated by Western colonial powers with the Far Eastern states.
(3) The speculative bubble, mainly concentrated in the national property market, was characterised by the incredible growth of the Japanese economy, in terms of GNP, from the sixties and the eighties.
(4) Fonte: Giappone. Rapporti Paese Congiunti – 1° semestre 2010, ICE (Istituto degli Affari Esteri), pag. 2
(5) Source:

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