Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2011.09.09

Japan's New Prime Minister Describes Himself

Speaking in advance of the election for prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda compared himself to a type of small fish. This fish is called "dojo"; it lives in the mud and is known to every Japanese. Japanese newspapers reported Noda's remark favorably, or at least neutrally. Some scholars commented positively on the statement. I found the statement interesting in that it skillfully reflected Mr. Noda's straightforward nature and his approach of quiet dedication.

Now, this fish is not so familiar to those in Europe and the United States. Although it is being translated as "loach," most people seem to have never heard of that word. I asked a few British and Americans, and they did not know it. It is not even listed in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary that I use.

So, then, it is no wonder that the international press had to struggle when reporting on Mr. Noda's remark. For example, the Washington Post described the loach as "an unattractive, bottom-feeding fish", while the New York Times reported that it is "an eel-like bottom-feeding fish with whiskers." Unfortunately, these descriptions do not fully convey the real meaning of "dojo."

This is because the word "dojo" really connotes more than just the fish - it conveys a certain nuance as well. Japanese acquire this connotation - more than just the ordinary meaning of the word -- from daily life, so it is rather difficult to explain its full meaning accurately. The word has the connotations of "friendliness", "popular appeal", "rustic", "country", and even a sort of "winsomeness."

So, the English language papers' explanation of "loach" as "an unattractive bottom-feeding fish" fails to convey these connotations. Reuter is an excellent international wire service that many English language papers often carry and its explanation of "loach" was "an eel-like inhabitant of the deep." That, in turn, was translated back into Japanese as a "fish that lives deep in the water" or "deep in the ocean." The Japanese media, therefore, reported that Reuter had translated "loach" as a deep water fish, leading to great confusion in Japan. "Deep water" in Japanese signifies ocean, not a river or a pond, and a deep sea of several thousand meters.

I can surmise that this explanation of the word "loach" was taken from an English language dictionary but simply quoting the dictionary definition provides insufficient background for Mr. Noda's remarks about his being like a "dojo." The word that Japan's new Prime Minister used to describe himself in public deserved more research. English language papers reported that why he had used that word was rather puzzling. Some reported, somewhat condescendingly, that his comment reflected the chaotic state of current Japanese politics.

Those in the media and education sectors are responsible for reporting accurately about Japan to overseas audiences. Some of the reporters that wrote aforementioned articles had Japanese names. They should have made more of an effort to convey the complete meaning of "dojo", with its connotations for "friendliness", "popular appeal", "rusticity", and "country." If one is not familiar with the word "dojo", one should try to learn the song "Donguri" (Acorns), which features "dojo." If one does not know why "dojo" conveys a sense of winsomeness, one should see a performance of the folk dance and song "Yasugibushi." "Dojo," in these songs and dance, exudes these connotations. It is not at all "unattractive."

Lastly, there are "dojo" in China and the Chinese are familiar with the fish. So it would not be difficult to convey to them the meaning of the fish, including its image. But here one should be careful. "Dojo" is "niqiu" in Chinese and, because the fish is slippery, the Chinese think of the fish as being tricky. When the largest Chinese internet site Xinlang Wan reported on Prime Minister Noda's remark, it explained that "dojo" means "quiet dedication" and not "slippery." This explanation lacks the sense of "winsomeness" but is basically correct.

The "dojo" comment made me realize once again just how important it is to pay minute attention when communicating with people of different cultures.