Beauty, Expression, Japan, Random
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“Mokusatsu”: The Japanese art of silence and ambiguity.


I read “The Empire of Signs” by Roland Barthes last year. There was an interesting proposition–that the Japanese are masters of “signs”, whereas Westerners have a “fixation with words”.

This stance greatly intrigued me, because it implies that ambiguity in the Japanese context might be perceived as ideal, even considerate. Whereas ambiguity may not be so desirable in the Western context. This further implies possible intercultural miscommunication.

Recently I’d been reading up a little too on the Japanese World War II history, and their process of surrendering. It is interesting to note that the word “mokusatsu“, which has a wide range of meanings in Japanese, ranging from “no comment”/ “to reserve comment”/ or “to ignore with contempt” was used in Japan’s response to calls to surrender. Basically, when the USA asked the Japanese empire to surrender, this word was used deliberately by the Japanese emperor to appease both the left and right-wing of the parliament, with its intended ambiguity.

For, how can one interpret silence?

The left-wing which wanted Japan to surrender to minimise losses would have interpreted the lack of comment as the Japanese emperor “buying time” to negotiate with the right-wing, which championed the kamikaze fighters, or the “I’d rather die than to surrender” stance.

Whereas the right-wing would have interpreted this silence as “to ignore [the suggestion] with contempt”. So via the word “mokusatsu“, the emperor pleased both sides while also having bought some time to examine the situation more closely. Or this silence might even be used in an active way, to gather information.

It is an unfortunate disaster however, that the Westerners then (mis?)interpreted the term as “to ignore with contempt”, and went ahead to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This I think, is what Barthes meant by the West having a “fixation with words”, and being extremely uncomfortable with ambiguity.

Is it not interesting to think about silence in passive and active terms? This video for instance, posits that silence is but a “residue of fear”, something pretty passive. But what if, like the Japanese folks, we intuitively internalise active silence? The idea behind active silence is based on the idea that the same silence can resolve something positively, if only if we give time/fate/life/nature/[blank] a chance. For, we don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t know what unseen powers are at work. Human beings are truly insignificant creatures and honestly, the area of our control is too limited.

In a sense, life is precious precisely because we might just die anytime. So perhaps it is sometimes a good idea to have silence in our lives. In a way, the idea of “mokusatsu” is one that is filled with hope as well.

Recently I’d begun to really see that it’s important to convey good intention across cultures and languages accurately. You can have the best language and best education in cultural communication, or honestly, whatever–but if you fail to convey positive intention accurately, you’d still fail to get your message across.

Because people will then fail to trust.

The beauty of ambiguity in silence lies in imagination. Ironically, that’s the ugliness, too. So perhaps, how you interpret silence also reveals what is in your heart.


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