What is Uchi, What is Soto: The Cultural Implications of Japanese Grammar

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Learners of any new language are familiar with confronting seemingly erratic distinctions. When do I know to use the subjunctive? Is this ‘une chaise’ or ‘un fauteuil’? And, what gender is a leaf? On Friday, Professor Seiichi Makino of Princeton University presented a lecture on how Japanese culture informs certain areas of arbitrary Japanese grammar.

The focus of the talk was the distinction between Uchi and Soto, inside and outside. These two words were extended into metaphorical concepts used to classify many Japanese nouns and actions. Things that are Uchi relate to the home, one’s self, the present, reality, the visible, and the internal. Soto refers not only to what is outside, but also to otherness, foreigners, the past and the future, idealizations, the invisible, and abstractions. Professor Makino then went on to elaborate numerous examples of this distinction in Japanese.

The first diagram that was used appeared similar to depictions of the koshas in yoga. Nested circles with arrows traveling between them were correlated with paired words and concepts. The Japanese make a distinction between the Uchi ‘Hon’ne’ (true feeling) and the Soto ‘Tatemae’ (what one professes in public). The two words for mountain, ‘yama’ and ‘san’, can be explained in terms of Uchi and Soto. A small mountain that is scalable and habited is seen as Uchi, while ones that are far away and unfamiliar are Soto. This distinction can be extended to islands (‘shima’ vs. ‘too’) and alphabets (‘hiragana’ vs. ‘romanji’). The second slide divided up the natural world into what Professor Makino called a hierarchy of empathy. Objects like machines and furniture ranked as the most Soto, while relatives and then other humans were some of the most Uchi.

This distinction is applicable to more than just noun choice. Japanese markers of passive agents, ‘ni’ and ‘kara’, indicate the speaker’s views on what is Uchi vs. Soto. Makino joked that one can tell whether characters in Japanese literature are falling in love by looking at these grammatical cues. This led into a discussion of insights into Japanese cultural values. Just as the feelings of two characters are revealed, the way something is categorized by society indicates how it is viewed. Among numerous other examples, Makino cited ‘tatemae’ (what one professes in public). He said this encapsulates the impression of foreigners that the Japanese are indirect in speech and reluctant to reveal personal feelings. As indicated by ‘tatemae’ being Soto, the divide between the inner and outer tells people to express their feelings publicly with reticence.

The question and answer period was productive and included typical Swarthmore topics. It was brought up that the alphabet indicated as the most Uchi is typically associated with women, while the Soto alphabet is the one of men and business. Professor Makino agreed that this was a productive angle of interpretation. In Japan women are associated with the home and children are expected to more easily relate to their mothers. These are indicators of the Uchi. It was also discussed how English-speaking children of Japanese parents lose this world-view of Uchi vs. Soto. This extended into how Professor Makino’s Japanese has changed as a result of his living for several decades in a society that does not make this distinction. He feels that he is less likely to follow certain Japanese conventions that tie into personal expression.

The large audience was left with a deeper understanding of the Japanese language. As Professor Makino said, it is impossible to teach a language out of context. Culture must be referenced for any language to make sense.

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