Kate Elwood's Daily Yomiuri latest column looks at cultural differences about describing love:
It is said that the Meiji novelist Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) told his students the proper way to translate "I love you" into Japanese was "Tsuki ga kirei desu ne" (The moon is beautiful tonight). The remark ascribed to Soseki points to the wide divergence in ways of giving voice to matters of the heart, and the potentially daunting task for both translators and prospective cross-cultural honeybuns in making sense of amorous dynamics. Things have naturally changed since the Meiji period (1868-1912), but differences remain in how love is experienced and expressed nonetheless, as the studies of Chieko Mulhern, a scholar of Japanese literature, and Janet Shibamoto Smith, a linguistic anthropologist, reveal.
Both researchers have analyzed differences between Harlequin romance novels and Japanese home-grown stories of a similar ilk. As Mulhern points out, Harlequin romances, which entered the Japanese market in 1979, were extremely popular right from the start. By 1985, close to 2,000 Western romances had been translated into Japanese. In 1982, Sanrio created its own "New Romance" line and sought original manuscripts from Japanese fans. Mulhern emphasizes that these indigenous works "blossomed out of Western seeds" and were by and large uninfluenced by Japanese literary conventions. And yet, they were not exactly replicas of the Western model. Mulhern compared the 26 New Romances that had been published by Sanrio up until 1988 with their Western counterparts and found intriguing divergences.
Particularly interesting is the downgrading of the importance of the heroine's isolation, often a key facet of Western romances. While in the latter the heroines are often thrust into a cold, uncaring world as a result of the death of a parent, in almost half of the domestically produced tales of love that Mulhern examined both parents are alive and on good terms with the female protagonist. Moreover, in almost a third of the novels the heroine's mother serves as a devoted and supportive confidante. Similarly, while the Harlequin heroines are typically lacking in close friends, reinforcing their emotional dependence on the main male character, in more than half of the Sanrio novels the heroines have at least one good friend.
Mulhern's analysis further points to a stronger sense of self-esteem among the home-grown heroines. Unlike in the Western romances in which as a rule the female character defines her worth in terms of her relationship with a man until she is forced to reconsider following a distressing event, in the Sanrio novels the women are well aware of their own value, and derive satisfaction and confidence from their work, which often involves foreign travel. They seek a fulfilling romantic relationship, but it is not the be-all and end-all matter that it is for the heroines in the corresponding Western novels.
Shibamoto Smith made a similar comparison of romantic novels written by Japanese authors and Harlequin romances translated into Japanese, focusing particularly on one novel from each genre. Her findings make plain some other interesting disparities in the heroines' paths to ultimate happiness with their very own Mr. Right. One difference relates to the inevitable obstacle to the relationship, which provides much of the impetus for the plot. Shibamoto Smith observes that in the novels by Japanese writers, romantic impediments are usually not related to a potential partner's personal traits, such as infidelity or indifference, but rather concern his family or other uchi ("in-group") circumstances. On the other hand, in the Harlequin romances, the barrier to love typically takes the form of a conflict between the two lovebirds rather than some kind of external setback. Because of this, the burgeoning love between the two often suffices to eradicate the hindrance to the relationship.
Another difference found by Shibamoto Smith relates to descriptions of how those pierced by Cupid's arrow feel and how their love is manifested. In the Harlequin novels, the characters undergo a tremendous amount of physical reactions as a result of their attraction--they have difficulty breathing; their hearts throb; blood boils; bodies melt, tremble violently, and burn; and faces are flushed.
Not a lot of this stuff happens in the novels by Japanese writers. The characters do tremble, although not violently, and there is a bit of blushing. Conversely, these heroines' hearts are "tickled," and they sweetly lean against their lovers or cling to them, sometimes desperately. Additionally, while the Harlequin characters look intensely at each other, bite their lips, and so on, the Japan-created protagonists mostly look away from each other at crucial moments.The American humorist Helen Rowland (1875-1950) commented "Falling in love consists merely in uncorking the imagination and bottling the common sense."