HFR publishes contributors from all over the world, in languages and from places that some people (we're not pointing fingers) have never heard of. This recurring post Foreign Tongues will give you a little culture and a little history, a way to better understand the background behind some not-so-familiar peoples and languages.

You probably know things about Japan. The Ring is based off of a Japanese horror movie. Japanese people like tea. They wear funky clothing—either traditional kimonos or fun and weird outfits such as might be found in Harajuku. Tokyo is the capital of Japan. The characters the Japanese write with are a combination of characters “borrowed” from the Chinese and characters that were altered from Chinese characters, creating new Japanese characters. You might know the works of Haruki Murakami, which have been translated into more than forty languages.

Someone you might not know is Itō Hiromi, a contemporary Japanese poet who is nationally acclaimed and has won many awards in Japan. She was born in 1955 in Tokyo and became well-known as a poet in the 1980s. Much of her work focuses on women’s issues including motherhood and pregnancy. Killing Kanako: Selected Poems of Itō Hiromi, translated into English and published in 2009, deals largely with these issues.

One of interesting things about Itō Hiromi is how she uses colloquial speech in her poetry when Japanese usually has very strict forms and guidelines for writing—and speaking. It's a highly formalized and hierarchical language. I've been taking Japanese classes for a couple of years now, and I've had to learn three different forms of Japanese to date—regular, slightly formal speech (like you might use when you're talking to stranger; we'll call this the "intermediate level"); regular, plain speech (like you might use with your friends and what Hiromi uses in her poetry); and honorific speech (used in inferior/superior situations). That sounds pretty similar to English, because after all, we don't speak the same with our friends as we do with our bosses, but Japanese takes this idea and explodes into outer space with it. As not-so-quick example from Hiromi's poem "A Poem for Ueno-San" featured in HFR #41, take the line "人がおおぜい立ってそれを見ている (hito ga oozei tatte sore wo miteiru)" which is translated as "Many people stood by to watch." It's written nice and simple in the plainest form. If you were to change to the highest form I mentioned earlier, honorific, the verb "miteiru" would change to "gorannatteimasu." Both words mean the same thing. One just takes a lot longer to say. The part that really stinks for the natives who have to learn this stuff, not speaking in the proper form to your boss can get you fired.

Poetry and written word in Japanese have always been very much part of the hierarchy of the language—it has its place and its form, and you don’t deviate from that. You don’t use colloquial speech, or at least you haven’t until recently. Hiromi uses it, and she does it effectively. She’s gotten the attention and respect of her country using a form of speech that isn’t highly formalized, but it still works for Japan.