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Review of  Using Japanese: A Guide to Contemporary Usage

Reviewer: Michael Haugh
Book Title: Using Japanese: A Guide to Contemporary Usage
Book Author: William McClure
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Japanese
Issue Number: 12.1150

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McClure, William (2000) Using Japanese: A Guide
to Contemporary Usage, Cambridge University Press,
336 pp.

Michael Haugh, Department of Asian Languages and
Studies, The University of Queensland

McClure's book "Using Japanese" is a welcome
addition to the small, but growing body of books which
have been written to help intermediate to advanced
learners of Japanese use Japanese grammar and
vocabulary they have previously learned more
appropriately. The book concentrates on areas of
grammar and vocabulary usage that are particularly
difficult for learners at this level. It seems that
McClure has chosen the areas that he covers - out
of the vast range of things that could be covered
in this kind of work - on the basis of his experience
teaching Japanese. It follows from this that this
book is not really a systematic coverage of grammar
and vocabulary usage as such, but rather a work which
concentrates on particular areas.

The book consists of four chapters. In Chapter One,
McClure illustrates the different dimensions of
appropriateness (for example, politeness, formality,
gender, age, written versus spoken et cetera) using
analyses of examples of both spoken and written
Japanese. He shows how pronunciation, vocabulary,
grammar, keigo/teineigo forms and so on are
constrained by these different dimensions of
appropriateness. He also makes an effort to show that
while appropriateness in Japanese might involve
different things, it still has much in common with
appropriateness in English, at least at an abstract
level. This reassures the learner that the issues
dealt with in this book, such as the supposed
"vagueness" common in Japanese or the complex system
of keigo and teineigo forms, need not be as
intimidating as what they might first appear.

In Chapter Two McClure describes how one can analyze
Japanese vocabulary in order to find out the
appropriate reading and meaning of words, without
necessarily having to learn every single piece of
vocabulary individually. In other words, McClure
tries to raise the level of awareness of learners about
Japanese vocabulary so that they can start making
sense of the sometimes confusing array of
pronunciations and meanings attributed to words. He
first briefly introduces Japanese intonation, and
then deals with how to use related words (where the
meanings overlap to some extent) appropriately. He
also shows how words are formed in Japanese from
components, covering such phenomena as verbal
compounding and affixing. In the final section of
Chapter Two, he shows how English-speaking learners
can best take advantage of the large number of English
borrowings now present in the Japanese vocabulary,
without falling into many of the pitfalls that may lead
to misunderstanding or simply lack of understanding.
He explains various phenomena including sound changes,
clipping, meaning changes and the grammar of borrowed
words (or gairaigo).

Chapter Three forms the core of this book where McClure
describes the nuances of various aspects of Japanese
grammar, so as to help learners use grammar more
appropriately. The first two sections (Sections 3.1
and 3.2) are related to the popular notion that
Japanese is vague and indirect. McClure explains the
appropriate use of various grammatical forms which
avoid making explicit the agent of sentences, and also
introduces a number of examples of hedges (or
softeners), which are used to soften opinions. The
next two sections (Sections 3.3. an 3.4) are related
to making potentially face-threatening acts, such as
commands, requests, suggestions and so on appropriate
relative to the situation. He outlines the kinds of
grammatical forms which can be used, and their
interpersonal implications, concentrating
particularly on verbs of giving and receiving. A
section on tense and aspect is followed by an extensive
discussion of the multiple functions of the different
particles in Japanese including wa, mo, ga, wo, ni,
de, to and so on. Particles and grammatical elements
related to conditionals (if and when) are covered in
a separate section. In Section 3.8 the conjugation
of nouns is described and how to turn them into verbs
appropriately is explained. The appropriate use of
terms of address and pronouns is briefly described
before giving various examples of frequency, temporal,
emphasis and other kinds of adverbs to illustrate
appropriate usage. In Section 3.11 McClure describes
how to use quantity-related expressions and
classifiers appropriately. He gives a list of the
different types of quantity-related expressions with
examples of how they should be used, and then describes
how to use quantifiers appropriately, both in terms
of meaning and in terms of pronunciation (where there
are both regularities and exceptions). A list of
common onomatapoeia and their meanings is given,
followed by examples of the different kinds of
intrasential and intersentential conjunctions found
in Japanese.

Chapter Four consists of various miscellaneous
aspects of appropriate usage of Japanese which do not
fall neatly into either the category of vocabulary or
grammar. The first section, which McClure calls
rituals, deals with conventionalised speech
acts/events such as greetings, expressions of thanks,
giving condolences and so on. He gives examples of
the kinds of expressions used for each type of speech
act/event and explains when it is appropriate to use
each one. In the second section McClure gives
complete lists of information about various things
which are difficult to find in other textbooks or
reference books, such as traditional units of
measurement in Japan, national holidays, common names,
prefectures in Japan and so on. The final section
briefly deals with Japanese orthography, touching
upon the origin of hiragana and katakana scripts,
punctuation and typescript conventions in Japanese,
traditional ordering of Japanese words (i ro ha ni...),
and unexpected "spellings".

A comprehensive bibliography of other books that may
be of use to learners of Japanese is followed by two
separate indexes, one in Japanese and one in English,
so that readers can locate information about the usage
of a particular word or grammatical expression


While the first chapter of this book is something which
could be read through from beginning to end and
digested by learners of Japanese, the remainder of the
book is more along the lines of reference material that
should be found and read as is required by learners.
The juxtaposition between these two different styles
could be considered problematic, but it probably just
needs to be pointed out to the readers that the first
chapter and the remaining three chapters should be
approached in different ways.

The concept of appropriateness is well-explained in
Chapter One and could be used as the basis for
classroom discussion with more advanced students of
Japanese. However, although McClure states that his
book is about politeness (p.1), the issues covered in
this book are much wider than what is encompassed by
either emic notions of Japanese politeness or
pragmatic notions of politeness. Thus his attempt to
explain the notion of politeness in this chapter (at
least some kind of emic or folk notion perspective on
politeness), probably did not deserve as much
attention as it got in this chapter. His treatment
of politeness ends up being slightly superficial
(especially his treatment of conventional speech
acts/events in Chapter Four), as he concentrates
mainly on politeness arising from linguistic forms,
neglecting politeness at both the discourse level
(Usami, 1999) and the level of implicitness or
implicature (Haugh, In Progress). More
comprehensive treatments of politeness in Japanese,
written for learners of Japanese, can be found in
Mizutani and Mizutani (1987) and Aoki and Okamoto

The material that is covered in Chapters Two to Four
is well chosen, because it deals with aspects of using
Japanese which need further explanation than is
normally given when initially introducing Japanese
grammar to learners.

The various lists in particular are very helpful
reference material, as the information contained in
them is much more accessible than that to be found in
dictionaries or textbooks (if it is to be found at all).
In Chapter Two he gives very helpful lists of character
synonyms (where words have the same or similar sound
and related meanings, pp.37-60), examples of verbal
compounds in Japanese (pp.65-76), and lists of words
which can formed from common prefixes and suffixes
(pp.81-104). In Chapter Three helpful reference
lists include lists of transitive/intransitive verb
pairs (pp.130-136), lists of -te iru conjugated verbs
(pp.160-164), lists of how use turn nouns into verbs
appropriately (pp.230-233) and so on. Chapter Four
also includes very useful lists of general information
that is also quite difficult to locate, at least in
complete form, such as lists of Japanese measurement
units, prefectures, zodiac signs and so on. The
comprehensive nature of the various lists of examples
is one of this book's greatest strengths.

The explanations given by McClure explaining which
grammatical forms are appropriate in various
situations are also quite clear and straightforward,
as he avoids giving overly academic explanations.
His examples also show that he is trying to encourage
learners of Japanese to see that the way in which
Japanese speak is not so alien as what might appear
when first beginning to learn Japanese. McClure's
book makes considerable ground in demystifying
appropriate usage of Japanese.

However, while in some respects his straightforward
explanations of appropriate usage are one of this
books strengths, there was probably some scope for a
little bit more deeper analysis along the lines of
Obana's (2000) recent handbook on appropriate usage
of Japanese. Without deeper analysis showing
connections between various elements, the learner may
be simply overwhelmed by the vast amount of examples
one must encounter to begin to use Japanese
appropriately at an intermediate to advanced level.

Another slight drawback is that McClure seems to
adhere to a fairly conventional view of Japanese
communication which involves a couple of slightly
questionable assumptions. While it is popular to
characterize Japanese communication as vague and
indirect, the notion that Japanese communication is
more vague and indirect than other languages (read
English) is problematic for two reasons (Haugh,
Firstly, the notions of vagueness and indirectness
seem to be applied even when what is actually involved
is implicit meaning. The lack of subject pronouns in
Japanese (for example, one does not normally say
"Watashi wa gakkoo ni iku", but rather one says "Gakkoo
ni iku") is sometimes given as an example of
"vagueness" or "indirectness" in Japanese, but in
context there is normally nothing particularly vague
about who is speaking. In addition, it is not an
example of indirect meaning, but rather of implicit
meaning. Even if we put aside the terminological
mix-up between indirectness and implicit meaning, the
assumption that implicit meaning is always somehow
more vague than explicit meaning is mistaken.
A second problem is that English is often assumed as
the standard for what should be made explicit in
communication. Thus because Japanese, for example,
does not tend to make explicit the agents of actions
in many situations it is characterised as vague and
indirect (See Section 3.1). However, it is worth
bearing in mind that Japanese makes much more explicit
than English other aspects of interpersonal meaning.
For example, verbs of giving and receiving make more
explicit who something was done for or who benefited
(Section 3.3), and keigo/teineigo forms make more
explicit the relative relationship of speakers,
listeners and referents than is done in English (Ide,
This is not to say that Japanese is not used in a vague
manner at times, and indeed indirect usage is very
common, but the assumption that vague and indirect
usages are more common in Japanese than in other
languages is questionable. It is unfortunate that
this book seems to perpetuate rather than dispel some
of these "nihonjinron-like" assumptions.

That said, overall this book is an excellent treatment
of various aspects of the appropriate usage of
Japanese vocabulary and grammar. It is a very
comprehensive treatment of a vast amount of
information, and thus students would probably benefit
from the publication of an accompanying workbook which
would help them transform knowledge about language
they gain from this book into real communicative
competence. At the very least, some kind of
additional explanation as to how learners might more
effectively use this book might be quite helpful.

This book is an excellent addition to the range of
books now available to help learners of Japanese speak
and write more appropriately at the level of grammar.
A book which covers appropriate usage of Japanese at
the discourse level for learners is a natural
follow-up to this book, and is something I will look
forward to seeing appear sometime in the future.

Aoki, H. and S. Okamoto (1988) Rules for
Conversational Rituals in Japanese, Taishukan.

Haugh, M. (Forthcoming) Post-Nihonjinron Perceptions
of Japanese Communication. Paper to be presented at
the JSAA Biennial Conference, University of New South
Wales, Sydney, 27-30 June 2001.

Haugh, M. (In Progress) Politeness Implicature in
Japanese, PhD Thesis, University of Queensland.

Ide, S. (2000) Nihongo wo "aimai" ni saseru mono - Koo
kontekusuto bunka ni okeru meta-gengo-ishiki. Paper
presented at the Sixth Conference of the Japanese
Association of Sociolinguistic Sciences, Chukyo
University, Nagoya, Japan.

Mizutani, O. and N. Mizutani (1987) How to be Polite
in Japanese, The Japan Times.

Obana, Y. (2000) Using Japanese. A Handbook for
Learners and Teachers, Kurosio Publishers.

Usami, M. (1999) Discourse Politeness in Japanese
Conversation: Some Implications for a Universal
Theory of Politeness. PhD thesis, Harvard

Michael Haugh is currently a PhD candidate at the
University of Queensland working on the topic of
politeness and implicature in Japanese. His research
interests include Japanese pragmatics,
sociolinguistics and second language learning.