[Update 2011/07/29@0129 JST: I humbly retract everything bad I said about CliffsNotes. CliffsNotes rule. There’s no way I was going to read Atlas Shrugged for real: YouTube doesn’t watch itself; get to the point, woman! :P]
Legal documents are a wordy morass of redundant crap…
But in Japanese, they’re…fun. No, I mean it. Filled with cool kanji, simple, logical, direct and unambiguous language, legal dox in Japanese are actually, IMHO, a language learner’s dream. I started deliberately reading legal documents in Japanese one day on a whim a while ago. I was buying comics to read on my cellphone, as one is readily able to do in Japan, and, the purchase screen had one of those user agreements attached. And I decided to read the agreement, the whole agreement, just for kicks. And I was struck by both how easy it was to understand, but at the same time about how much I learned in terms of document and sentence structure.
Now, I can hear some voices say “but Kats, you were fluent in Japanese at this point”. I was…but, looking back, I had done a similar thing long before I was fluent. Back when I was installing a Japanese OS on my computer, in February 2005, and thereafter when installing other software, I would encounter software license agreements, and while I never read them in their entirety because I’m usually in such a rush when installing software, I did read them in part, and I was struck by how easy they were to understand. This is going to sound weird but reading legal dox in Japanese is really…enjoyable. Maybe it’s because, in terms of actual content, they all say about the same thing — “screw you and all your base are belong to us” — but they say it so edjumacated-sounding! Here’s a line from a contract a read today (I was considering signing up for Sky Perfect satellite TV, specifically to get channels of the from Hong Kong and Taiwan kind):
If in the course of using a Sky Perfect DVR, said DVR is unable to record video due to a breakdown or any other reason resulting in the user’s data being lost or damaged, Sky Perfect TV cannot in any way, shape or form be held responsible for that loss or any accompanying damage. Screw you and all your base are belong to us.
(actually, it’s from outside the main contract, but it’s from the contract page, and it still owns).
This kind of thing (contract-reading) is what I mean by “anything and everything that is in Japanese, by and for a Japanese audience, is fair game for study”. If you haven’t already, I want you to let go of the very narrow idea that only materials specifically and explicitly designated for learning are for learning. In fact, the materials designated for learning tend to suck; they tend to be the ones from which you learn the least.
Other than their being fun, there is a more practical reason for reading legal documents. Whether or not you are a lawyer, it should come as no surprise to you that Japan is a society that is basically governed by laws and written contracts. These written contracts are built on logical arguments and language that people use to secure their positions. If you do anything remotely grown-up in connection with Japan — live here, do business here or with people from here, whatever — then there may well come a time when you will have to have a more or less reasonable discussion with someone who disagrees with you, but whom you will need to win over. I may be wrong, but I feel that Japanese legalese is not as removed from normal communication and ridiculous-sounding as English legalese. For this and other reasons, I recommend that you read legal Japanese to equip yourself with the vocabulary and structure needed to go to town.
In my personal experience, people in Japan, like people all over the world, do things based on bad logic, but when shown that bad logic, they are willing to correct and compromise in a way I do not often see in the rest of the world. As long as you couch your arguments in logic, not in “best practice in other parts of the world” or “this is how we do it in my country”, you can win a lot of bloodless battles in Japan. This is from a guy who’s had to get the erroneously overcharged import duty removed from items shipped from abroad (the duty was about 10 times the value of the items), get the water turned back on at his friend’s house hours before New Year’s break, and get a doctor to give Momoko enough prescription medication so that we needn’t go to the hospital and wait in line for three hours every other freaking day (OK, every 2.5 months, but that can feel like every other day). All of it involved gently exposing bad logic to put it kindly (or arguing my guts out with polite tenacity and lots of grown-up words, to put it bluntly).
Let me be frank. Japan is not a multiethnic country in the modern sense on a large scale (of course the people of Japan originally came from all over Asia, but everyone combined to form a new people, the Japanese people, and therefore Japan can be said to have only one ethnicity)…yet. And that’s fine. The only problem is that this means that non-ethnic Japanese who speak Japanese are rare…for now. Simply put, Japanese people do not expect you to speak Japanese and so in that sense they think you’re stupid in the way that we all think that people who do not speak our language are stupid — we do not think they can handle a complex, nuanced discussion. This is not a good thing or a bad thing: it is merely the way things are. Frankly, I see it as an opportunity. Since most people in Japan currently hold such low linguistic expectations of you, for you to exceed those expectations, by what appear to be such astronomical margins, works in your favor — the shock value alone can win the day for you. Anyway, so, yeah, to get some Japanese people in some situations to take you seriously, as you may need to from time to time in adult life, you may need to make all their base belong to you. The best way (I have thought of so far) to do this is through language that is firm, well-reasoned and a liiiiiiiittle cold(?) — don’t be a jerk, don’t be rude, but don’t be a pushover either. One of the best places to learn such language, I think, is in legal documents. That and the proceedings of Japan’s law-making body (the House of Representatives), available in full in video here. For those times when you really need to talk like a no-B.S. adult, this is some of the best preparation you can get.
I’ve said that most legal dox amount to “screw you and all your base are belong to us”. That’s not entirely true — sometimes stated explicitly and other times openly implied between the lines are your rights. Get familiar with legal documents, get over the intimidation, start reading them, and you can potentially get more out of life here as and when you need to.
I have no formal legal training, nor am I particularly interested in the law for its own sake. But, that doesn’t matter. Contracts are a part of our lives. At the end of the day, what is literacy even for if it is not at least for reading, understanding, analzying and evaluating the documents that run our very lives? If you don’t read the things that matter, then it’s the same as you not being able to read at all; you’re as defenseless as those Americans who got outright lied to and swindled by European invaders into signing away all your base are belong to us documents (see 1492 to 1970 for details) . And like, if all the people in the US who bought houses on subprime loans had actually read and thought about their contracts before signing them, they might have known that they were getting screwed and in danger of having their base belong to someone else. But they didn’t read them. We are a society, a generation, of people raised on the Cliffs Notes of life. We read about the law, we read about the Constitution, we read about the budget, but we almost never read the actual, original documents; we never bust out a calculator and actually add up those numbers that get thrown around in the legislatures of our respective countries, not unless it’s something stupid and irrelevant like Moby Dick or Macbeth. Not that Moby Dick and Macbeth don’t have their place, but if you’re not a Macbetholigst, they’re about as important to your daily life as yesterday’s episode of One Piece, which is to say less than the dust that gathers in the fan on my laptop even as I type this. Dude, that cellphone contract you and I signed without reading, that thing matters, we should have read it and not just trusted the shop guy’s hand-waving explanation talking about how it “should” be OK. Shop guys (and girls) will mislead you with qualified statements that are lexically true “in some cases…”, but practically quite false. Before you sign away the next two years of your life to AU or Softbank, you should seriously cast your eyes and mind upon that print, fine or otherwise — ask for the large-print senior citizen version if the regular one hurts to read, but whatever you do, READ it. Spend at least as much time perusing the pertinent contracts as picking the colors on your keitai or the wallpaper of your house. This is your life; this is real; this is important. OK, end of dad lecture 8) .
Anwyay, I just realized that maybe I haven’t expressed myself very well in this post, which would be ironic, but…whatever. Um, here are some links to more legal dox (primarily software user agreements) and to all the Sky Perfect agreements bundled up into one file.