The Japanese Language Brain

“JAPAN CLOSE-UP”, August 2002, published by PHP

The Japanese Language Brain
By Masaomi Ise

They Can’t Hear the Insects?

Our story begins with the visit of Professor Tadanobu Tsunoda of Tokyo Medical & Dental University to Havana, Cuba, in January 1987 to attend the 1st international seminar titled “Central Nervous System Disease Physiology and Compensation.” Cuba was still under embargo and Prof. Tsunoda was the only participant from a western nation. There was a reception on the night before the seminar began, with many scientists from eastern bloc nations in attendance. A Cuban man was delivering a fervent speech in powerful Spanish.

But Prof. Tsunoda was distracted by the extremely loud sound of insects that enveloped the meeting hall. Realizing that even in January Cuba was hot, Prof. Tsunoda asked someone around him what kind of insect it might be, but no one could hear the insects but him, while to Prof. Tsunoda it sounded like a loud outburst of cicadas or crickets!

When the reception finally ended at about 2 o’clock in the morning, Prof. Tsunoda made his way back with two young Cubans. On the quiet night streets, he could hear the same insect songs as before, but even louder now. Prof. Tsunoda pointed out many times the places in the bushes where he could hear the insects singing, but though the two would stop and stand still to listen intently, they couldn’t hear anything. They just looked at him rather strangely, and said he must be tired so have a good night.

Prof. Tsunoda met with the two Cubans every day for some activity or another, but not until the third day did the man finally notice the insects’ noise. He didn’t seem much interested, however. The woman never did hear the insects during the whole one week seminar. To the doctor it seemed that the hearing of Japanese people and hearing of foreigners had to be very different.

Left Brain, Right Brain

Based on this difference in the sense of hearing, Prof. Tsunoda set out to research the physiological difference between the brains of Japanese and of the other races. The results of his research led to a surprising discovery. The human brain is divided between the left and right spheres, with each having different functions. The right brain is called the music sphere, because it is where the sounds of music, machinery and noise is processed. The left brain is called the language sphere, because it processes sound logically and intellectually, namely being where the spoken word is comprehended. Up to this point Japanese are the same as Westerners.

But Prof. Tsunoda found a difference in the location where the sound of insects is processed. His experiments revealed that while Westerners process insect sounds together with machinery and noise sounds in the music sphere, Japanese capture insect sounds in their language sphere, meaning that Japanese hear insect sounds as “insect voices.”

For the Cubans, if one were used to hearing the loud insect singing that filled the meeting hall as the ordinary background noise, they would not even be conscious of it. This is the same phenomenon as living for many years next to a railroad and growing so accustomed to the noise that we wouldn’t even notice a train passing by. But since Japanese hear insect sounds in the same language sphere as they hear human voices, we can’t let insect sounds just go by as part of the background noise. The fervent speech in Spanish and the loud insect singing were in direct competition in the left brain of Prof. Tsunoda.

This unique characteristic is only found among Japanese and Polynesian people, while Chinese and Koreans exhibit the same pattern as Westerners. What is even more interesting is the fact that Japanese whose mother tongue is a foreign language follow the Western pattern, while foreigners whose first language is Japanese follow the Japanese pattern. So this phenomenon is not a matter of “hardware,” or the physical structure of the brain, but an issue of software, namely what language was learned first as a child.

Right or Left Brain Experiments

Before examining this difference further, let’s take a quick look at the experimentation that proved these results. The actual nerves that run from the human ear to the brain cross over, so that sound data from the right ear goes into the left brain, and vice versa.

When different melodies are played at the same time into the right and left ears, which melody does the person hear? The person always recognizes the melody that he heard in his left ear better. This is how we know that the right brain, namely the left ear, is better at music. Similarly, if different words are spoken simultaneously into the right and left ears, the right ear, namely the left brain, has better recognition. That is way we almost always put the telephone receiver to our right ear. There are other more complicated ways to test this, but this is the most fundamental experimentation method.

Using this method and many different types of sounds to find the difference between the left and right brains, it was shown that Japanese and Westerners alike heard music, machinery and noise sounds in the right brain and language sounds in the left brain, but Japanese heard vowels sounds, crying, laughing and sighing, the cries of insects and animals, waves, wind, rain, running water and Japanese musical instruments in the left brain, the same as language, while Westerners heard these sounds in the right brain together with music and noise.

Insect Sounds in America?

Speaking of insect sounds, I had the following experience. While driving through the mountains about two hours’ inland from Boston far from human habitation, I came upon a beautiful spot, so I stopped the car to take a rest. I heard insects calling loudly even though it was br
oad daylight.

While I was listening to their sounds, I suddenly remembered that I never heard the sound of an insect while I lived in California for four years. Even in desert-dry California there is plenty of greenery along the coasts. But in my mind’s eye, for some reason the woods that I can picture there were always completely silent. I couldn’t ever remember hearing a noisy burst of crickets, or the insects that sing in the long nights of autumn.

What first comes to mind for Americans when they think of insects are mosquitoes, flies and bees, namely pest insects. There are still bees in America, but you hardly ever see flies or mosquitoes. That’s why when you occasionally see a fly, you feel that you must be in a very unsanitary place. Where did these “enemies of civilized life” all disappear to?

Also, words that are used to define insects also tend to have bad connotations. The word “insect” when used about a person means “worm, good-for-nothing,” while the word “bug” means ‘”annoy,” and is also used to mean a software error, as in “programming bug.”

If all insects are pests, and all their songs are just heard as noise, then it wouldn’t be strange to think that Americans have used the same poisons they used to eradicate the fly and mosquito to indiscriminately destroy all the other species.

The Culture to Be Heard in Insect Sounds

In contrast, in Japan there is a whole culture to be heard in the sounds of insects. Even today there are websites devoted to images of crickets and recordings of their songs, and there are countless books about how best to keep them. The nursery rhyme “Insect Voices” is an example of how the art we hear in insect sounds is familiar to us from childhood.

Oh, the matsumushi cricket is singing
Chin-chiro, chin-chiro, chin-chiro-rin
Now the suzumushi bell-ring cricket is starting to sing
Rin rin rin rin ri-in rin
Calling out through the long autumn nights
Oh how beautiful are the insects’ voices !

All the different kinds of insects like matsumushi and suzumushi sing with different kinds of chirps.

We can imagine the Japanese view of nature that says both humans and insects as part of all living creatures have “voices” and “feelings.” The unique characteristic of Japanese people that hears insect sound and human voices in the same language sphere of the brain is very well reflected in our culture.

Dogs Say “Wan-wan,” Cats Say “Nya-nya”

Prof. Tsunoda’s discovery also showed that besides insect sounds, Japanese also heard other animals’ cries, plus the sound of waves, wind, rain and bubbling brooks in the language sphere. In Japanese, brooks say “sara-sara,” waves say “zabu-n,” rain says “shito-shito,” and wind says “byu-byu-.” Prof. Tsunoda’s discovery is in line with the ancient Japanese view of nature that sees gods living in every natural being, from mountains to rivers and seas, with man being no more or less than one of these natural beings.

The fact that this type of onomatopoeia is so highly developed is a special characteristic of the Japanese language. Maybe it is only natural for children who have been taught these onomatopoeia words from the beginning to learn to process all nature’s sounds including insects and animals as language. Or, did these onomatopoeia developed so richly precisely because we started out processing natural sounds in the language sphere?

Either way, the physiological characteristic of Japanese to hear natural sounds in the language sphere of the brain, and the linguistic characteristics of the Japanese language which has highly developed onomatopoeia, together with the Japanese view of nature which finds gods residing in all natural beings, are all very well represented within the Japanese psyche.

Not the Man but the Language

The significant part of Prof. Tsunoda’s discovery is that the Japanese pattern of hearing nature sounds in the language sphere is not a matter of ancestry, but rather dependent on whether Japanese was the first language learned.

Data collected from 10 South Americans of Japanese ancestry shows an extreme example of this. Nine of these 10 ethnic Japanese had either Spanish or Portuguese as their first language, and their brains all fell under the Western pattern. The only one who exhibited the Japanese pattern was a girl who had received a thorough education in Japanese language from her father and didn’t understand a word of Portuguese until she was 10 years old. She then entered a Brazilian grammar school and stayed in Brazilian schools through university, but she was still the only one who exhibited the perfect Japanese pattern of processing natural sounds in the language sphere.

On the other hand, Koreas and Chinese follow the Western pattern, but Koreans and Chinese who live in Japan and learned Japanese as their mother tongue all follow the Japanese pattern.

This very likely means that the Western pattern or the Japanese pattern have nothing to do with race but rather with the difference in the mother tongue. We should not say “Japanese brain” but “Japanese language brain.” In Prof. Tsunoda’s studies so far, the only language he has found with the same pattern as Japanese is Polynesian.

Difference Gives Rise to Creativity

But what significance does this difference in brain function thus attributed to the Japanese language have for us? Dr. Hideki Yukawa, a scholar of theoretical physics, had this to say in a conversation with Prof. Tsunoda.

“In other words, Japanese have often been said to be somewhat emotional. In contrast to (Westerners who are) rational, that Japanese were said to be more emotional may well have been structural, functional or cultural, but the fact that there actually was a difference that applied in that instance has been made clear by Professor Tsunoda’s research.

In that case, my thinking is that our direction should be to take advantage of that difference. Instead of worrying whether the difference makes us better or worse, we should put that difference to work for us…. From difference rises creativity. The roots of inferiority toward the West run deep among the Japanese people, but to see ourselves and our differences in that manner acts only to further deepen that inferiority complex.”

“From difference rises creativity” coming from Dr. Yukawa, who won the Nobel Prize for his highly creative meson theory, these words have great weight. The difference in the Japanese language brain is contributing to increased diversity of the human race, and our culture, which turns its ears to hear each insect’s voice, can be seen as a creative response to human life that can enrich and enliven all of human culture.”

The respectful outlook toward nature that turns one’s ears to the voices of all living beings is a valuable hint as to how to live in harmony with all the living beings on our Spaceship Earth.

It is our duty as Japanese toward the rest of the world to make a conscious effort to study the Japanese language brain that we have inherited in order to make better use of our natural creativity.

This article is adapted from the e-mail magazine “Japan on the Globe.” Masaomi Ise is editor-in-chief of the magazine.

© 2002 [Masaomi Ise]. Some rights reserved.