Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Japanese Language

13 Jul

This is the first post in my series on Linguistics and SFF.

Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer was released in September of 2012, and was heralded as a brilliant steampunk novel set in an alternate Japan.  There are a few facts I want to establish before I begin this analysis:

1. The book is not steampunk.  It is in fact much closer to the genre of dieselpunk, where the power of “chi” substitutes for gasoline.  I’m not just nit-picking at genre.  This directly affects some of the conclusions that can be drawn about the language used in the book.

2.  I will be talking a bit more about culture in this book because one of the major focuses of this article will be linguistic appropriation, a sort of sub-concept of cultural appropriation.

So, we begin.

Kristoff makes use of the Japanese language in this novel.  I wish to establish right now that this is clearly intended to be “real” Japanese, and not some sort of pseudo-Japanese, as many people have claimed.  He used Japanese words and grammar, albeit often incorrectly, and I have zero interest in debating over this.  Many of the previous reviews and analyses of the book have had strong debates about this in the comments, and I am not interested in getting involved in anything like that.

Now, because Kristoff makes use of primarily single words of Japanese used in English sentences with English grammar, I will be primarily focusing on the use of single Japanese lexemes and morphemes.

1. A lexeme is generally equivalent to a complete word, but actually includes all forms of that word.  “Run” is a lexeme.  “Ran” is part of that lexeme, as are all the conjugated forms of the “run”.

2. A morpheme is a unit of meaning, and does not have to be a complete word.  Morphemes are generally affixes, such as the suffix “-ly” used to create an adverb.  Many English words with Greek roots are made up of morphemes.  “Geology” is a word made up of two morphemes: “geo-“, meaning “earth”, and “-ology” meaning “the study or science of”.

Now, we can look at some examples of the mis-use of Japanese words by Kristoff in his novel.

1. “hai” is a japanese word that is often considered to mean “yes”.  In reality, the meaning is more complex.  It can be used as a form of assent, as in, “Yes, I will go to the store with you.” or the common anime scene of calling roll, where a name will be called, and a student will reply “Hai!” meaning that yes, they are present.  It also has a connotation of understanding, or of acceptance of a command.

Kristoff’s error is in viewing the word as a complete equivalent of the English word “yes”.

In English, the word “yes” has many of the functions of “hai”, but can also be used as a tag.  A “tag question” is a form of question where a declarative statement such as “It’s hot in here.” is converted to a question by the use of a tag: “It’s hot in here, isn’t it?”  “It’s hot in here, yes?”  The idea is generally to encourage the other person to agree with the sentiment expressed in the declarative portion of the sentence.

In Japanese, however, “hai” is never used as a question tag.  The most common question tag in Japanese is the particle “ne”.  “Atsui, ne?”  Which translates to something like “It’s hot in here, don’t you agree?”  Kristoff seems to either not know, or to ignore the fact that “hai” is not just the Japanese word for “yes”, and so often puts “hai” at the end of a sentence to create a tag question.

2.  Our next example is the use of the Japanese honorific “-sama”.  Do you see that dash before the “s”?  That indicates a bound morpheme, in this case a suffix.  A bound morpheme is a morpheme that requires another morpheme to be added to create meaning.  You would never see an English speaker say “Till the geo.”, even though “geo” is often translated as “earth”.

In order to make use of the honorific “-sama”, it must be added to a name or title, and has a connotation of respect.  When talking to your lord in historical Japan, you would add this suffix.  So, if your lord’s name was “Yamada”, then you would call him “Yamada-sama”.  (Strictly speaking, the choice of honorific in historical Japan was slightly more complicated, but all honorifics would follow the pattern described.)

Kristoff makes the error of using “-sama” as a free morpheme.  A free morpheme is a morpheme that can exist on its own without being attached to any other morpheme.  “Hai”, for example, is a free morpheme.

A sentence in Kristoff’s book that makes this mistake is “Thank you, sama.”  Here Kristoff attempts to use “sama” as a free-standing word for “lord”.  The issue of bound morphemes aside, that is simply an incorrect translation all by itself.  “-sama” does not mean “lord” or “sir”.  The meaning is much less specific.  Another phrase often seen in the book is “young sama”, apparently intended to mean “young lord” or “young lady”.  There are in fact words for this in Japanese, although they are generally used by a retainer towards his own lord.  An example is “waka-dono”.  “-Dono” is another honorific, and throughout history, it has been equivalent to, greater than, or lesser than “-sama” in terms of respect.  “Waka” is a Japanese word meaning “young”.  So “waka-dono” would in fact be a more accurate translating than Kristoff’s “young sama”.

These are the two most obvious, and most often cited examples of misuse of Japanese in Kristoff’s books.  There are others, however.  For example, he trans lates “arashitora” as thunder tiger.  Strictly speaking “arashi” means “storm” in Japanese, as he acknowledges in another construction, “arashi no ko”, translated by Kristoff as “storm girl”.

Another odd usage by Kristoff is a common referent to the Shogun used by the characters: “Yoritomo-nomiya”.  “Nomiya”, actually “no miya” is way of referring to something connected to the Emperor in Japanese.  For example, palace compound, such as Katsura-no-miya in Kyoto.  Over time, it began to be used as a way to designate princes or princesses.  However, the Shogun is not technically Japanese royalty.  He is a military ruler, not the Emperor.  So it would be technically incorrect to use this form of address.

Other oddities include the name of the pseudo-Japan created by Kristoff.  “Shima” is literally translated as “Island” in Japanese.  There are similar uses of Japanese words as names in this manner, such as “Yama city”.  “Yama” means mountain in Japanese, and it is odd to see the bare word used as a name like that.  The same is true for the “clan names” in the book: “tora”, “kitsune”, etc.  None of these are real family or clan names, and it would seem odd if they were used as such.  In fact, all of the clan names in the book share this odd trait.

Another inaccuracy is the use of “aiya” by the characters as an expression of exasperation by the characters.  Although there is a lot of intermingling between Japanese and Chinese culture, really Japanese people do not use this Chinese expression.

Now, the reason I made the distinction between steampunk and dieselpunk is because some words are correct Japanese, but belong to specific historical periods.

“Zaibutsu” is a Japanese term for a corporation.  THe clans are often referred to by this term in the book, which is inaccurate, and depending on when this story is supposed to take place,  didn’t even exist.  The word is from the 1930s.  Similarly for the term “salariman”, which is a Japanese borrowing from the early 20th century.

And slightly more controversial, the use of Bushido, or “the way of the warrior” in the book.  While popularly believed to be the code of the samurai in the west, and used in the east, it is a relatively modern term popularized and likely created by a Japanese man writing in English at the end of the 19th century.  Looking at primary sources from the time, there was no such universal code of behavior, although Kristoff can be forgiven for using it in light of its commonality in pop culture.

There are also many cultural inaccuracies in the novel, but if I discuss them, it will be in another post.

Because there is so much to look at here, I will be writing a follow-up post to discuss some of the less clear-cut problems with the book.  There were many artifacts of the translation convention of SFF novels in the book, where the author seems to forget that these characters are really speaking Japanese as opposed to English, and I will go into some of them in-depth in the next post.

If anyone has any disagreements with my analysis, or feels there are some inaccuracies in this post, feel free to mention it in the comments.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Translation Convention


Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


Tags: , , , , , , ,

6 responses to “Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Japanese Language

  1. Crane Hana

    July 13, 2013 at 9:22 AM

    Good start. I read briefly into the book, and noticed some of those same issues. Good story, but analysis shows why it’s critically important to have a native speaker/writer as a sounding board.

    • atsiko

      July 13, 2013 at 2:59 PM

      Yes. Proper use of language is one of those areas where you only really need one native speaker/member of the ethnic group to achieve reasonable accuracy.

  2. Dorothy Ann

    December 10, 2015 at 9:52 PM

    Hey, I know this post is a bit old but I’m assuming you’ll get this comment via e-mail, just wanted to say it’s an excellent, informative post. I’m reading Stormdancer for a book club and was looking for some reviews/criticism, this is super helpful for someone who doesn’t know too much Japanese but still noticed something was ‘up.’ Thanks!

    • atsiko

      January 6, 2016 at 12:09 AM

      I’m glad you found it useful. As it happens, both wordpress dashboard and my email get notifications of new comments. And it’s always nice to see an old post do someone some good.


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