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  • On Japanese Things and Words:An Answer to Heidegger's Question
  • Michael F. Marra

It has been over thirty years since my high school teacher of philosophy, Professor Dino Dezzani, recommended a book from which to begin my study of philosophy: Martin Heidegger's (1889-1976) Unterwegs zur Sprache (On the way to language [1959]). Evidently he was aware of my interest in literature and thought that Heidegger's discussion of words, things, and poetic language would give some sort of direction to my naïve and youthful questions of what literature is about and what I should hope to find in it.

The impact that Heidegger's book had on this young student was much greater than my professor could ever have imagined. I would hardly have committed myself to the study of Japan were it not for my reading of "A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer," which appears in On the Way to Language. The dialogue is a fictional reconstruction of an actual meeting that Heidegger had with Tezuka Tomio (1903-1983), a Japanese scholar of German literature who visited the German philosopher in Freiburg at the end of March 1954.1 In the dialogue the Inquirer (Heidegger) formulates a central question that, in my opinion, should be of fundamental interest to anyone seriously concerned with the study of Japan. The question is deceptively simple, at least compared with the difficulty of coming up with the answer-an answer that, as a matter of fact, the reader will not find fully formulated in the dialogue. The question is: "What is the Japanese word for 'language' "? The Japanese visitor (Tezuka in Heidegger's recollection) appears to have been caught off guard, as we can see from Heidegger's parenthetical remark: "after further hesitation." Had Heidegger posed the same question to a Frenchman or an Italian, the answer would have been immediate: "langue" or "lingua." The challenge for Tezuka was definitely higher since he had a variety of words from which to choose. He could have used, for example, the expression gengo, a combination of two Chinese characters indicating "the speech of words." Instead, he used an ancient Japanese word derived from the native Yamato vocabulary: kotoba, which literally means "the foliage of speech."2

There should be little doubt that Tezuka's choice was prompted by his desire to please Heidegger by playing the philosopher's own game-something that Tezuka totally succeeded in doing, as Heidegger's dialogue attests. Tezuka introduced a term that lent itself to etymological play-an enterprise very close to the heart of Heidegger, and one that was also very popular among Japanese thinkers.3 In fact, the expression kotoba incorporates the word koto, which means both "thing" and [End Page 555] "word" and which is found in the basic concepts of Japanese ontology: Mikoto (God, or "the honorable thing"), makoto (truth, or "the true word"), kotodama (soul, or "the spirit of words"), and kotowari(reason, or "the splitting of things"). The association of "words" and "things" in the Japanese word for "language" must have been of particular interest to Heidegger, who, four years before his meeting with Tezuka, had written "Das Ding" (The thing), a major lecture on the notion of things interpreted in light of the fourfold earth, sky, divinities, and mortals. In the dialogue Heidegger refers to this essay, in which "things" are presented in their objectified presence-the disparaged things that modernity and technology have dispossessed of their Being (Sein). Heidegger points out that never has the distance between things and Sein been as great as in modernity, when all distances in space and time have shrunk.4 Given the unflattering position that Heidegger had taken on the notion of "things," Tezuka was forced to come to the rescue of the Japanese word kotoba by endowing koto with the meaning of two Heideggerian keywords: "event" (kotogara) and "affair" (Sache). The thingly component of kotoba was not simply an objectifiable presence that can be counted, analyzed, and disposed of, but rather a poietic "act" that has the power to create a reality by transforming the named thing (koto) into a real thing (koto).

In "A Dialogue...


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