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19.03.2017 г.

Tokieda Motoki and his conception of Japanese grammar

Kuznetsova Sofia, The Moscow City University, The Institute of Foreign Languages, The Department of Japanese Language Studies

Key words: Japanese language, Japanese grammar, theory of language as process

In this article we would like to make a brief introduction to the grammatical conception of one of Japan's major linguists, Tokieda Motoki. His works are little known among foreign readers, because there are almost no translations into foreign languages.

Before getting acquainted with European linguistics, Japanese language didn't have a systematic description of its grammar. Only when Japan started investigating European science, there appeared the first grammar books, representing information in traditional format, and they were made by foreigners, like the one published in 1887 called «The Language, Mythology, and Geographical Nomenclature of Japan Viewed in the Light of Aino Studies" by B.H.Chamberlain. Later a number of grammar conceptions of the Japanese language were developed: Yoshida's grammar (by Yamada Yoshio, 1873-1958), Matshushita's grammar (by Matsushita Daizaburo, 1878-1935) Hashimoto's grammar (Hashimoto Shinkichi, 1882-1945) and Tokieda's grammar (1900-1967). The concept, elaborated by Hashimoto, is considered to be the main one in Japan, and all state school education is based on it.

Tokieda, having revised and criticized the theories of his teacher Hashimoto, combining Japanese traditional approach and Saussure's structuralism, developed his own theory, so called Theory of language as process. The major work introducing the theory, The Principles of Japanese Linguistics (國語學原論 Kokugogaku genron), was published in 1941 and reprinted several times later. In this work Tokieda sharply criticized the structural approach to language; the main objects of his criticism were the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Bally. Explanation to the fact is that they were available in translation to Japanese language, because, as Tokieda admitted, he did not know any foreign language. However, according to the researchers of his concept, it implicitly reflected the ideas of V. von Humboldt, who was never published in Japan by that time. Referring to Humboldt's theory in his Kokugogaku genron Tokieda wrote, that "... believing that a language exists even if no one is speaking it is only an abstraction... analyzing language, you can never and under no circumstances ignore the subject, bringing it to life... language is activity, bringing into action speaking, reading etc... language is a subjective activity, which is the specific object of linguistic research" [5]. Thus the language according to Tokieda is a "subjective activity", which unites psychological, physiological and physical reality.

Tokieda believed, that "language does not exist outside of the person who is trying to describe it; it does exist as a spiritual experience of the observer himself" [5]. This statement applies not only to the person's native language, but also to an ancient and foreign language: the researcher can study only that language he knows and has gotten used to. In this he is certainly influenced by the traditional experience of Japanese scientists, who were almost exclusively engaged in interpreting ancient texts and describing the language of these texts.

Tokieda differentiates two points of view on the description of the language: the position of the subject and the position of the observer. The position of the subject is the position of the native speaker; In addition to practical activities, this position also supposes a certain awareness of the language: as native speakers, we can tell correct from wrong, beautiful from ugly, prestigious from non-prestigious. The position of the observer is connected with studying, analyzing, describing the language. The position of the observer is connected with studying, analyzing, and describing the language. Consequently, the approach to the perception or consideration of the language from two perspectives is different: the literary language and dialects can be equivalent from the point of view of an observer, but they differ in a pragmatic assessment for the subject; the variants of a single phoneme may be not recognized by the subject, but the observer can detect phonetic differences [7].

Recognition of Tokieda's conception was the creation in 1948 of the State Institute of the native language, which is in fact the leading center of the Language as process school; this school also possesses significant influence in many universities in Japan. The main attention is paid to studying the psychological prerequisites of speech acts and especially their social context. Most consistently the school is engaged in the study of speech (in the sense of F. de Saussure); to some extent, it can be compared with conversational analysis, as well as with the British school of system-functional grammar.

Under the influence of M. Tokieda's conception there was invented a method of linguistic research called "language existence" (gengo seikatsu). Without going deep into abstract linguistic schemes, Japanese scientists began to consistently and continuously record by technical means the entire speech flow produced by an average Japanese native speaker twenty-four hours a day, day after day, week after week. During this period of time the researcher records all the speech activity in various social situations of a specially selected subject, who is regarded as a "typical representative" of a particular social and age group. The researchers regularly conducted mass surveys of a significant number of informants to learn more about the functioning of the formal language, dialects and semi-dialects, about the use of certain forms of politeness in certain situations, etc. These surveys were repeated with the same subjects in several decades, which allowed collecting data on the dynamics of speech and language changes. As a result, the researchers managed to collect unique data, like the average number of words pronounced per day by people of different ages and positions, the average length of the sentence in a text of certain genre, the time the Japanese spend reading, writing, speaking and listening etc. The school of language existence actively used statistical methods of research. The school's research has undeniable practical significance: on the basis of the collected data linguists develop new methods of teaching the language, and develop approaches to maintain and improve the language norm at the state level.

Among other points of the Tokieda Motoki's conception, we should also note consistent delineation of two classes of linguistic units: some of them form concepts; others convey feelings, sentiments of the speaker. Among the former are verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, to the latter belong unions, interjections, case particles.

Tokieda refers the parts of speech, called case indexes and auxiliary verbs in the traditional classification, to a 辞ji group (statements), and nouns and verbs - to a 詞shi group (content of the statement). However, auxiliary verbs that form passive voice belong to shi, and among auxiliary negative verbs and formants there are those that apply to both groups. Ideally such theory supposes that each word would be once and for all attributed to either group, but in reality it is not always possible to adhere. For example, an adverb is considered to possess characteristics of both groups, and in case a sentence ends with a verb (and since the predicate in the Japanese sentence always stands at the end, that is, the predicate expressed by the verb must contain a statement), it is assumed that the verb (shi) is followed by a zero ji.

Describing the grammatical system of the Japanese language, M. Tokieda was confronted with the problem of the ratio of lexical and grammatical elements at the level of the word, the word combination and the sentence. The word order in Japanese sentence is not strictly fixed; for example, a verb and the word controlled by it can be separated in the sentence and separated by different words that specify the meaning of both, and possibly other sentence part. Also similar case indicators indicating government can be used in one sentence with different members, also the mentioned indicators can be replaced by other case indicators: for example, there is a rule according to which the accusative index を is replaced by the indicator も mo if the context assumes the meaning "too", "similarly", or by a conjunction や ya meaning "also" when listing homogeneous sentence parts. Not only foreigners but native speakers as well face such difficulties in understanding sentence structure, and you can never be sure that your understanding is correct until you hear the end of the sentence. Here we can also add, that Japanese culture is considered to be a high-contest culture, you often need not only to listen to the end of the sentence, but to the end of the whole statement, and also bear in mind the things that were said previously. This is one of the reasons why simultaneous translation from Japanese language is considered to be extremely difficult.

Tokieda suggested to solve this rather complicated question with the help of a simple and intuitive scheme, which he called "the structure of boxes inserted one into another".

While in Hashimoto's linear structure, generally accepted in school grammar, the sentence is analyzed as a sequentially unfolded structure in which the syntagmatic boundary is considered to be the place in which the speaker can make a pause, Tokieda's structure suggests isolating the pairwise interdependent elements (shi and ji), gradually revealing ties at a deeper level. Thus, for example, the sentence あの人は私の甥です ano hito ha watashi no oi desu "That person is my nephew" Hashimoto divides into syntagms as follows:













In the bottom line we see the final result of the analysis - four syntagms: あの ano "that" 人は hito ha "man is" 私の watashi no "my" 甥です oi desu "nephew". To explain the syntactic links we need additional explanations because the neighbouring elements in the linear structure are by no means connected.

The syntactic structure in the understanding of Tokieda is a tiered structure, which gives it an advantage, because it is easier to analyze. Let's see how the same sentence is analyzed using the system of "boxes inserted one into another":


Each separate box consists of two simple elements - shi + ji, for example 甥 oi "nephew"+ です desu "is". In turn, this box will play a role of ji at the next tier: 私のwatashi no "my" + 甥です oi desu "nephew (is)". On the next tier we reach the level of subject and predicate in the sentence; in a Japanese sentence we deal with so called subject group instead of single subject: あの人は ano hito ha "that man is" and the group of predicate:私の甥です watashi no i desu "my nephew (is)"; Tokieda consideres the subject gourp to be a shi and the subject group a ji accordingly.

Similar decomposition method of the syntax structure is actually used by Russian-speaking teachers of Japanese language, since the syntax of the Japanese language has the reverse word order compared to Russian, and Hashimoto‘s linear analysis by is not capable of giving a quick and unmistakable understanding of the structure of the sentence. Therefore, studying the grammatical concept of Tokieda Motoki might be useful for those, whose native language structure is far too different from the structure of Japanese language, and who might be interested in a new approach to understanding and teaching Japanese language.


1. A. Prasol, Japan. Faces of time. Moscow, 2008

2. Japanese studies in Japan Языкознание в Японии (Excerpts from the works of linguists belonging to the school of language existence). Moscow, 1983

3. Kokubunpoukouza 1, Meiji Shouin 1987

4. Naoki Fuse, Tokieda Motoki and his theory of Language as process - Thesis, the Ohio State University 2010

5. S.V. Neverov, The social and linguistic practice of modern Japan. Moscow, 1982

6. V.M. Alpatov, Lingustics in Japan. Moscow, 1983

7. V.M. Alpatov, T.M. Gurevich, T. I. Korchagina, L.T. Nechaeva, E.V. Strugova, Half a century of Japanese studies. Moscow, 2013.

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