Teaching Japanese Pragmatic Competence Using Film Clips

In all 1st- through 3rd-year Japanese courses at UC Berkeley, students are expected to write several skits over the course of the semester. Each skit is submitted to the instructor for corrections, after which students perform the skit in class. Students appear to enjoy these oral quizzes.

While checking 3rd-year Japanese students’ scripts, I have noticed a pattern of student errors consisting of sentences that are grammatically correct, but that sound unnatural. Here are a few examples; student errors are in bold, omissions are in square brackets:

1. Overuse of watashi (I) in self-introductions, which are normally implicit in Japanese.
a. 私はUCバークレーの一年生です。
Watashi wa UC baakuree no ichi-nensei desu.
I am a freshman at UC Berkeley.

b. ストレスがたまると、私は部屋を掃除します。
Sutoresu ga tamaru to watashi wa heya o soji shimasu.
I clean the room when stress builds up.

Native speakers would simply omit watashi together with the particle wa when introducing oneself, because it is understood whom they are talking about. According to Morita (2002), and Hirose and Hasegawa (2010), the Japanese language is the language for self and it centers on the speaker him/herself. Therefore, watashi does not need to be mentioned as a subject of the sentence. Furthermore, its repetition may give an impression to the listener that the speaker is too self-conscious.

2. Omission of interactional expressions whose use is obligatory in Japanese. Interactional expressions are sentence final expressions that make sentences communicative.

c. A: 今、環境問題を考え始めなかったらひどいことになる「よ」
Ima kankyoo-mondai o kangae hajime-nakatta-ra hidoi koto ni naru [yo].
If [we don’t] start thinking about environmental issues, [we will suffer] disastrous consequences.
B: うん、分かった。今からリサイクルする「よ」
Un, wakatta. Ima kara risaikuru suru [yo].
OK. I will recycle from now on.

Omitting sentence-final expressions that are in many cases considered obligatory in interactions makes utterances less interactive. Katagiri (2007) argues that Japanese sentence-final particles contribute to dialogue coordination. According to Izuhara’s analysis, yo has three kinds of usages (Izuhara 2003): (1) to appeal to the listener’s perception/recognition and persuade him/her to take an action, (2) to try to correct the listener’s perception/recognition, and (3) to urge the listener to accept the speaker’s perception/recognition. Native speakers would add “yo” to A’s utterance in c, which is usage (1). B can also add yo in (2) usage, thereby informing A that he is no longer one of those who do not care about environmental problems.

3. Omission of report/hearsay/conjecture expressions, which makes the utterance sound decisive and overconfident for native speakers.

d. EPA の報告書によればハイブリッドカーを買うより古い車を買って使う方が(CO2)ガスの放出は削減される「らしい」よ。
EPA no hookokusho ni yoreba haiburiddo –kaa o kau yori furui kuruma o katte tsukau hoo ga (CO2) gasu no hooshutu wa sakugen-sareru [rashii] yo.
According to EPA report, CO2 emission would be reduced if you buy and use a used car instead of buying a hybrid car.

e. 漫画は元はといえばアメリカからコミックスとして伝えられたものだ「そうだ」よ。
Manga wa moto wa to ie-ba Amerika kara komikkusu to shite tsuta-erare-ta mono da [soo da] yo.
Manga was originally imported from America as comics.

Hearsay expressions are concerned with “the territory” to which a given piece of information belongs (Kamio, 1994, 1995). The Japanese are sensitive to these concepts, although they might be foreign to speakers of English.

It should be emphasized that these errors are purely pragmatic, not grammatical. Therefore, proper usage cannot be taught independently of context. How can we teach pragmatic features of the language in class? Lengthy explanations usually do not enable students to acquire the skills of proper usage.

This paper addresses how we might use film clips to teach sentence-final expressions in Japanese. Conversations in films are scripted, differing from the spontaneous unfolding of real conversations. Nevertheless, they are perceived by the audience as naturalistic verbal exchanges. In this sense, utterances in films can be considered as representing an ideological prototype of language use. In addition, students enjoy film clips; they show the visual contexts in which the verbal expressions are used.

How to use film?

In exploring ways to provide students’ opportunities to learn pragmatic usage of sentence-final expressions with film clips, I selected Okuribito (“Departures”) from the BLC Library of Foreign Language Film Clips. The LFLFC contains 170 Japanese films, 34 of which are clipped and ready to be used. Okuribito has been cut into 43 clips, ranging from 30 seconds to four minutes in length. I selected the clip titled “Death and eating” (from 77’13” to 80’49” in the film) to demonstrate how film clips can be utilized in class.

First, students watch several clips at home to get a feel for the characters and to understand the story line up to this point.  The summary of the story up to the clip “Death and eating” is as follows:

Daigo Kobayashi, the protagonist, loses his job as a cellist when his orchestra is abruptly disbanded. After moving back to his small hometown, Daigo answers a classified ad for a company called “NK Agent,” mistakenly assuming that he will be working for a travel agency, which turns out to be a funeral service provider. Nevertheless, Daigo accepts the position as an assistant mortician without telling his wife that he has begun to work for a funeral service agency. His job consists of performing the ceremony of cleaning and dressing the body before it is placed in a coffin. When Daigo’s wife discovers exactly what his job is, she becomes upset: she despises the work itself, issues him an ultimatum, and leaves him. He decides to quit the job and tries to talk with his boss.

In the clip entitled “Death and eating,” Daigo visits his boss Sasaki in his room to inform him that he is resigning. Before Daigo can say a word, he is invited to eat dinner with Sasaki. In this scene Daigo and Sasaki converse at length for the first time.


Daigo comes to Sasaki to resign from his job. As he is about to announce that his is quitting, Sasaki invites him to dinner.


The discuss Sasaki’s wife, death, and eating.


The enjoy the food Sasaki has prepared.

Sentence-final expressions are difficult for students to recognize in film. Several steps are required to make students aware of their existence or absence and to understand their multiple functions.

First, students watch this clip at home to understand the general setting of the scene. Students answer questions such as who the characters are, whose room they are in, and who is offering food. They are also asked about the topics of the conversation in the scene. Three main topics are discussed: food, Sasaki’s late wife, and the fact that the living eat dead objects in order to continue living.

Students then watch the clip again, in class, and discuss who speaks more—Sasaki or Daigo. This kind of observation makes students notice whether characters are interactive.

Students are then asked if there are times when Daigo does not talk at all. He is quiet when Sasaki talks about his late wife and the fact that living beings, in general, eat deceased objects—whether animal, fish, or plant—in order to continue to live and survive. They observe the scene closely and speculate about how the atmosphere evolves when Daigo does not talk. Is the situation awkward or are both characters comfortable being there?

After observing the situation in the scene, the script (see appendix) is distributed. Students read the script and divide it according to the topics mentioned above. They mark Daigo’s utterances and responses. After confirming that Daigo does not utter a word and rarely responds when Sasaki talks about his late wife and the fact that the living eat the dead to continue living, they discuss whether it is ever appropriate to listen silently to someone without responding or commenting.

Then students watch the clip again at home and fill in the blanks in the script with particles or expressions as shown in capital letters below. They write “X” when they do not hear anything at the end of the sentence, and “?” when the intonation is rising.

(6) Sasaki: Kami-san, mada modotte-nai-N DAROO?.
Your wife’s still away. (Literally “Your wife has not returned, has she?”)

(7) Daigo: Ha, hai.
No.

(8) Sasaki: Kutte-ke YO.
Eat.

(9) Ore no hoo ga umai ZO. Tabun.
I’m probably a better cook than you.

(Daigo nods and sits down at the table.)

(10) Sasaki: Saa, yaroo KA.
Dig in.

(11) Daigo: Nan desu KA. Kore wa.
What’s that?

(12) Sasaki: Fugu no shirako.
Puffer roe.

(Daigo nods.)

(13) Abutte, shio de kuu to umai-N DA.
If you grill and eat it with salt, it is tasty.

(Daigo nods. Daigo glances over at a photograph of a middle-aged woman.)

(14) Sasaki: Nyooboo da. 9-nen mae ni NA, shinare-chi-matta X.
It’s my wife. She died on me nine years ago.

(Daigo nods.)

(15) Fuufu-tte no ha izure shini wakareru-n da ga, saki-datareru to tsurai X.
Eventually a married couple must be separated by death, but it is hard being left behind.

(16) Kirei ni shite, okuri-dashita X.
I made her beautiful and sent her off.

(17) Ore no dai-ichi-goo da X.
She was the first one [I have sent off].

(18) Sore irai, kono shigoto shiteiru X.
Then I started this business.

Students notice that Sasaki rarely uses sentence-final expressions when he talks about his late wife.

At the next class, students compare Sasaki and Daigo’s exchanges on each topic. Daigo speaks only when Sasaki uses sentence-final expressions. Since Daigo is quiet when Sasaki talks about his late wife and the fact that the living eat the dead to continue living, students watch this part of the clip again and compare their exchanges. Daigo shows considerable interest in Sasaki’s story of his late wife. However, he does not respond orally and nods only once on this topic when Sasaki uses na, one of the sentence-final expressions, in the middle of the sentence. It is a special usage of such an expression to request the hearer to pay attention to what the speaker is saying. Daigo nods slightly more when Sasaki speaks using sentence-final expressions about the fact that the living eat the dead to continue living. Students finally realize what sentence-final expressions accomplish. They solicit a response from the hearer.

Once students understand pragmatic functions of sentence-final expressions, students need to learn how to use them. Students learn the speaker’s intention of using sentence-final expressions as they appear in the utterances.

For example, one of the sentence-final expressions appears in utterances (8-9).

(8) Sasaki: Kutte-ke yo.
Eat.

(9) Ore no hoo ga umai zo. Tabun.
I’m probably a better cook than you.

Students watch this part of the clip again, and are asked how Daigo responds to these utterances. He nods and sits down at the table. Sasaki invites Daigo in (8-9) to share a meal with him with yo and zo. Soliciting the listener’s action is indeed one of the usages of the sentence-final particles yo and zo (Izuhara, 2003). Zo is a masculine version of yo. When yo is added to the imperative form of a verb, as in (8), the command acquires force. Therefore, this usage must be carefully employed. It is permitted for Sasaki, because he is the boss. However, yo/zo as in umai zo can be used with polite forms as well and without such concern. The speaker employs this usage of yo/zo to appeal to the hearer and to convey that the information is trustworthy and to persuade him/her to act. Therefore, in this case Sasaki’s utterance in (9) alone serves as an invitation to Daigo to eat with him.

Using this example, students practice persuading a partner to do something using neither an imperative form nor a request form in a role play such as the following:

Role A: You want your partner to do something, for example, to take an umbrella with him/her. Tell him/her to do so without using an imperative form or a request form.
Role B:  Respond to your partner by action and saying “Wakatta. So da ne. OK.”

Sasaki talks about the fact that the living eat the dead in order to continue living in (19-23). Daigo does not speak on this topic, but nods. Here are Sasaki’s utterances and Daigo’s responses.

(19) Kore datte sa, … Kore datte go-itai da yo.
Even this (pointing to the blowfish roe they are eating)… is a corpse.

Yo is used here. In the analysis of the usages of yo, Izuhara (2003) argues that one of them is to correct the hearer’s perception/recognition. Yo in (19) pertains precisely to this usage. Sasaki tries to change Daigo’s idea of the body. Does Daigo change his perception? We do not know, because he neither talks nor nods.

Sasaki uses daroo several times in the “Death and eating” clip. One of them is in (20).

(20) Iki-mono ga iki-mono kutte ikite-ru,daroo?
The living eat the dead [to continue living].

Sasaki articulates his idea and seeks an agreement in the form of a YES-NO question. Daigo shows his agreement by nodding. Sasaki uses daroo. Daroo implies a given piece of information belongs to both the speaker and the hearer (Kamio, 1994, 1995).

Then another daroo is used in Sasaki’s utterance (21) and Daigo responds orally to it.

(24) Sasaki: Umai daroo?
Good, huh?
(25) Daigo: Umai-su ne.
Yes, it is.

Sasaki knows how tasty his dish is. And, because he sees Daigo eating it, he also knows that Daigo appreciates it. Sasaki is proud of how good tasting his dish is, and requests Daigo’s agreement.

By saying Umai-su ne, Daigo agrees with his boss. He uses ne here. In this scene, he knows that the blowfish roe is tasty because he is eating it. He also knows that Sasaki knows it is tasty. Daigo’s recognition that both of them know the information allows him to use ne. Izuhara (2003) identifies two usages of ne. When ne is used in a sentence where the speaker and hearer share the same experience or body of knowledge, it indicates that the speaker seeks the hearer’s agreement to a particular point of view. This ne is mandatory. The second usage of ne is to bring the hearer into the speaker’s domain of perception/knowledge without trying to change the hearer’s point of view. In this scene both Daigo and Sasaki are eating blowfish roe, hence their experience is a common one and Daigo’s comment concerns both of them. Hence, ne here signals Daigo’s intention of seeking Sasaki’s agreement.

Students return to utterances (13), (19) and (20). They discuss whether they can use ne in this usage when they create Daigo’s responses to each of Sasaki’s utterances. They can use ne in responses to (19) and (20), but not to (13), because at that point Daigo has not yet eaten the blowfish roe and was not aware of how tasty it is. Daigo may be able to ask if it is tasty, but cannot comment on it and seek Sasaki’s agreement. Students create verbal responses to (19) and (20) using ne, and perform a short exchange between Sasaki and Daigo.

After learning all of the sentence-final expressions that appear in this film clip, students return to the part where Sasaki talks about his late wife. Students will speculate about why Sasaki does not use sentence-final expressions except for one occasion when discussing this topic. Using ne, which seeks the hearer’s agreement, could give the impression that he is not confident. Since the use of yo implies the speaker’s intention to change the hearer’s perception, Sasaki might not have wanted to sound as if he were forcefully attempting to change Daigo’s perception of his job.

Then, students imagine themselves in the role of Sasaki wanting Daigo’s response. They add appropriate sentence-final expressions to Sasaki’s utterances and create Daigo’s responses. As a final exercise involving this film clip, students perform their own version of Sasaki-Daigo exchanges and discuss how the use of sentence-final expressions would change the mood of the scene or even the portrayal of their characters.

Conclusion

In this project, I have explored a new approach to teaching sentence-final expressions of the Japanese language that are indispensable to communicative interaction. This purely pragmatic issue cannot be taught independently of context. Therefore, film clips, which provide both a narrative context and visual clues, are particularly helpful.

The BLC Library of Foreign Language Film Clips has an excellent inventory of Japanese films. Using the “Death and eating” clip from Okuribito in the LFLFC collection, I showed an example of how film clips might be used in class. Sentence-final expressions in Japanese have a pragmatic function, namely, solicitation of the hearer’s responses. Sasaki’s using such expressions makes Daigo respond, and the communication between them begins to be established in this scene. In another clip called “Confrontation over the job,” Daigo’s wife tries to make him quit his job. She uses sentence-final expressions in two thirds of her utterances but fewer towards the end of the scene. This makes the audience feel the tension between them as they argue.

My objective is to make students aware of and understand such effects by means of sentence-final expressions, apparent in relevant film clips. I believe by acquiring skill in practical usage of sentence-final expressions in conversation, students will enhance their communication skills and be more competent speakers of Japanese.

Acknowledgements

I would like to express my gratitude to the BLC for giving me the opportunity to work on this project, and especially to Claire Kramsch, Mark Kaiser, and Sirpa Tuomainen for their input and support. I also received valuable advice and support from my fellow fellowship recipients, Mara Mauri Jacobson and Lucas Stratton. Thanks also to my colleagues in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and the Japanese program, and especially to our program coordinator, Yoko Hasegawa, for her advice, suggestions and guidance throughout this project.

Appendix

Here is the entire script of the clip titled “Death and Eating” in “Okuribito (Departures)”. Sentence-final particles are underlined, and X indicates the absence of a particle. Lines with “?” are uttered with rising intonation, which is interactional. Lines with ? are uttered with rising intonation, which is interactional.

(1) Daigo: Shiturei shimasu X.
Excuse me.

(2) Sasaki: Haitte X.
Come in.

(3) Daigo: Hai.
Thank you.

(4) Sasaki: Meshi, doo shite-ru X?
Are you eating?

(5) Daigo: E?
What?

(6) Sasaki: Kami-san, mada modotte-nai-n daroo?
Your wife’s still away. (Literally “Your wife has not returned, has she?”)

(7) Daigo: Ha, hai.
No.

(8) Sasaki: Kutte-ke yo.
Eat.

(9) Ore no hoo ga umai zo. Tabun.
I’m probably a better cook than you.

(Daigo nods and sits down at the table.)

(10) Sasaki: Saa, yaroo ka.
Dig in.

(11) Daigo: Nan desu ka. Kore wa.
What’s that?

(12) Sasaki: Fugu no shirako X.
Puffer roe.

(Daigo nods.)

(13) Abutte, shio de kuu to umai-n da.
If you grill and eat it with salt, it is tasty.

(Daigo nods.)

(14) Sasaki: Nyooboo da. 9-nen mae ni na, shinare-chi-matta X.
It’s my wife. She died on me nine years ago.

(Daigo nods.)

(15) Fuufu-tte no ha izure shini wakareru-n da ga, saki-datareru to tsurai X.
Eventually a married couple must be separated by death, but it is hard being left behind.

(16) Kirei ni shite, okuri-dashita X.
I made her beautiful and sent her off.

(17) Ore no dai-ichi-goo da X.
She was the first one [I have sent off].

(18) Sore irai, kono shigoto shiteiru X.
Then I started this business.

(19) Kore datte sa, … Kore datte go-itai da yo.
Even this… is a corpse.

(20) Iki-mono ga iki-mono kutte ikite-ru, daroo?
The living eat the dead [objects to continue living].

(Daigo nods.)

(21) Koitsura, betsu dake do X
They are different, but…

(22) Aa! Shinu ki ni nare-na-kya, kuu shika nai X.
Unless you want to die, you have to eat.

(23) Kuu nara, umai hoo ga ii X.
And if you eat, eat well.

(After a seconds, Daigo nods as if he makes up his mind and eats.)

(24) Umai daroo?
Good, huh?

(25) Daigo: Umai-su ne.
Yes, it is.

(26) Sasaki: Umai-n da yo na. Komatta koto ni.
So good … I hate myself.

References

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