From 'I' to 'Uchi'
A guest—by definition—is not an ‘uchi’ member of a family. Yet even at the beginning of the homestay the host family will assume that their foreign guest is understanding the word ‘uchi’ in the same way that they do. Proper use of ‘uchi’ is crucial, not only for speaking Japanese well, but for building a relationship with the family. In fact, learning proper use of this one word can help you considerably in adjusting to your homestay in Japan.
The meaning of ‘uchi’ is not obvious. There is no single word for it in English, so uchi is translated sometimes as ‘we’ or ‘us’, ‘our family’, ‘our group’; and sometimes as ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘mine’. To get a handle on using ‘uchi’, first it is necessary to understand the differences in how ‘I’ and ‘uchi’ are used. Let’s begin by looking at ‘I’ in an English conversation.
‘I’ refers to the person who is speaking right now in a conversation. But the word ‘I’ does more than tell us who is speaking. It gives us a set of bearings from which we can gauge the relations of other things to the ‘I’ who is speaking. Let’s take a look at how this works below:
We understand ‘here’ or ‘there’ and ‘this’ or ‘that’ in relation to ‘I’, the speaker, so we can say that the speaker ‘anchors’ these words. The English speaker also anchors many other words, including ‘come’ and ‘go’ which are understood in terms of movement toward or away from the speaker; as well as ‘up’ / ‘down’, ‘inside’ / ‘outside’, ‘close’ / ‘far’, to name a few. These words understood vis-a-vis the speaker’s anchorpoint are called “indexes”.
Uchi as Anchorpoint
Uchi closely resembles ‘I’ in being an anchorpoint, but with one important difference. Uchi is a group anchorpoint, so the speaker using ‘uchi’ is located within a reference group. Because of this, crucial differences exist between the use of ‘uchi‘ and the use of ‘I’. (More on this subject) To compare the uchi anchorpoint with that of ‘I’ in the two Popup sequences above, first review the video clip below from Module 5.1.
Now in the Popup segment below, let’s take a look at how each Japanese speaker anchors the conversation from an uchi perspective.
Miller and Morimoto are each speaking from an uchi anchorpoint. Miller’s uchi is her company, Oriental Trading Co., including all its employees. Morimoto’s uchi is the Yamamoto Research Institute and its employees, including her boss, Mr. Ito. Since both women are members of different uchi, each regards the other as soto. The dynamics of this conversation are similar for both speakers. Each speaks from her uchi anchorpoint and indicates that the other is soto (outside), then the other repeats the same dynamics, as the conversation moves back and forth between them. But the words ‘uchi’ and ‘soto’ are not actually uttered, in sharp contrast to the way Peter and his girlfriend constantly say “I” and “you” as they shift between speaker and listener in Popup 1. The reason that ‘uchi ‘ and ‘soto’ don’t need to be mentioned is because they are already being signaled constantly in other ways. Let’s look at some of these ways.
Ways of Signaling Uchi / Soto
1. Deference versus Humbling in Language Use:
Miller: Itoo-san irassyaimasu ka. Morimoto: Hai, orimasu ga…
When Ms. Miller asks Ms. Morimoto “Is Mr. Ito in?” she uses the verb ‘irassyaimasu’ as a polite form for ‘is’. Here she is giving deference to Mr. Ito (as explained in Module 5.1). At the same time she is signaling that from the perspective of her uchi Mr. Ito is soto, just as clearly as if she said so, because such deference is given only to soto people.
Morimoto’s reply (“Yes, he is”) using the humble form ‘orimasu’ for the verb ‘is’ also clearly signals that Ito is a member of her uchi, because such humbling is appropriate only for herself and other uchi members. Uchi/soto distinctions are very commonly indicated in Japanese through use of language forms that signal deference (soto) or humbling (uchi) as shown in Popup 3.
2. Uchi / Soto Distinctions in Speaking to or about Others:
This conversation also shows more about how the Japanese anchorpoint works. Both Miller and Morimoto are refering to Mr. Ito in their exchange above. But Miller indicates that he is soto to her own uchi group, while Morimoto indicates just the opposite—that Ito is inside her uchi, (while Deboral Miller is soto). These speakers didn’t need to voice uchi/soto explicitly, because each reference to other(s) in the clip above also provided this information. In fact, distinctions between ‘I’ and ‘you’ (or self and other) in Japanese always include the uchi / soto aspects of those relationships. If Miller and Morimoto had been members of the same uchi, they would have spoken to each other differently, in this case indicating their uchi relationship by their choice of language forms. (See Module 5.1, clips 2, 4 for examples.)
Consequently, the anchorpoint dynamics in a Japanese conversation do not shifting between ‘I’ and ‘you’ (as in the conversation between Peter and his girlfriend above). Instead, they involve constant delineation of the participants’ relationships as either uchi or soto to one another throughout the conversation. (See Module 5.1 for more examples.) This is a fundamental point in speaking and understanding Japanese.
Miller: Orientaru-booeki no Debora-Miraa desu ga…
Miller introduces herself by first naming her uchi “umbrella”, and then identifying herself as within that umbrella. English speakers proceed in the opposite direction, starting from themselves and moving from there to identify their workplaces or other organizations. The English-speaker starts with an ‘I’ anchorpoint; while a Japanese-speaker begins with uchi and identifies ‘I’ as located within an uchi organization.
4. Degrees of Deference: Where to Put the Guests?
Popup 3 and the 3 points above illustrate major ways in which distinctions are signaled between uchi (inside) and soto (outside). However, for uchi insiders it is important to signal not only ‘outsidedness’, but how far outside each soto person is from the uchi anchor point. In fact, this is the basis for making the decision about which room to invite the guests into in the quiz “Where to Put the Guests?” in Module 5.4. You can see the components that go into these choices in Popup 4 below.
Popup 4 brings us back full circle to the Basics for communicating appropriately in Module 5.1 and the way the “basics” are incorporated into the house plans in Modules 5.2-5.4. Grasping the idea of the uchi anchor point is crucial for understanding the communication basics that are physically represented in the layout of the house. The house itself represents the uchi anchor point and identifies each individual member as located within uchi. The guest entries into the house shown in Flash 4 (and Module 5.4) reveal that a guest of any uchi member is a guest of the uchi-as-a-whole. All guests are invited into common guest rooms and entertained there.
The plan of the house itself depicts the uchi / soto distinction. The house is divided into two parts, and the series of guest rooms represents the relationship axis from “distant” to “close”. What brings all this to life is the uchi members. They decide which room to invite a guest into by gauging how soto each guest is in reference to the uchi anchor point. (The criteria for this are spelled out underneath the Flash 4 segment.) This degree of soto distance is then used to decide how to interact with a guest. It determines the degree of formality/informality in a variety of different communication modes.
The house shown in Module 5.2 was selected because it so clearly “spells out” the distance axis in its layout. But whether it is the layout of a house or the choice of speech forms, it is important to remember that the Japanese use a variety of forms of communication to constantly spell out the same message: uchi versus soto; the distance—or closeness—of those with whom they are relating.
'Uchi', 'I', and Social Identity
One’s family is not one’s only uchi. It is possible to map out the same kinds of uchi / soto distinctions for larger groups, including companies, schools, and sports clubs. Companies have their sets of client relationships, clubs have ties with other similar groups, and so on, and these are also gauged as “close” versus “distant”. Consequently, the gauging of distance (and deference) is ubiquitous and unavoidable in Japan. The uchi / soto distinctions outlined in Part 2 happen constantly, repeatedly, in virtually every encounter. Precisely because this, they are largely taken for granted.
The differing anchorpoints of ‘uchi’ and ‘I’ can also be linked to differing social identities. The ‘I’ anchorpoint defines an individual as the center of a conversation, and individuals are the basic social entities who make up families and other organizations in the U.S. and Europe. In Japan, the ‘uchi’ anchorpoint clues us in to the fact that the family “unit” is the basic social entity, rather than the individuals inside that unit. In this sense the individual in Japan, while acknowledged as an individual, is always viewed as part of some collectivity (an uchi), even if the other members don’t happen to be present at a particular time. The individual is under an organizational “umbrella”.
Even websites illustrate this kind of uchi organization. If you select a Japanese university and go to its website, you will find that you can’t easily access individuals directly from the top page. Instead, individuals are identified through their groupings, so that it is necessary to proceed through a series of organizational umbrellas (which are often mapped out in considerable detail), and then go from there to the individuals. In contrast, U.S. university websites give easy access to individuals, often through a search engine on the top page. Sites are designed to facilitate identification of an individual’s department, email address, individual websites, and various activities. In this sense, the site presents the organization as taking place through the individuals, or as individual-centered.
From ‘I’ to ‘Uchi’: Peter’s Homestay Revisited
If the homestay guest views the family from the reference point of ‘I’ while the host family members see themselves as ‘uchi’, they are putting themselves in a communication minefield. To see this happening, let’s take another look at Peter’s homestay, Part 1. When the Sasaki okaasan invites Peter to treat their house as his own house, Peter’s response is: “I’m free to do my own thing! No curfew! No rules!” (Modules 2.1 and 2.2) Peter is thinking in terms of himself as an ‘I’ anchorpoint, rather than ‘uchi’ (sharing a reference point with the other members “inside” the Sasaki household).
But the Sasaki okaasan has different expectations when she utters that phrase. She expects Peter to treat their uchi as his own. Having uchi as a common anchorpoint means that all those in uchi share a common social world (which differentiates them from soto families). The okaasan expects that Peter’s actions should fit in with their “world”. Although they will cut him some slack in doing this, they are totally unaware of his ‘I’ anchorpoint. But Peter fails to make (or even begin) the transition from ‘I’ to ‘uchi’ and so his situation becomes worse in Part 2 of the homestay case. He appears to think of himself (and his room) as independent entities, separate from the family. He doesn’t introduce his friends to the family members, nor does he invite them into the shared family rooms .
But once you are aware of how different the implications of ‘uchi-and its anchorpoint-are from an ‘I’ anchorpoint, you should then be able to see how the design of a Japanese house can express the uchi of its inhabitants, and it should also be clear why Peter’s host family was disturbed when he entertained guests in his room without introducing them. Peter’s failure to comprehend himself in relation to his family’s uchi is a major reason for the failure of his homestay. The ‘I’ versus ‘uchi‘ anchorpoints is a difficult yet very important subject, which we will continue to elaborate in Parts 3-5. But for now, don’t assume that because ‘uchi’ is a group anchorpoint, that individuals do not exist in Japan. They do—but within uchi.
Until now we have focused largely on uchi relationships toward soto guests, which exemplified by the arrival of the homestay guest. But the next module takes up a crucial subject: how do relationships ordinarily work within uchi.