"Choppy Japanese": dramatic journalistic prose
22 April 2016 (last updated Feb 2018)
On 13 April 2016 Nihon Keizai Shinbun ran a piece on the impact of the Panama Papers in China, entitled 「パナマ文書」考 租税回避地の闇が動かす中国の権力闘争 (roughly, "Thoughts on the Panama Papers: How the scandal of tax havens moves China's power struggle"). It was authored by Nakazawa Katsuji (中澤克二), a member of the paper's editorial board.
The style of the piece differs rather markedly from conventional types of Japanese prose. Japanese writing traditionally tends to combine strings of clauses, both coordinating and subordinating, into longish sentences, with the main clause coming at the end. The tone of the sentence is modulated through final verbs and sentence endings.
Nakazawa's piece is quite different from this. It has a striking predilection for short sentences — sometimes just a single clause — as bald, unmodulated assertions. These are expanded, explained, or justified in followup sentences or sentence fragments.
While it makes extensive reference to events, the piece is not a straight narrative. It orders events into dramatic situations. Background and chronology thus need to be made clear, for instance through the use of verb tenses, to avoid confusion.
The result is a very "choppy" style of prose. It is reminiscent of the dramatic, hard-hitting language of video or television documentaries, with strong, attention-getting statements playing out against a clear visual background. The difference here, of course, is that the passage does not have a clear visual background.
Grammatical features of this style are:
1) Short, decisive sentences are preferred; long concatenations of clauses are avoided. Sentence-linking -て -te forms and ren'yokei (連用形 ren'yōkei) are used sparingly.
2) Unlike conventional prose, supporting clauses are placed after core statements.
3) In common with many types of Japanese prose, particularly journalistic prose, the piece relies heavily on nouns as 'anchors'. Adnominal clauses (連体修飾 rentai-shūshoku, largely equivalent to relative clauses in English) then provide indispensable detail, without which the sense of the passage would be lost. (Alternatively, adnominal clauses embody the detail of the story while the nouns that they modify act as a focus or adumbration of those clauses). (Note)
4) Also in common with much journalistic prose, sentence-final copulas like だ da are omitted for effect ('noun-stopped sentences').
Here I want to go through Nakazawa's piece to see what makes it tick.
Nakazawa doesn't beat around the bush. He starts with an arresting general characterisation of Chinese power struggles:
'In Chinese power struggles a mudslinging contest is played out internally in which life and death are at stake. That is because it lacks the democratic, fair means known as elections adopted by the overwhelming majority of countries'
The first two sentences illustrate a fundamental principle of this style of writing: make a simple, bold statement; then use a separate sentence to give an equally bold reason. As general statements, both sentences are in the present tense.
Grammatically, the use of ...では de wa makes 'in Chinese power struggles' into the topic of the first sentence. The verb, 演じられる enjirareru 'be played out' (in the present tense) states a generalisation. It is in the passive voice.
The sentence contains an adnominal clause:
naibu de seishi o kaketa doro-jiai
internally, a mud-slinging battle in which life and death are at stake'
This clause adds additional information on the nature of these struggles. It can be regarded as similar to a supplementary (non-restrictive) relative clause in English.
The second sentence presents the perceived reason for this situation. It ends in the dogmatic locution ためだ tame da 'it's because'.
This also features an adnominal clause adding supplementary information.
attōteki tasū no kuni ga saiyō suru senkyo to yū minshuteki de kōsei na shudan
the democratic, fair means known as elections adopted by the overwhelming majority of countries'
In more sober Japanese, the two sentences could easily be lumped together:
Attōteki tasū no kokka ga saiyō suru senkyo to yū minshuteki de kōsei na shudan ga nai tame, chūgoku no kenryoku tōsō de wa, naibu de seishi o kaketa doro-jiai ga enjirareru
'Because it lacks the democratic, fair means known as elections adopted by the overwhelming majority of countries, in Chinese power struggles a mudslinging contest is played out internally in which life and death are at stake'
The combined sentences read relatively smoothly and give an impression of reason. The effect is very different from Nakazawa's dramatic opening.
The next sentence presents an example in support of the author's contention:
'The furious struggle revolving around the original member of the top leadership, Zhou Yongkang, and the original chief of Chongqing city, Bo Xilai, was a good example of this'
Since the example is drawn from the past, the sentence is in past tense (だった datta 'was').
An adnominal clause gives the content of the 激烈な闘い gekiretsu na tatakai 'furious struggle':
Moto saikō shidōbu membā no Shū Eikō, moto jūkei-shi toppu no Haku Kirai o meguru gekiretsu na tatakai 'The furious struggle revolving around the original member of the top leadership, Zhou Yongkang, and the original chief of Chongqing city, Bo Xilai
This time the adnominal clause is integral to the sentence: 'revolving around the original member of the top leadership, Zhou Yongkang, and the original chief of Chongqing city, Bo Xilai' cannot be omitted. The content of the clause is essential to advancing the narrative. The tense used in the adnominal clause is present tense (巡る meguru 'concerning, revolving around') as it is concerned only with identifying the nature of the struggle, not its location in time.
The passage then introduces the 'weapons' used in this struggle. This is split into two sentences. The first is a dramatic-sounding sentence type known in Japanese as 'noun-stopped' (体言止め taigen-dome); the second is little more than a fragment:
'The weapon of the struggle (was) the scandal concerning the amassing of huge wealth by relatives of the Premier of the time, Wen Jiabao. And as well (there is) the issue of assets of relatives of Xi Jinping, whose accession to the top had been decided'
In the first sentence, だった datta 'was' is omitted after 蓄財疑惑 chikuzai giwaku 'wealth-amassing scandal', giving the sentence an impressive, authoritative tone. The time frame is still the past, as seen in 当時の首相 tōji no shushō 'the Premier of the time'.
The adnominal clause here again uses the verb 巡る meguru 'concerning, revolving around':
tōji no shushō, On Kahō no shinzoku o meguru kyogaku no chikuzai giwaku
'scandal of amassing huge wealth concerning the relatives of the Premier of the time, Wen Jiabao'
This is again an integrated clause since it cannot be omitted without leaving a hole in the story.
The sentence that follows it, introduced by そして soshite 'and', is a sentence fragment. It looks like it has been tacked on as an afterthought, chopping the prose into 'sound-bites' and adding to the drama. Curiously, the verb here is in the present tense, だ da 'is'. By using the present tense, the author identifies this not as an event in the chronology but as one of a list of issues forming part of his argument.
Another adnominal clause is used to introduce essential background information about Xi Jinping, whose relatives are implicated in asset issues:
toppu e no shūnin ga kimatte ita Shū Kinpei
Xi Jinping, whose accession to the top had been decided
While this is important information, here it forms part of the background and is not integral to the narrative. The verb is in the past tense, i.e., the information that Xi Jinping had been chosen to rise to the top pertained to that time.
The two sentences could be combined to read:
Tatakai no buki wa, tōji no shushō, On Kahō no shinzoku o meguru kyogaku no chikuzai giwaku, toppu e no shuunin ga kimatte ita Shū Kinpei no shinzoku no shisan mondai nado datta
'The weapon of the struggle was the suspicion concerning the amassing of huge wealth by relatives of the Premier of the time, Wen Jiabao, the issue of assets of relatives of Xi Jinping, whose accession to the top had been decided, etc.'
Nakazawa separates this into two parts, one little more than a fragment, in order to add to the dramatic presentation. The two parts represent the order in which they will be covered in the article. Wen Jiabao's family wealth is treated first, followed by Xi Jinping's family wealth.
In the next sentence, the author succinctly encapsulates his argument that the value of information is primarily political:
'Under China's special political system, the value of political use is given priority over the authenticity of information'
Grammatically, this sentence follows the same pattern as the very first sentence: xxxでは xxx de wa 'in xxx' plus a closing passive. However, it does not contain adnominal clauses. The sentence represents an expansion of Nakazawa's original general statement and sets the stage for the further exposition of his point.
But first, Nakazawa ties tax havens into his argument in two short sentences:
'The scandal of the use of tax havens comes in here. This time, with the exposure of the Panama Papers, (this is) a problem that has again gained attention'
ここに koko ni 'here' refers to the situation already introduced, namely, the issue of wealth accumulation and the use of information for political purposes. The issue of tax havens is described as 'latching in' (絡む karamu) here.
The second sentence notes that the Panama Papers have refocused attention on this issue.
Note again the use of a noun, 問題 mondai 'issue, problem', preceded by an adnominal clause:
'Panama Bunsho' no bakuro de futatabi chūmoku o abita mondai de aru
'issue which has again been showered with attention with the exposure of the Panama Papers'.
The sentence verb is である de aru 'is', and as a result, the adnominal clause constitutes virtually the entire sentence.
Nakazawa then ties these threads together in another sweeping sentence:
'the issue of wealth accumulation using paper companies established in tax havens plays a leading role in the information wars that move Chinese political affairs'.
This statement places tax havens squarely at the centre of Chinese information wars. It is in the present tense, affirming the vital importance that this issue holds in the present.
Nouns (蓄財問題 chikuzai mondai 'issue of wealth accumulation' and 主役 shuyaku 'leading role') provide the backbone of the sentence. Three adnominal clauses (one embedded inside another adnominal clause) add key content. The first pertains to the issue of wealth accumulation:
[Sozei kaihichi ni setsuritsu shita] pēpā kanpanii o tsukatta chikuzai mondai
'the issue of wealth accumulation using paper companies [established in tax havens]'.
The clause identifies the issue as involving the use of paper companies. A further adnominal clause embedded within the clause, 'established in tax havens', pertains to 'paper companies'. Both are integral to the narrative.
The second adnominal clause is:
chūgoku no seikyoku o ugokasu jōhō-sen
'the information wars that move Chinese political affairs'.
This adnominal clause adds important content, although it could be omitted without affecting the overall narrative.
Since the two nouns (蓄財問題 chikuzai mondai 'issue of wealth accumulation' and 主役 shuyaku 'leading role') have minimal content, the two adnominal clauses are essential in connecting 'the use of paper companies in tax havens' and 'Chinese political affairs'. They flesh out the sentences in order to move the narrative forward.
Having delivered this judgement, Nakazawa goes back to Zhou Yongkang and outlines a dramatic but choppy outline of events. Instead of a straight narrative ('this happened and then this happened'), Nakazawa presents a sequence of 'situations'. This style of presentation can easily give rise to factual and chronological confusion. Verb tenses are critical:
'Zhou Yongkang, as secretary to the central political committee of the Communist Party, had sole authority to control Public Security (the police) and the Armed Police. The Xi leadership had already condemned Zhou Yongkang. For the crime of corruption and security breaches, life imprisonment was confirmed'
The sentences are dramatic and attention grabbing. The first sentence uses past tense (握っていた nigitte ita 'held') and presents a state ('he held power'), not an action ('he took hold of power').
The sentence contains an adnominal clause that is integral to explaining Zhou's power:
kōan (keisatsu), busō keisatsu o ugokasu kenryoku
'authority to control Public Security (the police) and the Armed Police'.
The next sentence, even briefer, tells us that despite his grip on this key power, Zhou was already in the sights of the central leadership. In a form similar to 'noun-stopping', the verb 断罪 danzai 'condemn' is truncated and lacks tense marking. From the context, it should be 断罪していた danzai shite ita 'had condemned' (referring to a past action and the resulting state — that of having been condemned) or 断罪した danzai shita 'condemned' (representing a simple action on the part of the central leadership).
The next sentence, in the past tense, illustrates and amplifies the leadership's decision on Zhou Yongkang, that is, life imprisonment for corruption and security breaches.
It would be quite possible to link the all three sentences together. For example:
Shū Eikō wa kyōsantō chūō seihō iinkai shoki to shite kōan (keisatsu), busō keisatsu o ugokasu kenryoku o itte ni nigitte ita ga Shū shidōbu wa sude ni Shū Eikō o danzai shi, oshoku ya kimitsu rōei no tsumi de muki chōeki o kakutei shite ita
'Zhou Yongkang, as secretary to the central political committee of the Communist Party, had sole authority to move Public Security (the police) and the Armed Police, but the Xi leadership had already condemned Zhou Yongkang, confirming life imprisonment on charges of corruption and leakage of secrets'
Other arrangements are also possible. What is clear is that Nakazawa's dramatic style leads him to present the situation in three sharp, short sentences. The result is to cut connections between sentences, almost to the point of incongruity. Drama takes precedence over sense.
The choppy narrative continues. Each sentence, presented in as dramatic a form as possible, resists integration into a smooth narrative.
'Zhou Yongkang at the time abused his power to tap the phones of top leadership and others and collected secret information. He was preparing for a time of need'
The first sentence relates Zhou's actions. It uses 当時 tōji 'at that time' to isolate the sentence from the previous one in a way similar to using 'meanwhile' in English. It represents a new point in the sequence of events.
Unusually for this passage, the sentence uses the て -te form and the 連用形 ren'yōkei, both of which are used to run clauses together. Here, they link the three actions into a tight chain: abuse of power = phone tapping = collection of secret information.
The follow-on sentence, a brief one, suggests a motive for his collection of secret information, one of preparing for a time when he would need it. のだ noda is a sentence-ending form indicating that this is an explanation for what is related in the preceding sentence.
Through this somewhat disjoined narration of events Nakazawa is leading us back to the point of the article: information as a weapon in the wars among the leadership.
The next two sentences present Zhou Yongkang's intentions:
'As successor to himself after retiring, he would insert Bo Xilai, who was his ally, into the top leadership and prepare a regency with this area as its axis. And it is said that he also had the aim of raising the ambitious Bo Xilai and causing him to oppose Xi'
The two sentences explain the steps of Zhou's plan and are semantically closely interrelated, but they are grammatically curious.
The first sentence uses the present tense. This does not indicate an action in the present. It is a disembodied exposition of Zhou's intentions, the kind of present tense used in instructions or recipes, explaining in discrete steps what to do. The effect is a blunt and dramatic presentation of Zhou's intentions.
A short adnominal clause provides essential background information:
Meiyū datta Haku Kirai
'Bo Xilai, who was his ally'.
Unlike the main sentence, which is present tense and indicates future intentions, the adnominal is in the past tense. It describes the situation that held at the time.
The second sentence, prefaced by そして soshite 'and', refers to the possibility of an even grander aim — challenging the leadership of Xi. This sentence spells out Zhou's intention more clearly by ending in 狙いもあったとされる nerai mo atta to sareru 'it is said that he also had the aim of ...' but presents it in a more speculative way. This involves two elements: the ending 狙いもあった nerai mo atta 'also had the aim of...' posits this as Zhou's aim; とされる to sareru 'it is said' indicates that this is not the author's own views but views heard from other people.
The specifics of this aim are spelt out in an adnominal clause of content:
yashinka no Haku Kirai o mochi-age, Shū ni taikō saseru nerai
'the aim of raising the ambitious Bo Xilai and causing him to oppose Xi'.
The next sentences quite suddenly move the story along to the spring of 2012:
'In the spring of 2012, Zhou Yongkang was in a panic at the downfall of Bo Xilai. Not only (people) around Bo Xilai, but people who knew his own secrets were also one after another detained by the Central Discipline Inspection Commission'
The first sentence presents Zhou's state of mind at the time. Note that the use of ていた -te ita indicates a state or situation ('be in a panic'), not an action ('fall into panic').
The second sentence relates actions (using past tense) with an explanation using のだ noda. Zhou is panicking because, in addition to Bo Xilai's people, others are also being arrested.
Three short, sharp sentences then indicate Zhou's reaction to the situation.
'This is dangerous left as it is. So take a risk. It was a counterattack staking everything'
The first sentence is virtually a thought-bubble, purporting to represent Zhou's thoughts in real time. Since it represents exactly what Zhou is thinking, it is in the present tense. This is a dramatic flourish.
The second sentence takes one step back: it presents Zhou's thoughts in a disembodied present tense, although these indicate future intentions. This is similar to the way that Zhou's plans to set up a regency were presented earlier in the manner of a recipe.
The third sentence, 乾坤一擲の反撃だった kenkon itteki no hangeki datta 'It was a counterattack staking everything', reverts completely to the narrator's perspective, presenting the narrator's judgement of the situation as it existed in the past.
This shifting perspective, at times taking the point of view of Zhou himself, at times presenting his actions from the outside, results in a vivid narrative.
This is followed by an analysis of Zhou's tactics by using a quote from someone familiar with the situation. In the interest of greater impact, Nakazawa presents the quotation first, followed by an explanation of who was behind it:
'"Zhou Yongkang tried counterattacking with various methods. The first target was Wen Jiabao. The people around Zhou Yongkang used various methods to circulate negative information in China and overseas about Wen Jiabao" (This) is the testimony of a person who knows the situation at the time.'
The quote is in the past tense as it purports to present the source's narrative. Unlike in English, Japanese direct quotes are not expected to be faithful. The author is simply summing up what the source said. The noun-stopped form in the second sentence (最初の標的は温家宝 Saisho no hyōteki wa On Kahō 'The first target (was) Wen Jiabao'), omitting the verb だった datta 'was', belongs to the author's dramatic style and probably does not represent the actual words used by the source.
The next five sentences describe Wen Jiabao's criticism and Zhou's counterattack.
First, there is background: Wen's criticism of Bo Xilai on March 2012, prior to Bo's downfall. The tense, -ていた -te ita, equivalent to English 'had been', indicates that this already lies in the past vis-à-vis Zhou's attack.
This is followed by an explanation of the situation and events that unfolded.
'At a press conference in March 2012 for domestic and foreign journalists, Wen Jiabao was clearly criticising Bo Xilai before his fall. The scandal of Wen Jiabao's family was the existence of a total of as much as 27 billion dollars (roughly 290 billion yen) of unclear amassed assets. At the time, (this) was widely disseminated through China's version of LINE, WeChat. In fact, there are examples of people believed to have received instructions from Zhou Yongkang going outside of Mainland China and spreading information. As a result, the image of being "a Premier close to the people" fell to the ground at once'
The second sentence in the paragraph describes the nature of the scandal surrounding Wen Jiabao's family, the existence of as much as 27 billion dollars of amassed assets. It takes the form of a simple 'noun + copula + noun' type of sentence. The first noun (疑惑 giwaku 'scandal') is followed by とは to wa. This indicates that 不透明な蓄財の存在 futōmei na chikuzai no sonzai 'the existence of ... unclear amassed assets' is an explanation of what the 疑惑 giwaku 'scandal' is. It is in the present tense since the sentence is intended only as an explanation, removed from the flow of events.
The third and fourth sentences relate how information concerning this scandal was disseminated. The third sentence, uses the past tense and begins with 当時 tōji 'at the time' to indicate a return to the narrative.
The fourth sentence points to examples (using the noun 例 rei) where information was also spread overseas. The content is again indicated by an adnominal clause, which has a further adnominal clause embedded within it modifying 人物ら jinbutsu-ra 'people':
[Shū Eikō no i o uketa to mirareru] jinbutsu-ra ga, Chūgoku hondo igai ni dete, jōhō o kakusan shita rei'
'examples of people [believed to have received instructions from Zhou Yongkang] going outside of Mainland China and spreading information
The only part of the sentence lying outside the adnominals is 実際、...例もある jissai, ...rei mo aru 'in fact, there are examples'. The adnominals form the actual narrative; 例 rei 'examples' simply provides a frame.
The final sentence indicates the result of this campaign: Wen Jiabao's reputation was instantly ruined. The content of the reputation was as "a Premier close to the people", expressed with an adnominal clause of content using という to yū.
The next two sentences represent Nakazawa's commentary on the situation:
'(This) is truly a war of information. Separate from truth or falsity, the dissemination of the wealth-amassing scandal itself was political material on which life was staked'
Both sentences use nouns followed by the verb 'to be' (である de aru 'is' and だった datta 'was'). Both sentences are presented in a forceful fashion. The adnominal clause 命をかけた inochi o kaketa 'on which life was staked' is non-essential but is important to Nakazawa's point.
Nakazawa then goes into this information war in more detail:
'Information was skewed. There was no record concerning Zhou Yongkang. There was also no information relating to the relatives of the former national chairman, Jiang Zemin, who was his backer. Even though the relatives of many Chinese leaders are largely amassing similar wealth'
The first sentence, in the past tense, sums up the point of the paragraph, the way that the information released was skewed.
The next sentence is in the present tense. The purpose of the change of tense here is to make the narrative more vivid. The next sentence then slips back to the past tense. Again, adnominal clauses fill in vital background information.
The most interesting feature is the last sentence, a sentence fragment — 多くの中国指導者らの親族が大筋、似た蓄財をしているにもかかわらず Ōku no chūgoku shidōsha-ra no shinzoku ga ōsuji, nita chikuzai o shite iru ni mo kakawarazu 'Even though the relatives of many Chinese leaders are largely amassing similar wealth'. In normal neutral order, this fragment belongs at the beginning, that is: 'Even though the relatives of many Chinese leaders are largely amassing similar wealth, there was no record concerning Zhou Yongkang, and also no information relating to the relatives of the former national chairman, Jiang Zemin, who was his backer'. Nakazawa places it at the end in order to stress how skewed the selection of targets was.
This highlights a feature of this kind of 'choppy prose': it can't necessarily be fixed by putting it back into a more normal sequence. The use of such fragments and their placing in the passage is dictated by the logic of delivery, not the logic of grammar. The final sentence fragment gains its entire effect from the way it is placed at the end of the paragraph. Putting it into its 'correct' position would detract from this effect.
Nakazawa continues in this vein for many more paragraphs. The continuation is here.