"Choppy Japanese": dramatic journalistic prose
22 April 2016
On 13 April 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 (中沢克二), a member of the paper's editorial board.
The style of the piece is far from conventional Japanese writing. Conventional prose uses various means to combine shorter clauses into sentences. The main clause usually comes at the end. In both spoken and written Japanese, the tone of sentences is then frequently modulated through the judicious use of verb forms and sentence endings.
Nakazawa's piece is diametrically opposed to this. Sentences are short -- often only a single clause -- and tend to be bald, unmodulated assertions. If there is a need for expansion or qualification, this is often contained in a followup sentence. The chronological narratives embodied in continuous prose are chopped up into discrete sentences and tense sequences easily fractured.
The result is a very "choppy" style of prose that has little in common with traditional prose styles. It is a style reminiscent of the dramatic, hard-hitting language of video documentaries, which feature strong, attention-getting statements playing out against a clear visual background.
Here I want to go through Nakazawa's piece to see what makes it tick.
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:
'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'
Nakazawa doesn't beat around the bush. His first sentence makes an arresting general statement about the nature of Chinese power struggles. The verb, 演じられる enjirareru 'be played out', is in the present tense and states a generalisation. Grammatically, the use of ...では de wa makes 'in Chinese power struggles' into the topic of the sentence. The verb is in the passive voice.
The second sentence then presents the perceived reason for this situation. It ends in the dogmatic locution ためだ tame da 'it's because'. Note the という to yū construction, a special type of adnominal clause (relative clause or 連体修飾 rentai-shūshoku). Here it adds the key judgement of elections (選挙 senkyo) as an instrument of democracy and fairness.
(Hereafter I will use the term adnominal clause to refer to clauses that come before nouns and modify them. They are known as 連体修飾 rentai-shūshoku in Japanese and generally correspond to relative clauses in English.)
In more sober Japanese, the two sentences would be lumped together:
'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 sentence reads smoothly in Japanese and gives an impression of reason. It forms a stark counterpoint to the dramatic nature of Nakazawa's opening.
The next sentence plunges into an example:
'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 uses past tense (だった datta 'was').
This sentence again makes use of an adnominal clause. In purely formal terms, the example referred to is the noun phrase 激烈な闘い gekiretsu na tatakai 'the furious struggle'. But the key element in this sentence is what modifies the noun phrase: the adnominal clause 元最高指導部メンバーの周永康、元重慶市トップの薄熙来を巡る moto saikō shidōbu membā no Shū Eikō, moto jūkei-shi toppu no Haku Kirai o meguru 'which revolves around the original member of the top leadership, Zhou Yongkang, and the original chief of Chongqing city, Bo Xilai'.
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'
A 'noun-stopped' sentence is one that omits the final verb. In this case, だった datta 'was' is omitted after 蓄財疑惑 chikuzai giwaku 'wealth-amassing scandal'. By omitting the verb, the sentence takes on 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'. 'Noun-stopped' sentences are a favourite device of this style of writing.
Again there is an adnominal clause -- 当時の首相、温家宝の親族を巡る tōji no shushō, On Kahō no shinzoku o meguru 'concerning the relatives of the Premier of the time, Wen Jiabao' -- to flesh out the final noun phrase, 巨額の蓄財疑惑 kyogaku no chikuzai giwaku 'scandal of amassing huge wealth'. This is a classic use of this construction. The effect is to describe the content of the situation, which is encapsulated in a noun (疑惑 giwaku 'scandal'). Omitting the final verb heightens the effect.
The sentence that follows, introduced by そして soshite 'and', is a sentence fragment. It appears to be tacked on as an afterthought. The purpose is to chop the prose into impressive sound-bites and add to the drama. Curiously, the verb here is in the present tense, だ da 'is', making it one item in a list of issues served up by the author.
The two sentences could be combined to read:
'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.'
But Nakazawa chooses to use two separate sentences, one little more than a fragment, in order to add to the dramatic presentation. The first issue (Wen Jiabao's family wealth) is treated first in the article. The second (Xi Jinping's family wealth) is treated later. The split into two sentences helps clarify the exposition.
In the next sentence, the author gives a succinct encapsulation of his view that the value of information is primarily as a political weapon:
'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. It 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 general situation as 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' here.
The second sentence notes that the Panama Papers have refocused attention on the issue of tax havens. Note again the use of a noun, 問題 mondai 'issue, problem', preceded by the adnominal clause 今回、「パナマ文書」の暴露で再び注目を浴びた konkai, 'Panama Bunsho' no bakuro de futatabi chūmoku o abita 'which this time, with the exposure of the Panama Papers, has again been showered with attention'.
Nakazawa then ties these threads together in another sweeping sentence:
'the issue of wealth accumulation using paper companies established in tax havens is a leading player in the information wars that move Chinese political affairs'.
This statement places tax havens squarely at the centre of Chinese information wars.
Note again the use of nouns to form the framework of the sentence, and the use of two adnominal clauses to add key content. Without the adnominal clauses, the sentence would read 蓄財問題は情報戦の主役だ chikuzai mondai wa jōhō-sen no shuyaku da 'the issue of wealth accumulation is a leading player in the information wars'. It is the two adnominal clauses that make the connection between 'the use of paper companies in tax havens' and 'Chinese political affairs'.
Having delivered this judgement, Nakazawa goes back to the situation of Zhou Yongkang and starts a dramatic but choppy narrative. Rather than a straight narrative ('this happened and then this happened'), Nakazawa presents a sequences of 'situations'. This style of advancing the story, being tied as it is to the overriding point that Nakazawa is making, can easily give rise to factual and chronological confusion:
'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 situation ('he held power'), not an action ('he took hold of power').
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 is truncated and lacks tense marking. From the context, it should be 断罪していた danzai shite ita 'had condemned'.
The next sentence 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:
'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 resulting choppiness is conducive to a lack of connection 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, again presented as an action in isolation, could be an illustration of Zhou Yongkang's abuse of power, or a reason for the leadership's decision to condemn him. But by using 当時 tōji 'at that time', the author is isolating the sentence from the previous one in a way similar to the use of 'meanwhile' in English. It represents a new point in the narrative. The sentence uses the て -te form and the 連用形 ren'yōkei to tie several actions together. In this way the three actions are linked 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 happened in the preceding sentence.
While the narrative style is choppy, Nakazawa is leading us back to the point of the article: information is a weapon in the wars among the leadership.
The next two sentences present an analysis of Zhou Yongkang's intentions:
'As successor to himself after retiring, he was to 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 clearly an exposition of Zhou's intentions, but a curiously disembodied one. It is the kind of present tense used in instructions or recipes, explaining what should be done in discrete steps. The effect is a blunt and dramatic presentation of Zhou's intentions.
Note that the sentence also contains adnominal clauses (盟友だった meiyū datta 'was an ally', 引退する intai suru 'about to retire'), which are essential in explaining the situation. It also uses 連用形 ren'yōkei forms to string verbs together, in this case indicating the intimate link between inserting Bo Xilai in the top leadership (最高指導部入りさせ saikō shidōbu-iri-sase 'cause to enter top leadership') and maintaining Zhou's own power from behind the scenes.
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 presents the concept of intention much more clearly than the previous one: it ends 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 ...'. This involves two elements: the ending 狙いもあった nerai mo atta 'also had the aim of...' spells out clearly that this was Zhou's aim; とされる to sareru 'it is said' indicates that the author is stating not his own views but those of other people. The specifics of this aim are spelt out in an adnominal clause of content.
The next sentences briskly 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 again presents an explanation, using のだ noda, a sentence-ending form used to indicate an explanation for what was stated previously. The reason for his panic is that, in addition to Bo Xilai's people, others are also being arrested. The adnominal clause 自分の秘密を知る jibun no himitsu o shiru 'who know his own secrets', modifying the noun 人物 jinbutsu 'people', is essential in explaining Zhou's panic.
This particular sentence pattern -- a bald statement of the situation followed by a sentence of explanation -- is typical of this passage. The use of adnominal clauses to provide essential information is also typical of this style.
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. It is in the present tense because it purports to represent Zhou's thoughts in real time. This adds to the drama of the piece.
The second sentence, also in present tense, takes one step back: it no longer presents Zhou's thoughts from the inside; instead it presents his decision as an objective one seen from the outside. (Viewed from the inside of Zhou's head, the sentence would be 賭けに出よう kake ni deyō 'let's take a risk'.)
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, characterising Zhou's actions in the past tense.
This shifting perspective, at times taking the point of view of Zhou himself, at times times presenting his actions from the point of view of the narrator, results in a vivid narrative.
This is followed by 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 is suitable for the narration of past events. The second sentence is again in a 'noun-stopped' form, omitting the verb だった datta 'was', adding a more dramatic feel to the narrative.
The next five sentences present the situation, but in a somewhat disjointed way. The first statement reaches back to March 2012, prior to Bo Xilai's downfall, when Wen Jiabao criticised Bo. The second sentence introduces the nature of the scandal surrounding Wen Jiabao. The third and fourth represent how information concerning this scandal was disseminated. The fifth describes the impact.
'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'
What is noticeable about this paragraph is, again, that it starts with a situation that needs to be placed against the already fractured narrative that Nakazawa is presenting. The fact that Wen Jiabao's criticism predated Zhou's counterattack is grammatically shown by the verb 批判していた hihan shite ita 'had criticised' in the first sentence. The second sentence is a simple 'noun + copula + noun' type of sentence, indicating the simple equation X=Y. The first noun (X) is followed by とは to wa, which indicates that Y serves to explicate what X is.
The next two sentences provide detail on the methods of dissemination. The second points to examples (using the noun 例 rei) where information was also spread overseas. The content is again indicated by an adnominal clause. Furthermore, the type of people (人物ら jinbutsu-ra) spreading information is also described using an adnominal clause (周永康の意を受けたとみられる Shū Eikō no i o uketa to mirareru 'who were seen as receiving instructions from Zhou Yongkang').
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 using という to yū.
The two following 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.
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 sums up the point of the paragraph, the way that the information released was skewed, followed by sentences illustrating how this was done. The most interesting feature is the last sentence, a sentence fragment. Theoretically this fragment could be put in leading position ('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'). However, it is placed at the end in order to emphasise how skewed the selection of targets was.
This highlights another 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 the passage, not the logic of grammar. 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' gains its effect from the way it is placed at the end of the paragraph. Putting it into its 'correct' position ruins the effect.
Nakazawa continues in this vein for many more paragraphs. The continuation is here.
Certain devices stand out in this style of writing:
1) Short, decisive sentences are preferred. Where necessary verbs can be strung together using the て -te form or ren'yokei (連用形), but the scope of such strings is limited to tight logical sequences. Where possible, sentences are broken up.
2) Clauses offering explanations, modifications, etc. are usually placed not ahead of the main clause, as in conventional prose, but in short separate sentences (explanatory, concessional) after the main sentence.
3) Nouns frequently form an important framework or even act as an anchor for sentences. Adnominal clauses are then essential for providing key information.
4) Where noun + copula (だ da or だった datta) is found at the end of sentences, the copula is often omitted for effect ('noun-stopped sentences').
5) As part of the exposition, straight narrative may be eschewed in favour of a series of states. The lack of a narrative flow can cause sequences to become jumbled. Adnominal clauses can help sort out the chronology.
6) If it is important to highlight one point, this can be made the core sentence, with sentence fragments added as afterthoughts. Beginning afterthoughts with そして soshite 'and' is a useful way of achieving this.