"Choppy Japanese": dramatic journalistic prose
22 April 2016
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 -- often just a single clause -- as bald, unmodulated assertions. These are expanded, explained, or justified in followup sentences, sometimes just sentence fragments.
While it makes extensive reference to events, the piece is not a straight narrative. It presents dramatic situations in order to put a particular point of view and interpretation of events. Background and chronology thus need to be made clear, for instance through the use of verb tenses, in order 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.
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. Grammatically, the use of ...では de wa makes 'in Chinese power struggles' into the topic of the sentence. The verb, 演じられる enjirareru 'be played out', is in the present tense and states a generalisation. It is in the passive voice.
The next sentence presents the perceived reason for this situation. It ends in the dogmatic locution ためだ tame da 'it's because'.
In more sober Japanese, the two sentences could 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'
When combined, the sentences read relatively smoothly and give an impression of reason. They stand in stark contrast with Nakazawa's dramatic opening.
The next sentence immediately 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 uses past tense (だった datta 'was').
This sentence again makes use of an adnominal clause to explain the 激烈な闘い (gekiretsu na tatakai 'furious struggle'), that is: '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'
In the first sentence, だった datta 'was' is omitted after 蓄財疑惑 chikuzai giwaku 'wealth-amassing scandal'. Omitting the verb gives 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'.
Again there is an adnominal clause -- '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'.
The sentence that follows, 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'. Use of the present tense identifies it not as an event in the chronology but as one of a list of issues served up by the author as part of his argument.
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 adds to the dramatic presentation by using two separate sentences, one little more than a fragment. 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 argument 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' (絡む karamu) 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 '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 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.
Note again the use of nouns to form the framework of the sentence, and the use of two adnominal clauses to add key content. It is the two adnominal clauses that connect 'the use of paper companies in tax havens' and 'Chinese political affairs'.
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 sequences of 'situations'. This style of presentation 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 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, again presented as an action in isolation, uses 当時 tōji 'at that time' to isolate 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.
Unusually for this passage, the sentence uses the て -te form and the 連用形 ren'yōkei, which are often used to run clauses together. Here, they are used to 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 happened in the preceding sentence.
While the narration of events is somewhat disjointed, 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 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 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.
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 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 ('raising the ambitious Bo Xilai and causing him to oppose Xi').
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, again 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, also in present tense, takes one step back: it no longer presents Zhou's thoughts from the inside. Instead it presents an objective decision as 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, slipping back into the past tense.
This shifting perspective, at times taking the point of view of Zhou himself, at times times presenting his actions from the outside, 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 it purports to present the source's narrative. Unlike English, however, 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, 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 Zhou's counterattack against Wen Jiabao. 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. What follows will therefore relate to the unfolding of events.
'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 immediately following sentence 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 (X) is followed by とは to wa, indicating that Y is an explanation of X.
The third and fourth sentences represent how information concerning this scandal was disseminated. The third sentence points to examples (using the noun 例 rei) where information was also spread overseas. The content is again indicated by an adnominal clause. In the fourth sentence, the type of people (人物ら jinbutsu-ra) spreading information is also described using an adnominal clause ('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 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.
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.