The strangeness of Ishigami's letters in 容疑者Xの献身 ('The Devotion of Suspect X')
Studies of grammar in prose
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The strangeness of Ishigami's letters in 容疑者Xの献身 ('The Devotion of Suspect X')

(How Ishigami used 'student translationese' to come across as a misfit otaku)

15 September 2017 (updated July 2018)

cover of Japanese version by Bunshun Bunko

In 容疑者Xの献身 yōgisha ekkusu no kenshin ('The Devotion of Suspect X') by Higashino Keigo (東野圭吾), the protagonist, Ishigami Tetsuya (石神哲哉), sends threatening letters to his neighbour Hanaoka Yasuko (花岡靖子).

The letters are part of an elaborate scheme by Ishigami to distract police attention from Yasuko and her daughter after they unintentionally murder Yasuko's abusive ex-husband. The letters come at an important juncture, towards the end of the book, and help change the reader's impression of Ishigami as a genius who is totally in control to that of an obsessive, socially deviant stalker. The content of the four letters is unexpected and jolting and their style is odd and unnatural.

Here I want to look at the contribution of the language and style of the letters to Ishigami's chosen persona.

On this page:

A. Japanese original
B. Quirks of the letters
C. Translationese
D. Two levels of understanding
E. Significance of the linguistic register of the letters

A. Japanese original

Four letters are found at Chapter 16, near the end of the book, after Ishigami finds that Yasuko has been dating an old admirer. Three are letters that Yasuko has kept; one is found on Ishigami's computer. The letters are as shown below. I give a fairly literal translation for each segment.

The first letter:

Saikin, sukoshi keshō ga koku natte iru yō da. Fuku mo hade da. Sonna no wa anata rashiku nai. Motto shisso na idetachi no hō ga yoku niau. Sore ni kaeri ga osoi no mo ki ni naru. Shigoto ga owattara, sugu ni kaeri-nasai.

'Recently your makeup seems to have become a bit heavy. Your clothes are also flashy. That's not like you. A simpler style suits you. Also, I'm concerned at your returning home late. When your work is finished return home immediately.'

The second letter:

Nanika nayami ga arun' ja nai no ka. Moshi sō nara, enryo naku watashi ni hanashite hoshii. Sono tame ni maiban denwa o kakete irun' da. Watashi nara anata ni adobaisu dekiru koto wa takusan aru. Hoka no ningen wa shin'yō dekinai. Shin'yō shite wa ikenai. Watashi no yū koto dake o kiite ireba ii.

'Might you have some kind of problem? If so, I want you to tell me without reserve. It's for that purpose that I'm ringing you every evening. As for me, there is a lot of advice that I can give you. You can't trust other people. You shouldn't trust them. You need to listen only to me.'

The third letter:

Fukitsu na yokan ga suru. Anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka, to yū mono da. Sonna koto wa zettai ni nai to shinjite iru ga, moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō. Naze nara watashi dake ga anata no mikata da kara da. Anata o mamoreru no wa watashi shika nai.

'I have an ominous premonition. It is that you may be betraying me. I believe that this is absolutely not true but if it were I would probably not forgive you. That's because only I am your ally. The only one who can protect you is me.'

The fourth letter (on his computer):

(Divided into three)

Anata ga hinpan ni atte iru dansei no sujō o tsukitometa. Shashin o totte iru koto kara, sono koto wa o-wakari itadakeru to omou.
Anata ni kikitai. Kono dansei to wa dō yū naka na no ka.
Moshi ren'ai kankei ni aru to yū no nara, sore wa tonde mo nai uragiri kōi de aru.

'I've determined the identity of the man you are meeting frequently. I think you can understand that from the fact that I have taken a photo.
I want to ask you. What is your relationship with this man?
If you say you are in a romantic relationship, that would be an outrageous act of betrayal.'
Watashi ga anata no tame ni donna koto o shita to omotte iru no da.
Watashi wa anata ni meijiru kenri ga aru. Sokkoku, kono dansei to wakare-nasai.
Samonakuba, watashi no ikari wa kono dansei ni mukau koto ni naru.

'Don't you know what I've done for you?
I have the right to give you orders. Break up with this man immediately.
If you don't, my anger will be directed at this man.'
Kono dansei ni Togashi to onaji unmei o tadoraseru koto wa, ima no watashi ni wa kiwamete yōi de aru. Sono kakugo mo aru shi, hōhō mo motte iru.
Kurikaesu ga, moshi kono dansei to danjo no kankei ni aru no naraba, sonna uragiri o watashi wa yurusanai. Kanarazu hōfuku suru darō.

'For me as I am now, causing this man to meet the same fate as Togashi is extremely easy. I'm prepared and also have the means.
I repeat: if you are in a physical relationship with this man, I will not forgive that kind of betrayal. I will probably surely get revenge.'

B. Quirks of the letters

For a Japanese reader, the tone of the letters is chilling. Apart from being replete with menace and possessiveness, including a threat to kill Yasuko's suitor, the language itself is decidedly strange and hints at an abnormal, obsessive psychology. This can be seen in at least four characteristics.

1. Personal pronouns

Ishigami's consistent use of watashi 'I' to refer to himself and 貴女 anata 'you' (here written 'valued woman') to refer to Yasuko is sociolinguistically inappropriate in most styles of Japanese.

Unlike English, which has a closed set of personal pronouns ('I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they'), Japanese has historically used a variety of pronouns. In modern Japanese, 'I' can be expressed as ore, boku, watashi, あたし atashi, うち uchi, etc. 'You' can be expressed as あなた anata, あんた anta, kimi, お前 omae, おたく otaku, 貴様 kisama, etc. These range from the polite to the rough and familiar.

The choice of pronoun depends on the sex of the speaker, social status and relationships, and the social situation. For instance, in speaking to his mates, a young male might refer to himself as ore, in speaking to teachers as boku, and in speaking formally (such as in a conference) as watashi.

あなた anata has often been put forward in Japanese as the standard pronoun for 'you' in emulation of European languages. But あなた anata is anything but neutral in Japanese. In reality it tends to be preferred by women and is traditionally used by a wife to her husband. Spoken by a student to a teacher, for instance, あなた anata would sound familiar and disrespectful.

Against this background, Ishigami's use of watashi 'I' and 貴女 anata 'you' can only be called idiosyncratic. Using watashi in a letter is not in itself strange. More informal terms like ore or boku would be over-familiar. But using 貴女 anata is downright questionable. As a man supposedly taking Yasuko under his wing, Ishigami might have addressed her as kimi 'you' or with respectful distance as 花岡さん Hanaoka-san. By choosing the supposedly 'neutral' second-person pronoun 貴女 anata, Ishigami conveys an impression of stiffness and formality.

Moreover, Ishigami's use of pronouns sounds forced. Japanese often prefers to drop personal pronouns where they are understood. Constant references to oneself are avoided. For second-person pronouns, it's common to substitute the person's name or title. Honorifics and other devices are often enough to clarify who is addressing who.

The awkwardness of Ishigami's constant insertion of pronouns is reinforced by the occurrence of watashi 'I' and 貴女 anata 'you' together, as in:

watashi wa anata o yurusanai darō.
'I probably won't forgive you.'


Watashi ga anata no tame ni donna koto o shita
'What I did for you'

as well as

watashi wa anata ni meijiru kenri ga aru.
'I have the right to give you orders.'

In Japanese, this doubling up of formal pronouns verges on the unnatural, much like the classic line that many non-Japanese speakers mistakenly believe is real Japanese:

    watashi wa anata o aishite imasu
    'I love you'

2. Verb forms

In contrast to the presence of curiously formal and intrusive pronouns, the letters are almost entirely lacking in the social niceties expected in Japanese. Language is familiar, plain, and direct, to the point of brusqueness.

This is most apparent in the use of plain forms of verbs in preference to polite forms, as in da rather than です desu, 似合う niau rather than 似合います niaimasu, つきとめた instead of つきとめました tsukitomemashita, する suru instead of します shimasu, and 思う omou instead of 思います omoimasu. In letters it would be more normal to use the polite form.

The letters also use familiar commands like 帰りなさい kaeri-nasai 'return home!' (first letter) and 別れなさい wakare-nasai 'break up!' (fourth letter). As with its pronouns, Japanese has a range of orders and requests available, from the super-polite to the rude. It is beyond the scope of this post to list all the ways that Yasuko could have been told to go straight home, but a few might be (ranged from painfully polite to bluntly imperative):

    sugu ni kaette itadakemasen deshō ka
    sugu ni o-kaeri ni natte kudasai
    sugu ni kaette kudasai
    sugu ni kaette moraimasu
    sugu ni kaeri-na
    sugu ni kaeri-nasai
    sugu ni kaere

Needless to say, Ishigami could also have chosen other ways of conveying his displeasure, for example by making suggestions or recommendations.

What Ishigami chose was -なさい -nasai, a familiar way of issuing orders that might be used among family or friends, especially to people younger than oneself. It is the kind of language used by a mother towards a child. It is not particularly impolite, although familiar in tone, and is less blunt than the straight imperative. Here it depicts a man speaking familiarly as though he has the right to order the woman around. In using this form, Ishigami comes across as overbearing and possessive.

3. The noncommital language of the threats using だろう darō

The third, perhaps most sinister aspect of the letters is the language of the threats. One occurs in the third letter:

moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō.
'if that is so, I probably won't forgive you'

The second forms the culmination of the fourth letter:

Moshi kono dansei to danjo no kankei ni aru no naraba, sonna uragiri o watashi wa yurusanai. Kanarazu hōfuku suru darō.
'If you are in a physical relationship with this man, I will not forgive this kind of betrayal. I will probably surely get revenge.'

The form だろう darō represents a subjective judgement of the degree of certainty. It indicates that, in the speaker's view, the statement is probably true but falls short of being 100% certain. It is often used out of politeness to avoid making categorical statements.

A speaker can, of course, use だろう darō to assess the certainty of his/her own future actions, or what his/her probable actions might be in a hypothetical situation. What is disturbing here, though, is that, even as he issues direct threats to Yasuko and her friend, Ishigami delivers these as a calm objective assessment of his own probable actions, as though he were an outside observer dispassionately weighing up the possibilities.

Curiously, just before the last threat using だろう darō, Ishigami uses a straightforward 私は許さない watashi wa yurusanai 'I will not forgive'. Even more curiously, the following sentence using だろう darō also uses the adverb 必ず kanarazu 'definitely, certainly, surely, without fail'. Having clearly stated that he will not forgive Yasuko if she has 'betrayed' him and having clearly threatened to 'definitely' get revenge, it is both incongruous and unsettling to hedge his threat with だろう darō. The effect is ominous.

Phrasing his threat to kill Yasuko or her boyfriend in cold objective terms of what will 'probably' happen is arguably more frightening than a direct threat.

4. The logic

A fourth feature of the letters is the way that the text unfolds. Ishigami writes in short, uncomplicated sentences. At two places the results are decidedly awkward.

The first is the two sentences:

Fukitsu na yokan ga suru. Anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka, to yū mono da.
'I have an ominous premonition. It is that you may be betraying me.'

The split into two sentences is ungainly. They would sound more natural as a single sentence:

    Anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka to yū fukitsu na yokan ga suru.
    'I have an ominous premonition that you may be betraying me.'

The second example is なぜなら naze nara 'that's because' in the following sentences:

...moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō. Naze nara watashi dake ga anata no mikata da kara da.
'... if it were (true) I would probably not forgive you. That's because only I am your ally.'

Like the previous example, the second sentence purports to clarify the first. In this case the second sentence is not only awkward; it makes no sense in terms of ordinary logic. Being Yasuko's only ally would not normally be considered valid grounds for threatening her over involvement with another man. Ishigami's justification adds to the abnormal atmosphere of the letters.

C. Specific style: Translationese

Taken together, these linguistic features give the impression of a person who is socially inept, disengaged, psychologically detached, controlling, and possessive. But Ishigami's language is not some arbitrary assemblage of linguistic idiosyncrasies. As any Japanese reader will immediately recognise, much of it belongs to a distinctive linguistic register: the 'hybrid' language of students mechanically parsing and translating English into Japanese.

English-language education in Japan employs certain conventions (or crutches) to help students parse sentences, conventions deriving from the practices of 19th-century translators of Western languages into Japanese. By translating according to these fixed formulas or expressions, high-school and university students create an 'interlingual text' that helps them understand what they are reading. The resulting 'translationese' is a style of language removed from ordinary spoken and written Japanese.

Four linguistic features of Ishigami's letter writing style have their roots in these conventions.

Convention no. 1

One is the mechanical use of a fixed set of pronouns as equivalents of English personal pronouns. Despite the subtleties of Japanese pronouns that we saw above, students use the following pronouns indiscriminately in deciphering English:

'I' = watashi
'you' = あなた anata
'he' = kare
'she' = 彼女 kanojo
'it' = それ sore
'we' = 私たち watashi-tachi
'you' (plural) = あなた方 anata-gata
'they' = 彼ら karera.
To translate a sentence like 'Where are you going?' into Japanese, students will use あなた anata for 'you', regardless of whether the question is addressed to a young child or to an adult of high status. This convention lies behind Ishigami's constant use of watashi and あなた anata in his letters.

Convention no. 2

A second convention is the omission of the normal features of polite speech. Interpersonal elements of politeness and distance tend to be treated as embellishments that can be added later. This encourages the use of plain forms for verbs and the straightforward Japanese form -なさい -nasai for imperatives. This is again designed to allow the student to grasp the meaning as easily as possible without worrying about social niceties.

The lack of social niceties, particularly the lack of politeness, is one of the most striking characteristics of Ishigami's letters.

Convention no. 3

A third convention is the use of the 'tentative' verb form だろう darō. This is used to translate English verbs in the so-called future tense (i.e., those using the modal auxiliary 'will').

The rationale for using だろう darō is impeccable. Japanese requires sensitivity to the truth value of a statement — whether it is certain, whether it has been heard second hand, or whether it is based on appearances. Since the future is inherently unknowable, predictions should not be stated as certainties; hence the use of だろう darō to indicate that the speaker does not regard a future event as 100% certain.

For example, students will translate an English sentence like 'It will rain tomorrow' as:

    ashita ame ga furu darō
    'It will probably rain tomorrow' / 'I think it will rain tomorrow'

This indicates that it is not 100% certain that rain will fall. In fact, this how Japanese weather forecasters are expected to speak. Where English says "Rain is expected tomorrow", Japanese forecasters habitually say 明日雨が降るでしょう ashita ame ga furu deshō, using the polite form of だろう darō.

In the same vein, students would translate 'He will go' as:

    kare wa iku darō
    'He will probably go' / 'I think he will go'

Unlike the categorical nature of the English, this gloss conveys the judgement that future actions are not certain.

The exception is when 'will' represents a statement of intent. Students are taught to translate these with つもりだ tsumori da 'have the intention to' in order to capture the fact that this is a statement of intent:

    watashi wa iku tsumori da
    'I have the intention of going'

But appreciating the nuances of English modal auxiliaries is not always easy for high-school students. Inevitably some will gloss over the distinction between prediction and volition, using 私は行くだろう watashi wa iku darō 'I'll probably go' where 私は行くつもりだ where watashi wa iku tsumori da 'I have the intention of going' is required. This is precisely the kind of error seen in Ishigami's use of だろう darō to deliver his threats, which sounds strange precisely because he is delivering a clear statement of intent for which だろう darō is inappropriate.

Convention no. 4

A fourth set of conventions or strategies relate to the connections between sentences.

According to one convention, where a sentence is used in English to explain a previous sentence but the connection is not made explicit, the construction というものだ to yū mono da 'it is the fact that' is typically used to clarify the connection. The two sentences from Ishigami's letters are a good example of this:

Fukitsu na yokan ga suru. Anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka, to yū mono da.
'I have an ominous premonition. It is that you may be betraying me.'

The putative English original for translated sentences like these would be:

    I have an ominous premonition. You may be betraying me.

Japanese adds というものだ to yū mono da 'it is the fact that' in order to show that second sentence explains the content of the premonition. In fact, even as a translation of English Ishigami's Japanese here is a little off. It would be more natural to say:

Fukitsu na yokan ga suru. Sore wa anata ga watashi o uragitte iru no de wa nai ka to omou kara da.
'I have an ominous premonition. That is because I think that you may be betraying me.'

A second example is the habitual translation of English 'because' as なぜなら naze nara 'that's because' in order to preserve the original order of clauses. In Japanese, clauses indicating cause are normally sentence-initial, whereas in English they often follow the main clause. For instance, English says 'I didn't like it because it was sweet', whereas Japanese adopts the reverse order 甘かったので好きではなかった amakatta kara suki de wa nakatta 'because it was sweet, I didn't like it'. By using なぜなら naze nara 'if (you ask) why' and からだ kara da 'it's because', Japanese can be forced into the same order as English. Taking our example sentence:

    'I didn't like it because it was sweet'
    suki de wa nakatta. naze nara amakatta kara da.
    'I didn't like it. If (you ask) why, it's because it was sweet.'

In both of the examples in Ishigami's letters, these devices are employed in a way that sounds 'overlogical' or unnatural from the point of view of ordinary Japanese prose.

D. Two levels of understanding

Because the Japanese reader knows that Ishigami's style resembles a schoolboy's or schoolgirl's translation from English, the letters can be interpreted on two levels at once:

    1. The straightforward meaning in sociologically normal Japanese
    2. Its meaning in the hybrid language of student translations

The two levels coexist and echo off each other.

For example, coming across Ishigami's strange use of pronouns, the reader will notice that they are stiff and socially inappropriate. At the same time, he/she will recognise them as the kind of language that results when translating directly from English, accounting for the unnaturalness.

Similarly, the reader will immediately register blunt verb forms (especially imperatives) as stylistically and socially inappropriate, but will also associate this with translationese.

More importantly, while だろう darō makes Ishigami sound chillingly distant from his own actions, the reader is simultaneously aware that だろう darō is a direct (if in this case erroneous) translation of English 'will'. Ishigami's threat to get revenge is a translation of the putative English sentence 'I will definitely get revenge'. The knowledge that Ishigami is making a naked threat, as translated from the English, while at the same time setting himself apart from his own probable actions in terms of normal Japanese usage, helps account for the eerie effect of the letters.

Given the strangeness of the rest of the language, the Japanese reader will not be totally surprised at awkward constructions like というものだ to yū mono da and なぜなら...からだ naze nara ... kara da since these are both familiar mannerisms in translationese. The claim that Ishigami could not forgive Yasuko if she had relations with another man 'because he is her only ally' can be understood as a meaningless trait of that style. At the same time, in a single ingenious stroke it reveals the horrifying logic of the stalker. Yasuko is not allowed to live her life as she pleases as it would invalidate the stalker's sacrifice.

By adopting the peculiar register of student translationese, Ishigami enhances the impact of his letters to Yasuko and their effectiveness in drawing responsibility for her ex-husband's death onto himself.

E. What does the linguistic register of the letters tell us?

But Ishigami's choice of student translationese has wider implications. While his chosen persona appears to be just another element in his elaborate plan to protect mother and daughter, few readers will fail to notice how closely the style fits Ishigami's character.

We know that Ishigami is a brilliant but intensely private person working for many years as a high-school teacher, a job that wastes his true potential. We know that he spends much of his spare time alone bringing his formidable logical intellect to bear on his true passion: abstruse mathematical problems. We know that he relates poorly to people, including the school administration, the students in his class — and Yasuko, the object of his unrequited, probably unrequitable passion. We note his increasing obsession with Yasuko's other suitor.

Ishigami's choice of student translationese is thus uncannily apt. When he uses the unformed language of high-school and university students to express himself, he highlights his own arrested state of emotional and social development. The inept style of the letters reinforces the reader's impression of Ishigami as something of a misfit. The reader becomes increasingly aware that Ishigami resembles that well-known Japanese stereotype, the otaku.

Since the language of student translationese is associated with English, it is also a stereotype for how foreigners speak Japanese. By adopting this voice, Ishigami presents himself as an 'outsider', one who is beyond the ordinary conventions of Japanese society.

The letters also highlight Ishigami's obsession with logic. In Japan, there is a traditional view of English as 'logical' and 'analytical' compared with the supposed subtlety and sensitivity to human emotion of their own language. The clunkiness of translationese has encouraged that view. Direct translations from English, particularly the compulsory and obtrusive use of pronouns and logical conjunctions, give the impression that English is mechanical, rigid, and lacking in social subtlety and warmth. Such translations sound to Japanese ears like the writings of a robot. This is indeed how Ishigami's letters sound — logical, cold, and lacking in the normal social expression of human emotion. Ishigami would, as Yukawa observed, do whatever was logically necessary to carry out his plan.

The letters mark an important turning point as the book moves towards its close, and within the letters, translationese constitutes an essential literary device. The Devotion of Suspect X has no omniscient author; the narration takes place from the perspective of different characters as they appear, allowing Higashino to manipulate the reader's knowledge through selective presentation. The letters are part of the author's escalating revelations, providing a deeper glimpse into Ishigami's mentality, bringing the realisation that the persona is not entirely a mask, and propelling the story to its shocking dénouement...

My thanks for Miyaoku Masamichi (宮奥正道) for reviewing my description of 'student translationese' and offering a number of corrections and suggestions.