Studies of grammar in prose

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

15 September 2017

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

cover of Japanese version by Bunshun Bunko

Ishigami wrote the letters as part of a well-planned scheme to save Yasuko and her daughter from arrest following their murder of Yasuko's ex-husband. In his letters, Ishigami deliberately projects the persona of an obsessive stalker.

Here I want to look at how the use of language in the letters, and the particular style chosen to write them, help contribute to this persona.

Both letters are found at Chapter 16, near the end of the book, after Ishigami finds that Yasuko has been dating an old admirer. I will not quote them here in full; a couple of sample paragraphs will suffice. The translation is mine.

From 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 be a bit heavy. Your clothes are flashy. That's not you. A simpler style suits you. Also, I'm concerned at your coming home late. When you've finished work go straight home.'

A little further down he continues:

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 that you are betraying me. I believe that this is absolutely not true but if it were I would probably not forgive you. That's because I am the only one on your side. The only one who can protect you is me.'

In the second letter Ishigami writes:

Watashi wa anata no tame ni donna koto o shita to omotte iru no ka.
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'

He ends it as follows:

Kurikaesu ga, moshi kono dansei to danjo no kankei ni aru no naraba, sonna uragiri o watashi wa yurusanai. Kanarazu hōfuku suru darō.

'Let me repeat: if you are in a physical relationship with this man, I will not forgive that kind of betrayal. I am likely to definitely get revenge'

The tone of the letters is chilling. Apart from being replete with menace and possessiveness, the language itself hints at an abnormal psychology. This is apparent from at least three characteristics of the writing.

1. Personal pronouns

Ishigami's consistent use of 私 watashi 'I' to refer to himself and 貴女 anata 'you' 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 俺 ore, 僕 boku, 私 watashi, あたし atashi, うち uchi, etc. 'You' can be expressed as あなた anata, あんた anta, 君 kimi, お前 omae, おたく otaku, 貴様 kisama, etc. These range from the polite to the downright insulting.

The choice of pronoun depends on many factors, including the sex, age, background, status, personality, and social situation of the speaker, and his or her relationship with the listener. In speaking to his mates, a young male might refer to himself as 俺 ore, in speaking to teachers as 僕 boku, and in speaking formally (such as in a conference) as 私 watashi. In addressing other people, he might use お前 omae to close mates, 君 kimi to those younger than himself in a defined social relationship, and the contemptuous 貴様 kisama in a heated no-holds-barred confrontation (with a high likelihood of fisticuffs).

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. Used by a student to a teacher, for instance, あなた anata would sound familiar and disrespectful.

Moreover, Japanese often avoids using pronouns. For second-person pronouns, it is common to substitute the person's name or title, or simply drop the pronoun altogether. Honorifics are often enough to clarify who is being addressed or spoken about.

Against this background, Ishigami's use of 私 watashi 'I' and 貴女 anata 'you' can only be called idiosyncratic. Using 私 watashi in a letter is not itself strange. More informal terms like 俺 ore, 僕 boku would convey an exaggerated sense of familiarity. But 貴女 anata is questionable. As a man supposedly taking Yasuko under his wing, Ishigami might have used the pronoun 君 kimi, or the respectfully distant 花岡さん Hanaoka-san in addressing her. By choosing the supposedly 'neutral' second-person pronoun 貴女 anata, Ishigami conveys an impression of stiffness and formality.

This awkwardness is reinforced by his use of 私 watashi 'I' and 貴女 anata 'you' together, as in:

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


    watashi wa 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

Unlike the curiously formal pronouns, the style of the letters is completely lacking in the social niceties expected in Japanese. Verb forms are familiar, plain, and direct, to the point of brusqueness.

This is most obvious in the consistent use of the plain form in preference to polite forms, such as だ da rather than です desu, 似合う niau rather than 似合います niaimasu, and する suru instead of します shimasu. In letters it would be more normal to use the polite form.

Question forms like 思っているのか omotte iru no ka 'what do you think' (or more realistically 'don't you know?') are similarly brusque. Used in conversation their impact can be mollified by tone of voice, situation, and context. In a letter they are straightforward and aggressive.

The letter also uses imperatives like 帰りなさい kaeri-nasai 'go back home!' and 別れなさい wakare-nasai 'break up!'. As with its pronouns, Japanese has a range of imperative forms available, from the super-polite to the rude. It would be beyond the scope of this post to list all the ways that Yasuko could be told to go straight home, but a few might be (ranged from the painfully polite to the brusquely imperative):

    すぐに帰って頂けませんでしょうか sugu ni kaette itadakemasen deshō ka
    すぐにお帰りになってください sugu ni o-kaeri ni natte kudasai
    すぐに帰ってください sugu ni kaette kudasai
    すぐに帰りなさい sugu ni kaeri-nasai
    すぐに帰りな sugu ni kaeri-na
    すぐに帰れ sugu ni kaere

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

Ishigami chooses to use -なさい -nasai, a familiar way of issuing orders that might be used among family or friends. It is the kind of language used by a mother towards a child. It is not particularly polite, although it is less blunt than the straight imperative. Here it shows a man speaking down to a woman who he feels he has the right to order around. In using this form, Ishigami sounds familiar, overbearing, and possessive.

3. The threats

The third, most sinister aspect of the letters is the threats:

    moshi sō nara watashi wa anata o yurasanai darō
    'if that is so, I probably won't forgive you'
    Samonakuba, watashi no ikari wa kono dansei ni mukau koto ni naru
    'If not, my anger will be directed at this man'
    kanarazu hōfuku suru darō
    'I am likely to surely get revenge'

Apart from their content, the threats are expressed in an unnervingly detached manner.

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

It is, of course, possible for a speaker to use だろう darō when assessing the certainty of his/her own future actions, or what his/her probable actions might be in a hypothetical situation. What is disturbing here is that while Ishigami is threatening Yasuko and her friend, he does so as though he were delivering a calm objective assessment of his own future actions. He comes across like an outside observer dispassionately weighing up what he himself is likely to do.

This is particularly striking in the sentence where Ishigami uses the adverb 必ず kanarazu 'definitely, certainly, without fail', but curiously hedges it with だろう darō. The clear intent is that he will definitely get revenge. Stating that this is what he would 'probably' do is incongruous and unsettling.

The other sentence, using 向かうことになる mukau koto ni naru 'will reach a state of facing', also avoids stating his own intentions. Instead, he frames his future actions as a natural result of circumstances (ことになる koto ni naru 'will come about that').

By phrasing his threat to kill Yasuko or her boyfriend in cold objective terms of what will 'probably' happen if she does not do as she is told is arguably even more frightening than a direct threat.

Specific style: Translationese

Taken together, these linguistic features give the impression of a person who is socially inept, disengaged, or psychologically detached. But Ishigami's language is not some arbitrary collection of linguistic idiosyncrasies. As any Japanese reader will immediately recognise, it belongs to a distinctive linguistic register: the 'hybrid' language that results when students of English mechanically parse and translate English into Japanese.

English-language education in Japan is marked by the use of certain conventions (or crutches) to help students parse English sentences. By translating according to fixed formulas or expressions, high-school and university students create an 'interlingual text' that aids them in understanding what they are reading. The resulting 'translationese' is a style of language removed from ordinary spoken and written Japanese.

The three linguistic features noted above have their roots in these conventions.

Convention no. 1

This is the mechanical use of fixed pronouns as equivalents of English personal pronouns. Despite the important subtleties of usage that we noted earlier, the following pronouns are used indiscriminately in deciphering English:

'I' = 私 watashi
'you' = あなた anata
'he' = 彼 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.
Students translating a sentence like 'Where are you going?' into Japanese 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 using 私 watashi and あなた anata in his letters.

Convention no. 2

Another convention is the omission of the normal features of polite speech, particularly when the context is the written language. Interpersonal elements of politeness and distance tend to be regarded 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 the social niceties of Japanese.

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

Convention no. 3

A third convention, which has great import for the letters, is the translation of English verbs in what is conventionally known as the future tense (using the modal auxiliary 'will') with だろう darō.

The rationale for using だろう darō to render futurity 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.

(Significantly, where English-speaking weather forecasters say "Rain is expected tomorrow", Japanese weather forecasters habitually use 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, 'He will go' would be translated as:

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

Unlike the categorical nature of the English, the conventional Japanese translation makes the judgment that the future actions of the subject cannot be stated with total certainty.

While this convention works well on the whole, in one important case it does not. That is when 'will' is used to indicate volition rather than prediction. In English, a speaker who says 'I'll go' is not indicating future probability; he/she is expressing the intent to go. The listener can assume that, barring exceptional circumstances, the speaker has made a decision or commitment to go. To indicate volition or intention, the English sentence should actually be translated into Japanese as 私は行く watashi wa iku or, better still, 私が行く watashi ga iku. This uses the grammatical present tense to refer to a future action and indicates certainty.

When Japanese high-school students interpret 'I will go' as 私は行くだろう watashi wa iku darō 'I'll probably go', they are actually getting the message wrong. The conventional translation using だろう darō simply assesses the probability of the speaker going as fairly high; it does not indicate a decision or commitment. If it were absolutely essential that someone should go, the normal response to a statement like 私は行くだろう watashi wa iku darō 'I will probably go' would be to either press the speaker to give a stronger assurance, or to pass over him or her in favour of someone else.

Two levels of understanding

Because the Japanese reader knows that Ishigami's style is supposed to resemble a schoolboy's translation from English, it is natural for the letters to 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 this as the kind of language used by students when translating directly from English, which accounts for the unnaturalness.

Similarly, the reader will immediately register the brusque use of verb forms (especially imperatives) as stylistically and socially inappropriate, but will also note that this is a feature of student translationese.

Most 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 translation of English 'will'. Ishigami's threat to get revenge is thus 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.

Effectively, Higashino is using this peculiar register of language — student translationese — as a literary device to enhance the impact of Ishigami's letters.

The significance of the linguistic register of the letters

Ishigami's choice of 'student translationese' to portray himself as a stalker has a wider significance for the story. While his chosen persona looks like another careful element in his elaborate plan to deflect police attention from Yasuko and her daughter, few readers will fail to notice how closely it fits Ishigami's character.

We know that Ishigami is a brilliant but intensely private person working in a dead-end job as a high-school maths teacher. We know that his great passion is mathematics and that he spends much of his spare time alone bringing his logical intellect to bear on 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. The use of the unformed language of high-school and university students is a pointer to arrested emotional and social development. Despite his status as a mature adult and teacher, Ishigami has clearly failed to change and mature over time. The inept style of the letters reinforces the reader's impression of Ishigami as a misfit, socially, emotionally, and psychologically. The reader becomes increasingly aware that Ishigami resembles that well-known Japanese stereotype, the otaku.

The letters also reinforce the perception of Ishigami as a master of cold logic. There is a traditional view of English in Japan as 'logical' and 'analytical' compared with the supposed richness, subtlety and sensitivity to human emotion of their own language. The clunkiness of translationese has no doubt contributed to that viewpoint. Direct translations from English, particularly the compulsory and obtrusive use of pronouns and logical conjunctions, give the impression that English is logical, mechanical, rigid, and lacking in social subtlety and human warmth. Such translations sound to Japanese ears like the writings of a robot. This is indeed how Ishigami's letters sound — logical, cold, violent, and lacking in the normal social expression of human emotion.

The letters are an important turning point towards the end of the book. In 'The Devotion of Suspect X' there is no omniscient author; the narration takes place from the perspective of different characters as they appear, allowing Higashino to manipulate the reader's knowledge of the facts through selective presentation. The letters form part of the author's escalating revelations, giving a deeper glimpse into Ishigami's mind set and helping propel the story to its shocking dénouement...