Words are important. We use words daily to convey our ideas, our opinions, and our intentions. The advantage of language in communication is that we can formulate complex, abstract concepts, construct ideologies, and exchange them with others. That is unique to human beings. However words can also be a trap–we can become imprisoned within the boundaries we set ourselves when we limit concepts and ideas to vocabulary symbols.

The story of The Great Passage is based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Shion Miura. It was made into a movie in 2013. It follows Mitsuya Majime as he joins a team of editors at a publishing firm trying to put together a new dictionary.

The challenge is that, in truth, there are already plenty of dictionaries, so it is a hard sell to make the case for the necessity of a new one. Much more so when considering the cost in time and effort to realize such a monumental task. But perhaps we do need a new one. Perhaps it is worth the sacrifice.

In the information age, text plays a vital role in representations of ideas and opinions. These concepts are transmitted all around the world through the internet. This implies that the writer and the reader may come from different cultural backgrounds, and therefore, even though they may share the same language, their words may represent different things. In other words, they may not share a common ground of understanding to begin with.

That in itself is something that we need to realize in order to successfully communicate globally. We need to realize when our seemingly-absolute truths may be subjective viewpoints.

Here is a simple example of how typical dictionaries work within Japan. Let us look at an entry for the word 食事.

The Goo online dictionary has an entry that reads: “食事 (shokuji): (スル)栄養をとるために、習慣的に毎日何度か物を食べること (Eiyou wo toru tame ni, shuukan-tekini mainichi nandoka mono wo taberu koto)。” Literally translated into English: Meal: (the act of) eating something several times every day to get nutrition”. There are of course multiple variants of this. But the point is that you can visually see the same kanji–in this case, the character 食–in both the word and its definition.

In case one still does not understand the kanji for eating at its basic concept, here is the definition of taberu.

“食べる (taberu):食物をかんで、のみこむ (tabemono wo kande, nomikomu)。”

Literally: “To eat: to bite food, and swallow it.”

OK, that describes the action of eating in general, however, it leaves a lot of room open for exceptions. Additionally, there is still the issue of the use of the kanji 食 in the definition, which forms part of the word for “food” as well as part of the word for “eat.” That kanji represents the very concept the reader is still attempting to decipher.

If kanji have meaning, is it not counterintuitive to have the same kanji inside the definition of the word one is trying to look up?

2015’s Aquarion Logos was another anime series which attempted to objectively look at the phenomenon of words in modern society and their role in shaping our thinking patterns. In Logos, the focus was on the wastefulness of meaningless vocabulary in modern society. The antagonist attempts to destroy society by removing the concepts behind the words from the minds of human beings.

This relates to the theory of semiotics. It shows that humans constantly use symbols, signifiers, to exchange thoughts. But sometimes a signifier is not necessarily connected to the signified. Miscommunication occurs, and in turn, conflict may ensue. What is needed, then, is the impetus to think outside the box.

Being too accustomed to a single language necessarily limits people’s understanding of the world. The reason for this is simple. In a single-language environment, we lack the incentive to divorce words (including with their sound and spelling) from the meanings they represent. An “apple” is an apple. We expect people to understand that. Distancing oneself from the concept of intertwined vocabulary and ideas can help to look at those very ideas more objectively to see the real meaning.

A box with a label on it that reads “oranges” is expected to contain oranges. Someone who might not understand English, but understands Japanese, might want to have that label translated. It would then read “オレンジ.” Good, now that Japanese person knows that the content of the box is indeed oranges. But in both of these situations the concern is mostly with the label, and not the content. Merely opening the box and looking inside would have revealed the oranges themselves, thus preventing a secondary hang-up concerning how to label the content.

This is an issue of society where people are concerned with the correct usage of words, the explicit translation of words, the offensiveness of certain words, and ultimately a misunderstanding of certain concepts based on the differing interpretations of descriptors.

In The Great Passage, the character of Majime gives us a hint at a clearer, more objective way of looking at the world. Note that Majime’s definition of “right” is not “opposite of left.” Why? Firstly, that already implies an expected understanding of the duality inherent in the concept of left versus right. It is a human abstraction that we are all should all comprehend. “Common sense.” That is the problem. It undermines the very purpose of the dictionary because people want to look up concepts they do not understand.

Instead, Majime attempts to give specific, real-life examples that anybody can relate to. He tried to ground these abstract concepts in a tangible reality. His thought process is illustrated perfectly when he goes through two ideas on the spot. In the first, he first thinks of “right” as being the hand that holds the chopsticks, but then remembers that some people are left-handed. Next, he considers defining it as the side of the body the heart is not on, but since some people have it on their right side, that would not work, either.

After this trial and error, he settles on “When facing north, ‘right’ is the side that points east.” There can be no exceptions to this, and since the position of north cannot change, it is settled.

When prompted to give a definition for “island” (島, shima, in Japanese), he began with the idea of a land mass surrounded by water. But then he started to think of exceptions to this, such as Enoshima (江の島) in Kanagawa prefecture, which is called an island, but is clearly connected to the mainland. At this point, he is interrupted and asked to join the team, having impressed the editor. He’s our man for the job. He will be the one to bring the new dictionary into the world.

The Great Passage forces us to get back to basics and look at the world behind the words. It allows us to wonder why are things the way they are, and hopefully, avoid some conflicts by looking at the whole picture, rather than reading the labels.

The Great Passage is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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