America and Japan's Emotional Bond

Is anger by any other name still anger? Yes, according to a group of anthropologists who have analyzed several pairs of words connoting emotion in English and Japanese. The findings, reported in today's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that certain basic emotions--anger, happiness, and sadness, for instance--are universal concepts, understood, and named, by people of all cultures.

Languages often reflect the different priorities of cultures--groups living in Arctic regions, for example, often have multiple words for "snow." A group led by anthropologist A. Kimball Romney of the University of California, Irvine, set out to explore such semantic relationships for emotions. Romney's group asked about 50 native Japanese speakers and 50 native English speakers to compile lists of words that connote emotion. The researchers arrived at a list of the 15 most frequent words offered by both groups, such as "anger," "envy," and "love." Next, the team asked a second group of English and Japanese speakers to pick out words that didn't belong from groups of three and to numerically grade the similarity between word pairs, such as envy and love or happiness and love.

Romney's group mapped "distances" between words, using their data on word similarities plotted against criteria of good versus bad feelings and active versus passive feelings; for instance, anger would tend toward an active, bad feeling and boredom toward a passive, bad feeling. They found that some English-Japanese word pairs didn't correspond exactly on the map; for instance, the English word "shame" has a more unpleasant connotation than its Japanese equivalent, "hazukashii," which seems to be a hybrid of "shame" and "embarrassment." But most other word pairs, such as "happy" and "ureshii," overlapped on the map. And most of the differences that did arise appeared to be due to variation in the way individuals graded certain emotions, rather than any systematic differences between English and Japanese.

The researchers thus concluded that the perception of emotion words was almost identical despite cultural and language differences. That is, Japanese feel happy in the same way Americans feel happy. "I think it is a strong piece of evidence for there being universals among human beings," says Romney.

Other experts agree that Romney's group appears to have made the case that certain emotions are culturally universal. "I find it a very interesting line of research," says Brent Berlin, an anthropologist at the University of Georgia, Athens. However, he cautions, "they're moving into an area that is more connotative and slippery, rather than easily definable things." For instance, he says, perception of emotions is harder to put a number on than perception of color.