Roy Andrew Miller, an unsung hero (villain) of academic dissing

R.A. Miller is better known for The Japanese Language, an indisputable classic of the field, and for his work on the Altaic hypothesis. However, I’ve never seen anyone draw attention to his academic reviews, the style and rhetoric of which I find to be highly entertaining (probably because I’m not the one being reviewed…). Consider the following representative lines of his comments on Bentley’s A Descriptive Grammar of Early Old Japanese Prose and on Vovin’s A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose:

The problems with Bentley’s book begin with his title. The texts with which he is concerned are in the main not prose, at least not in the usual understanding of the term; nor can the bulk of them be described as “Old Japanese”, let alone “Early”; nor is what he has published a “descriptive grammar”.

Some of his glosses are so highly unlikely that one wishes for a text-citation, but none is given (e.g. yuku ‘[the place I] go [to]’ […] Bentley early assures us that “it is the structure of the system that interests me, not the sentence itself” (p. 8); apparently both lexical and syntactic meaning also interest him but little.

In Buddhist contexts too he is ill prepared. Of OJap. tumi ‘sin’ he writes, “I know of no external etymologies” (p. 253). One hardly doubts him. But in view of K.H. Menges, ltajische Studien II: Japanisch und Altajisch AfKM, XLI/3, Wiesbaden 1975, p. 34), with is copious citations of earlier studies, Bentley’s confession is sadly misleading concerning the actual state of Japanese-Xenic comparisons with respect to this etymon.

Bentley does not think highly of citing published studies; indeed he castigages the practice as “pay[ing] lip service” (p. 51). Instead he prefers to rely on help from his friends, either in the form of “personal communications” (on almost every page, sometimes two or more to the page) or “references” that turn out to lead one only to unpublished papers by his fellow-students (pp. 95, 96, 99). […] Most highly favored among Bentley’s tributes to the work of his friends are dozens of references to “Vovin (forthcoming)”. Fortunately Vovin has now come forth, so it is possible to compare some of what Bentley writes with at least one of his sources.

[Vovin’s] decision to exclude the Genji from his materials, though surprising, was probably wise. This is partly because of his evident unfamiliarity with Heian culture (sedōka is said to mean “rower’s song”, p. 5; the Makura no Sōshi is described as an “essay”, p. 6; nishi no kyō becomes “the Western Capital”, p. 59), but also because the Genji’s exuberant syntactic structures would have posed severe problems for his analysis. […] Unlike Bentley he does not “create” entire texts; but he carries out much the same operation with this bogus kana symbols, as also with the hundreds of text-fragments which he prints to illustrate his grammatical analysis; a high percentage of these citations display shocking unfamiliarity with both kana and kanji.

Vovin wrote elsewhere of his disappointment with the “many errors” and “low level of reliability” of the information about earlier forms of Japanese now available to those wishing to study the genetic relationship of the language, as well as of his hope one day to remedy this unfortunate situation. As he works toward that end, one can only urge upon him more study of, and if possible eventual mastery over, the hiragana syllabary.


The “does not even live to the title” manoeuvre is a favourite of his, and here’s it again on Neustupný’s Post-structural approaches to language: Language theory in a Japanese context:

Both the alluring promises of this book’s trendy, double-barreled title prove on inspection to be quite hollow: Neustupný has next to nothing of interest to say about any scientific approach to language, whether post-, mid-, or pre-structural, and he tells us even less that is of value about Japanese.

This volume, which is not a book and does not really deal either with linguistics or with ‘language theory in a Japanese context’, would not deserve notice in a scholarly journal were it not for its title, and for the name and reputation of its publisher. The only useful purpose a review can serve is to warn those who might see the title listed in a bookseller’s catalog and be tempted to buy it sight unseen.

If the manuscript for this volume had been submitted for such review, a pre-publication reader would surely have noted, as early as p. 7, that N misglosses, and misunderstands, gengogaku as meaning ‘study of languages’. For anyone undertaking to write about ‘language theory in a Japanese context’, a minimum qualification should probably be the ability to recognize the Japanese word for ‘linguistics’.

He often portrays himself as a proud curmudgeon, as when reviewing Earl Miner’s Japanese Poetic Diaries:

This is a difficult and perplexing book for the reviewer. Halfway through it, he begins to realize the tangle that even attempting a review will surely land him in, and begins to wish it were possible to return the book to the editors, begging off from his promise with a short, suitably vague note about changes in personal plans, failing eyesight, anything at all, in order to get out from under the promise earlier and so lightly undertaken. But by that time he has scribbled, with growing impatience and concern, on almost all the margins and up, down, and across half the pages. The book is no longer in mint condition; it cannot go back; the review must be written. Next time, be more careful.

Miner is representative of a currently popular school of translation that appears actually to pride itself on reverting to paraphrase, the easy way out, whenever the text offers any particular philological or linguistic difficulties, and on replacing as many as possible of the distinctively Japanese elements in any given text with something typically Western. For people who like the kind of thing Miner is trying to do to his Heian texts, this is the kind of thing they like. I don’t.

On Crowley’s Manual for Reading Japanese:

The rambling “Introduction” (xii-xxxvi) deals with a variety of topics, including the author’s personal history and his hopes for writing more books of this same sort (absit omen!) in the future. It also reports, rather obliquely, that “some [sic] have suggested that the greatest users of the manual will be the youngsters of Japan’s elementary schools”! I have no idea what Crowley may mean by “the greatest” in this context, but if and when he is able to make good on this veiled threat, I earnestly hope that the kiddies’ attention can successfully be distracted from such diverting lexical entries as that on p. 4, where kokusai is glossed simply and elegantly as “international (intercourse)”.

The reviewer’s own personality shines through liberally, as on the review to P.G. O’Neill’s Japanese Names: A Comprehensive Index:

I suspect that O’Neill’s new system for arranging Chinese characters will be very popular among those people with whom new systems for arranging Chinese characters are popular; unfortunately, I am both unqualified and unable to comment upon it in any greater detail. In my wallet I have for some years now had to carry a 3×5 card on which I long ago wrote a short list of things that I have promised myself (and my doctor) not to undertake doing under any circumstances or upon any provocation whatsoever (setting fire to my own hair, filling my own teeth, stopping overnight at the Imperial Hotel, that sort of thing). Attempting to learn new systems for arranging Chinese characters in dictionaries ranks surprisingly high on this, my list of absolute no-no’s, short as it is. To do otherwise would be to reveal myself as sadly deficient in gratitude to that brave team of neuro-surgeons, acupuncturists, and moxabustion-eers, who some years back finally pulled me through, following the massive side-effects sustained from my first encounter with the ‘Four-Corner System’.

O’Neill gets whacked also regarding his A Programmed Course on Respect Language in Modern Japanese:

If ‘our own ideas of politeness’ (whose? the British? the Americans? the French?) are ‘a good basis’ for predicting keigo usage, then it must follow that keigo after all does not bear any very critical relation to Japanese society, but only to universal human experience; but that in turn then directly contradicts the major thesis of O’Neill’s presentation. The average student of Japanese surely has enough problems facing him without getting involved in this labyrinth of internal self-contradictions. […] Essentially, explaining keigo in terms of society, status, and role is precisely like explaining that pigs are called pigs because they are such dirty animals […] Frame 8 asks the reader to complete the following statement with one of two possibilities given: ‘Understanding the Japanese attitude to politeness and respect thus causes us (a) considerable difficulty, or (b) no great difficulty.’ I got this one dead wrong; the answer, it turns out, is supposed to be (b)! Having got into trouble this early in the game, one is hardly encouraged to go on.

On Katō’s A History of Japanese Literature:

Katō’s approach would have been a commonplace in the 1940s. But in the 1980s his proposal that it is possible to identify an indigenous world view which can then be used to interpret issues in Japanese literary history is just outré enough to seem quite new and novel rather than old and shopworn. And until the reader of Katō’s new book recognizes the similarities between his “indigenous world view” and kokutai—a sour old wine in a trendy new bottle, complete with a neatly printed Western-language label—certain aspects of the book will remain opaque. […] If it now begins to appear to the reader that Katō has in effect set in his new history of Japanese literature within an analytic framework that effectively denies the entity ostensibly being studied, he or she will not be far from the heart of the matter.

And so on and so forth – oh, so forth. Someone should one day prepare an anthology; in the meantime, I recommend spending a lazy afternoon reading Miller reviews on JSTOR…

5 thoughts on “Roy Andrew Miller, an unsung hero (villain) of academic dissing

  1. Thank you for this. I’ve read The Japanese Language, but was blissfully unaware of the rest.

    “… begins to wish it were possible to return the book to the editors, begging off from his promise with a short, suitably vague note about changes in personal plains, failing eyesight, anything at all, in order to get out from under the promise earlier and so lightly undertaken.” This is solid gold.

    “Essentially, explaining keigo in terms of society, status, and role is precisely like explaining that pigs are called pigs because they are such dirty animals.” That gets second prize. :)

  2. This delightful, even though I am not an Asian Scholar. I recall similar sorts of reviews in Tudor-Stewart and Early American history journals. I do however direct the US Navy Japanese Language School Archival Project, preserving the historic legacy of the WWII era US Navy Japanese/Oriental Language School located at the University of Colorado. Since he graduated from that school, I have been sending Professor Miller our newsletter, THE INTERPRETER, since 2000, and mercifully, was never reviewed by him. We pass along our condolences to those mourning his passing.

    • I was a dear friend of Roy Andrew Miller and we shared our home together the last 20 years of his life here in Hawaii. His passing was due to a fall from a city bus here in Honolulu in August 2014. I am not a scholar by any means but Professor Miller was and studied his skills until the day of his accident as he was coming back from the University of Hawaii Library the day he fell from the bus. He is deeply missed by all who knew him personally.

      Thank You

  3. Dear Mr Smith,

    Many thanks for the informative note about the circumstances of Roy’s death. I count myself as an old friend of his—we palled around a great deal when I was a grad student at Yale, not that he was a sensei of mine. And I looked forward to, and enjoyed his company subsequently, whenever the many miles that separated us granted the occasional favor. Roy’s conversation was urbane and very funny, as well as naturally fascinating to someone like me who had very little prior encounter with many of the things he talked about. And his book, The Japanese Language, is something I have recommended to countless friends, acquaintances, and students.

    • Mr Sihler,
      Thank you for your kind words .
      It has been 4 years now since his passing, and not a day goes by that I don’t thank him for the many years we shared our home in Hawaii. And the knowledge that learned from just being around him.

      Respectively: Donald L. Smith

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