In America, the car horn has many meanings and can be “read” as a word or phrase. As well as “danger” a beep can mean, “Go ahead/You first”. It can mean, “Pay attention” as a polite way to notify a driver of a light that has changed to green. Sometimes a double beep can be a simple “Hello” to an acquaintance or roadside promoter. The horn conveys emotion with the increased intensity of the honk. Rapid honks can celebrate a sports team or your wedding day. The honk has many positive and useful usages but Americans are better known for their notorious negative honks. There is “Get out of my way”, “Speed up”, “You are driving dangerously”, “Don’t cross in front of me”, “Go, (traffic,) I’m late!” etc. The more aggressive of these honks is coupled with, or followed by, an angry shout, a graphic or tasteless gesture, and expletives including sexist, racist, and ethnocentric insults. Negative horn honks represent curse words and sometimes even result in a physical altercation. I’ve personally had a man pound the hood of my car when I wouldn’t let him merge illegally (he drove on the side strip far beyond the merging point to avoid traffic).
Comparing this knowledge to what I have experienced in Japan is almost embarrassing for me noting that Japanese even bow while seated in their cars. In Japan, the automobile horn is used only to indicate danger. I have heard only one beep in my two months in Japan. In my scooter “Rules of the Road” course and examination it was pounded into my head to not only be extremely careful but to be extremely courteous a d thoughtful of other drivers. It’s not surprising that this respect and civility mirrors their language. I am still finding new ways and situations to say, “I’m sorry”. It seems the Japanese also express gratitude through apologies. “I’m sorry for leaving work before you” is an common expression often coupled with “Thank you for your hard work”.
"Harmony" - the crux of Japanese society
The communicative systems of the automobile horn in America and Japan can be closely compared to each culture’s respective curse words. American language is full of curse words. These words vary from talking-to-yourself utterances to crude, sexually explicitly and outright disgusting language. America is an “I-first” society where capitalism, Darwinism, and showing your emotions are prevalent. It is a show of strong character to stick up for oneself and this sometimes means angrily cursing (and fighting, to a lesser extent). In a strong contrast, the Japanese are pacifists and see outbursts as a loss of face. Japanese language doesn’t have many “swear words” or dirty words. Rather, there are many words of varying rudeness in varying contexts and are correspondingly censored from television. These “curses” are often words or phrases like “Shut up”, “Idiot”, and other common putdowns. I suggest even actions are considered “curses” and are often situational (e.g. interrupting your boss in front of a board meeting). Interesting are the comparatively large selection of words that denigrate one’s ethnicity or lineage. It is dishonorable to be a foreigner, a person of mixed ethnicity, or to have a “dirty” job (remember, it’s bad to be different).
Japanese curse words aren’t used nearly as frequent or as fervent as in America much like the automobile horn. Japan is a well-oiled machine of social interactions and nuances. To showcase your temper and honk in anger would be to throw a wrench in the spokes of the ever-present machine. Japan smooth relations and community feel are written into the country’s ethos. If the countries in this world where the characters in Moby Dick, Japan would be the composed and introspective Ishmael whereas America would be the theatrical and impulsive Ahab. The greedy, dog-eat-dog ethos of America and capitalism is displayed on the road. How many times have you glared into the car of an aggressive or idiotic driver to find a businessman or woman deep in a conversation on their cell phone? If you’re answer is zero then you are either foreign, haven’t driven on an interstate road or are, in fact, the cell phone user. In America, one’s actions are controlled by consequences and aren’t necessarily tied to a national code. One can have and display road rage but will only have to answer to authorities if caught or reported. Anonymity, the occasional absence of accountability and maybe the increasing absence of moral education make this possible. In summation, the Japanese beep is supportive and advantageous whereas the American honk is often a curse word.