Yuki Kikuchi & dr. Benedikt Perak: Enjoying complexity and diversity fosters creativitiy

In the second conversation in the series on scientific cognition we hosted Yuki Kikuchi, a doctoral student in history at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana, and Dr. Benedikt Perak, a linguist from the University of Rijeka, Croatia.

Yuki Kikuchi’s homeland is Japan. She first came to Slovenia in 2008 through her student exchange program. Her fascination with cultural diversity and historical background of the region got her to pursue her studies at the Univeristy of Ljubljana. Her current research topic is the development of consumerism in Slovenia in the 1960’s.

Dr. Benedikt Perak is a linguist who views language and language data as a means to unravel the underlying socio-cultural systems, norms and decisions. His work is guided by the conceptual metaphor theory, which he tests empirically by analysing large amounts of language data collected from the web.

Both Yuki and Benedikt are in working in intercultural contexts; Yuki Kikuchi has embraced intercultural settings by deciding to study a non-native culture and history whereas Benedikt Perak is currently affiliated with the Department for Cultural Studies and is well aware of language-specific struggles when studying conceptual metaphors in Croatian and English. The two discuss how the choices of words for talking about phenomena really reveals our own worldviews.

Why do we choose some words to describe marriage and not others? They talk about the differences in Japanese, Croatian, Slovene cultural and academic environments. Why will you be able to freely access the Croatian online repository of metaphors whereas you will struggle to do the same for English? Yuki and Benedikt take some time to think why interdisciplinary endeavors are inescapable facts in contemporary research. What can a historian learn from anthropologists and what a linguist from psychologists? In what ways can differences in perspectives spur creativity? Of course, there was no way to bypass the discussion of the role of English in contemporary research. Is it possible to express all thought in a non-native language?



Benedikt Perak: It’s nice to meet you on such a, well, new type of occasion.

Yuki Kikuchi:  Yes, for me it is also new and really nice to see you.

Benedikt Perak: And I see that you’re working in Slovenia and what exactly are you studying or what is your research area?

Yuki Kikuchi:  The topic of my research is consumer history in Slovenia and Japan in the 60’s. Before doing my PhD, I completed a master’s degree at the University of Ljubljana. My master’s topic was the communist party’s policy in the 60’s and 70’s. I continued with my research here since.

Benedikt Perak: Really interesting to see someone from Japan interested in another continent and especially in a small country like Slovenia. Can you explain how it all came about; was it the communist regime or some other interests?

Benedikt Perak: In the process of determination of a conceptual or cultural system, we use specific words to do so and my analysis pertains to what type of words are used in order to frame a conceptual system.

Yuki Kikuchi:  Actually, I visited Slovenia for the first time in 2008 as an exchange student. I learned a little bit of Slovenian and history. A that point, I got really interested. All this knowledge and information was new to me and when I came back to Japan, I wanted to study it more in depth. However, in Japan these topics are not very accessible and difficult to study.

I followed my wish and I decided to continue with my studies here and I arrived to Slovenia. Then it got very exciting because it is just so different from Japan. Language, history, culture… That’s what really intrigued me.

Benedikt Perak: And besides this different culture and totally different type of conceptual features of Slovenia, do you think that your research is actually, can be valid for Japanese culture in a sense? Can this comparison of types of consumerism, I guess there are different types of consumerism in both countries, can you actually gain some new insight on a larger level or larger scale?

Yuki Kikuchi:  Differences in consumerism. In general people wish and desire the same. That is, consuming more and more, but the style of consumption differs. For example, I believe in Slovenia access to various goods was limited, however, they could buy the goods in Italy or Austria. There was more flexibility. However, Japan is geographically isolated, therefore we had to import or connect with other countries. On the other hand, capitalism also strongly influenced Japan. So the rapid pace of obtaining the goods was really different

Yuki Kikuchi: In Japanese cinema, music, and fashion — we can easily see Western influences, on the other hand, other cultural elements like family roles or the role of women have not drastically changed yet. We are still a traditional society in this respect which is a big mystery also for me.

Benedikt Perak: Of course, when you’re studying the sixties, as you said. Japan was heavily influenced by the USA and that makes a big difference. Can you see the influence of the the Western culture on Japan or some changes in traditional values? That’s somewhat ambivalent, isn’t it?

Yuki Kikuchi:  I believe culturally not so much. Absolutely, cinema, music, and fashion — we can easily see Western influences, on the other hand, other cultural elements like family roles or women roles have not drastically changed yet. We are still traditional society in this respect and this also is a big mystery for me. At the same time, my generation researchers tell me — they study in Japan — that younger generations slightly accepted western values, family roles and equality, this level of influence they get, yeah. But in the sixties, we predominantly adopted the materialist aspect of the system.

Benedikt Perak: There is one thing I’m really curious about. The proud nation that Japan was, it obviously lost its power and part of its independence. How was this felt? Did people sense this rejection of foreign influences or did they actually pragmatically embrace some of the technologies? Of course, we see that it has importance. What do you think happened in terms of the emotions and is there something really specific with regards to Japanese culture? In the sense that it was in this ambivalent position of being exploited in a way or in fear, but still being able to come back to the top?

Yuki Kikuchi:  After the second world war, of course we lost, and there was the nuclear bomb, huge damage incurred by the West, the US, let’s say. However, surprisingly we followed the American system. During the occupation, it was the US actually that introduced the democratic government system and the new technology. Actually, they allowed us to use the new technology. That’s why we could develop economically so fast. And actually, but before the war we liked American culture, but because of propaganda, it was prohibited for example to listen to music or discuss it.

Perhaps then, one generation was emotionally more marked, but this is less true for younger generations whose attitude towards the US is less emotionally charged. In some sense, then, the Japanese society and government accepted the Western system and it did bring improve the lifestyle. It is therefore a very strange or not a normal experience of accepting changes.

Benedikt Perak: Let me introduce myself. I’m working at the University of Rijeka, Department of cultural studies, and I’m interested in conceptual networks, created by our communication or religion. I am also interested in the philosophical reasoning that goes beyond the here and now, for example beyond the primal type of animal communication. It is a wide area of interests. I am a linguist doing focusing on conceptual analysis and trying to get into the cultural depiction of a conceptual system.

So for instance, take some values that we all agree on, like marriage. A marriage is just one phenomenon. But you can see that different cultures define it differently. For example who can marry who and why you cannot be married to this guy or that lady. It is all culturally determined. In the process of determination of a conceptual or cultural system, we use specific words to do so and my analysis pertains to what type of words are used in order to frame a conceptual system.

Benedikt Perak: In order to be creative, you have to state your epistemology, your ways of seeing the world.

For example, when I say, for instance, that marriage is the basis of society, that means there is some kind of structure depicted behind it and this structure has its own particular routes. If you take the concept of marriage away in certain sense this can be shattered. The whole society would be shattered. And then if you furthermore connect the concept of marriage to the concept of man and woman, for example that you cannot have a marriage between two men or two women which could shatter the structure of society. You are framing the concept of marriage with other words.

This whole theory is called the “Conceptual metaphor theory” and it is heavily used by many scholars in cognitive linguistics and it’s starting to grow into other areas like cognitive politics, or one would say, cultural cognitive linguistics and analysis. To finish with the example of marriage, how we can see it from different perspectives. If for example, you are a homosexual, you would like to say that there are other forms of marriage, and if you if you are faced with this fixed conceptual frame of a building, that’s actually how it was. You cannot deny that it’s the frame of a very stable thing, man and woman.

They actually proposed that marriage should be conceptualized as a warm thing. Some sort of kindness. You should have some sense of understanding. And if you look at the data, of course, half of the marriages between man and woman break apart because they lack warmth, they lack understanding. And you could pitch that it is more important to have warmth in the relationship and understanding and therefore this could be framed as a perfect marriage. In this sense you are in a sense perspectivising or framing the same phenomenon, but you get different outcomes.

Actually this is what I think happens to us in whenever we opinion something. This, in a nutshell, is my research domain. And for that I use large corpus data that are built from language data on the internet.

Yuki Kikuchi:  And which areas do you target?

Benedikt Perak: Do you mean which languages? Mostly, my work concerns Croatian language, my native language. And we have also unsettled issues here, but of course most of the theory was based on English because a large pool of resources is available for this type of analysis for example corpora, tools for linguistic analysis, pos taggers etc. Whatever you think of, you have it for English, so it is in a sense expected that we all use English. Nevertheless, my colleagues are developing the necessary tools, so we are slowly building the toolkit to perform the research on our language.

Of course, this holds for most of the areas in sciences. There will always be a large, in a linguistic sense that is, support for English because this a wealthy language. It is socially determined that it is a lingua franca, therefore the most affordable studies are done in English, because it pays off. You can make your research valuable for some company for instance; for example, to do some kind of sentiment analysis for your company and similar.


Yuki Kikuchi:  Geographically, I started studying in Japanese. I learned about Slovenian history or ex-Yugoslavian history, but there the focus is not so much on the diversity of these cultural place. But for me this diversity is something wonderful. How can people coexist with different languages, religions even? How can that coexistence persist over time?

But some people, foreigners, are also criticizing this diversity and advocated the capitalist point of view. That is, communist and socialist regimes have received negative connotation. But when started studying here, I consulted numerous sources, in English, but of Slovenian scholars, and realized that in some cases people really accepted this communist regime. They view it as a positive thing many people miss.

Reading foreign authors exposed me to all this new information and opened up my eyes, where to look from there. And this for me is the creative process of connecting the fact  to the fact, though sometimes one can get lost as well. When I repeated this process several times, I got really interested in reading foreign authors. Also, when I studied Japanese history, I really loved to read foreign authors, too. So my current environment is really great for research in my opinion.

Benedikt Perak: And the, in which language do you like to publish? This is interesting, for instance, if you do some research on Japanese culture and you write up your research paper in Japanese I cannot understand it.

Yuki Kikuchi:  In my case, English is the best for both purposes, because if I want to do my research, I want people to know what I do and I want to get all sorts of feedback. But there are of course instances, when I would like to write in Japanese too, because this research topic is not popular in Japan, therefore, I would like to promote it in my mother tongue. I guess I can also write faster that way. Obviously, it is then accessible only to the Japanese people, but I would like to write in my mother language, nevertheless.

Benedikt Perak: Because in Croatia, and obviously for research papers philology, it is very important to write also in your own language, so my language, of course. Because we are small-numbered people, about four million people. That would make a suburb of Tokyo, I can imagine. And we have to maintain some level of proficiency in our own language. Even the scientific proficiency.

This question of course is very engaging, especially when you have only so much time but there are also expectations from the community. You have to be visible etc. and still you at the same time have the expectations, in our field, to write in our native language for the sake of future Croatians. Because maybe they would like to know about the language in their language, not in English.

Yuki Kikuchi: Yet, sometimes I also get a piece of information that I do not understand. What then? If that happens, I would walk around and keep thinking until I can finally crack the problem. So I take it as a step by step process.

I guess I see your point; I would also like to be read from a guy in Ukraine, in Japan etc. but of course the expression in English is, for instance, not my native language. How do I know that it is the perfect expression of my thoughts? That’s one question, and the second one, as I said, for the future generations. So what is your thoughts on expressing everything that you want to express in a foreign language? Do you feel somehow stuck? That you are … well, here’s my point, I don’t have the word for it.

Yuki Kikuchi:  To use a foreign language? Of course, English or Slovene are not my native langauges, but for, say, my career or generally for the Japanese people, we must maintain some competence in foreign languages. We must open up. In the Japanese system, not even researchers can use foreign languages this really puts limits to the opennes of the scientific community. For that reason, less researchers attend the conferences. And this is a pity, because they do have the knowledge which they cannot share. For me, this brings about the difficulty; it takes time and struggle, frustration, but it is at the same time absolutely necessary. Therefore, I have to work to overcome the language difficulties.

Benedikt Perak: Because you’re determined, I see that.

Yuki Kikuchi:  I would not dare to say so. But I think Slovenes use foreign languages a lto and publish articles in English, which gives me great motivation to persist, since English is also not mother tongue for Slovenene. They are really good at it, but still it is not a mother tongue. In that sense, doing research in Slovenia opened a new perspective for me.

Benedikt Perak: Just to add one point, it is maybe easier for researchers. Easier in the sense that scientific language is not poetry. Not a work fiction. There are certain patterns that we have embrace and then give the data away.

Yuki Kikuchi:  Yeah, it is indeed more straightforward.


Yuki Kikuchi: What motivates me to do research? For me it is just the curiosity, discovering new things. When I started research, my plan was not to counter the society or change the world, or to become a professor. I am just curious and thus the biggest motivation is plain curiosity. How about you, Benedikt?

Benedikt Perak: I started from a more personal story. At some point, I was involved in certain practices like meditation and yoga, which was popular at the end of 90’s. From there, it dawned to me that language has a lot to do with the state of the mind and how we access the experiences from the world, how we categorize those experiences. And I was not a linguist, I’m not particularly good at linguistics as such. I would deny that if you ask me. But I think this gave intrinsic motivation to connect the linguistic system, the structural system of cases etc. with the stuff that’s out there.

Benedikt Perak: The question then is: How to connect two different perspectives? This is actually quite a creative process. For the most part it involves talking to scientists working in other fields. For instance, right now, I as a linguist talk to you, a historian. And we have to find some common ground, that’s the point.

Of course, people have been doing it and I saw how cognitive linguistics, the cognitive sciences, was actually all about the integration and I was like “Woah, this is what you need! Some kind of an out-of-the-box theory that can actually help me to understand, well, what I am doing in my life.

I was therefore also inspired by curiosity. Is it like this or like this? Do those fancy theories form theology that in the beginning there was the word … maybe yes, maybe not. Another strand of researchers promote evolutionary theory and then you begin to see that we started using the words only few thousand years ago or a few hundred thousand years ago. So in a sense the scientific insight that I gained through a some kind of methodological approach was revealing because I had some kind of personal motivation and experiences.

But every methodological improvement that I see from other scientific point of view is actually a new kind of food in my quest for knowledge. And of course we have to eat more.

I think we live in especially good times, because I can think of you, you’re from Japan and you are in Slovenia now. I can download the books from those servers in Russia. Like everything is only two or three clicks away. Of course I would deny that I obtained resources by illegal means. But this is actually what knowledge is for. We have to promote this kind of openness and connectedness. Yet we have to stick to the rules such that we can make a living from buying the books. The authors live from the honorariums that these books. I think this is the thorny issue: how the scientific community actually makes the money and what is the point of it. But I guess this is a topic for a different debate. The role of the research methods.

Benedikt Perak: As I see it in Croatia, we are now in the sweet spot, because we still have the freedom to address our own scientific questions which can or should be related to some real-world problems but we’re not yet dictated by the agents outside of the scientific community, for instance by the industry.

Related to that, we are living in the times where there are actually no books. The system is not book-based anymore. You have a resource-based scientific community. You have these great applications that you can acquire the information and I would say I am positive about it. You can gain a lot of knowledge and then it is up to you to decide what to do with this, I would rather not say knowledge. But you can acquire data and what you do with your data is actually, to turn it into knowledge.

And this inspiration is actually quite, the process is inspirational, because you don’t have to spend ten years collecting the data. You can spend ten years of gaining insights, which could really enhance the level of scientific understanding. I hope we will get there. To see the world from a scientific perspective.How about you? What is your, how do you come to data in Slovenia?

Yuki Kikuchi: For us historians, the archives are the most important source. Therefore, to study Slovene and Japanese histories, I must go to the archives. I can also find sources on the internet, of course, but as a historian, I have to see the original documents. For example, to study consumer history in the 60’s, I consult magazines, fashion magazines, where I can trace the consumerism history. Therefore, we have the archives and I will see the originals and repeat this over and over again. But I have to be physically present at the archives and hence I have to carry my computer with me too.

Yet, sometimes I also get a piece of information that I do not understand. What then? If that happens, I would walk around and keep thinking until I can finally crack the problem. So I take it as a step by step process.

Benedikt Perak: Do you think, this is another question about spreading the knowledge, do you think it is possible that you can actually spread the knowledge that you gain by your traveling here and there, with all this conceptual network. Do you think you can actually convey your insights to some lay person? Is it possible?

Yuki Kikuchi:  Perhaps by engaging in scientific communication. I think it is possible.

Benedikt Perak: The question is actually, by just publishing academic texts. You publish a paper in a good scientific magazine. Do you think it’s enough?

Yuki Kikuchi:  No, not just by publishing, we need to talk and share our findings. For example, we have social media. We can write not just for academic public, but also for lay audience like my family members for example. For instance, for my mother it is just too difficult to understand exactly what I study.

But to spread knowledge in this context should be more common. Many tools are available nowdays. Magazines, journals, the internet, newspapers etc. Then we ca get more people interested in our research. I think this is our way to shape the society in a positive way. But it can be difficult.


Benedikt Perak: If I may start, I think the question of creativity comes through hard work. That is, hard work by structuring some knowledge that you otherwise have in one dimension. Say you have a question which is bothering you, and to address it you have to, for instance, crunch a domain, for example, knowledge about how to express emotions. So far so good, but I at the same time, I work in the domain of language, therefore I have to know everything about linguistics — what the language is all about — and then I have to combine this with insights into the workings of emotions and they are.

Once we appreciate the problem as a real world problem, interdisciplinarity springs up. Immediately, we have interdisciplinary endeavours opening up and this is where slowly we can expand our research methods in terms of adopting methodological approaches and insights from different perspectives. And it can happen that you find two perspectives which will differ, for example in terminology or just about everything.

The question then is: How to connect two different perspectives? This is actually quite a creative process. For the most part it involves talking to scientists working in other fields. For instance, right now I as a linguist talk to you, historian. And we have to find some some ground, that’s the point.

For instance, I can say that history is a part of the human memory, thus we have the cognitive component to it. How to connect memory with language? In this example, for me it was quite insightful to learn about this overarching systems theory. That is, more in terms of ontology or epistemology. I do consider myself to be a believer in the systems theory. Particularly when you see what it claims, that is, that we have layers and layers of complex networks. So it introduces order in terms of perspectives, even scientific perspectives or disciplines.

Therefore in terms of how to be creative, you have to state your epistemology, your ways of seeing the world, and not act as, “ I see it like that, and then I believe in God, suddenly.” In this way, you can mess up your research. But you can state what emerges from what. This for me is creativity. Creativity in the sense of new technologies emerging in a totally different field, where I can use it and properly implement it into my own discipline.

That would be my view of creativity. What about you?

Yuki Kikuchi:  I agree with what you just said. I have to set my mind to how things are, I agree. To be creative one should open up. I am a historian, but I sometimes use anthropological methods. Therefore I sometimes arrive at new methods I can use to address my questions. For example, what is people’s opinion about a specific concept?

For example, whenever I have to select a course at another faculty, I would choose anthropology, because anthropologists know a lot about field work, how to make the recordings, or how to do interviews with people speaking different languages. This has helped me with the way I do my research, because sometimes I find it difficult to work on interviews with other people. For example, how to ask about the importance past events for specific people, were they conceived as negative or positive? How to conduct the interviews? How to use the data? How to read between the interviewees lines? In anthropology classes, I could acquire the skills and techniques which I have to apply in practice.

Benedikt Perak: Science is gradually moving to a kind of de facto interdisciplinarity, by taking into account different perspectives and enjoying the complexity, rather than bashing it. I hope.

To know how to use novel methods opened up my research perspectives and it helps me connecting facts and events. In brief, for me as a historian, it was a rewarding experience to use the methods of sociology and anthropology.

Benedikt Perak: That is, you are using methods from other fields and use it in your own domain.

Yuki Kikuchi: Indeed.

Benedikt Perak: Of course there are also many many issues in this type of interactions, because people from different disciplines also see different problems. And then sometimes methodologies are not applicable.

Yuki Kikuchi:  True, sometimes that can be the case.

Benedikt Perak: I work at the Department for cultural studies, where interdisciplinarity is part of our definition. But for some, this is just refers to the interdisciplinarity between neighbouring disciplines, for example between history and the not so distant linguistics. Okay. But imagine a collaboration between biology and, say, sociology. I think this is actually example of interdisciplinarity on a larger scale. But can they actually even speak in common terms to solve some problem?

This involves seeing the bigger picture, which usually involves some kind of philosophical points. And here you have to speak to philosophers, who when you say ‘emergence’, they go ‘Wait a minute’ and it can be very hard. But once you set up your own research project and when you establish some kind of a paradigm for yourself and you become more confident, then you can speak to anyone. Others can be dismissive, but I think these are leftovers from old school thinking. Science is gradually moving to a kind of de facto interdisciplinarity, by taking into account different perspectives and enjoying the complexity, rather than bashing it. I hope.


Yuki Kikuchi:  In general doing research here, well I only work in Slovenia, but it’s really flexible. There is more flexibility and freedom in the schooling system, hierarchy is less prominent, such that I feel the freedom to express my views. For example, you can voice your opinion which is viewed as a positive thing if done honestly. The hierarchy doesn’t play a big role here. But when I come to Japan, I need to hold back a little bit and be more polite.

But working as a foreign researcher here, I do face some difficulties: language, of course, and some administrative hassle to be officially appointed to your position. For foreigners it can be a little bit demanding to work as a researcher, but it doesn’t mean that people aren’t nice. It is just the way the system is geared.

Otherwise, I can’t really compare the actual work to Japan: But for example, here to find information regarding job openings, conference calls or exchange programs, I really have to find out myself whereas in Japan this information is available everywhere.

Benedikt Perak: There are differences between countries and of course differences are also between disciplines. I feel very lucky to work here at the Department for Cultural Studies because of this declared interdisciplinarity, which actually gives me the opportunity to be with colleagues from different fields. In a way, they also appreciate my different point of view which gives us the opportunity to really speak about the problems. In terms of the research that can actually be quite useful because we can collaborate together and not be competitors.

Yuki Kikuchi: In Slovenia, to get the information regarding job openings, conference calls or exchange programs, I have to find it out myself, whereas in Japan this information is available everywhere.

In other disciplines in terms of disciplinary hierarchy or structure here in Croatia, it can be very hard. Of course, I don’t think it is very different anywhere else in the world. Competition is everywhere, but still we do enjoy some kind of a pleasant time. However, it is becoming harsher and harsher. For example that you have to produce that and that many papers which is only starting here in Croatia. As I see it, we are now in the sweet spot, because we still have the freedom to address our own scientific questions which can or should be related to some real-world problems but we’re not yet dictated by the agents outside of the scientific community, for instance by the industry.

Industry can be very helpful in terms of offering grants and money, but they also restrict your own results according to their own perspective. To give one example — and I do not want to be too specific at this point — but, for instance, in a project we set up the Croatian metaphor repository where we collect descriptions of metaphors across all domains. And I have to say, it has become one of the largest repositories of metaphors and it’s open access. At the same time, you can’t see this happening for English, because there the project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and they had some specific issues with how “poverty” was framed.

So in terms of our scientific freedom, I think we are still here but the but the resources are being shrunk and the necessity for product-based research is growing. I don’t know where it will lead us, I also think it’s a change for good, because we’re not stuck in the old-fashioned research. This pushes forward. It’s very important to have the balance of forces. To have the connection with the real world problems and solving them.

Especially in the humanities, where people think “Those guys from humanities and social sciences, they are just dealing with some nonsense.” Of course it is nonsense, if you think of the 4, 5 people and if you’re really stuck in the old non-interdisciplinary paradigm. Here, I would agree. But enabling people to see the different perspectives and to see how actually the social world and humanities are built from the basics in natural sciences very important I think even more important than having the best cell phone, the best compute … what will you do with it?

To wrap it up, different scientific communities have different types of systems as they call it. Here, the system is more relaxed and then in Japan, I guess, you have the hierarchy that’s coming from the Confucian system, I imagine. But the problems are the same everywhere. There is a tension between the curiosity for knowledge as opposed to the curiosity to sell products. I hope that the future will will favor some kind of equilibrium.

Yuki Kikuchi:  Me too.

Benedikt Perak: Yeah, so we can still be curious about the non-profitable stuff, that will be profitable maybe in next generation.

Yuki Kikuchi:  No, our generation must be profitable. (laugh)

Benedikt Perak: There you go. Well, thank you, Yuki. It was really nice to meet you.

Yuki Kikuchi:  Yeah, very nice, thank you too.

Benedikt Perak: I hope to see you in Slovenia, in Ljubljana. Or come to Rijeka, why not.

Yuki Kikuchi:  Yeah, why not. I will.

Benedikt Perak: Really, Yuki, I mean, your perspective will be welcome here at the cultural studies. We have the guys working on consumerism. Really, you have to come.

Yuki Kikuchi:  I will. That’s my plan. Great, amazing. Thanks.

Benedikt Perak: Have a nice day. Bye!

Yuki Kikuchi:  Have a nice day, ciao!


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