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Ambiguity in Japanese relative clause processing

  • Michael P. Mansbridge EMAIL logo and Katsuo Tamaoka


In Japanese, relative clauses have initial clause-type ambiguity. Because there are no overt RC markers, the structure is realized at a locus of disambiguation, typically the head noun. While previous studies have attenuated this ambiguity, these studies have not effectively investigated the processing asymmetry between subject/object-relatives during reading. The current study investigated RC processing within different ambiguity contexts using eye-tracking on native Japanese speakers. For ambiguous RCs, ORC difficulties were primarily observed during late-processing measures after disambiguation at the head noun and RC verb. This was possibly due to the inherent difficulty of assigning thematic roles when the object appears outside the clause as the object-before-subject-bias predicts or due to factors such as expectation, structural-integration and similarity interference. Because all predict ORC difficulties in ambiguous RCs, the exact nature of the processing remains uncertain. For unambiguous RCs, ORC difficulties were instead observed during early-processing measures at the head noun. We attribute this to expectation-based processing because the clause no longer requires a structural reconfiguration. Specifically, with increased cues for the RC interpretation, expectation-based processing effects became more observable at the head. In conclusion, clause type ambiguity is an integral factor for Japanese relative clause processing.

Acknowledgements and funding

We would like to extend our appreciation and gratitude to our reviewers and editor whose insightful comments and suggestions strengthened this article. We would also like to thank the participants of the 22nd Architectures and Mechanisms for Language Processing conference, the 26th Conference of European Second Language Acquisition, and the 1st International Conference on Theoretical East Asian Psycholinguistics for their feedback concerning this research. Lastly, we would like to express our appreciation to Professor Masatoshi Sugiura of the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya University for allowing us to use his lab’s eye tracker. This study was funded in part by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Grand-In-Aid for JSPS doctoral course fellows granted to Michael P. Mansbridge, Grant Number 15J03336.


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Published Online: 2019-05-04
Published in Print: 2019-05-27

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