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I am a bit unclear about which point of view we are talking about when describing the location of things.
For Example:

小山さんは山下さんの右にいます。

For this sentence I have two possible interpretations:

  1. Koyama is to Yamashita's right.
  2. Koyama is to the right of Yamashita.

In the first one the POV is Yamashita, so assuming he is facing us, that would mean from our POV he is to the left. The second one is more ambiguous to me, but I would usually assume that we are speaking from our POV here. I'm not native in English though, so I could be a bit wrong here.
Regardless, my questions is whether it is also ambiguous in Japanese or if there is a clear POV?

I have a feeling that it is more like the first interpretation, since that is closer to how the の-particle works.
If there is a clear POV, would the same then also apply to 後ろ and 前?

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    This is not specific to Japanese. POV ambiguity exists apart from any language. – istrasci Jan 13 at 17:37
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    @istrasci Is that really true? I won't be surprised if there is a language that has a word for "right" with a built-in POV. (In Japanese 手前 has a built-in POV.) – naruto Jan 13 at 21:50
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    There are certainly languages (admittedly not any widely-spoken ones, that I know of!) which use cardinal directions where e.g. an English speaker would use relative directions. Examples include indigenous Australian languages Guugu Yimithirr and Kuuk Thaayorre. I think it's also fair to expect those languages that do wrestle with POV ambiguity (i.e. most) may deal with said ambiguity in different ways. So I think the explicit question surrounding POV ambiguity, and the implicit question of clearing up the interpretation of the Japanese sentence, are both fair. – henreetee Jan 13 at 22:29
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小山さんは山下さんの右にいます is indeed ambiguous when the speaker is facing them. In a situation like this, you should explicitly specify the point of view like so:

  • 小山さんは山下さんから見て右にいます。
  • 小山さんは{私/ここ/こちら/鈴木さん/皆さん/etc}から見て山下さんの右にいます。
  • 小山さんは山下さんの向かって右にいます。

向かって右/左 is a handy expression that fixates the POV to the listener (i.e., "your right/left", but the POV can be the speaker when there is no listener). When you're seeing a photo, the POV is usually you, so you probably don't have to say 向かって or こちらから見て.

This is a common topic in educational programs for children.

(Some fields may have their own customs. For example, in medical contexts, 右 always refers to the patient's right, not the examiner's, so you usually don't have to say 患者さんから見て. This is definitely 右の肺の異常 even when you're viewing a monitor.)

As for 前/後ろ, we have a special pair of words that automatically fix the POV to the observer. See: What is the difference between 前にある vs 手前にある? So when you say 小山さんの前, the POV is always 小山さん.

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    Is it the same even when talking about animals/things? Or would you then usually assume the POV from the speaker/listener? – chris111294 Jan 14 at 13:46
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    @chris111294 We usually don't say 机から見て. 猫から見て/ロボットから見て and so on are not common, but can be fine depending on how personified they are. – naruto Jan 14 at 23:15

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