So Complex and Yet So Vague: Japanese Language the “Barrier” We Have to Tackle
I have always envied native speakers of English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and other major Indo-European languages, because common roots make it so much easier for them to learn each other’s languages than for people from totally different linguistic backgrounds like Japanese and Chinese trying to learn English, today’s language of global business, and other influential European languages. It is of course just as hard for, say, native English or French speakers, to tackle Japanese or Chinese.
In our Ijusha/Nikkeijin context, of course, the English/Japanese language divide has always been and will always be a formidable barrier in the way of cultural exchanges, going either way (leaving aside, for now, the rewards of language learning for another time). For the Japanese coming here, English language must be mastered if the goal is to assimilate with Canadians in general, including English-speaking Nikkei folks. If these Nikkei and other Canadians wish to understand Japanese culture better, they have to tackle Japanese.
Look up yoroshiku, a word many non-native speakers are familiar with, in the dictionary. The Kenkyusha New Japanese-English Dictionary, for one gives many definitions like “well, suitably, rightly, as one thinks fit, at one’s discretion, continue one’s favours toward me, please remember me, please say hello, etc. etc.” Fuzzy enough? It can mean practically anything as long as it’s vaguely positive. (More on yoroshiku later).
And for writing, Japanese uses at least four kinds of letters, namely kanji (writing system of Han dynasty China), hiragana (main sound symbol letters), katakana (second set of sound symbol letters for foreign words, onomatopoeia and a whole realm of strange uses) and the Roman alphabet. There are grammars for written and spoken Japanese but because they’re too difficult to explain for the average layman (like myself), most people sort of follow some rules subconsciously.
Slang abounds and current phrases are constantly being created and discarded by the media, TV comedians , ad agencies etc. Try arafo. I started seeing it everywhere maybe a year ago, and it took me a while to figure out it was an abbreviation for “around forty,” and a bit longer to learn that it was started by a woman’s magazine to refer to women of a certain lifestyle in their early 40s. But how long will arafo be around? I’m pretty sure by the end of the year, if you were still using arafo, people will probably think you’re hopelessly passé.
Why did I get started on such a complicated subject like the Japanese language? I recently received an E-mail from a reader who wished to know more about “common sayings in Japanese for those of us English-speakers with lesser understanding of Japanese culture.” It was a pleasant surprise as it is seldom that I hear from readers. I also felt a sense of admiration for her courage because she wrote in, even though she did not wish “the whole Bulletin world to know how ignorant I am.” Of course she is not “ignorant,” but her words do show that like many of us, she inherits our traditional attitude of regarding public admission of ignorance as shameful.
In my experiences from my school days in Tokyo and London, through an international university and countless work situations in Europe, N. America and Southeast Asia, I can safely say that this “culture of shame (flipside of honor)” is definitely stronger in Japan, China, Korea and other Confucian societies than in the West. So much so that we have a saying in Japanese: “To ask is an embarrassment for the moment; to not ask is an embarrassment for life.” It is more shameful, in other words, to remain ignorant by not asking. So we in the ijusha/Nikkei community not only share this shame/honour cultural background in our approach to learning, but we also have to contend with, to a greater or lesser extent, this linguistic barrier between English and Japanese, which is arguably one of the most complex and fuzzy languages.
Those harboring a secret inferiority complex about their Japanese being not up to the standard (including myself.) must have been reassured when no less than Japan’s Prime Minister Aso recently mispronounced (to inherit, or follow) as fushu instead of the correct toshu, and (unprecedented) as mizoyu instead of the correct mizou. He got into a lot of trouble with critics in the media and suffered quite an embarrassment.
This showed that even the PM hadn’t kept up with his Japanese language studies. It also revealed that the difficulty with pronouncing jukugo (two- and three-kanji words) was more widespread than generally acknowledged. What must be a considerable number of Japanese with only fuzzy knowledge of jukugo are—you guessed it—keeping quiet about it out of embarrassment.
I’ll try to answer some of the questions raised by the aforementioned reader, even though I’m now afraid of showing how little I know, for I’m certain there are readers more knowledgeable out there. Anyway, the traditional new year greeting, akemashite omedetou gozaimasu, literally something like “Isn’t it fortunate (medetai) for all of us that the new year has opened” is still universal, for family, friends and acquaintances alike. I have known showbiz types who get a kick out of shouting “Ake ome!” but I wouldn’t try it at home.
One thing I’ve always wondered about is around when does one stop using this general greeting, when one sees someone for the first time in the new year. Toward the end of January, and definitely before the February “bean throwing” setsubun (beginning of spring) festival, it would sound funny to say akemashite etc. Then one would probably say kotoshimo (this year too) dozo yoroshiku (more on this later)
About itadakimasu, the word is again generally usable from family meals to formal dinners, and means “I will partake with gratitude”, itadaku being “to hold something up high.” It’s of the same root as itadaki, (mountaintop). Gochisosama is literally “it was a great feast,” and as my late father once taught me, chiso means “going around places (to buy nice food items).” In group dinners and receptions and so on, gochisosama is of course always addressed to the host. In the way of a larger context, Ichiro recently said “gochisosama” for being allowed to “eat” the best part, i.e. getting that decisive hit in the top of the 10th in that World Baseball Classic final against South Korea.
The reader was also interested in words only males or females use like boku for I (male).
If anything, differentiation between male and female forms is fading among the young nowadays. Also, the language tends to avoid subject pronouns. Let’s say there is a Canucks’ game at GM Place. “Iku? (rising ending)” a wife of a hockey-nut husband might ask. “Iku. (falling ending),” the husband might answer. A loose translation would be “Are you going?” “For sure.”
As subject words like “you” and “I” are omitted and because of the husband-wife familiarity of the context, the verb in the basic root form is used (iku). Conveniently, this is the verb form that appears in the dictionary. If you use it in conversations with native Japanese speakers, you might sound a bit casual, but certainly not impolite coming from a non-native speaker. So you can say “Taberu?” (the dictionary form “to eat:”) to mean “Will you have it?” or “Taberu” to mean “yes I’ll eat it.” It’s a good place to start, and by the time you start using such “single-word sentences” in the past tense to say “Tabeta?” (“Jeet?” as they say in NY) or “mita” (did you see it? Or, I saw it.) for the past tense of miru ( to see), you are well on your way in conversational Nihongo. (I do not get a commission from dictionary publishers, but I cannot recommend enough the use of dictionaries of appropriate levels to check meaning, pronunciation and grammar, because a lot of people apparently don’t.)
Sorry, but languages being one of my most favorite subjects, I got side-tracked from the question of male/female forms. These days in Japan, to the extent social changes are reflected in the language, women seem stronger than men than they ever before, especially at home if not as much at the work place. One prominent phenomenon is that young men marrying older women (e.g. Ichiro of the Mariners, Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox) is perfectly OK with everybody—the men, the women, and the “society at large” as reflected in the media.
As usual I have rambled, being probably not much help to the aforementioned reader whom I’d like to thank again. As hard, and thus rare, as it is for me to try to write on Japanese language for both English- and Japanese-speaking readers, I’d just like to share at this juncture my pet theory about the three most useful Japanese words for those with limited knowledge of the language: dozo, domo and yoroshiku.
Dozo (please) to indicate “Go ahead, do partake, etc” with appropriate gesture is very handy.
Domo, used as in domo arigato, is useful because it is more vague and widely applicable than arigato. Domo, domo, which is virtually meaningless, is used all the time. One sees an acquaintance for the first time in weeks and says: “Konoaida wa domo (Domo for the other day). Not “thank you” for anything specific, but sort of a mild “thank you” for being around, if that’s vague enough. Yoroshiku, as noted earlier, is so vague that one can yoroshiku anyone about anything on any occasion, just about. One can dispense with all the intricacies of honorifics and just say dozo yoroshiku when introduced to someone, or on other occasions, and still sound quite proper, regardless of how much Japanese one actually knows.
In closing I’d like to share with you an episode from the recent WBC championship (I’m still excited about Japan’s victory). It’s what the pitcher Matsuzaka said about bidding farewell to his “Samurai Japan” team-mates at their hotel in L.A., before he himself returned to the Red Sox camp in Florida. They’d fought hard as a team for over a month and become quite close. “I said goodbye to them in the hotel lobby because I’d get choked up if I see them off to the bus they’re taking to the airport.” And back to Japan, of course.