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Small-life, low-name — let’s not talk about me

by Kaori Shoji

There are some aspects of Japanese politeness that baffle even the Japanese. Like the habit of saying: “Kyoshuku desu (I’m terrified and shrinking)” in response to someone doing you a favor. And “Osoreirimasu (Fear has entered me)” instead of a plain “Arigato (Thank you).” Are other people really so terrifying — or are we just suffering from a collective, colossal, politeness hangup?

The hangup can be observed firsthand in the way the Japanese refer to themselves — which is to say, we rarely refer to ourselves at all. The personal pronoun is a recent phenomenon and only goes back about a century. Until then, it was considered vaguely rude to call anyone by their given names — and unthinkable for people to highlight their individualities by using the word watashi (me). The word employed when referring to oneself was temae (in front of the hand), which called polite attention to the person attached to the hand.

And how did we call upon one another? Often, locales and places were used in lieu of names. For example, if one had an uncle who lived in Kojimachi, that uncle would be called Kojimachi-no (Kojimachi’s). If you lived around the corner, people would call you yokocho-no (from the corner).

And if you happened to be a woman . . .? Well, that was another can of worms altogether. Newly married, you automatically became goshinzo-san (person who makes new bodies); after the first child, you were nyobo (woman-bag). If you were fortunate enough to be married to a high-class samurai, then you were first goseishitsu (revered and official chamber) and later gobodo (revered mother).

Men were generally referred to by their rank, profession or job: sakanaya (fishmonger), toryo (carpenter’s boss), o-buke (of the revered samurai class). In this way, a person’s individuality was deflected by his or her fulfillment of a certain function or occupation of a particular space.

Underlying all this, of course, was the thinking that people shouldn’t be referred to as individuals at all because they simply weren’t worth it. Only when dead was a person referred to by name — a new one, the kaimyo (Buddhist name). And even this concession was mainly made out of polite consideration for the bookkeepers of Nirvana.

This mind-set has carried over into the modern Japanese language — there is still a lingering embarrassment over the word watashi, especially among those age 45 and older. This embarrassment has fermented into self-deprecation, and it’s astonishing to see the lengths people will go to just to put themselves down.

Take Tomohiro Watanabe, 47, father of two, bucho (general manager) at a major trading company. Watanabe-san isn’t some uma-no hone (horse bones) off the street; he studied at Berkeley, draws a good salary, is a homeowner and on weekends presides over wine-tasting parties. Yet, in e-mail messages and over the phone, he refers to himself as “kamei (low name)” or “shoshoku (small job).” In his relaxed moments, he will call himself “shosei (small life).”

In the company of friends, he will eliminate pronouns altogether so it’s hard to tell whether it was Watanabe-san who was bitten by a stray dog the other day or his wife. By the way, wives are a part of oneself so they must be devalued as well. Watanabe-san calls his beautiful spouse “gusai (foolish wife)” and his precious boy is “bakamusuko (stupid son).”

This low-name could cite further examples but fears that the column has ome o yosugoshita (soiled your reverent eyes) far too long. Perhaps this conversation can be continued some other time, at a gathering where this small-life will be masseki o kegashite imasu (dirtying the furthermost, humblest seat in the room with my presence) And so I ask you to look for me — oops!, I mean low-name — when we meet again.