It’s when I’m away from Japan and forced to speak in another language (in this case English) that I realize just how vague Japanese can get. At home, it’s possible to go through a whole day without uttering one coherent sentence built on spontaneous thought and logic.
The basic aisatsu (salutations) will get me through, and apart from that I can trot out meaningless but all-important rejoinders such as domo and iya, which fits nicely in almost any situation. Instead of saying, “Thank you, how thoughtful of you to take the time,” I can just bow deeply and proffer a heartfelt domo.
When I’m trying to get out of a social engagement, I can just tilt my head to one side and say iya with a smile. Believe me, when you’re an antisocial crank, the existence of such rejoinders makes life infinitely more convenient. Deprived of them, I find myself painfully aware of my awkwardness and groping for the right things to say.
Americans, on the other hand, have an innate gift for spontaneous conversation.
The cashier at a Walgreen’s, for example, will smile and boom, “Hi, how are you doing today?” as if he’s known you since the age of 6.
This is a bit flustering, especially when you’re having a cho daun na hi (a super down day), as the gals in Shibuya like to say. Of course, it’s always possible to come out with, “Oh, feeling suicidal, which is why I’m buying razor blades” — but somehow you know the cashier won’t appreciate that.
Acceptable responses include: “Good!” “Fine!” and “Dandy!” followed by: “And how are you doing?”
Now comes the interesting part. Eight times out of 10, the cashier will not match your own boring, monosyllabic reply. Instead, he’ll spring something interesting on you like:
“I went to a wedding yesterday. Fabulous!” Or: “I was at the Red Sox game. Oh man, that shook me up.”
Then he’ll send you off with a smiling “Have a nice day!” and do this to the 25 other people waiting in line.
The Japanese, of course, are far more ritualized. The cashier is expected to say: “Irrashaimase (Welcome to the establishment)” when the customer comes in, and “Arigato gozaimashita (Thank you)” when the customer leaves. In between times, there may be a bit of conversation, but only if the customer ventures to ask something, or if the establishment in question is a designer boutique.
If it’s just a question of buying paper clips or toilet paper, there’s no need to say anything. This goes for most other social situations. Japanese society places so much emphasis on functionality that if a person is fulfilling a specific function, he/she is not required to be expressive. Reticence is not only acceptable, it’s a virtue.
In certain social situations, silence indicates an advanced degree of intimacy.
At a company nomikai (drinking party) for example, the less conversation there is between, say, the cute guy in the sales section and the new temp in accounting, the more distinct the possibility that love is about to bloom. The new temp will be sitting near, but not close to the guy, and she will be leaning forward a little to pour his beer. The little ritual of oshaku (pouring a drink for the other person) is a way of expressing respect, or affection, and when a woman does this for a man, no words are necessary to convey how she feels.
And how does the man behave? He’ll accept her oshaku with a small bow and a “domo.” Or even a “domo-domo.” If he doesn’t want to reciprocate her feelings, the way to say so without hurting her is to accept the drink, but put a iya before the action. It could even be a “iya, domo-domo.” This essentially means thanks, but no thanks — without the sting. The difference between the “yes” and “no” replies, though seemingly so slight, is in fact monumental.
The language is rife with other examples of subtle vagaries — the Japanese, so bent on being precise about shades of color or the different textures of rain, recede into aimai-sa (vagueness) when it comes to even the simplest forms of self-expression.
As for self-expression in a foreign language, well domo-domo, but we’d rather not think about it. Better to just pull out the jyapanezu sumairu (Japanese smile) — our own, self-deprecating term to describe our embarrassing shyness. Smile vaguely, then look off to into the distance. The question is: How will this go over with the cashier at Walgreen’s?