Linguistic art of cutting and running gets a tweak

by Kaori Shoji

Last week, a girlfriend of mine was at an over-30s-only go-kon (singles drinking party) and came back sorely disappointed. Her gripe was that all the men there — handsome, well-off and working for high-profile companies — were nigegoshi (noncommittal, making ready to cut and run) from start to finish.

My girlfriend, an editor by profession and attuned to verbal nuances, quickly caught on that underneath their polite and gently flirtatious chit-chat lurked the unspoken phrase that has become increasingly inevitable among the single male populace of this nation: “Ore, anmari kyominaikara (I’m not really interested).”

A go-kon by definition is held for the benefit of people who are interested and wish to make some sort of commitment — so my girlfriend felt this was a breach of trust that was yurusenai (unforgivable).

“Nihon no otokowa nige-kojo dake jozu (If there’s one thing Japanese men are good at, it’s the evasion speech),” was her sum-up.

Actually, the nige-kojo (evasion, excuse) and nigegoshi techniques are not only the domain of males, but are deeply rooted in Japanese language. Being skilled at them is both an art form and a Japanese birthright, but with the onset of globalization they’ve become burdened with negative subtexts.

Well-worn phrases

It’s been hammered into us how much the Western world hates such evasive tactics. In the process, the nige-kojo has deteriorated into a bunch of tired, shopworn phrases.

This is sad when you consider that 500 years ago, many warriors were hired for their ability to use nige-kojo. Oda Nobunaga, one of the greatest warlords this country ever produced, decreed that a samurai must be even more adept at cutting and running at the negotiating table than he was at attacking his enemy.

To retreat gracefully and with sophistication, to introduce vagaries into an otherwise air-tight argument, to discourage the other party from launching an immediate offense while one makes a get-away — all these factors are part of a polished nige-kojo.

Alas, the nige-kojo of today relies heavily on cliches and formula. These alert the other party to an imminent retreat on your part, which is perhaps polite but, let’s face it, boring.

In a corporate situation maemuki ni kento shimasu (I will consider the problem with a positive attitude) is a popular way of saying “no” with a hint of “maybe” in it. Another handy phrase is zenshoshitai to omoimasu (I will try to do the right thing), which is another way of saying you’re going to leave the problem on the back burner for a while, often indefinitely.

Uyamuya ni suru (beating around the bush) liberates everyone from having to deal with a problem or even talking about it. So too does toriaezu oitoku (leaving it aside for the time being), which means the same thing but allows room for optimism.

A really tough situation will be described as butsuritekini muzukashii (difficult in a physical kind of way) which has often left me pondering as to what exactly the physical part of it can entail.

Useful in a fight

But the all-mighty, cure-all king of nige-kojo cliches is shikataganai (it can’t be helped). According to a friend from Detroit who is now in his sixth month of living in Tokyo, shikataganai is the first Japanese word a foreigner really learns to appreciate, and then loves to hate.

The nige-kojo also comes in handy during a fight, a break-up or just plain day-to-day bickering among couples. “Soyu-nowa nashini shiyo (let’s not go there)” is ever-popular, but these days the younger generation is likely to pull out “sore, muri (that’s not possible)” as a way of evading everything from arguments to throwing out the trash in the morning.

Interestingly, between couples the nige-kojo is more likely to appear on cell phone screens than actually spoken aloud. Modern Japanese are often squeamish about evading in person and would rather just text message it in. Many couples even split up over messages, the popular phrase of choice being “socchi kara fedo auto shiteyo (please just fade out into thin air),” implying that once this messaging is over and the phone turned off, the relationship will be zapped as quickly and painlessly as pressing the delete button.

Oda Nobunaga, who stressed that cowardliness and apathy on the one hand and nige-kojo on the other were definitely not the same thing, is probably seething in his grave.