Garnish your Japanese with some ‘humble pie’


Second of two parts

Last week in this column, things were looking up: Your faithful correspondent discussed sonkeigo, or honorifics. This week I’m eating humble pie (osoreitte wabiru) in introducing the flip side, so to speak, of keigo (language of respect). Kensongo, or humble forms of language, are rife in Japanese and you cannot get by without them in Japan.

Some expressions of self-deprecation are part of everyday cliches such as ohayo gozaimasu (good morning) and doitashimashite (don’t mention it). Since these two kensongo phrases are used by anyone, in all situations, they have to a degree lost their humility.

The use of humble forms of speech may have somewhat declined, but I beg you not to be misled by this. Kensongo still forms a vital, living part of Japanese social intercourse.

It is often the case that Japanese people begin a speech with an apology. Americans, on the other hand, usually begin with a joke. As for me, I usually apologize for not telling a joke, but that seems to please no one.

Osoreirimasu, itadakimasu and kyoshuku desu are good examples of expressions of formal humility. Osoreirimasu comes from the word for “fear,” and might be rendered literally with “I’m afraid I have troubled you.” Itadakimasu means “I will partake of this food” and is said before eating. As for kyoshuku desu, it is made up of the characters for “fear” and “to shrink (before you).” Depending on context, it can mean, among other things, “I am ashamed to say” and “Please excuse me, but . . .” Once you have prefaced your remarks with these signs of suitable lowliness, you can be just as bold and self-assertive as you like. Saying itadakimasu does not ensure that you will eat your food with good manners. It’s only verbal etiquette. There is a subtle converse to kensongo. If you lay on humility and unpretentiousness too thickly, you may appear unctuous. Salespeople are often guilty of this. Japanese has a perfect phrase for this: ingin burei, or impudence through excessive politeness.

Many verbs have their humble form. “To be” has oru and gozaru, both of which are used extensively in daily life. “Will you be at home?” can be answered in one word: orimasu (I will). Gozaru is a bit more formal. A man can say “It’s me” with either boku desu or watakushi de gozaimasu. The verb mosu, for “to say,” is used when telling people your name. If your name is Mr. Oak, you can say informally, Oku desu; politely, Oku to iimasu; or formally, Oku to moshimasu. In these cases, the relationship between the speaker, Oak, and the spoken-to dictates the usage, although excessively flowery kensongo is often used for ironical or humorous effect among friends. The verbs “to come” and “to go” have mairu as their humble equivalent, which is related to the noun omairi or “a pilgrimage.” There is nothing sacred, however, about this word; and I often say kanarazu mairimasu for “I’m definitely going.” Even a commuter train’s arrival at a station is announced with densha ga mairimasu. The train is not being treated with deference here. The railway company is merely using kensongo to be polite, to avoid any nuance of abruptness. Densha ga kimasu or densha ga hairimasu (the train is coming) might sound vaguely alarming.

Kensongo can, as suggested above, signify insincerity. This is best seen in the geinokai, the world of popular entertainment. Itadaku, the humble form of the verb “to receive,” is used in conjunction with the passive voice of other verbs to indicate self-deprecation. So, iwasete itadakimasu, using the verb “to say,” “I venture to say” or “in my humble opinion.” I have heard popular entertainers, however, say desashite itadaite orimasu, using a double kensongo with the verb deru, or “to appear.” This might be translated as “I am fortunate to have had the privilege to appear [in that].” All in all, it sounds, well, drippy. The “little ol’ me” person saying this might have an ego as big as the Ritz, but may be pretending to be ever-so-humble to garner sympathy. False modesty is an ugly trait that often adopts the obsequious bow and the feckless smile.

I began this article by eating humble pie. Originally this phrase had nothing to do with humility. “Umbles” are animal innards, and such fare as umble pie was eaten by those in the lower reaches of society. I have never eaten umble pie, but I have eaten my hat on a number of occasions.

Some may say it’s more than I deserve, and, frankly, much as I’d like, I wouldn’t for the life of me dare to argue.