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The value of seemingly empty Japanese phrases

by Daniel Morales

Japanese is often considered an indirect and ambiguous language, and that’s because it is. The national character, too, often appears passive and indirect to non-Japanese. As a result, it can be tempting for newcomers to take a lead from Frank Sinatra and do things “My Way,” and generally this works just fine. It can even be seemingly consequence-free for the worst (linguistic and nonlinguistic) behavior.

But there are actually many indirect, not-so-easy-to-detect judgments of your behavior happening around you. The more you appreciate this, the more difficult it becomes when you find it necessary to be extremely frank and direct — for example, when asking a question or making a request.

Luckily, the language contains several specific ways to make a line of questioning more indirect. These may at first seem unnecessary to students of Japanese, but learning some of the smaller, “ornamental” aspects of the language can make your command of the language more precise and help you win friends and influence the locals.

When broaching a topic (particularly a delicate one), it’s best to start with a standard introductory clause that gives listeners time to steel themselves for what is to come. This doesn’t have to be a complicated phrase. In fact, the simple “X (subject) nan desu ga” (“X なんですが,” “So about X”) followed by a short pause is all you need most of the time.

Say you want to ask your Japanese boss about the possibility of taking time off during Golden Week so you can venture to Kyushu and immerse yourself in one of the island’s thousands of hot-spring baths. You can start the conversation by saying, “Gōuruden uīku nan desu ga . . . ” (“ゴールデンウィークなんですが” “So about Golden Week . . . “). By pausing, you’re allowing the listener to take in the information that you just gave them and predict what you are going to say next. When your boss hears this, he or she is probably thinking, “Dammit, not more time off.” Regardless of the boss’s assessment, at least you didn’t spring a surprise. And by giving him or her enough time to make mental adjustments, you are working within natural Japanese speech patterns and effectively increasing your chances of getting that time off.

“X nan desu ga” is also an efficient way of starting a plain inquiry in Japanese such as, “Getsuyōbi nan desu ga, nanji ni Shinjuku ni ikeba ii desu ka?” (「月曜日なんですが、何時に新宿にいけばいいですか?」, “So about Monday, what time should I go to Shinjuku?”)

Japanese also features phrases a person can use to delay answering a question. The next time you see someone interviewed on Japanese television, pay attention to the way they respond to questions: Almost invariably, the first thing they say is, “sō desu ne” (そうですね). You may recognize this as a way to confirm that something the speaker just said is true. For example, “Kyō wa atsui desu ne.” “Sō desu ne.” (「 今日は暑いですね」 「 そうですね」 “It’s hot today.” “It sure is.”) When responding to a question, however, the phrase is used differently, and the meaning is murkier.

Athletes are often asked how it felt to win a game: “Shiai ni katte, donna kansō desu ka?” (「試合に勝って、どんな感想ですか 」, “How did it feel to win?”) Even for a question like this, without a definite yes or no answer, the first thing out of your mouth should always be, “sō desu ne,” with slightly extended vowels on “sō” and “ne,” as compared to the “sō desu ne” in the previous paragraph. (Sort of like, “souuu desu neee.”)

Depending on the intonation, the meaning of this version of “sō desu ne” can vary from “That is an interesting question . . . ” to “Well, I am certainly flummoxed . . . ” or possibly even “Excellent question, you cheeky fellow.” In reality, it doesn’t mean much at all, and you shouldn’t force yourself to translate it into English: Get used to using it in Japanese and develop a feel for what it means in context. Not only does “sō desu ne” give you time to consider how you will answer a question, it also shows the questioner that you have done your due diligence and have actually considered your answer before blurting out something that makes you sound like a wacko.

Japan’s a relatively accommodating country. While doing things “My Way” here may earn you dirty looks for being overly direct, it won’t get you killed, which has actually happened a number of times in the Philippines (Sinatra Song Often Strikes Deadly Chord, New York Times, Feb. 6, 2010). Still, it is best to keep the song’s sentiments within the walls of a karaoke room. Instead, learn bells and whistles of Japanese such as “X nan desu ga” and “sō desu ne.” They will help you live a life in Japan that’s full. Of that I’m certain.