Years ago, someone in Japan coined a wonderfully succinct slogan for a safety campaign against drunk driving that went: 飲むなら乗るな、乗るなら飲むな (Nomu nara noru na, noru nara nomu na). It corresponded nearly perfectly to the American English slogan “If you drink, don’t drive; if you drive, don’t drink” — and had the additional advantage of being difficult enough to double as an impromptu sobriety test.
Most languages, Japanese included, have a repertoire of catchy and useful phrases that are easily memorized. Knowing them boosts a foreign learner’s self-confidence and helps them develop fluency, by making Japanese listeners realize the speaker has a good working grasp of the native lingo.
Japan Times reader Tatsuki Shimizu of Aoyama Gakuin University recently wrote in asking us to introduce the expression 当たり前 (atari-mae), which means “That’s obvious,” “of course” or “naturally.”
The origin of this expression is uncertain, but one theory makes a lot of sense to me. In Chinese, “of course” is dangran, written 当然 and literally meaning “proper nature.” It’s pronounced tōzen in Japanese, with the same meaning.
Now, some believe the original 然, (zen, natural) in tōzen — which is also the same zen as in 自然 (shizen, nature) — was mistakenly transcribed using the character 前 (read zen or mae), which means “before.” Tōzen was written out with those two characters, as 当前 but pronounced in its on-yomi reading as atari-mae.
Another theory goes that in olden times, when fishermen split up their catch — an activity normally referred to as 分け前 (wake-mae) — each person was entitled to the same share, called 一人当たり (hitori-atari), so the natural practice of sharing equally became referred to as atari-mae.
I’ve found that one of the most succinct and useful expressions in the Japanese language is 関係ない (Kankei nai, “There’s no connection”). This is the ultimate brush-off, meaning “Nothing to do with me,” “It’s irrelevant” or “Let’s change the subject, shall we?” Once, I telephoned a company’s 電話相談窓口 (denwa sōdan madoguchi, customer telephone hotline) to inquire why my order had not yet been delivered. When I told the young fellow on the phone my name, “Shu-rai-bā,” he inquired, アメリカの方ですか？ (Amerika no kata desu ka?, “Are you American?”). I wasn’t in the mood for conversation, so I growled, 関係ないでしょう (Kankei nai desho?) — my point here being “I’m a customer, my nationality is irrelevant, so let’s stick to the business at hand, all right?”
Yet another phrase I’ve come to love is とんでもない (Tondemo nai, “No way!”). A humorous hybrid is とんでもハップン (tondemo happun, never happen), which possibly originated decades ago with American military servicemen. Novelist Bunroku Shishi (1893-1969) expanded on the gag: Noting that happun is a homonym for 八分 (eight minutes), he created the nonsense expression とんでもハップン、歩いて十分 (Tondemo happun, aruite juppun, “If you fly it takes eight minutes, and if you walk, 10 minutes”).
One useful retort for almost any situation is formed by the connective rentaikei (-tte or –nakute) form of a verb plus mo ii, or nakute mo ii (meaning “It’s all right if you do, or don’t, do something”). My neighbor’s mother-in-law happened to be visiting Hawaii once when he half-jokingly remarked, 帰って来なくてもいい (Kaette-konakute mo ii, “It’s fine if she doesn’t come back”).
On another occasion, while engaging in humorous banter with a middle-aged waitress, I feigned anger, saying in mock Osaka dialect 怒るで (Okoru de, “That makes me mad”), and she replied, 怒ってもいいわ (Okotte mo ii wa, “Go ahead and get mad, for all I care”).
Then there’s the interjection ひどい (Hidoi, “That’s terrible”), which really gets around. It’s said to be derived from the word 非道 (hidō), literally meaning “in a way (道, dō) that is 非 （hi, wrong or improper).” Addition of the final i to make hidoi changes the noun to an adjective, also enabling it to inflect as an adverb, hidoku. You can even take it as far as to say あんまりにもひどすぎる (anmari ni mo hidosugiru, too terrible to contemplate).
The first time I saw いい加減にしろ (Ii kagen ni shiro, “Cut it out!”) was in a manga — one which, like many comics aimed at younger readers, did not use kanji in the voice balloons. So I wasn’t sure where the word breaks fell — Japanese does not add spaces between words — and it was only after I learned the kanji that I could see that it literally means “do good addition and subtraction.” In this case, though, kagen means balance or moderation, so “Ii kagen ni shiro” means “Don’t get carried away” or “Hey, man, cool it.”
Not too long ago I picked up an interesting term from Bill Fitzgerald, my American attorney friend in Saipan. Bill was hired to defend a Japanese client who willingly admitted to the crime.
“Why did you do it?” Bill asked him, and the man responded, 魔が差した (Ma ga sashita, “The devil came over me”). This phrase is used when you have done something inexplicable that you deeply regret — as if you were possessed by an evil spirit or, egged on by the demon on your shoulder, gave in to temptation.