Back when everyone was using ガラケー (garakē, flip phones), calling someone up was known as 直電 (jika-den, direct calling), an act mainly reserved for emergencies and drunken confessions in the middle of the night.
A friend of mine was いい感じになってた (ii kanji ni natteta, on the brink of having a relationship) with a guy we both knew, but after he had the audacity to 告る (kokuru, confess) his love via jika-den, it turned her off completely and they stopped seeing each other. Ah, the complexity of actually calling people on the phone.
Now that スマホ (sumaho, smartphones) have permeated every level of our society, jika-den have been replaced by ナマ電話 (nama-denwa, raw calls). The meaning hasn’t changed but the connotations are a little different.
On TV, nama-denwa are widely accepted as the hip, cheap and お手軽 (o-tegaru, easy) way to get celebrities and アイドル (aidoru, pop stars) on the air, a coup considered the next best thing to 生出演 (nama-shutsuen, live appearance). Talk about phoning in a performance.
On another, more grounded level, namadenwa among ordinary millennial folk are often considered completely ヤバい (yabai, dangerous/ultra-cool or both), and many shy, sensitive Japanese will avoid them like the plague. They’re too intense, too intimate and just too … ナマ (nama, raw).
The other day, I nearly gave my 20-year-old nephew a panic attack by suggesting I call him on the phone before we met for lunch. Later, he explained that the nama-denwa is キモい (kimoi, gross) because you can actually hear the other person’s ナマ声 (nama-goe, raw voice), which can be extremely offensive to millennial sensibilities. He stressed, however, that none of this was personal, and proceeded to delicately spoon up his tiramisu dessert. ふうん 、そう なんだ (Fūn, sō nanda, “Uh-huh, OK”), I commented, while sipping on my iced coffee as discreetly as possible.
Millennials aside, the word 生 (nama, raw or live) is a favorite among the Japanese. As the word 人生 (jinsei, life) suggests, this kanji implies freshness, energy, vibrancy and strength. It also comprises the right half of the kanji 性 (sei or shō), which means sex, gender, personality and the very essence of a person. 本性 (honshō, a person’s true colors), for example, has Buddhist connotations, and has much to do with a person’s secret, innermost desires. In other words, 生 is sexy.
This is the time of year when 生足 (nama-ashi, bare legs) stretch out of short skirts (though I regret to inform you that skirt lengths this summer are set at an often unflattering, 5 centimeters below the knees). Young women are also going for the natural and relaxed 生肌 (nama-hada, make-up-free) look. And in countless pubs and bars across the archipelago, drinking parties start with the battle cry of じゃあ ナマで! (Jā, nama de!, “OK I’ll go with the draft beer”).
Early summer is also a great time to indulge in noodle-slurping, and the 麺類好きな (menrui-zukina, noodle-loving) Japanese tend to favor 生麺 (nama-men, fresh noodles) over 乾麺 (kanmen, dry noodles).
Trending right now is the ぶっかけ 冷やし生ラーメン (bukkake hiyashi nama ramen, chilled fresh ramen noodles with toppings and sauce), which is really just a fancy name for 冷やし中華 (hiyashi-chūka, chilled noodles with elaborate toppings), but it sounds hip and seasonal.
Summer is also when people prefer 生野菜 (nama-yasai, fresh vegetables) over 温野菜(on-yasai, cooked vegetables), maybe seasoned with 生醤油 (kijōyu or nama-shōyu, unpasteurized soy sauce), which has a much better flavor than the regular kind.
Even a popular brand of bottled tea has a name like 生茶 (nama-cha, fresh green tea made from raw tea leaves). Nama in a plastic bottle seems like a glaring contradiction all by itself but like a lot of things in the nation, 気分が大事 (kibun ga daiji, it’s the feeling that counts).
生き生きしている (iki-iki shiteiru, be lively and full of life) is considered one of the highest forms of praise given to anything, from people and animals to books and art, to food and nature.
Interestingly, 生々しい (nama-namashii, gross-out raw) — a phrase using the exact same kanji of two nama but without the 送り仮名 (okurigana, part of kanji written in kana) of き(ki), has a negative image. 生々しい is usually associated with crime scenes, accidents and anything that involve injuries or bloodletting.
Other examples of negative nama are 生やさしい (nama-yasashii, half-baked kindness), 生ぬるい (nama-nurui, lukewarm), 生臭い (nama-gusai, giving off a rotten smell) and 生意気 (namaiki, cheeky).
Interestingly or infuriatingly, depending on your point of view, until the early 1980s or so, virgins were referred to as 生娘 (kimusume, girls in the raw) and were highly desirable, both as brides and girlfriends. Non-virgins were referred to as きずもの (kizumono, damaged goods). Thankfully, such discriminatory terms have gone out of circulation but the “nama as freshness” equation remains the gold standard for many things in this country, including women.