Learning the finer points of this, that and ‘nani’


Like the Japanese economy, the Japanese conversation has dwindled. Our words have lost their luxurious sheen, our sentences have been reduced to short strings of blah. We no longer need the metaphors of Osamu Dazai to convey our emotions, since a handful of familiar phrases have been encoded to cover most situations with ease.

Consider for example, the word yabai, first tossed around in the ’50s by young chinpira (hoodlums) in Tokyo’s back alleys. Back then, yabai meant “dangerous,” clean and simple, and if you wanted to say something else then by golly you had to say it. But now yabai has evolved to refer to a whole slew of stuff, including “beautiful.” It’s become the one-size-fits-all adjective to describe anything from a desirous woman to delicious soba. A new video game, a rocky relationship, the events in Iraq — these are all yabai. Shortened to yaba, it takes on comic dimensions. Lengthened to yabe, it’s an indication of seriousness. Repeated “Yabai, yabai.” it most often means the speaker is deeply (and happily) involved with something, like a new boy/girl friend, car or computer software. In this last case, “Yabai, yabai” is followed by another, recklessly abused phrase hamaru (addicted), as in “Yabai, yabai. Kuruma ni hamachatte (Oh man, I’m completely in love with my car)” — which may strike you as bizarre, or just yabai.

For those of us suffering from bokyahin (lack of vocabulary), words like yabai are a godsend, but on the other hand, what’s the use of learning an adjective when it could mean just about anything? The language is rife with such examples.

Take the word uso (the dictionary definition is “falsehood”). Until about 30 years ago, uso mainly meant lying and that was that. But now it’s been abused all out of context — it could mean anything from “feeling unreal” to a meaningless interjection along the lines of “A so.” Consequently, the word is a thorn in the side of many a semantics professor, mightily irritated at the growing national habit of inserting uso every five seconds. Get this sampling of a conversation overheard on the Ginza Line:

Woman A turns to Woman B and relates a story about Woman C going off for a vacation in India. Woman A: “And C got sick the minute she got there.” Woman B: “Uso!” Woman A: “And she had to check into a clinic.” Woman B: “Uso, uso!” Woman A: “And that was how she spent her entire vacation, in a depressing hospital room.” Woman B: “Uso, uso, usooooooo!” Talk about the lost art of conversation, the invariable shrinking of brain cells!

But then let’s face it: The Japanese have never really been into verbal self-expression. While people elsewhere in the world have favorite words with which to pepper their conversations, the Japanese have favorite euphemisms to cover their tracks. A personal favorite of mine is nani (what). When the accent falls on the first syllable, nani is an innocent rejoinder and quite easy to understand: The listener didn’t catch what you were saying and hence asks “Nani?” But when the accent falls on the second syllable, it becomes an almighty facade that hides anything remotely embarrassing or uncomfortable.

Nani is what the Japanese call jibun hosokinshiyogo (self-imposed bleeping of phrases unsuitable for public broadcasting). You’d be surprised at the number of Japanese guys who are OK with telling endless shimo-neta (“lower half jokes,” i.e. bawdy) but will blushingly evade saying, “I love you.” Rather than blurt out that “L word” they come out with nani. Translated, a confession of love can go something like this: “Uh, I have this, you know, this uhhh, this THING for you.” “Huh?”

Young women are a bit more outspoken, so to speak. Their use of nani usually indicates sex, or in some cases an invitation to get physical (accent on the second syllable). “Nani shitai (I want to do the [bleep])” is now acknowledged as the boldest, most forceful statement a woman can make to a guy (unfortunately, a lot of guys are turned off by that boldness).

The more demure will substitute nani (what) with are (that), as in “Are shiyo (Let’s do THAT).” In this case it’s imperative to avoid such yabo (clueless) replies as “Er, what THAT do you mean, sweetheart? Are you talking about this THAT or that THAT?” Any Japanese will tell you: Nothing ruins the mood more than words. As my brother likes to say: “Ours not to question why or how, but to gratefully accept and nani suru (do it).”Yabai, yabai.