Among other things, the 21st century may well be remembered as the age of multitasking. It seems that in order to be recognized as a full-fledged human being, we constantly need to be doing at least two things at a time. We text while we walk, read while we talk, sleep while we commute.

Although it must be quite some task for the brain to do all these things at once (except for sleeping on the train, maybe), grammatically speaking, coordinating two concurring activities is no problem at all. In Japanese the suffix nagara (ながら) does this job, and it does it pretty well.

The basic rule is that nagara is attached to the stem of the verb that is not the main action of the multitask package. So when you watch TV and try to study at the same time, you have to make a commitment, linguistically at least, as to which of the two is more important. Terebi o mi-nagara benkyō suru (テレビを見ながら勉強する) indicates that studying is the main action, to which the TV merely provides the background noise. The reverse combination, Benkyō shi-nagara terebi o miru (勉強しながらテレビを見る), puts the TV set at the center, and the studying becomes secondary at best. I wouldn’t recommend either of these combinations but, grammatically speaking, one is just as flawless as the other.

An interesting point about nagara is that it can also convey a note of protest about two concurring things. Here is an example from a recent headline topic: Kazu ōku no mondai ga aru koto o shiri-nagara, JSC wa shinkyōgijō no keikaku o saikō shinakatta (数多くの問題があることを知りながら、JSCは新競技場の計画を再考しなかった, “Though they knew there were a great number of problems, the Japan Sport Council did not reconsider the plan for the new stadium”).

This so-called concessive function also explains the occurrence of nagara in the lexicalized phrase zannen nagara (残念ながら, “It’s a shame”), which is commonly used to express regret. It could be literally translated as “While it is regretful that …” Note that it is no coincidence that the English “while” in the course of a couple of centuries came to acquire just the same “regret” by-function as nagara. The fact that similar developments are observable in many other languages shows that there’s a very thin line between just observing two things happening at once, and finding some fault in this being so.

But back to the multitasking: A look at the records shows that nagara as a coordinating conjunction for multiple actions has in fact been around for quite some time. Here is an extract from Yoshida Kenko’s medieval classic “Tsurezuregusa” (徒然草, “Essays in Idleness”), which describes a priest so fond of sweet potatoes that he had acquired the habit of eating them even “as he lectured on the sacred books,” as Donald Keene translates it. In Kenko’s own words, Kuhi-nagara fumi o mo yomikeri (食ひながら文をも読みけり). Thinking about it, this does not seem too far remote from more contemporary habits such as doing the kidoku surū (既読スルー, checking unread messages as read) while slurping a cup of instant noodles.

What is new about nagara is its usage as the first part of a compound noun. Probably best-known is nagara-aruki (ながら歩き), which refers to the habit of walking while dedicating most of the available attention to one or more hand-held electronic devices. This phenomenon has become so ubiquitous that public transport companies have found it necessary to issue warnings about the dangers of such behavior. The common slogan (see photo) is Nagara-aruki wa kiken desu (ながら歩きは危険です), which cautions that “Walk-while is dangerous.” For drivers, the same behavior has come to be known as nagara-unten (ながら運転, “drive-while”), an act that even for cyclists is now prohibited by law.

Another recent creation is nagara-gui (ながら食い), or, less crude, nagara-tabe (ながら食べ). Both terms designate the habit of eating while doing something else — for instance, reading or watching TV. Critics claim that such cognitive diversions from “the main dish” may inhibit the feeling of fullness, resulting in what could be called “obesity through eat-while.”

To avoid this, you might want to try nagara-undō (ながら運動). This “exercise-while” strategy offers a set of little practices that can be performed during any ordinary working day. They include remaining standing while commuting (even in the most hypothetical case that there should be an open seat), using the stairs instead of the elevator, and various smaller to-and-fro movements doable even while watching TV or sitting in the bathtub. It seems that losing weight is just as easy as taking it on — if you go about it the nagara way.

People for whom nagara has become a whole way of life qualify for membership in what is now called the nagara-zoku (ながら族), or “nagara tribe.” If you have been doing something else while reading this article, you might be part of the club.

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