First of a Two-part Series

Japanese is not a difficult language, but I will grant that it is intimidating. So many aspects of it seem to conspire against students from Western countries: the kanji, the grammar structure, the lack of explicit subjects and pronouns.

One of the most intimidating aspects of writing Japanese is 手紙 (tegami, letters). Drafting a letter isn’t as simple as shooting off whatever is on the top of your head. The language of letters always feels very 固い (katai, formal/rigid), and there are elements of etiquette that often make students stop writing letters before they even start.

My advice is that of Voltaire: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is actually the same advice as is given in the 1965 手紙辞典 (Tegami Jiten, Letter Dictionary) published by 婦人生活 (Fujin Seikatsu, Women’s Life) magazine. It doesn’t paraphrase Voltaire, but it does tell prospective letter writers to imagine the recipient sitting across from them at a table. Then, it says, just use the same language that would be appropriate for an interaction with them: 普段使うことばをそのままに文字にすることが秘訣である (Fudan tsukau kotoba o sono mama ni moji ni suru koto ga hiketsu de aru, “The secret is to take the words you would normally use and put them into letters [on the page]”).

But what about the 頭語 (tōgo, opening greeting) and 結語 (ketsugo, concluding salutation)? These phrases get their own lines (the first and last lines, respectively) with no punctuation, and are equivalent to こんにちは (konnichi wa, hello) and さようなら (sayōnara, goodbye), as the Japan Post website explains.

The most commonly encountered tōgo and ketsugo are 拝啓 (haikei) and 敬具 (keigu). Haikei is a variation on 拝む (ogamu, to supplicate), and is the verbal equivalent of bowing to someone upon greeting them: It’s a sign of respect. Keigu is largely the same but carries the implication of ととのえる (totonoeru, arrange), noting that you have respectfully constructed your message.

The Japan Post website provides an amazing, comprehensive list of all the alternative pairs based on the circumstances of a letter. In 緊急の手紙 (kinkyū no tegami, urgent/emergency letters), for example, haikei is replaced with 急啓 (kyūkei, roughly meaning “I rush this message to you”), and keigu by 早々 (sōsō, roughly, “with promptness”).

You can even use the tōgo to dispense with the 前文 (zenbun, preamble), which students may recognize as the sort of flowery pleasantries up front that usually address 季節 (kisetsu, seasons). Just use 前略 (zenryaku, roughly, “Apologies for omitting the pleasantries”) and get straight to your message before ending with 草々 (sōsō, “yours in brevity”).

Generally, zenbun are necessary when writing to those in higher positions but can be left off for closer friends. The Tegami Jiten advises writers to limit their zenbun to five or six lines, which at 10 Japanese characters per line is 50-60 characters, or less than half a tweet. In other words, just a sentence or two will suffice.

Rather than memorizing all of the possibilities for tōgo and appropriate seasonal phrases for zenbun, preserve your mental space for more interesting topics and avail yourself of the Japan Post site or a letter dictionary when you need them. Look for the phrase 実例 (jitsurei, real examples) and/or 書き方 (kakikata, how to write) in combination with tegami, either in book titles or on websites, and you’ll be in good shape.

And don’t forget that even in 1965, guidebooks were advising people to just get on with it: はじめから「こんにちは、お 元気でいらっしゃいますか」と書き出した方が 受け取った相手にも、そのままスムーズに読める (Hajime kara ‘Konnichiwa, o-genki de irasshaimasu ka’ to kakidashita hō ga uketotta aite ni mo, sono mama sumūzu ni yomeru, “Writing ‘Hello, how are you?’ right from the start makes it easier to read for the recipient as well”).

Understanding some of the complex language of letters is important, but it’s reassuring to know that often these words are just upgraded versions of normal vocabulary. For example, you’ll often encounter the verb 申し上げる (mōshiageru, say/offer). It’s tempting to try and think of this verb as something more than it is, but resist that urge: It’s just a fancy version of 言う (iu, say) with a dose of ageru, which means “to give” — in other words, “communicate.” You can communicate all different sorts of things in your letter, depending on your 用件 (yōken, errand/item of business).

For a thank you letter, you can say 感謝の申し上げようもございません (Kansha no mōshiageyō mo gozaimasen, “There is no way for me to express my thanks”). Or you can notify someone of a move or a change in jobs by adapting as necessary the simple sentence ご通知申し上げます (Go-tsūchi mōshiagemasu, “I give notification”).

You can also send a greeting with 新年のご祝詞を申し上げます (Shinnen no go-shukushi o mōshiagemasu, “I offer best wishes for the new year”) or explain why you can’t give a New Year’s greeting: 喪中ですので、年末年始の御挨拶を御遠慮申し上げます (Mochū desu no de, nenmatsu nenshi no go-aisatsu o go-enryo mōshiagemasu, I am in mourning, so I will refrain from making New Year’s greetings).

Families who have lost loved ones within the past year refrain from the explicit congratulations of 明けまして おめでとうございます (Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu, Happy New Year) but can engage by responding with a simple こちらこそ、今年もよろしくお願いします (Kochira koso, kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu, literally, “Please treat me well this year, too”).

Don’t forget that the tegami season has begun. 年賀状 (nengajō, New Year’s postcard) sales are upon us, and rather than ぐずぐずする (guzuguzu suru, dilly dally), get writing and try not to sweat the details: Recipients of your letters will likely be happier to receive a letter with mistakes than no letter at all.

Next week: Tips for writing emails

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