When stumped in Japanese, go where stumped Japanese go

by Daniel Morales

Contributing Writer

I am regularly surprised that I can “do Japanese” to any degree at all.

I pick up a book, see 躊躇う (tamerau, hesistate) and somehow — ironically, without any hesitation whatsoever — know what it means and how to pronounce it. How is this possible?

I think part of the reason I feel this way is because I can only clearly remember learning a very small percentage of the total Japanese I’ve absorbed.

I remember my teacher performing introductions with our class on the very first day by adding です (desu) to her last name. I remember a Japanese college friend describing Ryu Murakami’s writing as more 攻撃的 (kōgekiteki, aggressive) than Haruki Murakami’s. I remember all my elementary school students yelling 頂戴! (Chōdai!, Gimme!) when I brought American stickers to share with them.

But the rest is a blur. Which I think is a good thing. Language isn’t a memorized set of individual words or phrases; it’s communication, interaction, larger conglomerations and aggregations of bits of information that you mash together in your brain. Eventually this gives you a sense of things.

And that linguistic “Spidey sense” (to borrow a phrase from the Marvel Universe) is what warned me recently that いくらですか (Ikura desu ka, How much [does it cost]?) was not polite enough for the context in which I was trying to use it.

On the face of it, “Ikura desu ka” is not an impolite phrase. Desu makes it neutral and respectful compared to thrusting some object at a コンビニ店員 (Konbini ten’in, convenience store clerk) and demanding, これ、いくら? (Kore, ikura?; How much for this?).

But I was writing a work email and needed to determine whether and how much we would be expected to pay for something; the directness of even the neutral question felt impolite. I knew I could probably append an honorific お () to the front to make it おいくら (o-ikura) and then potentially swap out desu for になります (ni narimasu), but I wondered whether there was something even more polite.

The answer came to me on a website designed for Japanese people whose own linguistic Spidey senses had given them the same warning signs. Also like me, they didn’t know the answer and went in search of help online.

Tap-biz.jp and Mayonez.jp are two sites designed for Japanese workers. Mayonez styles itself as a “career lifestyle magazine” for IT人材 (jinzai, personnel), and tap-biz seems to be a similar, career-focused site.

Tap-biz has an article providing 「いくら」の使い方と例文・別の敬語表現例 (Ikura no tsukaikata to reibun/betsu no keigo hyōgen rei; How to use ikura and example sentences/examples of alternative keigo expressions, at bit.ly/ikuradesuka) This quickly helped me find the expression I was looking for: いかほどでございますか (Ikahodo de gozaimasu ka, What does this cost?)

Ikahodo functionally means the exact same thing as ikura — they are both words that describe “the extent” of something (i.e., “how much”) — but in practice, the former is more polite (perhaps because it is lengthier by a single syllable?).

The article also recommended a more indirect approach: Rather than starting with the phrase straightaway, introduce a topic such as 値段 (nedan, price) or 予算 (yosan, budget). The result is a concise, effective sentence ready for your next email inquiry: 予算はいかほどでございますか (Yosan wa ikahodo de gozaimasu ka, How much would the budget be?).

De gozaimasu ka can easily be swapped out for ni narimasu ka, and you could even use おいくらになりますか (O-ikura ni narimasu ka, How much would this cost?) after the topic to vary your phrasing.

Mayonez offers a wider variety of articles than tap-biz — everything from 口コミ (kuchikomi, word of mouth) recommendations for new tech products and 転職 (tenshoku, job change) advice to explanations of obscure language such as how to congratulate someone on their 喜寿 (kiju, 77th birthday; bit.ly/kiju7777) and the adjective メタい (metai, meta; bit.ly/metaimetai)

Altogether, Mayonez is really its own thing entirely and has no English-language equivalent. It’s equal parts tech, job-hunting support and language instruction.

One entry that caught my attention (bit.ly/kiboshinai) also recommended an indirect language approach: これを相手に直接伝える場合このままでは失礼に当たります (Kore o aite ni chokusetu tsutaeru baai kono mama de wa shitsurei ni atarimasu; If you expressed this directly to someone just like this, it would be impolite).

So what was this mysterious これ (kore, this)? Unsurprisingly, it was 希望 (kibō, request/desire). In this case, specifically 希望しない (kibō shinai) — something the speaker doesn’t want. In short, saying no to someone in Japanese is a delicate task, and 欲しくない (hoshikunai, I don’t want) or 嫌い (kirai, I don’t like) or 行きたくない (ikitakunai, I don’t want to go) alone are often too direct.

The recommended phrases for saying no to an invitation were 遠慮させていただきます (Enryo sasete itadakimasu, Allow me to refrain from X) and 見送らせていただきます (Miokurasete itadakimasu, Allow me to skip X).

And it doesn’t hurt to introduce these with a buffer. Something as simple as 申し訳ありませんが (mōshiwake arimasen ga, I’m sorry but) or せっかくのお申し出ですが (sekkaku no omōshide desu ga, [I appreciate that] you went so far as to invite me but).

I can’t recommend websites like this highly enough. Reading Japanese explanations of Japanese grammar patterns is a surefire way to improve your own reading ability and to make sure you’re getting unadulterated content — any English explanation (including this article!) will always be one step removed.

In order to develop your own Spidey sense, you have to step away from the English and let the Japanese become part of you. And don’t worry if you don’t know the perfect phrase or correct polite alternative. Plenty of Japanese are in the same situation.