The kanji used for ‘normal’ are pretty extraordinary

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

In May, an article in the business magazine President cited a survey of newly hired company workers in which a majority of those recruited this year indicated they were content to “strive for the commonplace.” The headline read: 「人並みで十分」な新入社員が増えている (“Hitonami de jūbun”-na shinnyū shain ga fuete-iru, New company hires who are satisfied to “be like everybody else” are increasing).

According to the survey, nearly 60 percent gave such a response, roughly double the 30 percent who agreed with the statement 人並み以上に働きたい (Hitonami ijō ni hatarakitai, I want to work at a level that’s above the ordinary).

The article concluded that young workers’ attitudes toward work are changing for the worse, or as they put it, 「働くこと」に対して冷めている (“Hataraku koto” ni taishite samete-iru, Attitudes toward work are cooling).

The word 人並み (hitonami) literally means an alignment of people, i.e., so as not to stand out. Its connotations may reflect ingrained modesty and are not necessarily negative, but rather underscore the unexceptional as in: 人並みに物も考える (Hitonami ni mono mo kangaeru, We think much like other people).

Nami finds other usage, such as on sushi restaurant menus, where a popularly priced regular set is called 並寿司 (namizushi), as opposed to sets using the more expensive cuts, such as 上寿司 (jōzushi, superior-class sushi) or 特上寿司 (tokujōzushi, special superior-class sushi).

The character used for nami also figures in such words as 並ぶ (narabu, to line up in a row); 並列 (heiretsu, in a row); 並びに (narabi ni, moreover); and 並行 (heikō, parallel). Or, one might say, 我々も世間並みのことをしなければなりません (Wareware mo seken-nami no koto o shinakeraba narimasen, We had better do what other people do.)

In business-related articles, you’ll frequently encounter the word 軒並 (nokinami, across the board).

Another word used to convey the ordinary is普通 (futsū). Look at the close similarity between the characters 並 (nami/hei) and 普 (fu). As you can see, they start out as identical from the top, but the latter has 日 (nichi, sun) beneath it, and while the two words are pronounced differently, this may suggest a morphological relationship. It figures in words like 普及 (fukyū, to popularize or familiarize) and 普段 (fudan, usually) as in 普段、電車で通勤します (Fudan, densha de tsūkin shimasu, I usually commute by train).

It also recalls the Japanese title of the Academy Award-winning film “Ordinary People,” which was rendered literally as “普通の人々” (“Futsū no hitobito”).

Another common phrase, used for the unextraordinary, is まあまあ (māmā), as in まあまあ面白い (māmā omoshiroi, it was mildly interesting) or 彼は全般的にみてまあまあの出来だった (Kare wa zenpan-teki ni mite māmā no deki datta, He hasn’t done badly, all in all).

I long ago noticed the similarity of māmā to a Chinese expression with approximately the same meaning: 馬馬虎虎 (mama huhu, written with characters meaning horse-horse tiger-tiger). Despite the close resemblance of the two expressions, linguists insist that in this case any similarity between Japanese and Chinese is coincidental.

Although the 平 (hei) in the soon to be wrapped up 平成時代 (Heisei jidai, Heisei Era) refers to the hei in 平和 (heiwa, peace), it also has many connotations regarding the ordinary. When Japan abolished the class system in the 19th century but still had 華族 (kazoku, aristocracy), commoners were referred to as 平民 (heimin, ordinary citizens).

You’ll also find hei in numerous terms such as 平凡 (heibon, ordinary or mediocre) and 平幕 (hiramaku, rank-and-file) when referring to a sumo wrestler who does not hold one of the top ranks. Likewise, this goes for a job position without a specific title such as平社員 (hirashain, a rank-and-file employee).

People often begin sentences with 一般的に言うと (Ippan-teki ni iu to, Generally speaking). The word 一般 (ippan) can mean general, average or regular, as opposed to typical, 典型的 (tenkei-teki) or 慣例的 (kanrei-teki, customary).

The word 一般人 (ippan-jin) is often used in the media and the legal world as a point of reference when referring to someone who isn’t famous, and therefore a person entitled to more privacy than, say, 政治家 (seijika, politicians), 芸能人 (geinō-jin, entertainers), プロ選手 (puro senshu, professional athletes) or 犯罪容疑者 (hanzai yōgisha, criminal suspects), whose activities are reported on with abandon by the tabloids.

While the term ミーハー (miihā) dates back to 1927, I encountered it much more recently while employed in market research. It is short for みいちゃんはあちゃん (mii-chan, hā-chan) and refers to lowbrow conformists or followers of every new fad. The “mi” derives from フルーツみつまめ (furūtsu mitsumame, a traditional dessert composed of mixed fruit, azuki beans, agar cubes and syrup) and the “ha” is from Chojiro Hayashi, one of the stage names used by the dashing film actor Kazuo Hasegawa (1908-84).

The term ミーハー風 (miihā-fu, in the style of mii and ) was used to refer to the ミーハー族 (miihā zoku), groupies regarded as mindless conformists.

So a lot of language is spent describing every Tom, Dick and Harry in the country. That trio, by the way, is expressed in Japanese as 猫も杓子も (neko mo shakushi mo, cats and wooden spatulas).