Language

Japanese that's so beautiful it belongs in a museum

by Daniel Morales

Contributing Writer

As I use Japanese in my day-to-day life, I am occasionally floored by the beauty of a word or a turn of phrase.

For example, the “is it simple or is it very, very deep” caveat encountered frequently in Japanese advertisements: 写真はイメージです (Shashin wa imēji desu).

Taken literally, the phrase means “This photograph is an image” — cue the deep thoughts on the theory of photography — but in practice it serves notice that “This photograph is for illustrative purposes.” Thus, the fast food joint using it doesn’t take responsibility when the puny slider they serve has no resemblance to the juicy ハンバーガー (hanbāgā, hamburger) on the poster.

The efficiency of the phrase strikes me as interesting and characteristic of how Japanese is used to communicate.

I come across interesting phrases in English as well, but not as frequently, perhaps because it’s my native language and I don’t have as distant a view. It takes someone like comedian Mitch Hedberg (“I haven’t slept for 10 days — because that would be too long”) to cast a light on some of its inherent quirks.

These encounters with elegant Japanese have inspired me to want to start a museum. I’d call it The Museum of Exceptional Japanese, and the only thing on the walls would be framed example sentences, perhaps in the style of conceptual artist On Kawara who hand-painted “Date paintings,” consisting only of a month, day and year on canvas.

The museum’s first acquisition would be なるほど (naruhodo, I see/Of course).

Said with the right tone of sincere fascination, this 相槌 (aizuchi, conversational interjection) concisely expresses that you’ve been convinced, persuaded or impressed with what a speaker has just said. Add a ね (ne) to make it more natural and provide emphasis.

As with most things in life, moderation is key with a phrase like なるほど. Use it too often and you’ll come off as obsequious and end up like Marshal-Admiral The Marquis Saigo Judo (the legendary Saigo Takamori’s brother, also known as Saigo Tsugumichi), who was referred to as 成程大臣 (Naruhodo daijin, Minister “Naruhodo”) because he often repeated なるほど、なるほど while others were speaking.

As curator of The Museum of Exceptional Japanese, I’d reserve a permanent place in the collection for phrases that express information using very few subjects and objects, one of the strengths of Japanese.

I would strongly push to acquire the following sentence I received in a work email recently: お手隙の際で構いません (Otesuki no sai de kamaimasen, [I] don’t mind [if you do it] when [you] are free).

Marvel at all the pieces of the English translation marked in parentheses: The parentheses mean the English words don’t have direct linguistic equivalents in the Japanese sentence. They are all implied.

Japanese verbs are assumed to take the speaker or writer as the subject if none is given, so “I” is clearly implied for the verb 構う (kamau, to mind). And adding an honorific お (o) or ご (go) in front of nouns or verbs, such as the compact phrase 手隙 (tesuki, free/ available), will generally associate them with the person a speaker or writer is addressing — in other words, “you.”

As you might imagine, this phrase followed a request the writer was making in order to de-emphasize the urgency of the request. In that sense, the phrase is doing double duty: It is humble in and of itself by showing respect for my time, and the phrasing itself is respectful. It’s an amazingly simple way to tell someone “no rush.”

In the Museum of Exceptional Japanese we would also have a few examples of passive and causative verbs that enable subject-less sentences. Adversative passive phrases are particularly aesthetically pleasing in their simplicity when something has gone wrong, such as やられた! (Yarareta, [I’ve] been had/tricked!) or 食べられちゃった (Taberarechatta, [My burrito in the shared refrigerator] was unfortunately eaten [by an unwitting coworker]).

Causative can be tricky to get comfortable with, but after enough practice, you’ll be breaking out useful sentences like ご感想を聞かせていただいて誠にありがとうございます (Go-kansō o kikasete itadaite makoto ni arigatō gozaimasu, [I] appreciate [you] sharing [your] thoughts [with me]), which I think would also have a home in the museum. Again, as shown by the English in parentheses, the Japanese giving and receiving verbs and honorific prefixes do a lot of the heavy lifting to imply subjects and objects.

Individual kanji also have their place in the Museum of Exceptional Japanese, but these would be unique kanji — 国字 (kokuji, kanji created in Japan), to be precise.

There are 国字 from Korea and Vietnam as well, but we’re interested in the ones from Japan. A number are related to the natural environment such as 峠 (tōge, mountain pass), 畑 (hatake, field) and 辻 (tsuji, intersection/street corner).

Many 国字 were invented during the late 19th century (some possibly even earlier) when the Japanese language needed words for Western terms like 瓩 (kiroguramu, kilogram), 粁 (kiromētoru, kilometer) and 粍 (mirimētoru, millimeter).

If you don’t trust me that these kanji are legit, go ahead and test them out on your computer. Type out ミリメートル (mirimētoru) in katakana and hit the space bar. Hit it enough times and, sure enough, 粍 will eventually pop up. Your computer may also offer you the occasionally useful, but always visually pleasing, ㍉, ㌖ or ㌕ as ways to save space.

To adapt a phrase from “Jurassic Park,” the emergence and subsequent decline of 国字 are proof that language finds a way. While new kanji may have made sense at one point in time, katakana phrases have stepped in since then.

The Museum of Exceptional Japanese is starting to get a little crowded. There are just too many interesting examples to exhibit, so we’ll have to rotate the works on display. We can hold a 四字熟語 (yojijukugo, four-character expressions) exhibition for a month to display phrases such as 弱肉強食 (jakuniku kyōshoku, survival of the fittest), which pretty directly expresses the relationship between hunter and hunted.

Then the following month we could have a celebration of 和製英語 (wasei-eigo, psuedo-English coined in Japan) like ギリギリセーフ (girigiri-sēfu, just made it!/near miss), which is always an extremely fun phrase to use as you leap into a train car as the doors are closing.

The possibilities are endless and, like art, much of the aesthetic enjoyment is subjective. What words and phrases would you include in your own personal Museum of Exceptional Japanese? Please do let me know: I’d love to peruse the galleries and see what’s on display.