I taught English in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture for three years and over that time I got to see a full set of students cycle through each grade level.

During one graduation ceremony, the usual series of boring speeches was interrupted by an energetic member of the graduating class. At Japanese schools, a representative of the second-year class gives a 送辞 (sōji, farewell address) to send off their graduating 先輩 (senpai, seniors), and then a member of the graduating class gives the 答辞 (tōji, formal reply).

The student who gave the 答辞 had been interested in presenting and served as the 司会者 (shikaisha, master of ceremonies) for many school events. His careful enunciation and impressive wording was reminiscent of an アナウンサー (anaunsā, broadcaster) on a news program.

Back in the office after the ceremony, I was talking with an English teacher about how impressed I was with the speech. The English teacher looked at me without any emotion on his face — he was clearly unimpressed — and said, “でも … 彼は泣かなかった” (“Demo … kare wa nakanakatta,” “But … he didn’t cry”).

Little known to me at the time was the interesting Japanese paradox: While the Japanese can be somewhat stoic with their emotions, there are certain times — fenced off from the usual day-to-day — when crying is not only natural, but expected.

Graduation was clearly one of these special moments when tears were expected. One student even took to Yahoo Chiebukuro to ask when and how to cry during his speech: “毎年保護者や先生が、望む答辞は、「泣ける答辞」のようです。どのあたりから、自分も泣いたり、涙声になればよいのか、難しいもので、わかりません” (“Maitoshi hogosha ya sensei ga, nozomu tōji wa, ‘nakeru tōji’ no yō desu. Dono atari kara, jibun mo naitari, namidagoe ni nareba yoi no ka, muzukashii mono de, wakarimasen,” “Every year the parents and teachers seem to want a ‘tearful formal reply.’ It’s really difficult to know when I should start to cry or get tearful”).

A helpful commenter replied that tears should come from the heart: “無理に泣くのではなく、そのときの感情で涙が出てきたら、それでいいと思います” (“Muri ni naku no de wa naku, sono toki no kanjō de namida ga dete kitara, sore de ii to omoimasu,” “I think it’s fine if you let tears come when they do from the emotion rather than forcing it”).

This is a succinct explanation of how the Japanese express sadness — from the emotions that result during the natural course of ordinary statements.

Three situations that are linked by the assumption of tears in Japan are graduation ceremonies, apologies and mourning.

In all of these cases, there is prescribed language for speakers to express their emotions, and they all involve the verb 申し上げる (mōshiageru, to express).

Although graduating students are crying, their emotions are a mix of joy, gratitude and the sadness of saying goodbye. Many express their appreciation to teachers with this phrase: 心よりお礼申し上げます (Kokoro yori o-rei mōshiagemasu, I express my heartfelt thanks).

When someone has to deliver a 謝罪 (shazai, apology), on the other hand, they are likely crying from shame and would say お詫び申し上げます (O-wabi mōshiagemasu, I express my apology).

And if you’re expressing your condolences to someone in mourning, the correct phrase is お悔やみ申し上げます (O-kuyami mōshiagemasu, I express my condolences).

Let the tears flow if you feel them as you say these phrases.

Adjectives are also a perfectly good way to express your tearful emotions. For tears of joy, 嬉しいです (ureshii desu, I’m happy) works. For a stinging defeat, use 悔しいです (kuyashii desu, This really sucks). For something more emotionally painful or trying, go with 辛いです (tsurai desu, This really hurts).

In Japanese, present-progressive verbs can also serve as adjectives of sorts; while they often express what you are doing, they can also describe how you are being.

After a recent 暴走事故 (bōsō jiko, reckless car crash) that killed a man’s wife and young daughter, the man set up a 記者会見 (kisha kaiken, press conference) to speak out against seniors driving while too old and said, “ただただ涙することしかできず絶望しています” (“Tadatada namida suru koto shika dekizu zetsubō shite-imasu,” “I’m in despair and can only cry”).

苦しんでいます (kurushinde-imasu, I’m in pain; I’m suffering) is another useful phrase for someone who’s hurting.

One other useful phrase to express the extremity of an emotion and how susceptible humans are to them is “X”-て仕方がない (“X”-te shikata ga nai, I can’t help but feel “X”; I feel incredibly “X”). This pattern works with both positive and negative emotions and suggests how out of our control they sometimes feel.

Crocodile tears: Politician Rutaro Nonomura was accused of overdoing it on the tears when making a pubilc apology for his behavior. | KYODO
Crocodile tears: Politician Rutaro Nonomura was accused of overdoing it on the tears when making a pubilc apology for his behavior. | KYODO

The man who lost his wife and daughter, for example, used “悔しくて悔しくて仕方がありません” (“Kuyashikute kuyashikute shikata ga arimasen,” “I can’t help but feel incredibly, incredibly hurt”).

No matter what verbiage you decide to use, the key is to be sincere and not to overdo things with your tears. No one has made this more apparent than former politician Ryutaro Nonomura who became known as 号泣県議/号泣議員 (gōkyū kengi/gōkyū gi’in, the weeping assemblyman).

In July 2014, Nonomura gave a press conference to account for the misuse of public money, but rather than make a sincere apology he dissolved into a puddle of incoherent statements and melodramatic sobs, drawing worldwide attention on the internet.

He was clearly hoping his tears would get him off the hook, but it was apparent to nearly everyone that they were nothing more than 空涙 (soranamida, crocodile tears, literally “empty tears”), which is very sad indeed.

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