Language

Cleaning house (and head) at the end of the year

by Daniel Morales

Contributing Writer

It’s that time of year again, 年末 (nenmatsu, the end of the year) has arrived and with it come 年末行事 (nenmatsu gyōji, year-end rituals). This includes eating かぼちゃ (kabocha, pumpkin) and hopping in a ゆず湯 (yuzu-yu, yuzu bath) on 冬至 (tōji, winter solstice), getting your 年賀状 (nengajō, New Year’s greeting cards) in order, and cooking or ordering おせち料理 (osechi ryōri, traditional New Year’s cuisine) to eat on New Year’s Eve.

But the most important of these rituals is 大掃除 (ōsōji, year-end “big” cleaning). Families dust away the cobwebs from the 仏壇 (butsudan, family altar), deep clean the stove, bleach カビ (kabi, mold) off bathroom walls, and throw out 賞味期限切れ食品 (shōmi kigen-gire shokuhin, expired foods) to clear the fridge.

While 大掃除 is generally a physical activity, your humble scribe takes it metaphorically as well and engages in a mental 片付け (katazuke, tidying up) of sorts. This involves a good soak in the お風呂 (o-furo, bath) and long walks through the city, but today I want to straighten up some of my digital documents.

Over the course of the year I’ve accumulated all sorts of notes, phrases and vocabulary words that I intended to use in articles. These are little nuggets that have been clinking around in my head for a while, and now it’s time to find them a home and clear the slate for the new year.

For example, the phrase もらってくれて (moratte-kurete). I’ll hold off on providing the English for just a moment so that you can delight in the Japanese construction as I did when I first heard it. We have a verb of receiving もらう (morau, to receive) plus a verb of giving くれる (kureru, to give), both in their て-form? What is going on here?

Here’s a little context: I was waiting for an elevator with a coworker and he reached out with a piece of candy in his hand and said this.

My coworker was using the imperative of くれる to ask/request that I give him something. What did he want me to give him? Think of the more familiar casual imperative phrase 助けてくれて (tasukete-kurete, help me) used when someone is asking for help. Similar to this construction, my coworker was asking me to give him the receiving of the candy. He didn’t want it anymore and was basically saying “Take it for me.”

Another note I have lying around is a phrase I remember from a teacher I worked with on the JET Program: お願いできますか (O-negai dekimasu ka, Could I ask you a favor?). I remember him using it on the phone all the time and thinking it was a brilliant softening phrase that can be used before making a request of someone your level or lower (although not a superior).

Just swap it out for お願いできればと思います (o-negai dekireba to omoimasu, I was hoping I could ask a favor) when speaking with a superior.

A couple of my leftover notes are related to similar small switches in the language that can help with politeness, so that must have been something I was focusing on this year.

Some of these are as simple as remembering new vocabulary: I was trying to find a polite way to ask someone if they were able to attend an event and 来られますか (koraremasu ka, are you able to come?) didn’t feel polite enough. I settled on お越しいただくことは可能ですか (o-koshi itadaku koto wa kanō desu ka, is it possible for you to come?), which relies on leveling up 来る (kuru, to come) to お越しになる (o-koshi ni naru, honorific polite version of “to come”).

It’s important to remember that sometimes you need to do more than just swap out vocabulary for polite speech; occasionally you’ll need a change in attitude. For example, I also found a note to myself not to use 残念ながら (zannennagara, unfortunately) when sending someone bad news; instead, use 申し訳ありません (mōshiwake arimasen, I’m sorry).

While it might feel odd to be apologizing if you haven’t done anything wrong or if the bad news is entirely out of your control, this will often feel more “Japanese.” Apologizing will acknowledge how the person is feeling (likely frustrated) and help smooth over their feelings and prepare them to receive the information you need them to understand.

And that’s it for my 2019 notes. Now that I’ve cleared out my backlog, I feel すっきりした (sukkiri shita, refreshed). I’m ready for 2020 and all the linguistic challenges and pleasures it will bring.