Language | WELL SAID

At least 'semete' can help you describe the bare minimum in Japanese

by Akemi Tanahashi and Hitomi Tashiro

Contributing Writers

Semete shukudai gurai sumasete kara ni shinasai. (At least do your homework first.)

Situation 1: Mitsuo comes home and runs to his room. His mother follows close behind.

母: 光男、帰ってすぐパソコンゲーム始めるなんて!せめて宿題ぐらいすませてからにしなさいよ。

光男: ぼくは小学生じゃないんだから、うるさいこと言わないでよ。

Haha: Mituso, kaette sugu pasokon-gēmu hajimeru nannte! Semete shukudai gurai sumasete kara ni shinasai yo.

Mitsuo: Boku wa shōgakusei ja nai-n dakara, urusai koto iwanaide yo.

Mom: Mitsuo, as soon as you get home you start playing video games?! At least do it after you finish your homework.

Mitsuo: I’m not a kid (an elementary school student), stop nagging (don’t say noisy things).

The adverb せめて translates in English as “at least,” but in Japanese it also conveys some level of dissatisfaction. The pattern せめてXぐらい(は)/XだけでもY, in which “X” is a noun and “Y” is a verb or verbal phrase, describes how the speaker wants “X” even though it is not really enough or somewhat insufficient. In Situation 1, Mitsuo’s mother may want her son to finish his homework before he turns on his game console, but she also feels that her protests will fall on deaf ears. Therefore, she says, “せめて宿題(しゅくだい)ぐらいすませてから” (“At least after finishing your homework) instead of the more confident “宿題やってからにしなさい (“Do your homework first”). Example:

海外(かいがい)は無理(むり)だけど、せめて伊豆(いず)旅行(りょこう)ぐらいしたい。 ([Going] overseas is impossible, but I’d at least like to go on a trip to Izu).

せめて会社(かいしゃ)が交通費(こうつうひ)だけでも支給(しきゅう)してくれればなあ。 (If only the company could at least pay my transportation fee [then I’d be happier].)

Situation 2: Mr. Ueno apologizes to a customer for a mistake and presents them with a small gift.

上野: この度は、本当に申し訳ありませんでした。せめてものお詫びのしるしとして、これを受け取っていただきたいのですが。

Ueno: Kono tabi wa, hontō ni mōshiwake arimasendeshita. Semetemono o-wabi no shirushi to shite, kore o uketotte-itadakitai no desu ga.

Ueno: For this, I am truly sorry. Please receive this at the very least as a token of my apology.

The term せめてもの acts as a noun-modifying form of せめて, as it is used in Situation 2 with せめてものお詫(わ)びのしるし. In this case, the very least the speaker can do is offer an apology in the form of a physical token. Other nouns that go with せめてもの include 償(つぐな)い (compensation), 救(すく)い (salvation, relief), 情(なさ)け (sympathy, mercy), 幸(さいわ)い (happiness, fortune and luck) and 慰(なぐさ)め (consolation).

Bonus Dialogue: Mr. Sere is updating his boss on their company’s new product, Dart, and its sales strategy.

課長(かちょう): MN社(しゃ)の新製品(しんせいひん)には遅(おく)れたが、わが社の「ダート」のほうがコストパフォーマンスにおいて勝(まさ)っているのが、せめてもの幸いだったよ。

セレ: それと、「ダート」の販売(はんばい)代理店(だいりてん)契約(けいやく)のオファーの件(けん)ですが、中国(ちゅうごく)とシンガポールからは断(ことわ)られてしまいました。

課長: そうか。せめてインドだけでも受(う)けてくれるといいんだが。マーケットとしては、将来(しょうらい)有望(ゆうぼう)だからね。

セレ: インドは今(いま)、検討中(けんとうちゅう)だそうです。可能性(かのうせい)は五分五分(ごぶごぶ)と見(み)られています。

課長: いい返事(へんじ)を期待(きたい)しているよ。結果(けっか)が来(き)たらすぐ知(し)らせてください。お疲(つか)れ様(さま)。

セレ: はい、失礼(しつれい)します。[部屋(へや)をでる]

セレ: ああ、胃(い)が痛(いた)い。可能性がせめて6割(ろくわり)あればなあ…。五分五分じゃあ、無理(むり)だろうなあ。

三田(みた): セレくん、何(なん)のことかは知らないけど、五分五分というのはかなり希望(きぼう)があるということだよ。

セレ: ありがとう。三田くん、いつも前向(まえむ)きだね。

Chief: (Compared to) MN Co.’s new product, our company’s “Dart” was late but we outdid them in cost performance. That was fortunate at least.

Sere: And then, the sales agency contract offers for “Dart” were turned down by China and Singapore.

Chief: I see. Well, I hope we get India at least. As a market, its future is promising.

Sere: I’ve heard India is now under review. The chances (of landing it) are 50-50.

Chief: I anticipate a good reply. Please let me know as soon as the result comes. Good work.

Sere: Yes, thank you very much. [Exits room]

Sere: Ohhh, my stomach hurts. If only the chance (of landing it) was at least 60 percent … 50 percent seems impossible.

Mita: Sere, I don’t know what’s going on, but 50-50 sounds like things are still hopeful.

Sere: Thank you. Mita, you’re always so positive.

Coronavirus banner