Language | BILINGUAL

Good enough: The different ways to use ii in Japanese

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

While browsing last November in Jimbocho, Tokyo’s famous bookstore district, I came across a facsimile edition of “The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes.” First published in London in 1765, its Japanese title is “くつふたつの物語” (“Kutsu Futatsu no Monogatari,” “The Story of [Mrs.] Two-Shoes”).

The book appeared 新品同様 (shinpin dōyō, as good as new) and was bargain-priced at only ¥500, so I snatched it up.

It’s intriguing that a children’s story about a poor orphan girl named Margery Meanwell — who was praised for her honesty and virtue — came to be used as a modern-day sobriquet for someone who is ostentatiously virtuous, to the point of aggravation. Or, as explained in Japanese, その後、否定的な意味合いを持つようになった (sono ato, hitei-tekina imiai o motsu yō ni natta, afterward it came to have a negative connotation).

The negative equivalents of goody two-shoes in Japanese might include いい子(善人)ぶるやつ (ii ko [zennin] buru yatsu, a person who assumes an air of being good); or ごますり (gomasuri, an apple-polisher); or ご機嫌とり (go-kigen tori, a bootlicker).

Needless to say, Japanese has innumerable ways to express “good,” the most familiar of which are いい (ii) and 良い (yoi). My university’s Japanese-language textbook explained their main difference thusly: “Ii is the same as yoi, but doesn’t inflect.”

Let’s look at some of those inflections, starting with 格好いい (kakkoii), which literally means “good appearance” but is combined in one adjective to mean “cool.”

A professor friend recently asked me for assistance on his bilingual website. I offered a suggestion, and he liked it so much he wrote, “完璧です。 感謝申し上げます” (“Kanpeki desu. Kansha mōshiagemasu,” “It’s perfect, you have my gratitude”).

Thinking about it some more, I typed 追記 (tsuiki, an addition or “P.S.”) on the subject line and sent him a slight revision. He wrote back, “マーク様、よりかっこよくなりました” (“Māku-sama, yori kakkoyoku narimashita,” “Mark, it’s even better than before”). Since the kakkoii was followed by narimashita, he was obliged to use yoi in the adverbial form, kakkoyoku.

To capture the various nuances of いい/良い, you need to watch for body language or tone of voice. In conversational speech, いいですね (ii desu ne) with emphasis on the ne can be rendered as “that’s good,” while a flatly intoned いいです (ii desu) without a particle ending can be translated as “I’m good, thank you,” that is, a polite refusal. Likewise for それでいいです (sore de ii desu, that’s OK with me).

You can indicate your resolute stance in a debate by saying, for example, 結局大鵬は昭和の大横綱であって、それでよい (Kekkyoku Taihō wa Shōwa no ōyokozuna deatte, sore de yoi, Suffice to say, Taiho was a great grand champion of the Showa Era, and let’s leave it at that), though it may sound a bit dated.

While English speakers typically praise their pet’s behavior with “good boy” or “good girl,” Japanese generally apply the gender-neutral 良い子 (yoi ko, good child) for the same purpose. On social media sites like Twitter, いいね (ii ne) is used to mean likes.

To form the negative, 良い inflects to 良くない (yokunai, not good). And since いい lacks a past form, the way to express satisfaction that something turned out well is expressed by saying, 良かった (yokatta, that was great). For the conditional, you might say もしよければ (moshi yokereba, if it’s all right with you). You can elevate this to もしよろしければ (moshi yoroshikereba), if you want to be more polite.

In a manner not unlike English, Japanese also uses “good” to express good riddance. One way is いい厄介払いができた (ii yakkai barai ga dekita, [we are] well rid of a nuisance); the other, いい気味だ (ii kimi da, it’s a good feeling) is a bit malicious, reflecting the sense of schadenfreude at the fate of someone who got what they deserved.

One peculiar idiom I recently encountered is 虫がいい (mushi ga ii), which literally means “the insect is good,” but is used to imply selfishness. For instance, 虫が良すぎる (mushi ga yosugiru) — the insect is too good — is said to tell someone they’re asking for too much or taking something for granted.

A slightly archaic form of 良い that hasn’t disappeared quite yet is 良き (yoki), which when placed either before or after a noun bestows it with an attribute of goodness, such as 良き思い出 (yoki omoide, good memories), 良き友 (yoki tomo, a good friend) or 良き教え (yoki oshie, good teachings). Yoki also finds its way into Showa Era (1926-89) phrases like 良きにつけ悪しきにつけ (yoki ni tsuke ashiki ni tsuke, for better or worse).

Another form is 良し (yoshi), as in 良しとする (yoshi to suru, to be agreeable) and その良し悪し (sono yoshi ashi, a thing’s merits and demerits). I was given to recall the popular vocalist who adopted a clever stage name 吉幾三 (Yoshi Ikuzo). Both Yoshi and Ikuzo can be used as names, but this singer combines the two so that it takes on the meaning, “よし、行くぞ!” (“All right, let’s go!”)

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