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Here’s a phrase that you may not immediately associate with the holidays: 懐が寒い (futokoro ga samui), which literally means your 懐 (futokoro, bosom/breast pocket) gets 寒い (samui, cold). In Japan, it’s a way of saying you’re short of cash.

While the Japanese don’t traditionally celebrate the religious aspects of クリスマス (kurisumasu, Christmas), we’ve taken to giving プレゼント (purezento, presents) with enthusiasm.

The giving doesn’t end on Dec. 25th, either. A week after Christmas, the Japanese celebrate お正月 (o-shōgatsu, the new year holidays) with family, and that means more gifts. This time, they come in the form of お年玉 (o-toshidama, new year’s money), given to children by their parents and grandparents. While adults may be pleading 懐が寒くなった (futokoro ga samuku natta, I’ve become broke), the kids will likely be squealing 懐が暖かい (futokoro ga atatakai, I’m rich)! Well, if they speak in an old-timey way, that is. These idioms aren’t often popular with 7-year-olds.

So why do the Japanese use 懐 in matters related to money? Well, it has to do with the kinds of kimono worn in the old days. A person in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) would wrap their kimono with the right side under the left and hold it together with an 帯 (obi, belt). The material around their chest, the 懐, would have a pocket in which they would keep their wallet. Therefore, when that “got cold,” someone was telling you they had nothing in their pocket.

Let’s hope the 懐 is warmer than the weather at this time of year, though. It’s almost time to deliver お年玉, and this tradition has very specific rules. Currently, the going rate for elementary school-aged students is ¥3,000 and junior high students and older tend to receive ¥5,000. Those numbers change depending on the times, but the rules come in with regard to how this money is presented: The bills need to be crisp 新札 (shinsatsu, newly printed bills) and placed in a ポチ袋 (pochi bukuro, money envelope). If you can write the child’s name in calligraphy, that’s even better.

Thus, traditionally on the first day of school after the winter break, a common topic of conversation on the playground will involve お年玉:

大雅: 「お年玉いくらもらった?」

羽奏: 「全部で三万円もらった!大雅くんは?」

大雅: 「ええ、僕はお父さんとお母さんからしかもらえなかったから、五千円だよ。」

 

Taiga: “O-toshidama ikura moratta?”

Wakana: “Zenbu de sanman-en moratta! Taiga-kun wa?”

Taiga: “Ee, Boku wa otōsan to okāsan kara shika moraenakatta kara, gosen-en da yo.”

 

Taiga: “How much new year’s money did you get?”

Wakana: “I got ¥30,000 in total! How about (you) Taiga?”

Taiga: “Eh, I only got it from my mother and father, so ¥5,000.”

Nowadays, kids are more likely to talk about what they got for Christmas on the playground, too. And prior to the holiday they will be talking about what they want to get from Santa Claus. Little Aoi might be seated at the table when she mumbles a “クリスマスにはレゴが欲しいな” (Kurisumasu ni wa rego ga hoshii na, I want Lego for Christmas) for her mother to overhear.

However, when Aoi’s mother tells her husband about this not-so-subtle hint, she’ll need to phrase things differently. When the subject is not the speaker, an evidential expression is needed such as ~がる (~garu, show signs of ~), ~そうだ (~sō da, look like), ~と言っていました (~to itte-imashita, they said) or ~って (~tte), an informal marker that indicates hearsay. Aoi’s mother might tell her father, “葵ちゃん、サンタからレゴが欲しいって” (Aoi-chan, Santa kara rego ga hoshii-tte, Aoi says she wants Lego from Santa).

The use of “~って” to end a statement is colloquial and fine to use with family. At work, however, one of the other expressions indicating a third party’s desires would be more appropriate. For example, 小泉さんは新しいパソコンを欲しがっている (Koizumi-san wa atarashii pasokon o hoshigatte-iru, Ms. Koizumi would like a new personal computer) uses “~がる,” and 妻はスマートフォンが欲しいと言っていました (Tsuma wa sumātofon ga hoshii to itte-imashita, My wife says she wants a smartphone), uses “~と言っていました.”

Perhaps you spot a colleague checking the clock repeatedly on Dec. 24. You may tell someone, 松野さんは早く帰りたそうだ (Matsuno-san wa hayaku kaeritasō da, it looks like Mr. Matsuno wants to go home). This structure uses “~そうだ” with the verb ending “~たい,” which indicates a desire to do something. If Mr. Matsuno was talking about himself, he could use 帰りたいです (kaeritai desu, I want to go home). However, if you’re the one pointing this out about a third person, then 帰りたそうです (kaeritasō desu, they seem to want to go home) is the correct option.

If it’s Christmas Eve, then maybe Mr. Matsuno has a hot date? That’s because while お正月 is for families, クリスマス is usually for 恋人 (koibito, lovers). Therefore, a lot of Japanese Christmas songs tend to focus on couples. One of my favorites is “恋人がサンタクロース” (“Koibito ga Santa Kurōsu,” “My Baby is Santa Claus”), released in 1980 by J-pop singer 松任谷由実 (Matsutōya Yumi, Yumi Matsutoya), better known as ユーミン (Yūmin, Yuming).

The best thing about having サンタクロース (Santa Kurōsu, Santa Claus) for your 恋人? He’s magic, so 懐が寒くならない (futokoro ga samuku naranai, he’ll never be short of cash).


The kanji Japan holds close to its heart

The word 懐 (futokoro) is used to describe the space/pocket between the inner and outer layers of a kimono around a person’s chest that people use to put their money. Thus 懐 is often translated as “breast pocket.”

Since it’s located near your 心 (kokoro, heart), 懐 is also used in many expressions having to do with the soul. Let’s look at some examples:

懐炉 (kairo): Usually written in katakana as カイロ, these are the small heat packs that you can put under your clothes to keep warm.

懐石料理 (kaiseki ryōri): Not to be used with the more common 会席料理 (kaiseki ryōri) that refers to most multicourse gatherings, the kanji 懐石 (kaiseki) literally translates as “breast-pocket stone” and evolved from the practice of Zen monks warming a stone and putting it in their breast pockets to ward off hunger before eventually having their frugal 懐石 meal that’s associated with tea ceremony.

懐に入る (futokoro ni hairu): This term literally translates as getting into someone’s pocket and is used to refer to a person who gains someone’s trust, often in a work situation. It has the nuance of buttering someone up.

懐が深い (futokoro ga fukai): Saying someone has deep pockets in English means they have endless amounts of cash. In Japan, saying someone’s pocket is deep refers to someone who is broad-minded. Both 懐が広い (futokoro ga hiroi, pocket is wide) and 懐が大きい (futokoro ga ōkii, pocket is big) have similar meanings.

懐かしい (natsukashii): The word 懐かしい is complicated to translate into English but it means something familiar to the heart or soul, which is why the 懐 kanji is used, and is often rendered as “nostalgic.”

処女懐胎 (shojokaitai): Here’s a use of 懐 related to Christmas. 懐胎 (kaitai) means “conception” and when it’s combined with 処女 (shojo) it specifically refers to the Biblical story of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

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