This is the ninth of a 10-part series on contemporary Japan.
I went into a department store to buy a fountain pen, examined some of the pricey items under the counter glass and asked the young saleswoman, in Japanese, if I might see one of them.
She stood as if transfixed, staring into my face for a long moment.
“Sorry, no English,” she said to me in English.
“Yes, it’s all right,” I assured her. “I am speaking Japanese now. You see that black lacquered pen next to the red one? May I please have a look at it?”
Once again she could only stare at me, her eyes gradually filling with the trepidation of acute embarrassment.
“One minute please,” she replied again in English. “I am sorry.”
She hastily retreated to the safety of a back room, from where shortly after a man in his late 50s in a gray suit, neck-tie askew, emerged. He approached me, smiling.
“May I help you, sir?” he asked in English. “What do you wish to see?” As you may have guessed, this is not a recent occurrence. In fact, it happened in the late 1960s, when a non-Japanese who spoke the language was still a rarity. The felicitous flip side of this cute bias was that all you had to say was “boo” in Japanese and people would call you fluent.
The Japanese then entertained the common notion that Japanese is a fiendishly difficult language, “the most difficult language in the world bar none,” as one taxi driver who spoke no other language once told me, adding that even though nonnative speakers may think that they understand Japanese, their appreciation of its expressions’ subtleties is, in reality, essentially shallow.
It must be admitted that Japanese is, like all languages, full of wondrous subtlety; and the form that this takes may be ensconced in the most delicate variations of tone. The Japanese are wont, for one thing, to abbreviate a response, to encapsulate a variety of nuances in a single word or phrase. The most revered type of individual in this society would have to be the person of few words . . . very few words. I learned this the hard way myself many years ago.
A friend had come to visit me in Kyoto, a Buddhist architect named Chuck. I had been living over a year by then in Japan and fancied myself quite the glib linguist. Chuck, on the other hand, knew only one word of Japanese. And it was with this one word that he totally devastated me.
I had taken him to a favorite eel restaurant in Gion. While one of the eel dishes was being served, the chef himself came out to greet us; and I promptly launched into one of those awful displays of pretentiousness that we can only hope desert us as we grow older. I pointed out to Chuck and chef alike the differences between congers and lampreys, sharpnosed eels and broadnosed eels, all knowledge acquired from a treasured old book bought at a flea market, “Dr. Tanaka’s Japanese Fishes.”
It was then that Chuck, balancing on his chopsticks a slice of eel so thin that it could slip into the space between his two front teeth, looked up from the tatami at the thoroughly bored chef and uttered his single word of Japanese. The chef’s face immediately lit up and he turned to me, saying, “He speaks much better Japanese than you!”
I tell you, if there had been an eel-hole in that tatami I would have taken a deep breath and slithered down it nose first. But I had to take my hat off to Chuck. He had taught me a priceless lesson about the Japanese language: Don’t say in 50 words what you can say in one.
Chuck’s single word of Japanese, by the way, was “mezurashii,” which in this context means “unusual or extraordinary.” What Chuck said might be translated into English, “I have never had anything so wonderful as this before,” thus proving the adage that “for every one Japanese word there are 10 English ones.”
I might add that Chuck’s pronunciation was not a patch on his cunning grasp of Japanese lingual strategies. His “mezurashii” came out sounding something like the name of a famous Italian sports car: “Mazerat-chi.” More than 30 years have passed and the Japanese are now, thank goodness, pretty much used to nonnatives wrangling freely, if not always nicely, with their language. It would probably be assumed by many salespeople in a department store today that pen-buying foreigners would speak enough Japanese to make their wishes known. But one stubborn myth, still cherished jealously by many Japanese people as the grail on which the overflowing chalice of their pride stands, tells us that some words are “too Japanese” for nonnative speakers to ever understand fully.
The wife of a Japanese author once told me that I would never grasp the true meaning of the word “nasake” . . . because “only we Japanese have nasake.” You know, I never knew this. “Nasake” has lovely English equivalents such as “compassion,” “empathy” and “kindliness,” just to mention a few. She was making a comment less about the translation of her words than about the depth of her nationalism.
When Konishiki was not named a grand champion of sumo, some Japanese remarked that he lacked the proper amount of “hin,” adding that this word was not translatable out of Japanese. I remember seeing references to this incident in the Western press in which the nonnative commentators seemed to accept this inane misconception. “Hin” means “refinement” or “dignity.” The English word “breeding” also comes to mind. It wasn’t a lack of “hin” on Konishiki’s part that stood in the way of his promotion. It was a surfeit of bias on the part of the Japanese who made such a statement, hiding the rot of a disfigured prejudice behind the mask of pseudo-linguistic pretense.
We have all come a long way in the past few decades. The legend of the unique difficulty of the Japanese language and the bluster of its false mysticism are emitted, on the odd occasion, from the lips of misinformed nonlinguists and mistutored bigots. But I believe that the majority of Japanese people now see their own language as a vehicle for communication that is not destined for the exclusive use of one nationality, no longer a code for the secret transference of race-inspired messages.
The internationalization of the Japanese language that has taken place may actually be the most positive and freeing change experienced by the Japanese people over recent years. Chuck was right. One word, said at the right time, not only speaks volumes: It also begins the process of rewriting the book.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.