September 10, 1999
Rafi: Is there an enkai
(drinking party) this Friday?
R: Maybe? Does that mean yes?
R: What time does it start?
M: Maybe 7:00. Maybe.
R: So, is that 7:00? It starts at 7:00?
R: No, see, I am going, so I actually need to know. Does it start at 7:00?
R: Come on, now. Yes or no.
M: (looking like she has to swallow a frog) Yes.
R: Thank you. Was that so difficult? Now, should I be early?
R: (Staring at Maki very hard, says nothing)
M: (looking a bit sheepish) Yes.
This is an actual conversation that I had at one of my schools with one of the Japanese English teachers. To the best of my recollection, that is how it actually happened.
The thing is, maybe is maybe the most popular word in Japan. Nothing is ever cut-and-dried, because circumlocution is much more polite than blunt statements. You've never seen such issue-dancing. However, this aspect of Japanese conversation does not wholly translate into English, because in most cases Japanese people do not know enough English to directly translate everything they are saying. Therefore, I will now attempt to directly and accurately translate a Japanese conversation between two Japanese people. If I tried to directly translate a Japanese conversation between myself and a Japanese person, it would come out something like this:
Rafi: Like sushi?
Japanese Person: Maybe.
Rafi: What is maybe? Yes? Like? I'm sorry, unskilled Japanese: You like sushi?
This, while amusing for a while, would not be as culturally interesting. My basic problem with Japanese is that I always forget the verb "be." I must sound like an idiot.
Here is my attempt at a direct translation of a phone conversation between Kenta and Yuki, colleagues who talk to each other every day (I made up the conversation, but I think it is representative).
Yuki: Moshi-moshi? (this
has no translation, but means "hello?") This is Naninani Junior High
Kenta: Moshi-moshi. It is that this is Kenta, however . . .
Yuki: It is Mr. Kenta, right?
Kenta: Yes, that is so. You are taking care of me. Would you please give me the kind favor of telling me whether Mr. Saito exists there?
Yuki: It is Mr. Saito, right?
Kenta: Yes, that is so.
Yuki: Please kindly wait for a little. This is rude, right?
Kenta: Yes, that is so. I'm sorry.
Yuki (a minute later): I am sorry for making you wait, right? It is that I regret to inform Mr. Kenta that Mr. Saito is maybe a little not in existence here right now, however . . .
Kenta: Is that so?
Yuki: Yes, that is so. I'm sorry.
Kenta: I see. Can Ms. Yuki kindly give me the favor of telling me when Mr. Saito will be there?
Yuki: (grimacing and sucking air through her teeth) That's a little . . . difficult. I don't think I know, right?
Kenta: Is that so?
Yuki: Yes, that is so. Can I kindly give Mr. Kenta the favor of telling Mr. Saito that Mr. Kenta kindly gave him the favor of calling?
Kenta: Yes, that is so. I'm sorry. This is rude, right?
Yuki: No. That is so. Thank you very much.
Kenta: Ms. Yuki took care of me. Thank you very much.
This is simply the style of speech here. The "is that so?" and "yes, that is so" are ubiquitous ("ne?" and "so desu ne", respectively). I once heard someone add the "ne?" to the end of 17 consecutive sentences while talking on the phone (I actually counted). The "it is that" is a way to make the sentence a little more polite, and in Japanese is simply adding an "n" to the end of one of the words (thank you Laura). "That's a little . . . difficult" ("chotto muzukashi"), accompanied by air sucked through teeth while grimacing, is the normal was of saying "no." A lot of confusion, on many levels, has resulted from that simple fact. Also, if you noticed, proper names are definitely preferred over pronouns.
Of course, not everything is as cumbersome in Japanese as it sounds in English, but that is only because conversations such as this have been streamlined over the centuries. However the basic meanings, if you try to translate each word, are close to what I have written above.
It seems to me that this style of conversation naturally leads to a lack of sincerity. I mean, people can't actually be so apologetic about such trivial things. So, all of these platitudes are said out of form, because if they aren't said it would be rude, but people no longer really believe what they are saying. Don't misunderstand - I am not saying that Japanese people are insincere or anything like that. I am just saying that often form is more important than content. Even if the content is trivial,as it is above, form dictates that the "is that so?" and the "I am being rude" be included in the conversation.
Please allow me an anecdote (as if you didn't know this was coming). Two weeks ago, a high school baseball team from Kiryu won the National Championship tournament. This was, of course, a huge deal. Not only is this the first high school from Kiryu ever to win the National title, but it is the first high school ever from Gunma Prefecture. The high school tournament is a BIG DEAL, as in all of the later games are nationally televised. They played six games against six different teams in seven days, and the same pitcher pitched a complete game in all of them, shutting out the other team three times and allowing 1, 2, 2, and 3 runs in the other four games. That guy is a stud.
In Japan, baseball is not a silent game. There are professional cheer leaders at the pro games, not young women in transparent mini-skirts, but rather hyper cheerful men with banners and loudspeakers leading the crown in unison cheers and songs. For all nine innings. Every pitch. It is LOUD. Well, that's fine, and it shows your team support, but when I was watching the final game, the fans of the LOSING team, down 14-1 with two outs in the ninth inning, were still standing on their benches, forcing smiles, and cheering and shouting just as loudly as they did in the first inning. Now, I don't know about you, but when my team is down that much in the last inning, I am not likely to burst out in song. It's fine to support the team, but such ridiculous displays strike me as insincere. Somewhere there is an unwritten (or, for all I know, written) rule that you MUST cheer the ENTIRE game, with no respite, regardless of the game situation. How about responding emotionally to the plight of your team? How about riding the rollercoaster of emotions which is the thing that I like best about sports? I just don't understand the blind and unflagging singing and chanting, since it doesn't show support or enthusiasm. It shows dogmatism.
To bring us back to why I started this story: the triumph of form over content is one of the things that I like the least about Japan. People here are, for the most part, genuine and sincere, if you can catch them in an unguarded moment (as in, when they are drunk). But much of the time, many people have to follow a script that has been written for them, regardless of how they personally feel. That is why many daily conversations still sound like the one above.
And speaking of unguarded, drunk moments, last weekend I went to a karaoke bar with a couple of friends and had experience that I will not soon forget. After we had sung a few songs, a drunk Japanese guy stood up and told we he was going to sing us a "festival" song, since it was the day of a festival. We smiled, encouraged him, and turned around to face the bar and drink our beers. He started to sing, and as far as we knew, everything was normal. We were not looking at him, however. Suddenly, we heard a yell behind us, and when we turned around we saw a naked man with a microphone. Singing. And dancing. Or, at least, swinging. Fortunately, he could not face us for too long, because the screen with the words was on the other side of the room, so we were blessed with "only" the rear view. That's when his friends stuck a piece of paper between his cheeks and lit the end on fire.
So, let's recap. There we were, innocently imbibing our Sapporo Draft Beer, when suddenly we were treated to the spectacle of a drunk, dancing Japanese karaoke singer with a burning piece of paper sticking out of his ass. When the fire got down to his skin, he jumped and made the universal "dispersing the fart" motion with his non-microphone holding hand, swatting away the offending flame. Then, he finished the song (still in his birthday suit), calmly pulled his pants up, and went back to sit with his friends. I have to say, though, that while I can't imagine ever being put in this position, I would have trouble calling someone a friend after he had tried to burn off my asshole.