A word on words

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Japanese is similar to Spanish in the sense that you can drop pronouns from your sentences. In fact, the use of pronouns can be rude or discourteous – referring to someone as “You” is almost never done. However, in Spanish at least you can always tell who is doing the action because the verbs conjugate differently. “Voy afuera” and “Va afuera” both lack subjects, but it is easy to tell who is going outside.

On the other hand, when I called the ryokan to tell the owner that we would be home late but wanted to use the communal bathing facilities (in a ryokan there is traditionally a shared bathing area and we needed to reserve it in advance), I noted that “we are coming home at 10:30 p.m. and will take a bath” sounded a lot like “we are coming home at 10:30 p.m. so you will take a bath.”

It’s a good thing that most crimes are solved by confessions here, because interviewing witnesses is pointless when a report of a crime contains no pronoun. “He killed that guy” sounds exactly like “I killed that guy.” Now that I think about it, I wonder how many “confessions” there really are around here….

The real problem, of course, is that my Japanese is still terrible. I might feel like a native speaker when I successfully buy a bottle of Aquarius Vitamin Guard and order a bowl of noodles, but as soon as I start to attempt to read signs I might as well be a blind baboon. Driving on Yakushima Island confirmed I was functionally illiterate. I was able to determine that the kanji on the road sign I passed was something to the effect of “father-something-stop-something-…” before it had disappeared into my rear view mirror.

What sometimes confuses Japanese speakers is that my mannerisms, my “style”, sound more fluent than my actual vocabulary or grammar. Japanese has a number of different styles and one person can speak in many different voices depending upon the context. It’s as if a person had a southern accent when speaking to a stranger, an English accent at work, and a Brooklyn accent when going out to a bar with friends.

Part of the reason to take A to Japan was just to prove that the high-pitched, squeaky Minney- Mouse voices she heard in anime weren’t an American construct. As soon as we arrived in a department store she looked at me in shock after hearing “Irrashaimase!!! Ikaga Deshou Ka???” over and over from a million young ladies in the same high-pitched voice. These are the same girls who speak perfectly normally to their cram school teachers on Saturday morning, and growl “Majji De?? Chou Yabbai!!” to their friends in front of Shibuya 109.

There’s even a special style of speaking for comedy that, like vaudeville, has its own rhythm and attitude. I can always identify a comedy routine, even though I rarely understand it. So when I flipped through the channels last night and discovered a Japanese Saturday Night Live, I was pleasantly surprised that despite all the American tropes, it remained uniquely Japanese. The camera angles, the pans during the musical act, the frequent breaks in character by the host (in this case, Chiaki Kuriyama (“Kill Bill”’s Gogo) to laugh, the waving at the end of the show, even a Don-Pardo style voiceover during promos, all looked identical to the American version. But the comedy style was utterly Japanese.