The Japanese Language is so Structured it’s Practically Art

Published by

Sayonara, No More

If you know one word of Japanese, other than maybe sushi, it’s probably sayonara. The word for goodbye is so well-known that it has practically entered the English language.

It is a pretty useful word and has served the Japanese well for centuries. But that good, long run, may be ending.

According to a small survey, the average Japanese person doesn’t use the word sayonara much anymore. Some 70% said they “don’t use it” or “don’t use it all,” and among that 20-30-years-old, 80 % said the same.

When asked why they had stopped using it, responses centered on the coldness of the word, its formal and old fashioned feeling, and the sense of finality such that instead of meaning simply goodbye anymore, sayonara has taken on the feeling of the English “farewell.” Imagine standing at the door and saying to your friend “Farewell, farewell,” when you’ll see each other in a day or two.

The range of terms now in more popular use when partings are indeed sweet sorrow say quite a bit about how Japanese language and culture interact.

Here are some new terms you’ll hear:

— Ja ne (See you later, used mostly by young women and girls)
— Sore ja (See you later, the male version)
— Mata /kondo/ashita/raishuu (See you later/next time/tomorrow/next week, informal, used by men and women)
— Shitsurei shimasu (I’ve been rude – on ending a phone call, leaving work, etc., a bit more formal)
— Gokigenyou (Almost exclusively used by women, old-fashioned, but had a recent rebirth when it was featured in a popular NHK TV drama)
— Bai bai (If you want to sound cute; don’t try it unless you’re a high school girl in uniform)

Notice how each term has an inherent gender and formality? That is what the Japanese language is all about.

Japanese Language Reveals the Relationship Between Speaker and Listener

Unlike nearly any other language, every sentence uttered or written in Japanese tells you a lot about the relationship between the speaker and the listener. That’s because unlike nearly every other culture, every interaction in Japan varies based on the relationship between the speaker and the listener. How two people speak to one another is either an affirmation of that relationship, or an attempt to subtly negotiate the standing of the relationship.

Without turning this into your first language lesson, imagine two Japanese meeting at a social event. They both know that in their linguistic arsenal they can lay out the relationship as respecting the other guy while humbling oneself, starting neutral but formal and seeing where that goes, or diving right into a version of informality.

You’d think the default move would be respecting the other guy while humbling yourself. Can’t go wrong being polite, right? But if your new partner is a garbage picker and you’re a Nobel prize winner, he might just perceive your choice of words as sarcastic. If you’re a foreigner, he’ll just think you’re a klutz with the language.

(In fact, for most foreigners learning Japanese beyond the tourist level, properly manipulating these levels of respect and humility is one of the harder tasks to master.)

Meishi: The Japanese Business Card

j8bf591e87238863b1583b9cfc836c506Image Source: Weniulai

Neutral but formal is a good place to start, but watch out for situations where it would be expected that you should automatically use more polite forms, such as meeting your company president.

It gets tricky.

One way around this nest of traps is the name card, meishi, that all Japanese have handy in any kind of business or academic setting. The card presented includes the person’s name, as well as a very specific title designed to get you pointed in the correct linguistic direction. Two Japanese businesspeople meeting for the first time thus check the cards, and begin a verbal negotiation to decide how they’ll be speaking to one another. As a relationship matures and deepens, the language choices may shift as subtle signs that two people are growing more comfortable with one another. That works with boyfriends and girlfriends as well.

And keep in mind this is all much more than simply saying “Thank you, sir” to one guy and “Yeah, cool, thanks” to another. Each level of Japanese up and down the formality scale has its own verb formations, and adjustments to other parts of speech like adjectives and adverbs.

How far can these things go?

There are special verb endings and terms of address used only when speaking with the Imperial family. You just can’t call the Emperor “yo, mister” in his throne room.


See Also:


See More at XpatNation Japan! 

Follow Peter Van Buren on Twitter

XpatNation is a Social News and Lifestyle magazine, focusing on the insights and experiences of ex-patriots living in The United States.

XpatNation brings together the voices, thoughts, perceptions and experiences of the people of the world who have made the USA their home. Using their insight and unique understanding of the global world we live in, to discuss culture, lifestyle, Geopolitics and the day to day ongoings of this proud and powerful nation.

And Find Out More About XpatNation