Friday, February 16, 2007

On politeness

Oh honourable and exalted Reader, I must interrupt again, for today I will humbly attempt to offer up an explanation of polite speech in Japan. In keeping with the topic of this lowly post, the explanation shall be volunteered using the kind of speech which this unworthy writer regularly encounters in many noble and important businesses here.

This post is to be respectfully written in the language used by my august interlocutors in their speech, not their writing. Were the post to be conducted in this latter mode, even more levels of humility, politeness and abasement would be necessary than I am already humbly proferring to my lofty readers. I must apologise in advance for the clumsy construction of this unworthy post, and the occasionally poor quality of my modest explanations; for my Japanese is of very low quality, and no doubt my English is insufficient to the grand task I have appointed myself. Please excuse me for being a very great burden upon you. If it should please you to lower yourself to ponder such a matter, please kindly imagine how difficult it is for a newcomer to this majestic country to comprehend the kind words of dignified strangers when they are couched in so perfect and generous a form of politeness as this: even the simplest of purchases are plagued with difficulties, although of course this is entirely the fault of this base correspondent, and not at all to be made the concern of those of my betters who deign to speak with me.

When I was taught this wonderful language by my esteemed teachers in Tottori, it was explained to me that Japanese polite speech has three components (if I recall correctly, which I undoubtedly do not):
  • honorifics (for example, the many ways of saying Mr. or Ms.);
  • polite language (for example, saying "do" in a polite way instead of bluntly)
  • humility and respect (for example using language which puts one below ones superiors; and using language which shows respect to one`s inferiors)
The first of these forms of politeness is easy to manage even for one as lowly as myself, simply requiring that one choose from amongst the many layers of honorific: kun (which is for friends); san (for equals); sama (for people one is serving, or who are better than one); and kata (more of the same). Despite being a dishonourable and lowly creature, for example, who does not even possess a noble family history in this grand nation, I am regularly referred to as "the honourable and exalted foreigner" (gaikokujin-kata) when spoken of in the third person. If I may humbly volunteer a judgement of my own modest achievements, I do not make many mistakes with this form of address.

Polite language is harder to learn, and even more difficult to listen to when honourable and exalted strangers lower themselves to speak to me; for it involves a combination of complex language structures, including never using the impolite second person ("you"), which is only reserved for that slender portion of society low enough in esteem to be one`s friends. Instead one must speak in the abstract; use others` glorious names in referring to their honourable selves directly; speak in the passive voice (so that, for example, one does not say "I will wrap this for you"; rather one says "this will be wrapped"); always use the politer form of a verb if it exists (so, for example, "mairu" instead of "kaeru" for "return"); always use the honorific form of the verb (so, for example, future-tense verbs should always end with "-masu", not "-u"); and put honorific terms in front of these words (so that, for example, one does not return, rather one nobly returns, or returns trailing glory, or some such). Much of polite language simply involves learning these new forms, many of which I don`t know.

Humility and respect were said by my meritorious professors to be the most difficult part of polite speech to which one can aspire to learn. Humble speech involves using language to ones inferiors which indicates respect and kindness; while respectful speech involves using language to ones superiors which appropriately debases and lowers oneself towards them. This extends from simple power relations at work to include those honourable and exalted strangers upon whom one must humbly impose in day to day life. So if, for example, I have a question for the great and noble person working at the honourable City Office, I must approach this person in a suitably respectful way - "excuse me for interrupting you, but could you please lower yourself to explain to me how I can update my worthless foreigners card" might be an example of this. In turn the gracious and superior City Office employee would then say to me something like "I am sorry for speaking, but could I humbly receive the noble card?" So it is that by regular debasements we are able to maintain our close respect for those eminent people upon whom we cast the burden of coexisting with our own pathetic selves.

I must confess that apart from a few stock phrases I have practised sufficiently to assist me in regular activities, I find the third part of polite speech to be exceedingly difficult (I am very sorry for having so failed to learn this noble language, and will continue to try harder). The Gracious, August and Delightful Miss E is currently learning the splendid details of this wonderful topic, and I fear is undoubtedly vastly superior at it than is my own poor self. I am sufficiently versed by now to be able to begin to decode the most appropriately polite and important speech of those considerate and virtuous strangers who graciously volunteer to converse with my own inadequate person (I am sorry for being a disgraceful burden to all of these honourable people).

So it is that I come to the close of this shamefully inadequate presentation of important information which I hope has been of some little benefit to my betters. I have interrupted, and for this I am sincerely, hopelessly and completely sorry. Please accept my most earnest apologies, and forgive me for having been a terrible burden. It has been a terrible debasement, and I appreciate the effort required to have so lowered oneself to have listened to these reverential musings.

2 Comments:

Blogger Junita said...

Hello flashy kyuuki-san. I must admit Japanese Language is of a different nature altogether. That's what makes it more interesting to learn...

Have a nice time in Japan.

p/s - i'm havin a wonderful time in Canberra...

8:16 AM  
Blogger Sir S said...

Hello Junita and welcome to my blog, sorry I haven't posted for ... a month. I hope you come back many times!

2:14 PM  

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