Sunday, July 15, 2007

Some notes on the Time Person of the Year

In a rare moment of personal honesty, I reveal for my readers a picture of myself. There are, in Japan, many ways for one to refer to oneself, and the choice of reference is probably quite important. I have been told by one of my teachers that, in keeping with my haircut and my sports history, I should be referring to myself as "ore" (the kanji for which looks dangerously reminiscent of a turtle). Apparently, this is the tough guy word. However, the choice of how to refer to oneself is not nearly so important as the choice of how one should refer to others. In fact, dear Reader, we are faced here with a problem. How should yours truly (ore) refer to you, when speaking Japanese?

This is an interesting problem I have recently had to grapple with, because in my dealings as a teacher at the Technical College, and as a student at the University, I have seen various forms of second person reference used, and am at a bit of a loss as to how I will ever be able to understand the nuances of their use. To this end, last weekend while in Tottori I had a bit of a chat with the Stunningly Handsome Mr. H, my Tottori regent, regarding the various forms of address.

There are perhaps 3 main ways to call someone "you" in Japanese: "anata", which is the most formal and polite; "kimi", apparently reserved for men to use towards women with whom they are friends; and "oMae" (which literally means "honourably in front of me"), which is mainly now used by men in addressing their close male friends, or by parents with their little children. Occasionally, women may refer to a strange man they do not know as "onisan" (older brother), though this seems to be a bit of a smutty, trouble-making form of address. It is, for example, used by the Delightful Miss E's friend Crazy Aya, who is most suitably named. And even she can only use it if she adds the word "cool" to the front of it (as in "Oi! Cool older brother! I want to order!", to which the reply is inevitably "who, me?").

All of this is very complex indeed. So what was the Stunningly Handsome Mr. H's advice? Sadly, not helpful. I asked him "how do you say 'you'?" And he said "My brain does not contain the word 'you'."

That's right, folks, when Mr. H speaks Japanese he never says "you". He either uses someone's name, or he finds a way to rephrase the sentence so the subject is omitted. This is the huge gulf of understanding I now find myself facing. Japanese people regularly omit the subject and the object of sentences, so for example Mr. H would never say "could you please give me that?" He would say "give, please" and consider his speech to be politer for it.

This, dear reader, may strike you as a problem merely of cultural adjustment - that I should quit my whining, and get used to people addressing me with such bluntness. But it is not so simple. Because it is almost impossible for the average English speaker to think of sentences without using "I" and "you". Any such sentence seems to be both terribly poor language, and horrifically confusing. In my fumbling attempts at reading Japanese I am continually confused by this lack of reference to the subject and object, particularly when written in the passive voice. I recently read an extract (in Tokyo Graffiti) from a girl's diary about her first sexual encounter. She managed to omit reference to the actual act altogether, and managed to give several sentences of facts about the encounter in which it was impossible to tell who was surprised at whose inexperience, because nowhere was a subject or object specified. My Japanese teacher considered this situation completely satisfactory, and took 10 minutes explaining to me the meaning of the sentences.

From the very start of my education in language, I have been taught that a sentence is meaningless without a subject and an object. Now I have to learn to speak entirely in the absence of these concepts, and present events as dry, abstract facts, states of existence of which I am merely assumed to be a part. And furthermore, I have to learn to be polite by saying such gems of soft, deferential language as "give", "come", "go" and "sell". Were I to say something unsophisticated and blunt like "could you please give that to me" I might offend.

At least in all this confusion about who is doing what to whom, I will be able to avoid assigning my interlocutors the wrong honorific. But God only knows what I'll have them doing in the meantime...


Anonymous Pete said...

Very interesting reading YOU have posted there. I love it how they reduce sentences as much as possible!!

9:13 PM  
Blogger Sir S said...

I don`t love it at all... the confusion can be horrendous. Whoever heard of a sentence without a subject or an object? Craziness!

4:37 PM  

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