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Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2006

Rougher language behind face-value meanings


Special to The Japan Times

First of a two part series

I have often been told by people, non-Japanese and also some Japanese, that the Japanese don't swear. Well, all I can say to those people is "sassato usero," namely "Get lost!"

I said that's all I can say, but actually, that's not all I can say. There is also acchi-ni ike (Leave me be, will ya!); onegai dakara, shine (Do me a favor and die!); and kutabatte shimae (go to hell!).

This final, sweet directive, while a bit dated, was popular enough to be taken up, in slightly altered form, as a nom de plume by the 19th-century novelist Shimei Futabatei, whose father was accustomed to hollering this charming bon mot. America had a president known as "Give 'Em Hell Harry," but I ask you, would any self-respecting author call himself "Go To Hell Horatio?"

If you analyze the above commands, you will see that they are all in the imperative mood, which is far more complex than it is in English. Some of these Japanese forms are used in a way that turns what may look like garden-variety commands into "fightin' words." You would not want to say damare (shut your face!) to your pals.

Direct imperatives such as ike (get going) and doke (get outta my way) are generally used as rough commands. Even the elementary imperative ending nasai can sound rude, especially if used to superiors. For God's sake, and your own, don't tell your boss "Yasai o tabenasai (come on now and eat up your veggies)" in the company cafeteria.

Ordinary adjectives are rendered rough or crude by use of the e ending and lowering the register, so that, for example, hidoi (awful) becomes hide and urusai (noisy) as uruse. Shouting uruse to someone is like telling them to shut their trap.

Adding the suffix ome or teme, substandard forms of the second person pronoun, makes things cuttingly personal. This e ending, however, is often used at all levels of Japanese society, even by children, as an imitative form of speech. In this way, it can take on a jocular, ironic or pleasantly familiar tone.

Take the simple word koitsu. It means "this" or "this person." Koitsu wa ume is something a student, for instance, might say about a tasty dish of sashimi. If kore wa umai is "This is delicious!" then koitsu wa ume may mean something like "Man, this is friggin' yummy." You are dealing with an entirely different kettle, or in this case platter, of fish.

There is a fair amount of vulgar language in manga, some of it not altogether common but used to dramatic effect. A character in the manga series "Inu Yasha" calls a nice elderly lady a toshima, an old hag. Yakuza and bullies in manga and anime are, of course, known for their colorful language.

Calling someone in Japanese inu, a dog, is like calling them a pig in English. And though the denotative meaning of baka is "fool," this word can take on very strong nuances. Baka yaro literally means "You stupid guy!" but, depending on context, can mean "F**k off!" Aho is another word that means "idiot" or "fool," and this can become a virulent fightin' word. If a rough-looking customer shouts "ahondara!" in your face, it would probably be advisable to move aside.

This is the catch. Rough language may be deceptive to the non-native speaker who considers only the face-value meaning of words. Baka yaro does not really mean "You fool!"

Endings are crucial in Japanese; and this is where the subtlety -- or the lack of it -- in Japanese comes in. Endings which lend emphasis to words are da and yo. This becomes more forceful, and therefore potentially more rough, with zo and ze. I wouldn't want to bump into a tattooed gentleman and have him come back with "Teme oshimai da ze (You're a goner!)" and, probably, neither would you, no matter how much you love Japanese tattoos.

In Japanese society, register, or level of diction, is important. This is because there is a premium put on decorum and propriety, and being discrete is a classic virtue.

A non-native, therefore, would be less likely to hear crude or rough language in Japan than a non-native English speaker would hear in, say, the United States. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that many foreigners, and some genteel Japanese, believe that Japanese don't swear. They don't generally encounter it in the daily routine of life.

But not only do Japanese swear, they also use so-called dirty or "four-letter" words in Japanese. These words will be addressed, as delicately as possible, on this page next week.



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