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Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010
Learning to live without Japanese pronouns
Special to The Japan Times
While I was managing a gift shop at Expo '70 in Osaka, a friend arranged the loan of a Daihatsu Hijet mini pickup. It was probably a mid-1960s model, so small that the only way I could squeeze into the cab was to remove the seat and use a folded beach towel as a cushion.
Although Osaka was gaikokujin darake (外国人だらけ, crawling with foreigners) during the Expo, a police officer, perhaps curious at the bizarre sight of me crammed into the tiny truck's cab, flagged down the vehicle. I showed him my driver's license, which still bore my old Tokyo address. He then inquired, "Kore wa mai kā desu ka?" (「これはマイカーですか」, "Is this 'my car'"?)
Not being familiar with this particular English borrowing for a privately owned vehicle, his question left me incredulous.
"Iie, anata no kuruma ja nai desu" (「いいえ、あなたの車じゃないです」, "No, it's not your car"), I replied.
"Chigau, chigau. Kono kuruma wa mai kā desu ka? (「違う、違う。この車はマイカーですか」, "No, no. Is this car 'my car'"?)
Again I stood my ground. It was not his, no way ― it was mine. Sorry officer, I don't know why you would even want such an underpowered rattletrap, but I am not so well off that I can go around presenting motor vehicles to members of Osaka's finest. After muttering "wakarehen yarōnā" (「わかれへんやろうな?」, "He doesn't get it") in the local dialect, he waved me on.
The cop had wrongly expected I would understand what he thought was English. If he had stuck to native Japanese terms and asked me, "Kono kuruma wa jibun no mono desu ka?" (「この車は自分のものですか」, "Is this your own car?"), I would have understood. But he persisted in using "my car," a made-in-Japan construct that caught on with such terms as mai hōmu (マイホーム, my home), mai waifu (マイワイフ, my wife) and "My Life, My Gas" (the corporate slogan of Tokyo's gas utility) but had not yet made it into the language textbooks.
Recalling this incident recently got me thinking about pronouns, which are at best optional in conversational Japanese, mostly unnecessary, and can be annoying as hell when overused.
It's easy enough to get the point across without pronouns. Take such expressions as 「もう食べた」（"mō tabeta," "[I] already ate") or 「風邪引いた」 ("kaze hiita," "[I] caught a cold"). Or simply,「もらった」 ("moratta," "[somebody] gave [me]").
Overuse of watakushi (私), atashi (あたし), boku (僕) or other terms meaning the first-person singular at the start of every sentence is awkward and makes a speaker sound self-centered. Repeated use of anata (あなた, you) leaves a listener feeling nagged.
But you can rid yourself of the annoying habit of pronoun overuse by becoming familiar with some of the many expressions Japanese use as substitutes. Here are a few.
• Use the subject's name, followed by a polite suffix such as -san, -kun or -sama.
• Use 内／内の (uchi/uchi-no) and お宅／お宅の (otaku/otaku-no) for I/me/my/mine and you/yours, respectively (a favorite technique of mine). They mean my house/your house but will work with almost any other situation.
• Jibun (自分, oneself) or gojibun (ご自分, yourself), which is jibun preceded by the honorific "go," is also widely used .
• Use honnin (本人, this person myself [or himself]).
Other practical pronoun substitutes would be words that indicate direction toward or away from the speaker, such as kono hito/kochira (この人、こちら, this person, him, her or me) or ano hito/achira (あの人／あちら, that person, him or her).
Now let's compare how pronouns figure in the lyrics of two popular songs that take up the theme of separation between partners. The refrain to "Leaving on a Jet Plane," a No. 1 hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1969, goes, "So kiss me and smile for me/Tell me that you'll wait for me/Hold me like you'll never let me go." More than a third of the words in this passage are pronouns, which make up almost a quarter of the whole song. Yet this doesn't seem the least bit strange to a native English listener.
In contrast, Yu Aku's lyrics in "Katte ni shiyagare" (「勝手にしやがれ」, "Do Whatever the Hell You Want"), Kenji Sawada's top single from May 1977, begin, "Kabegiwa ni negaeri utte, senaka dekiiteiru/Yappari omae wa dete ikun da na (「壁際 ぎわに寝がえりうって、背中できいている、やっぱりお前は出て行くんだな」, "Turned to face the wall, with the back sticking out/Well, it looks like you're finally leaving"). Omae (お前, you) is the sole pronoun, and it appears only twice in the song. Listeners don't know whose back is being referred to, or the reason for this particular sleeping position, until the second line when everything falls into place: The girl is walking out on the guy, and from his tone it's clear he's not going to beg her to reconsider.