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Monday, May 30, 2011
Procedural phrasing: often a pain, but always polite
By DANIEL MORALES
Special to The Japan Times
Japanese is chock full of procedural phrases that sound incredibly awkward when translated too literally into English. While many of these may seem unnecessary, they are critical to speaking more natural, fluent Japanese. Even the most basic phrases in Japanese are sometimes far more "play-by-play" than their English equivalents.
For example, when people leave the house in Japan, they say itte kimasu (行ってきます). This literally means "I'm going and will come back." There are other alternative farewells such as mata ne (またね, see you later) and jā ne (じゃあね, later!), but itte kimasu is the most basic option. This is more of a direct description of the action that you are about to perform than we would use in English: As you step out the door and say "Itte kimasu," you are announcing exactly what you will be doing when your foot lands outside.
This is also true of itadakimasu (いただきます, the idiomatic expression used before meals), which literally means "I humbly receive (this food)." Grace before a meal approximates this in English, but premeal prayers are usually more involved than the simple announcement of itadakimasu. The real usefulness of these play-by-play phrases is for more polite speech.
When I was studying in Tokyo, we had three different sensei (teachers). One was for kanji, one for reading and one for speaking. In the speaking class we had to do a number of different presentations. These weren't simply graded on content: We had to research a specific topic, of course, but the sensei also gave us strict procedures to follow — many of which irked my classmates because they seemed ridiculous in English.
Sensei had us begin the presentations by saying ni tsuite happyō shimasu (～について発表します, I will now give a presentation on ... ). This phrase serves the same role as itte kimasu and itadakimasu do above: It announces exactly what action the speaker is about to take.
Our sensei would add insult to injury by forcing us to make this more polite using keigo (敬語, polite speech) formed by the Japanese causative: ni tsuite happyō sasete itadakimasu (～について発表させていただきます, Please allow me to give a presentation on ... ). At first I had trouble following who was doing what. Somebody was making someone else do some sort of presentation? Or were they making me do the presentation? But this phrase became critical in my understanding of Japanese causative verbs and of procedural phrases. Rather than stating what you are about to do, you announce the action but ostensibly ask permission of your audience to let you do the presentation.
In the end, though, sasete itadakimasu is just a more polite way of saying shimasu (します, to do): We had to give our presentations, and of course permission was granted. The causative phrase sasete itadaku is a very impressive form of keigo, but it's also somewhat beside the point; the phrase above is more important for its procedural value.
Paying attention to procedural phrases before undertaking actions will get you far in Japan and make your speech sound much more natural.
You'll start to notice that ceremonies always begin and end with kaikai shimasu (開会します, open a ceremony) and heikai shimasu (閉会します, close a ceremony).
Actually, formal occasions in Japan can become awfully tedious as each of the following are run through: Kaikaishiki wo okonaimasu (開会式を行います, Now we perform the opening ceremony); Kaikaishiki wo owarimasu (開会式を終わります, Now we finish the opening ceremony); Heikaishiki wo okonaimasu (閉会式を行います, Now we perform the closing ceremony); Heikaishiki wo owarimasu（閉会式を終わります, Now we finish the closing ceremony).
Announcing your action is a good policy. Doctors, for example, always announce when they plan to look at something by saying wo haiken shimasu (〜を拝見します, I will now look at X). This works for anything important that you wish to examine.
However, this kind of procedural phrasing is so ingrained in Japanese linguistic patterns that you can abuse it for humorous purposes. If you plan to eat the last gyōza (dumpling) on a plate, you could playfully announce this action by saying saigo no gyōza wo tabesasete itadakimasu (最後の餃子を食べさせていただきます, Please allow me to eat the last gyōza). While you are announcing the action you will take — which makes the phrase procedural and formal — the content is somewhat absurd: All you're really doing is going for that last tasty dumpling whether people like it or not!
And one of the strangest (to foreigners) but most useful Japanese procedural patterns is ijōdesu (以上です, an idiomatic phrase used to end speeches), which literally means something like "That's it," the "that" referring to everything that came before. This pattern can also be combined with sasete itadaku: ijō de kono kiji wo owarāsete itadakimasu (以上でこの記事を終わらせていただきます, This completes this article).