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Friday, Sept. 8, 2000

BILINGUAL

No, come on, you gotta be kidding me


Was it Kant or Schopenhauer who held that nothing was more destructive mentally than conversing with young women? You got to hand it to these guys, sometimes they hit the truth smack on its head.

Consider a sample of a conversation between two joshikosei (high school girls) in the subway which, word for word, went like this:

"Went to Rina's house yesterday." "Really?" "Yeah, it was fun." "Really, really?" "You shoulda been there." "Really, really, really?"

They went on in this vein for five more minutes. I would have listened some more but I was afraid of spontaneous mental destruction. The bottom line is (adopt female principal voice here, preferably Mrs. Thatcher's), young girls today have no vocabulary. No decorum. No finesse. The yamato nadeshiko (the Japanese flower who is impeccably graceful in everything she does and says) is dead.

Fifty years ago, they were still around. Watch a Yasujiro Ozu movie and you'll see her in all her glory. Back then, one's parents were O-ka-sama (revered mother) and O-to-sama (revered father). Dinner was ban no o-shokuji, but the verb taberu (to eat) was considered too graphic for the lips of unmarried women and rarely used. Now girls refer to their mothers as babaa (hag) and fathers as oyaji (geezer). Meals go by the name of meshi (grub) and they say things like Meshi, kutta? (Didja eatcher grub?) with perfectly straight faces.

Then there is the positively abused phrase maji, a diminutive of majime, which originally meant seriousness and diligence. Once upon a time, majime was a commendable character trait; now it's become one of those meaningless appendages that crop up in any old sentence.

It is also the fashionable retort of the last five years. You can tell a girl her brother's dying in the hospital and the response will be, "Maji?" You can tell her she won a cash prize of 10 million yen and she'll say, "Maji?" Actually, think of maji as the equivalent of "really" and you'll get the picture. You'll also see that maji came out a total of six times in the above dialogue. Variations of maji include cho-maji (super maji) and gero-maji (maji till you want to puke) and majimajimajimajimaji.

Yabai is another popular phrase, and like maji, has little to do with the original meaning: "extremely dangerous." A girl forgets her homework, and the situation is yabai. If her boyfriend is about to catch her with another guy then it's cho-yabai (super yabai).

But if she goes near a precipice in the dead of night her action is abunai (physically dangerous). If she's caught selling her lingerie in one of those joints in Shibuya, then it's cho-abunai (super-dangerous). You don't get it? Don't worry, you're not supposed to. No one over 19 is expected to get it.

The good news is, girls outgrow this speech pattern almost as soon as they outgrow their school uniforms. Maji and yabai have an expiration date, and to keep using these things beyond that date calls for a hearty dose of contempt. The guilty party is privately referred to as saru onna (monkey woman, or woman with no learning skills) and shunned. Odd, isn't it? Yesterday a girl is yelling "majimajimaji!" in a subway car and today she's acting like she's never even heard of the term.

Such lapses of memory are a common phenomenon. Past generations of joshikosei will remember their own pet phrase usso -- honto? (no kidding -- really?) as the reigning meaningless appendage of their era. Remember it and feel deeply appalled. Maji at least has some edge to it, whereas usso -- honto? is merely contradictory, repetitive and dumb. Variations include "usso, usso, zettai usso -- honto? (no, no, totally no kidding -- really?)" and "yadaaa, usso -- honto? (noooo, you've gotta be kiidding -- reeeally?)

Makes you just itch to slap a few mouths, doesn't it? The awful thing is, they'd probably stare at you with big, vacant eyes and say "usso!"

The average Japanese adult, however, is almost saintly when it comes to dealing with the joshikosei. Unlike German philosophers, they don't seem to mind being mentally destroyed and smile indulgently at the foibles of youth. A lot of them say that the girls are "at that age" and pull out the old proverb "Hashi ga korogatte mo okashii (They will find amusement at chopsticks rolling)."

No, they've gotta be kidding. Really? Really, really, really?

And one other thing: It's contagious.



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