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Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009

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Japanese — a language of tall tales


At times, Japan seems to be an alarmist country. Topics like immigration, terrorism, and the latest strain of influenza can be blown out of proportion and reactions can appear over the top. But is it any wonder when you consider the Japanese language?

Japanese is a language of tall tales. Anyone can start communicating in Japanese almost instantly after knowing just a handful of basic terms: kawaii! (cute), muzukashii! (difficult), sugoi! (amazing) and tsukareta! (I'm tired).

Japanese is full of one-word expressions that seem to wrap up several feelings into one tight package. As a result, the Japanese seem to be a nation of exaggerators as life takes on an urgent tone.

For example, on a beautiful autumn morning, my next door neighbor greeted me with "Samui ne!" (It's cold, isn't it?). In Japan, this is the standard autumn greeting, the one that shows you are in tune with nature (and you wouldn't want to be out of touch with your seasons!). Just as Japanese letters open with a standard seasonal greeting, conversations often do too.

For us foreigners, the problem with this greeting, however, is that it is usually an outright lie. Even a very pleasant autumn day with temperatures at 25 degrees will be met with "Samui ne!" We're left thinking, where's the justice?

You see, foreigners have this deep down feeling that one must be honest about things like the weather. If it's a beautiful day, you really should give it credit. "Bloody beautiful day mate!" you might say to your neighbor, who would respond with, "Indeed, gorgeous." A round of applause might even be appropriate.

Why we feel we need to be so honest about the weather, I don't know. It's not like people are carrying around thermometers to check our accuracy. But still, I often think it's not fair that the Japanese aren't giving the weather a fair perception. At any given moment, the weather could be nasty, rainy, and windy. It could bring typhoons, lightening, or mudslides. So when it's not, we should encourage it. Lovely weather, isn't it?!

In English, we might describe a crisp autumn day as "a tad chilly," or "a bit nippy." An Australian might say, "It's on the fresh side." But "cold" would be considered an overstatement.

As you might expect, in the summer, the Japanese call all days HOT! Even the most unexpected things are overstated: A 10-minute walk is FAR. Hello Kitty is CUTE!

The other day, when someone handed me a large cardboard box of groceries, rather than saying "This is a little heavy," he said "Omoi yo!" (It's HEAVY!), as if I might want to call in a crane. And how many times in one day have you heard someone say "I'm TIRED!"

Does anyone else feel the line between manga and real life is getting BLURRED?

Any foreign woman who has ever tried on a kimono will first be told how DIFFICULT a kimono is to put on. After it's on, they'll say, "It's so TIGHT isn't it?!" But to the foreigner, it's not that the kimono is particularly tight. Hard to move in? Yes. Hard to use the toilet in? Most definitely.

Sometimes I hear Japanese say that if something is difficult for them, it must be even more difficult for a foreigner since we are obviously impaired to a certain degree by birth. But even this doesn't hold.

Every year on our island, my neighborhood has a meeting to discuss whether we will put out the portable shrine for the annual fall festival. And every year I hear, "We don't have ANYONE to pull it!" And I think: What about the 20 of us here at this meeting? The shrine isn't even heavy. It's on wheels!

The other day, some of the islanders were sitting around eating live shrimp. One of the women was tearing off the heads one by one before distributing the shrimp to each person. When her 22-year-old daughter offered to do it for her, the mother said, "No, it's DANGEROUS! They have claws." But the only danger I could see was to the shrimp.

No wonder the Japanese think the United States is ABUNAI (dangerous) or that the current flu strain is KOWAI (scary)! Whereas I think all of us foreigners would agree that yes, the United States is a little dangerous, the current flu is a bit of a worry, and terrorism is a rather scary, is it possible that our language has perhaps given us more options as to how we deal with it?

Now excuse me as I must end this column now because I'm TIRED! Well, a tad bit anyway.



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