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Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011

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Sorry, please excuse me, thank you


"I hear the Japanese are very polite. Is it true?"

I can't tell you how many times people have asked me this, especially on trips home to the United States. Many Americans imagine a country full of people saying, "Excuse me," "Thank you" and "Please" every other sentence. But of course, that's not true; the Japanese use these phrases in every sentence. At least once.

Take, for instance, the double and triple "Thank you." One thing that surprised me when I first came to Japan was not that the Japanese always say Thank you, but that they feel just one thank you isn't nearly enough, even when expressing gratitude for the smallest thing. Next time you leave a Japanese restaurant, count how many times the staff thanks you for coming. Then count the number of times each individual staff member, at various volumes, thanks you. You'll feel like you've won the Thank You Lottery.

In English we have "Thanks again," meaning that we've already thanked and are letting you know that we realize this and are thanking you again. If we thanked a third time, I wonder what we'd say. Perhaps "Thanks a triple." But the Japanese don't worry about how many times they've thanked you. They just keep on thanking. Indeed, thanking is the gift that keeps on giving. And thanking.

And what I love is that the word "thank you" in Japanese has what is basically a past tense. So, "arigatou gozaimasu" is "thank you" while "arigatou gozaimashita" is "thank you for what you just did." And please don't confuse the two, thank you.

But an even more important word, in my opinion, is "sumimasen." This is, hands down, the No.1 most convenient Japanese word to know in Japan. Officially, it means "Excuse me," but it also means "Sorry," and even, you guessed it, "Thank you."

I've always wondered about the roots of this word, however. Long ago when the Japanese language was first planted (which is where we get root words from), they grew the root word sumi. Sumi is also the word for "ink" (note the word sumi-e is ink paintings and sumi is the ink used in calligraphy writing). Then they added to sumi the negative suffix masen. Perhaps "sumimasen" is the verb form of sumi, with a negative suffix, meaning "Not inking."

Now, I know you are going to say my argument is incorrect because the kanji for "ink" is different, and the root word of "sumimasen" is "sumu" not "sumi." But if the word "shi" (four) in Japanese is considered unlucky just because it is a homonym for the word "death," (different kanji, different root word), then sumimasen can surely have inky overtones."

A: "Please sign this document."

B: "Sumimasen." (Excuse me = Not inking).

Besides, haven't you ever wondered if the original language planters didn't make some of these homonyms up on purpose? After all, they could have just planted more different words; it's not as if there aren't enough sounds in the language to come up with new words. I don't know about you, but I think it's a set-up. "There," "their" and "they're" could be some practical joke put over on us by some genetically modified language.

So it is possible that our fallowing fathers wanted to engrain into our subconscious that sumimasen, or excuse me, should be indelible. And while you're at it, make it an artwork.

Another superconvenient polite Japanese word everyone should know is "hai." Most people know that hai means yes, but hai can also mean much more than yes. Sometimes, for example, it is also used as a polite term of acknowledgement. "Would the next English speech contestant please come forward." "Hai!" the speaker shouts before she walks up to the podium.

Then there is the common Double Hai, the hai-hai, which means "yes, yes," because there are times when just one "yes," isn't nearly enough. The double hai is used to assure someone you understand what they're saying and that they need not go on anymore: Right, got it! What I love about hai is that it sounds like the English word "high" (a cross-homonym perhaps?) but the pronunciation is short and crisp in Japanese. It has verbal punctuation — said with an exclamation point: Hai!

Another polite Japanese word with a high repetition rate is that lovely word "dozo," which sounds similar to "doze" in English, a term that brings to mind lazy afternoons, hammocks and margaritas. Well, it does for me, anyway. Dozo means "go ahead" or "go first." While some words are shortened to make them easier to say ("arigatou gozaimasu" becomes "arigatou"), dozo is often lengthened to "hai-dozo" as if it were one word (Yes-go-ahead). Other times, to be insistent that someone go ahead of you, there is the very handy dozo-dozo.

It's the infinite combination of these words that make them really fun to use.

A: "Hai, dozo."

B: "Sumimasen. Arigatou gozaimashita."

Of course, there is a whole polite vocabulary and level of conversation with special polite verb declensions and other "O"-so polite nouns, but we won't go there today. Nor any other day for that matter. It's a whole new vortex that I don't feel like throwing you into.

This column is very long, sumimasen. Dozo, you can now go back to what you were doing before this. Thank you for reading, arigatou gozaimashita.



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