Japanese



The Japanese language is sometimes impossible to figure out. Besides the obvious reasons, such as grammatical structure being different from English, there's a delicate nuance within the language that's often difficult to grasp. There are also many layers to language. There's the honorific, the polite, the familiar, women's words, and men's words. Those last two were a big problem for me because my first Japanese teachers were women. They were not formal teachers, just friends, and friends of friends. For the first year that I lived in this country, I refer to myself using the feminine pronoun for I. Instead of saying the manly boku, or the neutral and more formal watashi, I refer to myself as atashi. that is a word that strictly limited to women and men who identify as women. It took a whole year for someone to tell me that I was using the wrong word finally. Before that, everyone just assumed that I was gay, which may explain why so many gay men hit on me.


Mixed into all of this craziness are borrowed words, which are usually from English but sometimes from German, French, Korean, or Chinese. The writing system is complicated too. There are four separate sets of symbols, katakana (used for foreign words), hiragana (used for new words or to simplify writing), kanji (Chinese characters), and alphabet. Four separate writing systems that you have to know if you want to become literate. All of them are relatively easy to learn except kanji, which requires you to memorize about 1000 complex characters before you can even read a newspaper. I think it's about 1000 it could be five, six or seven hundred. The point is there are a lot.


I don't know about other people, but I often have difficulty understanding men when they speak. I find that they don't annunciate. They just sort of grumble and mumble their way through life. The gruffer the man is, the more difficult it is to understand what the hell he's talking about. There's a professor at the university where I work. He's a burly manly man who speaks with a big voice in the garbled tones typical of Japanese men. I always have a hard time understanding what he is saying.


Another thing that makes the language difficult is that Japanese people often leave out crucial parts of information because it's assumed that both the listener and the speaker understand those missing bits of information. Once in a previous job that I had, my manager asked me, "Did you send that." he never specified what that was referring to and assumed that I knew what he was talking about. Based on the context, I also thought I knew what he was talking about. We were both wrong. He was upset with me, but I was equally frustrated because I felt like he should have been clearer. On the other hand, he was operating in a system where almost all the Japanese people would have understood what he meant.


One of the hardest lessons that I ever had to learn was deciphering the different degrees of indirect no. If you say to a person, "Can you do such and such for me?" and they respond, "that's going to be difficult." then what they're saying is no, they don't want to do it. In my mind, the phrase "it's going to be difficult" means it's not impossible. It's just going to be hard to do. That doesn't equal no to me. Another indirect no commonly used by Japanese speakers is the phrase "I'll look into that." In Japanese, it's "kentoshimasu." Nine times out of ten, if someone says that to you, they have no intention of looking into the matter at all. That trap has caught me a few times. I've gone back to the person who said it to me, looking for answers. They couldn't figure out what I was talking about and why I was so upset they had not provided what I thought they had promised. So many things get lost in translation. Just yesterday, I was talking to my doctor. He wanted to write a letter of referral, but instead of explaining what it was, he just said, "I have to write you a letter." and left me to figure out what the letter was for. After 15 minutes of crosstalk and misunderstanding each other, I finally realized that he was trying to describe a referral letter to see a specialist. It's nothing serious, don't worry. The only serious thing here is the fact that the more Japanese you learn, the more you figure out how much you don't know. It does my head in every time.

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