As I sit here in the teacher’s office and listen to the vice-principle I can’t help but chuckle.  One of the things that I really get a kick out of is the verbal identity of Japanese people.  Japanese people are stereotyped as unable to show their true feelings and always wearing a mask, and for good reason.  To an extent that is true.  I’m shielded from this in a way since I work in a public school where teachers tend to let down their guard a bit more being surrounded by kids and all.  But still there is a certain barrier that is always existent. 

That is, physically speaking.

Where Japanese people really seem to share their thoughts and emotions is through talking.  Despite being a very shy people they are incredibly talkative.  This manifests itself not so much in conversations with each other but in the way there’s a kind of running commentary on life streaming from everyone’s mouth.  Is it a little cold out?  Expect to hear about it every 3 seconds from somebody.  Did someone just do something funny?  Expect to get a dry retelling of the incident from somebody nearby, even if everybody around just witnessed the incident first hand. 

Personally, I’m highly amused by all of this.  In a good way.  I think it’s fascinating how Japanese people tend to verbalize things in order to process the thoughts.  Of course, I am aware we in English verbalize things as well, but it’s much more prevalent with Japanese speakers. 

Another aspect that I enjoy is the way Japanese people will comment on something.  In English we tend to talk TO something and, barring that option, simply revert to talking TO ourselves.  Think about the last time your computer crashed.  Something along the lines of “you stupid computer!” or “what is your problem!?” probably slipped out of your mouth.  Or, you may have opted to tell a third party who may not even have been around about the computer: “This damn computer keeps crashing.  One more time and I’m throwing it out the window.”  Barring those you told yourself “buy yourself a new computer!  This thing is a piece.”

From my observation Japanese people comment ABOUT something rather than TO something.  “The computer crashed again.  Is there something wrong with it?  Maybe the hard drive is broken.”  Can you see the difference?  In Japanese there’s no grammatical difference between “it’s cold out” and “I’m cold” (I’ve seen suggestions that there actually is no “I’m cold” in Japanese.  I defer to more qualified people on that debate).  Either way, the fact remains they are said the same way.  To the Japanese way of thinking you often share on equal terms an identity with the outside world.  In English there is a very clear and necessary distinction between the two ideas.  One says the weather is cold; the other says you are cold.  We tend to picture ourselves as separate from the outside world. 

There is no Japanese equivalent to “ouch!”; instead, a Japanese person makes the statement “it hurts”.  A Japanese person would never say “I’m hungry”.  Instead, they say “my stomach is empty”.  Back to our computer, they simply make a comment about the state of the computer.  What this brings in is the giant topic of how language shapes our view of the world, which I’m not about to get in to although it is quite fascinating.  So, Japanese people comment about the outside world and it retains the meaning of applying to them as well. 

This all brings me back to the vice-principle.  Often times throughout the course of a day it is just him and I in the office.  There’s constantly a running dialogue of what he’s doing, what problem he’s encountering, what his next step in his current project is, where he has to look to find something, if that thing was actually there, what he just remembered to do, etc.  When was the last time you needed a post-it note while sitting alone in your office/room/cubicle or what-have-you and said out loud the following sequence:  “Oop, this needs to be remembered.  What”s this – where are the post-it notes?  Alright! There they are.  Ok, now what needed to be written down?  Yes, I wrote it down.  Look at the time, it’s almost 3.  Oh, I wonder if the parking meter is up.  Let’s go check the meter.  3 o’clock, I’ll be back.”  Never, right?  You thought these things but the desire to speak them out loud probably never dawned on you.

Yet, every day this is essentially what one can hear from most Japanese people running about their daily lives.  So, every so often I get a good chuckle listening to the vice-principle.  It’s one of the aspects of Japanese culture that remains very foreign to me but one that I enjoy experiencing.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Shark Girl
    Jan 11, 2012 @ 11:33:37

    Heh…interesting difference. Notice how the Japanese comments are more clinical and not emotional? Instead of focusing on “*I* hurt” they focus on the fact that “*it* hurts” and the same with the cold and the remembering examples. I like how that makes people look at the problem and try to solve it instead of ascribing blame. “What’s wrong with this computer?” leads us closer to fixing the computer than “This computer is a piece of $h!t!” does. sigh. cultural differences.
    Thanks for visiting my blog. I am enjoying reading yours. And I studied ancient Greek in college, too. : )


    • roaminsticka
      Jan 11, 2012 @ 13:40:31

      Thanks. I actually commented on your escaping side mount post but for some reason it never posted. It was quite a long reply and I was just feeling too hurt by the internet to repost. Keep up the latin in the posts; the world needs more of it. 🙂


  2. Shark Girl
    Jan 12, 2012 @ 06:49:27

    oh, it was just comment moderation! nothing personal.


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