Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Notes from Japan 3: Language

It's hard to spend any time in Japan and not get involved, at least a little bit, with the language. Spoken Japanese is melodious and quite easy to recognise and pronounce. Possibly the first thing a visitor would notice is the abundance of "gozaimasu", a suffix which indicts respect for the person being addressed. The last "u" is virtually silent, so it sounds more like "gozaai-maaaas" with the last syllable always stretched out. You can say "ohayo gozaimasu" which it taken to mean "good morning", though more literally it means "it's morning", plus "respect". You can say "arigato gozaimasu" which implies thanks plus respect. There is a kind of past-tense version which is "gozaimashita", which indicates that you are being shown respect when your meeting is over. So if you are leaving a restaurant, or a bus, you can say "arigato gozaimashita". This is also stretched out and sounds like "gozaai-maash-taa".

It goes without saying that most things in Japan happen in Japanese, and English translations are available quite rarely. This is less surprising when one realises (and many English-speaking visitors fail to realise this) that tourists from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong make up 70% of all tourists to Japan. Given that a typical Japanese restaurant is a small mom-and-pop affair with 10-15 seats, you can hardly expect them to have menus in 4-5 different languages. Of course in tourist areas, and in large restaurants, there is inevitably an English menu. Kyoto city buses have announcements in English, as do fast trains. Somewhat to my surprise, the foreigners' section at the Sakyo Municipal Ward where I went to register my Japanese residency, did not particularly know English, but that too is explained by the statistic I offered above.

As one might guess, the sheer helpfulness and courtesy of Japanese people by and large obviates any problem that a tourist might face. And if you are here long enough you start to absorb a lot of phrases. The ones I have committed to memory are those recited on buses. I'm not sure how it works elsewhere in Japan, but Kyoto buses are quite a production. The driver wears a collar microphone and talks to the passengers continuously while driving. Every time the bus is about to halt, at a bus stop or even a traffic signal, he will say "tomarimasu" (to indicate "I am stopping"). As I explained above, this is pronounced "tomari-maaaas" and the drivers seem to enjoy lengthening the last syllable. When it starts off again he says what sounds like "tokimasu" or "gokimasu" or possibly "ikimasu", I haven't been able to figure it out. I know that "ikimasu" means to go. And when a stop is anticipated, a woman's recorded voice will say "Tsugiwa [stop name]. Tomarimasu. Tobira-ga hiraka made, sono made omachi, kudasai". Which very literally means "Next [stop name]. Stopping. Door opening until, then until, wait please." The whole thing is very charming and just filled with courtesy and kindess.

In Japan you exit the bus from the front and pay (or show your pass) to the driver before exiting. Some drivers will thank every customer getting off. At Kyoto station the entire bus empties out very quickly, with most passengers having a pass that they just wave at the driver. Particularly the more elderly drivers, who adhere conscientiously to the Japanese code of politeness, get all worked up and shout "hai, arigato gozaimashita, arigato gozaimashita, arigato gozaimashita" at the rate of one per second for about forty repetitions. It's truly amazing because a single generic "thank you" will not do, each passenger has to be acknowledged individually.

One ritual that I like happens at the start of a meal, even in a university cafeteria. Everyone solemnly does a "namaste" to the food and says "itadakimasu" (let's eat) before starting. We Indians do this too, at least the more traditional ones. But I've never seen it in a cafeteria context.

Speaking Japanese is far far easier than reading it. Perhaps another blog post on the written language will be appropriate, at another time.

To conclude, there is the legend that Japanese people never say "no" and therefore, if you are confused about directions and ask someone "is that the direction in which I should go?", they will reply "yes, and then please turn around and go in the other direction".

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The incidence of thank you is just incredible. Thank you!!