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Cultural Expressions in Japanese
Written by Maciamo

Terms particular to Japanese, with no exact translation in English

Anybody having learned a foreign language will know that not all words and expressions inevitably have a translation. This is all the truer when you cross the families of languages. French, Spanish and Italian have very few non translatable expressions as the roots are more often than not identical, as Latin languages. But taken a Latin language and a Germanic one, for instance Italian and Danish, and things get a bit more complex, even though we are staying in the larger Indo-European group, and Germanic languages have taken a lot from Latin ones throughout history.

Now, start to learn Japanese, and most everyday expressions are so culturally impregnated that it becomes very hard to translate them (e.g.: "irasshaimase, itadakimasu, yoroshiku, ohayo, ittekimasu, okaeri...).

I want to have a look at some expressions that reflect the Japanese conception of the world and society. Let's analyse these expressions:




sempai/kouhai

Could be translated as the opposition "superior-inferior/subordinate" or "senior-junior" or "older-younger" or "old-timer-newcomer", etc.

Japanese society is hierarchical. At work, every knows their position and if they are somebody else's sempai or kouhai.

I find this expression very confusing because we never know if it relates to age, experience, rank, or length of time spent in a place (usually in a company). That means that Japanese think that age, experience and rank are always related, which explains why it is very difficult, if not impossible, for people under 50 or 60 to attain higher spheres of power (in business, politics or anything else). There are few young politicians or ministers, but even less young manager or CEO's.

To add difficulty to the confusion, take the case of someone having 15 years experience and changing company. This person will be considered as "kouhai" (junior ?) as they are new in the company, regardless of their age and experience. So, what if this person receives a "senior management" post ? What if this is a foreigner who had achieved a quick climb and reached a top managerial position at a young age and move to this post in a Japanese company ? This person would command people older than them and with a longer "corporate experience" (of that very company), and thus be considered both sempai and kouhai, which is no normally possible.

If Japanese people read this, please share your views.

gaikoku(jin)

"Foreign country (foreigner)"

A typical trait of Japanese mentality is the opposition Japan vs rest of the world. Listening to the Japanese, one would think that the whole world is uniform, that everybody is the same, speak one language (maybe English ?) and all act the same way.

Rather than talking of a particular region or country, Japanese are notorious for asking "how do people do this abroad" or "what do foreigner think about that" or "if I go abroad, do they have this or that" ? My answer is invariably the same "but where ? in which country ? for whom ?"

Speaking Japanese, they often use "mukou" instead of gaikoku, which means "opposite", "over there", "on the other side" (of the sea ?). I like to retort "Are you taking about Korea or China?", as in my mind, these are the 2 most obvious country on the other side of the sea.

There are people in every country in the world that think by opposition of their own country to the world. Japan's pride of harmony make that the utmost majority of the people think like that. I have also realised that this was typical of East Asian countries. Chinese or Thai also have equivalent words to gaikokujin that they use especially to refer to non Asian people (as the Japanese do). Chinese say "waiguoren" (same kanji as in Japanese) and Thai say "farang" (which originally means "French", as they were apparently the first non Asians to trade there).

How comes East Asian put so much emphasis on this opposition "own country - rest of the world". Does anyone here know examples in other languages (in India, Indonesia, Arabic countries...) ?

kikokushijo

"Student, child or young person returning to Japan from studying abroad (and usually expected to speak English or another language fluently)". Someone who has an experience of living abroad. The last kanji doesn't imply it's only for females, but the restrict the meaning to children or young people.

In relation to the Japanese opposition "Japan vs the rest of the world".

For an European, going to another European country isn't really going abroad (especially when one lives at the border). For an English person, going to Scotland or Northern Ireland could almost be going abroad, though they sty in the UK. Going to France is going abroad, though they are still in the EU. Going to Canada or Australia, they ar abroad, but to a country that speaks the same language, still have the same Queen and once was the same country. The concept of "foreignness" is different for everyone. Some British feel Europeans, others always speak of Europe as opposed to Britain, like Japanese do for Japan opposed to the world.

gomakasu

Like many Japanese words it doesn't have one translation but lots of them in English. It means : dissimulate, cover, cheat (on), deceive, falsify, misrepresent, (to) doctor, cook up, camouflage, dodge, (to) pocket, shortchange, and so on.

Consider these examples :

shinjitsu wo gomakasu.
Camouflage the truth.

kaisha no choubo wo gomakasu.
cook up [doctor] the company books.

zeikin wo gomakashite ikenai.
Never dodge [cheat on] your taxes.

kare wa kono mise kara 1.000.000en wo gomakashite jouhatsushita.
He pocketed one million yen of that shop's money and disappeared.

watashi wa ano mise de otsuri wo gomakashita.
I was shortchanged at that shop.

kanojo wa nenrei wo itsutsu mo gomakashite ita.
She took 5 years off her age.


I believe that "gomakasu" is representative of East Asian mentality. Contrarily to Western countries, in Japan, Korea or China, it seems normal, even necessary in order to avoid losing face or keep the harmony, for the government and companies to dissimulate information. Anyone who has read Alex Kerr's 'Dogs and Demons' know what I am talking about. As for China, it is common knowledge that all information in the country is under strict control and knowing the truth is seen as unimportant if it helps keeping the social order. Corruption in higher spheres in Japan and China is seen by the population as an inevitable part and parcel of the human condition.

I don't want to assimilate "gomakasu" with hypocrisy. It is related, but hypocrisy usually regards personal opinions, while "gomakasu" is about hiding a fact, often to one's profit.

Hypocrisy is considered a good thing by lot's of English-speakers, if it can avoid hurting someone's feelings. For most Europeans however, outspokenness is preferred. A Japanese or an English person would hardly ever tell their friend that they don't like their (new) clothes, even if asked, but a French person, a German or an Italian certainly would (even without being asked !).

But nowhere in the West is hiding information or lying in public appreciated - like Clinton in the Lewinski affair reminds us. The US attacked Iraq accusing it to lie and hide facts (WMD). So, in Western minds, this ("gomakasu") is enough to declare war. Nevertheless, Japanese politicians have always hidden the truth when they found it convenient (in the nuclear incident North of tokyo a few years ago, in innumerable corruption cases). Rather that reacting violently or criticising harshly the culprits, most Japanese would just respond "shikata ga nai" (it can't be helped), "they are only humans" or "it has always been like this everywhere in the world". That is true, but this acceptance make it a typical point of Japanese and East Asian way of thinking.

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