It is almost a cliché that in Japan people are seen first as social beings, and only second as individuals. This is immediately obvious to the Western visitor in body language. In Japan, heads are generally held higher and bowed lower than in English-speaking countries. It is even more obvious in the language, where the grammar one chooses to say even one’s good mornings reflects your social standing vis-à-vis the other person.
Perhaps the item of language that best sums it up are the Japanese words for “I”. In English we have three: me, myself, I, and one’s choice of them is dictated completely by the rules of grammar. Japanese has numerous words for “I”, watashi, watakushi, boku, ore, jibun, and kotchi being the most common.
The choice of which word to use when referring to yourself is dictated by whether you wish to talk up, down, or on equal terms to the person you are engaged with. It has nothing to do with grammar or self-expression. It is determined solely by the nature of your relationship with your interlocutor.
Watashi is the “safest” one to use for a non-Japanese. It indicates a suitable level of respect to the the other person and, even if a little too polite when drinking with your friends, is guaranteed not to offend.
Ore is the most “perilous” in social terms, as it is, first of all, an exclusively masculine form of “I” and the least respectful form, for use only by men to men who are either very good friends or adversaries.
Watakushi is the humblest way of referring to oneself, but is so ceremonious that its use in everyday life by a non-Japanese would be just a little too quaint.
Boku is for use with workmates and friends, as it assumes a fair degree of intimacy and informality. It is safe to use once you have settled down in a social circle.
Jibun is probably best translated as “myself” but is commonly used when referring to something that is specifically identified with oneself, such as a personal quality or possession. A non-Japanese can more get by without it.
Kotchi means literally “over here” and is therefore an oblique, but clearly understood, way of referring to oneself. Again, like jibun, its use is best left until one has observed just how and when it is used amongst Japanese people.
However (and this is a big however), three times out of four, you can escape the “I” conundrum altogether by … simply not saying “I”. Of course we have that in English, too as in Q. Where were you? A. Outside on the lawn. Leaving out the “I was” is, in Japanese, by no means seen as sloppy or incomplete even in the “best” of company.
So, as much as possible, when speaking Japanese, try and forget about yourself!
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Thursday, October 23, 2008
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