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Thursday, April 17, 2008




Wagamama is a word for describing a person that automatically indicates disapproval, or, at best, a somewhat exasperated tolerance. It is defined in the dictionary as “selfishness, egoism, self-love, disobedience, self-indulgence, waywardness, caprice” (Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary). And yet, analyzed, word has – at least to the average Western observer – no intrinsically negative connotations, meaning simply “as one is” (waga = oneself, mama = as is).

It reflects a fundamental tenet of Japanese social culture that has parallels to the traditional Christian concept of the unregenerate, the unredeemed, born in sin, etc. The biggest difference is that in Japan the individual errs only in relation to others, whereas in the Christian West, he or she errs primarily in relation to God and him/herself (whatever the ramifications of that error may be in social terms.)

It follows, therefore, that the language reflects this abhorrence of expressing yourself “as you are,” i.e. speaking without reserve, giving it to someone straight, saying it from the gut. And this is where the “vagueness” of the Japanese language that even the Japanese themselves readily admit to – in fact, take a certain pride in – comes from.

I recently blundered in this way at work in taking a colleague at his word. His English is excellent – better than my Japanese – so we communicate in English. My boss had ordered me several weeks before to give work from this colleague's department the lowest priority. This day the colleague had an urgent job he wanted me to do, but I had urgent work from other departments higher in the “rankings” as prescribed by my boss. So, in the face of his (for him) rather vehement pleas that I take on his work right there and then, I made excuses.

My excuses must have sounded a little weak, and he said – thinking back on it now, pretty much in the way of repeating a line he had often read in books or heard in movies – “You can be straight with me.” With a sense of relief I told him: “Ms XXX actually told me a few weeks ago to give work from other departments priority over work from yours.”

Pin drops. That was two months ago. Since then he has not been as warm with me as he used to be.

Quoting, from memory, Quentin Crisp in his Manners from Heaven: “When someone asks you what you really think, what you should really think is “I really must be leaving”.

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