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Friday, September 29, 2017

The Many Meanings of Temae


temae is a word in Japanese formed from the kanji for "hand" and "in front of," and basically means "in front of."

But temae has accrued various meanings in Japanese. The simplest is the literal meaning of "in front of" or "on the side of the observer." For example, If something is on "the near side" (in relation to the observer, of course) it is temae gawa (手前側) - the gawa meaning "side." Or if something is in the left foreground, it is temae hidari (手前左).

To drop someone off at "Tanaka-san no uchi no sukoshi temae" (田中さんの家の少し手前) means "to drop them off a little bit before the Tanakas' place"

temae is also a rough-and-ready way of saying "you," but only used by young males, and not recommended at all for use by the language learner. It often gets corrupted to temeh - with the "meh" drawn out for extra contemptuous effect. However, in a strange twist of lingual history, add a "domo" on the end (temaedomo 手前ども) and you get a very humble phrase used by store owners meaning "my shop."

A very useful phrase to know in Japanese is ippotemae 一歩手前 (literally "one step this side of"), which, as the literal translation suggests, means "one step short of," "on the brink of," "just this side of."  For example, nijussai ippotemae (20歳の一歩手前) means "just this side of 20," "on the verge of turning 20."

The closeness to the self that temae suggests leads to yet another meaning, this time to do with self-centeredness. temaegatte 手前勝手 means self-centered, self-serving, or plain selfish. Similarly temaejougi 手前定規 means "self-serving logic."

But perhaps the most interesting meaning of temae is the sense of "face." For example, take the phrase, oya no temae 親の手前: oya means "parents" (you could use any word for people here, such as someone's name or "sister," "teacher," "prime minister," etc.) and the temae here means "face" in the sense of "reputation, standing." For example, oya no temae mo aru no de, nakenakatta 親の手前もあるので、泣けなかった, means "I couldn't cry because my parents were there" with the unsaid meaning being "considering that they are my parents and what I do reflects on them, I withheld my tears for the sake of not embarrassing them."

In other words, temae here involves acknowledging the social conventions in place and the social pressures at work on a particular person and behaving in that person's presence accordingly. Indeed, not to do so would be temaegatte!

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