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JET Tales from Aomori

Oily Smile

“What’s that word in English again? You know, when you try and make excuses for something or you try and defend something …”

I’m sure many of us have moments where we can’t recall a certain word; those moments have become alarmingly frequent for me since coming to Japan. Whenever I talk to my friends it’s like having to play the game Taboo where you want a teammate to guess the word you are describing but you can only use limited words. My friend kindly reminded me that the word was justify. “Oh yeah! That’s the word! I can’t believe I couldn’t think of it.”

Language is fascinating. It’s a tool to express ideas and feelings. It reveals how people see and relate to the world. For example, Japanese people don’t say “green light” they say “blue light” and the sun isn’t yellow, it’s red. Learning a new language, albeit difficult, can open up an entirely new world to learn about. Immersion is one of the easiest ways to learn a language and that’s exactly how I’ve learned Japanese. I’ve been immersed in the culture for two years now. I’ve learned so much about the language and the culture that sometimes I think I’m turning Japanese.

There are many Japanese words that don’t translate well into English and I’ve adopted them into my own vocabulary. I’ve had to teach some of them to my friends and family because I find it more convenient to use them instead of English. Kakkoii, ganbatte, and yoroshiku are a few examples. Kakkoii can be roughly translated as cool but it can be used in a variety of ways. It can be used when you are trying to compliment someone or refer to a guy as “hot” and it can be used to describe inanimate objects as well. Ganbatte is equivalent to “try your best” or “good luck” but it carries so much more weight. When you say it to someone, you are really conveying that you want them to succeed and that you are rooting them on. I have no idea how to translate yoroshiku. It’s always used when you want something or are about to embark on something with someone: a friendship, a project, a meeting, a speech, etc. It’s like you are asking that person or audience to support you and you will support them. I love that word and I use it all of the time.

Of course I still come across Japanese words I don’t know and that’s when I have to get out my trusty electronic dictionary. My electronic dictionary is my life-line in Japan. It’s served me well on many occasions, but every once in a while it comes up with strange translations. The most recent one was “oily smile” which was translated from aisowarai. I’ve never heard of this phrase, nor have any of my other ALT friends. My friend said it to me because he told a bad joke and I laughed out of politeness. Oily smile doesn’t sound very nice to me, but my Japanese teacher helped explain that the meaning behind the word is based in affability and kindness. Once again, the language focuses on having harmony with whomever you are communicating with.

However, there are other moments where I get utterly confused by the language/culture and I realize I’m still very much American. My boyfriend and I were out shopping one day and he said to me, “I’ll buy it for you because it’s cheap.” I was shocked at first; what kind of guy says that to his girlfriend? But my boyfriend is a bit quirky sometimes so I brushed it off and picked out a cute accessory for my camera and he bought it for me. When I showed off my newly bought accessory to my friends I told them what happened. My American friends’ jaws dropped in shock while my Japanese friends all said that’s the sweetest thing they had ever heard! I think the idea of romance is different in our countries.

In America, I probably would have slapped him (or yelled, I don’t encourage physical violence) because that’s the last thing you should say about a gift you are buying for your girlfriend, but in Japan it’s a gesture showing that you are not a snob. Devaluing a gift helps alleviate the pressure on the person receiving the gift. Whereas devaluing a gift in America is almost equivalent to devaluing the person you are giving it to.

Language is an amazing tool but it can be very dangerous if we don’t know how to use it. Every foreign language teacher I’ve had has always made the point that you have to try and think in the language that you are trying to speak in. Direct translation rarely works and often leads to misunderstanding for both parties. The same goes for people. It’s difficult to really know what others are thinking and what they really mean. Living in Japan has taught me that I have to be patient and not make rash judgments about people because there is usually something going on that I don’t understand. Although, I think I’m still going to have to explain the way we use “cheap” in English to my boyfriend, just for future’s sake. ;)


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This column was contributed by Allison Reed, a second year Assistant Language Teacher on the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) program in Aomori prefecture.