When you think about it, our lives are made up of a series of patterns. We fall into rhythms (some of us, ruts), and operate in much the same way from day to day. Eat, work, eat, sleep, shower, talk, repeat.
When people ask me how life is here, I get the impression they almost want me to say something like how I regularly cut off the heads of geisha with a samurai sword while standing in a flurry of cherry blossom leaves, and then go and drink sake with a salaryman.
Fortunately (unfortunately?), my life is nothing like that. Life here is, for the most part, overwhelmingly normal. I have a job. I eat food. I go out with friends. I stay home and watch TV. Sure, maybe there’s a visit to a Shinto shrine or a humorous encounter with a drunken Japanese woman here and there, but life is very typical. So typical and predictable, in fact, much of life here feels scripted.
Japan’s culture and language integrate respect and humility on a nearly constant basis. Whether it’s sincere or not remains to be discovered, but it’s there.
When I was studying Japanese in college, I remember each term doing one or two of the dreaded “oral performances” (yes, we all laughed at the name too). This was usually a one-on-one conversation with our teacher, and a direct, applied test of what we’d been studying at that time. I remember my first test – just a few minutes long. I answered short questions about myself and corrected a phone number. By my senior year, these dreaded performances lasted 10-15 minutes, and we were practicing rituals and expressions for situations such as visiting a person’s house, making appropriate small talk, and asking questions about apartments. They were always terror inducing, but usually everyone did fine.
We’d all grumble about these performances because in many cases, these tests were more about memorizing a script – the correct order in which to say things and exactly which words to use. We’d whine: “Ugh, this is so much! When are we going to use this, anyway? Never, probably!”
But oh, how wrong we were.
So many interactions in Japan read precisely the way our “example” scripts read. Things are said because you’re just supposed to say them, and that’s the way Japan is. Certain things are said by certain people who have certain relationships, and if you say them incorrectly or out of context, it can throw people off.
With the recent New Year celebrations, a perfect example: the first time you greet someone after the new year. Japanese people will bow to you and say “akemashite omedetougozaimasu, kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” This (very, very roughly) translates to: “Happy New Year, hope it’s a good one.”
This phrase was uttered without exception. The staff at my office greeted every single parent, child, and staff member with this. People I know in my building said it to me (and I was expected to say it back). There is really no variation in words – everyone says exactly the same thing.
This is especially the case with apologies, greetings, and customer care. You will hear keigo (the infamously difficult hyper-polite form of Japanese) most days (if not every day). I didn’t think it was important when I was studying because I assumed this level of Japanese was reserved for salarymen and corporate big wigs.
Little did I know I’d hear it when I ordered a burger and fries for lunch.
Many cafes have a counter to bring your tray to when you have finished your meal or your drink. Here’s what they typically look like:
Just put your tray with all your dishes, napkins, etc. in this box, and if there’s a staff person who sees you do it, you’ll usually hear “O-sore iremasu!”. This is another default phrase that is usually used when a customer has done something themselves rather than the staff doing it for them. The phrase can be translated loosely as “thank you!”, or extremely literally as “excuse me, I’m afraid and distressed because you shouldn’t have had to do that because you are the customer, but thank you for doing it anyway.”
See why online translation machines have so much difficulty sometimes?
In all fairness, English does use somewhat strange vocabulary at times: “I’m afraid you’ll have to go to the next office.” We’re not actually afraid. We’re just being polite. It’s much the same in this case.
These scripts and politeness are built in to Japanese people. Sometimes I honestly can’t understand what is being said to me because I can’t comprehend the super-polite words. If you ask for a simple, “regular Japanese” explanation, you may get a confused look and a slightly slower repeat of whatever was just said. I ran into this issue when speaking to apartment agents recently – both agents I spoke to were kind, helpful people doing their best to aid me, but a female agent I met with just wouldn’t drop the polite speech, and I could barely understand what was going on. However, another agent who had spent time in the states better understood the concept of communicating with foreigners, and used simpler speech, even breaking down words when I didn’t know them.
Japanese people have difficulty varying from these kinds of scripts in some situations, though I think this is something that is very gradually changing. I almost always try to do customer service related things in person because I hate speaking to representatives on the phone due to difficulties understanding polite speech. Having visual aids and being able to make a confused face in front of the person you’re talking to usually helps them help you better (in my experience, anyway).
Sometimes, though, a person is in such a rush to spit out their obligatory line of dialogue it’s next to impossible to hear what’s said, let alone understand it. For example, I have a colleague that greets people who walk into the office with an obligatory “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning). However, he is in such a rush to say it and affirm his place in the “group of people who do things right all the time” that his “good morning” comes out as “wazza mas.”
This would be roughly the English equivalent of a: “mornin'” or maybe even just a grunt of acknowledgment.
I guess my point here is mostly directed at those currently studying Japanese: learn that script. Not just for a test. You are actually going to use that seemingly boring, irrelevant sentence. And for the love of all things holy, remember your apologies if for no other reason than to recognize what they are when you hear them. Everything from “sorry” to “I am deeply apologetic for the rudeness I have committed” is said every day.
In some ways, having so many scripted situations does make a few things easier – you already know how to respond!
If you want to ask out cute Japanese girls, though…hey, you’re on your own.