April 4, 2008

Polite sake?

It has been said that there are few cusswords in Japanese. There are some words like baka, aho, however that if you actually heard in person, would shock you into thinking otherwise. The use of baka and aho in Japanese ranges from being a super harsh cussing term to just a mildly sarcastic remark. Just as in English, depending on what type of voice and kind of inflection displayed, and targeted intent behind the word determines how bad of a word it really is. When translated literally the word baka means horse-dear. Baka might mean jack-ass or as it is most often translated, fool. But does fool do the word baka or horse deer justice? It really seldom suffices to translate the word baka into English by translating it as fool.
Translation becomes difficult a lot of times betwixt the two languages. Sometimes there is no equivalent translation at all. O-negai shimasu is a perfect example of a word that cannot truly be understood from a western point of view. It cannot be fully understood with an explanation in words. It must be experienced to understand fully what is meant when the Japanese say words or phrases from Japanese to English because there is no way for either culture to understand the other culture’s view without fully being born and growing up in that country. Golden Grahams, and Romper Room are to Americans what, and pokki and punky kizu are to the Japanese. But try explaining either to the other. The word baka means so much more than just fool. Even screamed at the top of our lungs, calling somebody a fool nowadays in English means buddy or friend more than it means dickhead or asswipe. Baka is a personal term that takes on meaning through the person expressing it. The severity of the word is determined by the tone of voice which utters the two syllables ba and ka. I must admit I only really heard baka said once to realize how much meaning can be contained in one word. I think the word baka is the foulest word in the Japanese language.
I will share an experience where me and a friend were riding our bikes in Saga, Japan.My friend being a hot shot bicyclist from Arizona who was a cocky acne prone American punk with no manners but was very capable of riding wheelies longer, going faster, bunny hopping even his ten-speed and skitchin’ behind Toyotas that had wheels like the Cars at Disneyland and he liked to show off to his ill-mannered very typical of some cocky young American. At a shingou (stop light) I had already crossed and he went ahead and ran the red light to catch up to me who had already passed through. Crossing the street he was almost hit by a car or two as he swerved in and out to miss him with what great stupidity I watched as I fully heard the word BAKA loud and clear come from the window of one of the cars. A young college aged Japanese male spoke loud and clear intending it to reach the ears of all within hearing range. He said, “BAKA” in the most hideous of tone directed at my cocky buddy who I was riding with. It made me sink on the seat of my bike for him to hear a Japanese native use the term baka in a way I never knew existed. Now this was the first time I had heard it like a cuss word but I felt so low and embarrassed for him, I knew then and there, I would never want to be called a “BAKA” myself or have anyone around me be called it neither. Somebody told me previously that baka meant fool but they didn’t explain how much of a fool it meant. There is no way that baka meant just fool. It sounded worse than a two edged sword and could cut through to one’s core and shake it and slice the flesh off of me. So terrible was its use that day and the impact that it had on my future was far reaching. It meant more than just “you fool!” it meant “you f***ing a***ole mother f***ing b**ch” or worse. But it was a very bad word to say the least. So the Japanese do have cuss words, baka being one of them. Other ways of cussing will be explained below. The way of cussing is different but still very penetrating. The way in which you cuss in Japanese is to use low level speech. What we speak in what is called plain form level or lower we are essentially without cussing it could be construed as speaking in a vulgar manner.
It’s possible to sound foul mouthed simply by staying in the lowest level of politeness. The lowest form or levels of politeness can be the same as cussing every other word in English. Like I said words are very powerful, mightier than the sword, so be extremely careful to choose the words that come out of your mouth cautiously and remember to bridle your tongue just in case.
Their are many intricacies of honorific Japanese but for ease of understanding they are usually 4 basic levels of politeness. From least polite, to talking with an Emporer, King, Duke, or magistrate, we can divide Japanese speech into 4 grades or levels that are distinctive in their use and level of politeness exhibited.
Let’s take verbs for example. The verb iku could become ukagau iu becomes ossharu, suru becomes nasaru, dictionary, but also I am a gaijin and not a native speaker. I have heard aho - similiar to asshole or dickweed perhaps. The verb to eat can be expressed in a very vulgar manner or delicately and honorably eaten like the Empress herself. Meshi of Kuu means to eat some rice, gohan o taberu, a little better, gohan o tabemasu, and finally o-kome of meshiagarimasu.

1st level - Honorific speech. The level of highest politeness. In this level you are in essence raising the status of the person with whom you are speaking. Your speech raises them above your own field of existence and exalts their very being. Words are mightier than the sword. In this case Words are powerful to exalt those with whom you speak. Exaltation never made anyone feel bad, and as such usually brings the point of o sewa, their o-tsukaresama, and kochira koso, and other points exhibited or portrayed by these words in Japanes. Honorifics involve lowering yourself and at the same time raising others. is elates them. The feeling you get when being spoken to in honorific Japanese is that you are a member of a royal family. When I was being spoken to in keigo, I felt powerful. It made me feel very wanted or in some sense loved. It also made me feel like I was needed. I felt like I belonged and that they wanted me there. I certainly had a place.

Now with the next level politeness where you have masu and desu. This is more strict and straight polite level verbs, then or an important feature of this royal family. I was important. It actually empowers you. The words spoken make you feel comfortable and you also have a feeling of responsibility that comes with this nobility. Thinking in terms of Maslowe’s heirarchy of needs, being spoken to in keigo would fit the bill of social acceptance and fulfill that level in the Maslowes pyramid of needs. I only wish we had some of this honorific speech more often in America. Here all that is flourishing is ghetto grammar. Shucks!