Not everything Japanese in nature happens in Japan. As it so happens, this happened to me in New York City.
I studied Okinawan karate for many years. I was a member of a group called the Cyberdojo in the early days of the internet when a listserv was the best way for a group of like-minded people to have a discussion. This gurūpu was made up of karateka from many different ryū and beliefs. Arguments would ensue regularly and those would often be the best discussions. Though I was a shoshinsha from their point of view I did have something of value. I spoke and read Japanese. And I soon became the go-to person for language issues. I regularly corrected as politely as I could.
There had been a jiken in my own dojo that had my children looking at me incredulously. Their well-meaning sensei regularly introduced Japanese words. Most of the time he got it right, but one day he said this to the children’s class.
“Everybody must have GERI!”
My son couldn’t believe his ears. I winced. He’d meant to talk about obligation which is giri. Unfortunately he’d mispronounced it and had just told the class that they all must have diarrhea. He expounded on this. Painful.
But back to New York City where I was sitting in the guest area of a famous dojo. I was speaking with the head instructor who was looking for a honyakusha for his book. I really didn’t want to do it. I’d just finished a translation and found it very tiring. But a mutual friend had introduced us and I was feeling the giri. He asked me to set a price and I set it high, hoping he’d refuse. He did not.
At a certain point in our conversation he turned to one of his students and said we should take a small kyūkei and have something to drink. And he asked me what I’d like.
I automatically gave the proper Japanese response since we’d been chatting in Japanese. I replied, “Nan demo ii desu.” This is always the right response. But he wasn’t satisfied. He asked again and I said that I’d have whatever everyone else was having. Again, this is a proper response.
But Kaichō himself was not responding as I would have expected. He asked me yet again. And there we were dancing around each other totally out of sync.
And suddenly, it hit me. Though we were speaking in Japanese we were in America. I was giving a proper Japanese response, but Kaichō was behaving as an American would and making sure I had exactly what I wanted. In other words he was behaving as if we were in America and I was American. Which we were and which I was. Oops. How embarrassing! It had taken me way too long to realize this and once I did, I replied that I’d like coffee with a bit of cream and no sugar. (I would have never said this in Japan and saying it to a Japanese man felt WEIRD.)
And Kaichō was much relieved when I answered this way. Butsukarimashita, ne!
- gurūpu – グループ group (taken from English)
- karateka – 空手家 a person who practices karate
- ryū – 流 style. Used for different karate styles, ikebana styles, tea ceremony styles etc.
- shoshinsha – 初心者 beginner. Literally first heart person
- jiken – 事件 an incident
- geri – 下痢 diarrhea
- giri – 義理 obligation
- honyakusha – 翻訳者 translator
- kyūkei – 休憩 a break, a small rest
- Nan demo ii desu - 何でもいいです “Anything is fine.” This is the politest response to someone offering you something to eat or drink. When you respond this way, you ensure that they are giving you something they actually have available and think is a good choice.
- Kaichō – 会長 the head of an organization. Can also be used as a title much as we refer to a physician as Doctor.
- Butsukarimashita, ne -ぶつかりましたね This is an oops expression. Butsukaru means to bump into or collide with someone or something. In this case, it is in the past tense and the “ne” after it softens it. I used it here to sum up my feelings having done this dance around what drink I should choose!