“Japanese is very hierarchical. You know where you are in any given social situation because the language tells you,” says Matthew Waldman. Waldman is the creator and founder of the inventive American watch and accessory company Nooka. He taught himself Japanese (he’s like that) and in 1986 went to work at an advertising agency in Tokyo for four years. “I learned pretty quickly about not walking through a door first, never leaving work before my boss—certainly arriving before he did—and always bringing snacks for everyone in the office if I brought any at all.” And, he adds, “I was fascinated by the same rich and subtle nuances in the language, and went out of my way to learn them.”
The honorific system
Japanese has many honorifics, the parts of speech that show respect, and their use is mandatory in some social situations. Honorifics can emphasize both social distance or disparity in rank and social intimacy or similarity, depending on who is using what to whom. (The various levels of respectful, humble and polite speech follow similar linguistic honorific systems in Korean and Chinese.)
Each type of speech has its own vocabulary and verb endings. Lots of verbs have three forms: keigo (honorific); hyojungo (standard); and kensongo (humbling).
“Even young Japanese struggle with all the complexity—and nowadays people there are less sensitive,” says Waldman. “But in that case they just tend to sound rude in business situations. People say there are no curse words in Japanese, because the real way to be rude is to intentionally talk down or up with sarcasm.” Thus just as in English you can show displeasure with a friend who is too demanding by saying “Yes, your highness!” so by choosing a higher or lower level of speech in Japanese you can express this kind of emotion without ever having to change tone of voice. “So it’s hard to be rude in Japanese on purpose unless you understand the honorifics and different levels of speech,” Waldman adds.
“Everyone in Japan learns these things at school and at work—there are actual classes in keigo—but it’s hard even if you’re Japanese,” says Waldman. “I have a friend born in New York to Japanese parents who’s always talking about going to live in Japan—and I keep telling her she’d upset everyone; she has no notion of this aspect of using the language.” One of Waldman’s employees, who was schooled in Japan and then moved to New York for a few years, decided at the age of 21 that he was homesick and wanted to return. But he’d been in America too long. “He was berated all the time for being rude,” says Waldman.
Waldman has offices in both Tokyo and New York and travels back and forth frequently. When he comes back to NYC, he says, he feels “an incredible relief to turn it off psychologically. Here it takes two hours to figure out what it might take two years there. It’s freeing to be in New York, where it’s easy to tell who is nice and who is an asshole!”
Please be nice to me!
Yoroshikuonegaishimasu tests the honorific system to the max. What Waldman likes about the word is not only that it’s impossible to translate into English without a lot of context, but that it also conveys different meanings according to the situation, the speaker, and the person being spoken to.
The literal translation of yoroshikuonegaishimasu is “I beg (or pray or plead) for a pleasant (outcome),” or, as Google Translate has it, “I beg you to be kind to me”—which breaks down into its component parts of yoroshiku (an adjective meaning “favorable”) onegai (the noun “wish”) and shimasu, the suffix that makes “wish” a verb. “You can translate it as wish, says Waldman, “but really it’s pleading or begging. The usage implies that something is being asked of you.” Yoroshikuonegaishimasu is mostly used in place of “goodbye,” particularly after business meetings; the shortened form, yoroshiku, means “good,” “pleasant” or “fine,” and is used in a more casual way than the long form. Because of that, it has taken on other meanings like “That was nice,” “Thanks,” “See you again,” and “It was nice to meet you.” In fact, it’s used much like “Cheers” is used in British English, although it doesn’t include any suggestion of gratitude.
Waldman continues, “The implication for both the long and short versions of the word is that your wishes will be treated as an important task by the person you’re speaking to, even though you may be using it in place of simply saying ‘goodbye.’ If I’m in Japan and going to visit a store that carries my watches,” he adds, “I would use yoroshikuonegaishimasu at the end of the meeting because I want them to love me. I am humbling myself. If I’m seeing a friend, I would just use the short version, because we are on the same level.”
But then, he says, “Sometimes people switch these honorific verbs—and you think ‘Ooohh—what did I just do?!’”