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Everybody says the Japanese language is vague and imprecise. Japanese say yes when they mean no, or refuse to give their opinion clearly and unequivocally, it is often said. But this is wrong. Japanese is actually an incredibly precise language.
No Subject Stated Doesn't Mean No Subject
It is true that Japanese don't like to flatly refuse; Japanese might say something is "difficult" when what they mean is "cannot be done;" and Japanese sentences often omit the subject. For example:
Kinou, shiryou-o itadakimashita.
Yesterday I (or we) received the documents.
The subject of the sentence I (or we) is unstated, but understood to Japanese by the verb choice itadakimashita. That verb is a more polite form of moraimashita, which means to receive, but more than politeness, itadakimashita expresses kenjou, or humility, toward the listener. As such, it can be used only when you (the speaker) or your group are receiving something, never when talking about someone else.
Hai in Japanese Does Not Mean Yes
It is also true that hai (yes) does not always mean yes. When learning Japanese, a better translation to memorize is "I have heard what you said." In fact, a Japanese accepting an invitation won't say hai at all:
A: Ashita-no paatii, ikimasen ka?
Are you going to the party tomorrow?
Yes (literally, "go").
From this linguistic culture, we Westerners like to think of Japanese as a vague, inscrutable language.
Japanese subjects may be omitted, but that doesn't mean the subject doesn't exist. Word choices and sentence structure allow a Japanese speaker to omit the subject without any loss of understanding.
While it is true that Japanese, for a variety of historical reasons, tend to speak indirectly, it isn't true that they speak imprecisely. The Japanese could not have built a world-leading economy with an imprecise language. On the contrary, Japanese is a language of fine precision.
Japanese Is Super-Precise
In English, the same word often has many different meanings. Even the word "Japanese" can refer to Japanese people or the Japanese language. Most of the time in Japanese, one word has one meaning.
For example, the English word "factor" (meaning element or cause) can be translated as youin or youso, but these two Japanese words do not have the same meaning. youin means "factor contributing as a cause," whereas youso means "element in something's makeup." English "factor" includes at least those two meanings, related but not the same. The separate Japanese words are more precise equivalents. As you learn Japanese, use English translations as a guide, but it is important to understand how the original Japanese word is used as well.
Japanese Onomatopoeia Is Unique
Japanese onomatopoeia (gitaigo) is an intricate system of conveying the nuance of emotion or situation, and has no equivalent in English. A pebble tumbling down the street rolls along "korokoro," while a boulder cascading down a mountain side's movement is "gorogoro." These words alone convey an image that fits each situation precisely and succinctly, whereas the English equivalent requires at least a phrase or two.
Hundreds of years ago Japanese incorporated thousands of kango (words of Chinese origin), and, more recently, imported thousands of mostly English words as gairaigo (foreign loan words).
The Beauty of Learning Japanese
These foreign-origin words, coupled with the native language itself, give the Japanese language a richly nuanced vocabulary. One beauty in learning Japanese is gaining an appreciation for the subtleties of the Japanese vocabulary and the Japanese culture.
Terry Phillips has been involved in online Japanese instruction for over five years, and currently operates Nihongo-Pro.com, an online Japanese school.
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