21 September 2008

Top 10 Japanese Words that ALTs Use In Casual Conversation (Part 2)

Part two of my top 10 list of most common Japanese words used by foreigners in Japan. I hope you enjoy!

Konbini [kon-been-ee]
- noun

Ever wish there was a place where you could buy such things as snacks, stationery, a bottle of French wine, concert tickets, some lunch, DVD movies, clothing, video games, umbrellas, and "love magic", and where you can even pay your bills; all in one convenient store? Try 7-11, Lawson, AM-PM Mini Mart, Family Mart, or one of the many other fine Japanese konbini.

Yes, I know 7-11 exists outside of Japan. In fact, most of the Japanese konbinis started off life as American companies, then were bought by Japanese companies, but in Japan they're unbelievably highly competitive, doing very specialized and localized market research which they call "Dominant" (yes, an English adjective), and end up being something else altogether. So much so, that they go beyond the North American image of a "corner store" and little by little has become... the konbini!

[Origin: Japanese コンビニ, itself from the English convenience store]

Gaijin [gahy-jin]
- noun, adjective, interjective

I've been in Japan for about a year, and I'm willing to guess that anyone who knows a smattering of Japanese phrases has come across this one already, so I won't go into the details of the nuances or etymology beyond the meaning "foreigner", except that it's a shortened form of gaikokujin, or "person-from-a-foreign-country". And, it's pretty rude. And Japanese people say it all the time. And the Japanese people that use this shortened form of gaikokujin would be horrified if they I used the shortened forms of "Nipponjin" or "Japanese".

And let's not even get into nanban chicken.

All this, of course, does not stop the gaijin community from using "gaijin" in every other sentence. In fact, just the other day I was in Fukuoka with my gaijin friends and spotted some strange, suspicious, possibly criminally-active foreigner-looking gaijins coming our way and I said, "Goddamn, there're a lot of gaijins here!" with a bit of autoxenophobic excitement.

I personally used the word "gaijin" 46 times today. I counted.

See also: Gaijin Smash.

[Origin: Japanese 外人, itself a contraction of 外国人]

Eki [ey-kee, ek-ee]
- noun

Train station. I don't know why we use this particular Japanese word since Japanese train stations closely resemble their Western equivalent, but maybe because very few of us had lives so intimately connected to a mere train station. Ever wake up at 6:15 AM to be on time for a lonely commuter train? If you have, you feel my pain. Pushing through a noisey, hostile crowd of uniformed students, barely (and sometimes not) avoiding hitting your head on handle bars which are all at a painfully low six-foot level -- pushing through just to get out at your stop...

At the same time as I associate the eki with so many terrible things, it's also the home of plenty of good memories, so what can I say? I love my eki.

[Origin: Japanese ]

- noun

Ever feel like sitting in a bit bathtub filled with sulphuric water, ass-naked with a few of your best mates? Well then you'd best to Japan, me son! This is at first the most uncomfortable thing in the world, but after a couple of times, it stops being anything of an issue and becomes one of the most relaxing things to do on a Sunday afternoon. Especially if you're sipping a beer and are outside in the warm water on a cold winter day staring off at the mountains. Said to be quite healthy too.

The first time I went to an onsen was at the very end of operating hours, and as we were leaving, a security guard came to ask my naked self to bend over and pull out the big onsen bath plug to let the water out for the night. Awkward!

[Origin: Japanese 温泉]

- noun

Keitais! Teacher, mother, secret lover. While you Westerner types are spending X amount of dough on Blackberries per month ($100+?), my little keitai -- the Japanese word for "cell phone" -- was the smallest of the small and cheapest of the cheap, and it combines an ordinary phone with a dedicated e-mail client, web browser, mp3 player, video player, digital camera, digital video camera, dictionary, calculator, etc. Behold(!):

Much like Golem from Lord of the Rings, I love and hate my keitai. I love it because it's fairly useful for communication, but really because it's an endless source of entertainment. Get bored? Send an innane e-mail to all my friends. I hate it because, aside from brain tumors, and for that matter a tumor on my thigh where my pocket is, it's annoying! First of all, I use it as an alarm clock, with it's handy mp3 player playing Kid Koala's "Like Irregular Chickens" (starting at the one minute point) and so I associate it with waking up at 6:15 for crowded commuter trains, but also, it's like a computer in every way, but much less convenient. I don't LIKE typing e-mails with my thumbs, damn it! Lastly, I got that ultra-slim model. The purple one on the top right, actually, because I thought it was dark brown in the muted lighting of the store, and I think dark brown electronics will eventually replace the white lacquer look that Apple's been pushing, so might as well get behind this one now. But I got the smallest phone they had, because my goal was a phone the size and shape of a credit card, and the only drawback, or at least the principal drawback is, I have to endure all manner of folk telling me "It's cute that such a big man has such a small keitai." Pff! Whatever. At least I'm not overcompensating for anything.

I know this is a "top 10" list, but I didn't number them, let alone choose a favourite. Have a favourite? Post a comment and tell me which! Also, I put two movie and two TV references in this post: figure out which, and I'll buy you a beer.


AzzidisRidden said...

Hmmm. There are a bunch of schools of thought on just how offensive "gaijin" actually is.

I think, like much of the Japanese language, it's all in the context. "Inakamono" is a word that can be used as a badge of pride, or in an extremely insulting manner. By the same token "baka" can be playful, utterly harmless, and fighting words, all depending on how it's said.

I wouldn't think twice if any of my Japanese friends or acquaintances referred to me as gaijin (because, like you, it's how I label myself)... and how many times have you heard "Gaijin-san?"

I kind of think the people who insist on always being referred to as "gaikokujin" are taking it too seriously.

Michael said...

Hey man-- Jeff, right?

I'm sure that Japanese people are aware that it's a at least a rude word to use. Sometimes students will use the word to me and I'll just say with a smile, "gaijin??" and they'll clear their throat and go "Ah, gaikokujin!"

And I've had a certain sensei say merrily to the students, Gaijin dakara eigo ga jozu desu ne!" My thought was not, "Don't worry Michael. He's just being nice!" It was "You f---ing ignorant c-nt!"

It's like saying "Oriental", or really any blunt labels like "black" or "Jew", where it largely depends on the context and intention of the speaker whether it's a mild racial epithet or not.

But in the same way as we are and always are gaijin, it's an uchi-soto thing. People in my in-group talking about other in-group members, fine by me. People outside of that group and I wonder about their intentions.

Wow... long response.

Anyway, thanks for the comment!

Phinehas said...

Yo, Mike, nice blog. I always appreciate the thoughts/experiences.

Re: the whole "Gaijin" thing, I tend to agree with Jeff's assessment. It seems to me that the word itself only has as much angst power as the person speaking it will give it. I've heard kids innocently use it b/c that's the best way to describe this foreigner who they don't know - but there' no way they mean anything maliciously. People who would go on believing that have become very paranoid.

There's another side to the coin as well - why do we refuse to be called gaijin when the things we say and the things we do can sometimes be very gaijin-like? You and I have both seen (and been a part of) loud groups of foreigners who use their "gaijin-powers" to their advantage. Sometimes it's necessary - noobs just can't communicate the same way as someone who's been here a few years - but at other times it's just brash and outright disrespectful. No wonder the stereotype is perpetuated.

It's cliche, but the one thing we can control is our attitude about it all. Recently a few of us stayed at a business hotel, and we had to give them the key to our car (standard practice for anyone using the parking lot) - the next day when we got the car it had the label "gaijin 3-nin" on it. It was kind of hard to tell simply from the label what the intent was - so should we have been angry and said something or should we just let it go?

Anyway, just some quick thoughts on it all. I find the word has only as much effect as we let it have on us.


Phinehas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phinehas said...

Sorry, that last one should've read http://phinehas.tumblr.com.

- Phil

Michael said...

Hey Phil! Thanks for the comments-- it's really interesting and frustrating to think about these things. Maybe I'll make a proper post about my feelings about it. But, until then, basically I agree that "gaijin", or for that matter, any racial/cultural/religious epithet is semantically devoid of meaning outside of use.

Also though, speaking strictly about strangers, I'm not hurt when I hear it, I just can't help think whoever said it is ignorant. It immediately devalues anything interesting they might have to say. They either lack the vocabulary to describe other human beings or lack the upbringing to be polite about it. I don't take it personally, but in the same way that we represent our respective countries and cultures, and like you pointed out, sometimes do a poor job at it, the Japanese people that we meet effect our view of this society, and it's really easy and dangerous to generalize collectively for the bad behaviour of a few people. Hell, after all, I've met Japanese people that were offended when *I* said gaijin!

There are a million "on the other hand" examples, so I'll just leave there.