I am not worthy… SUPERFICIALLY Posted by eriko1 on Jun 17, 2021 in Culture, Traditions
One day, my Japanese friend who was my classmate at grad school told me “Your bag is very nice.” And I said, “I got it on sale (セール se-ru).”
What would you have responded to?
Have you told a compliment (称賛 shosan) to your Japanese friend, and have you heard a similar response from your friend? When I told my friend that I had gotten my bag on sale, she started laughing. She said, “I have been noting your responses to my compliments for my project.”
I was always looking at the English language, like teenage vernacular in Southern California, so I just did not pay much attention to Japanese or my own Japanese speech until then. Like so many Japanese people, as it turned out, I could not accept compliments.
“I got it on sale.”
“It was cheap.”
“It is old.”
“I got it free.”
Since the old days, the Japanese have considered bragging (自慢する jimansuru) as bad taste (品のない hin no nai). I have been a “good for nothing & lazy (怠け者namakemono) daughter” outside of my family, according to my parents. It is called HERIKUDARU (verb) (謙る). A quick online search says it means “to humble”. More precisely, I would say that you lower yourself to show respect (尊敬 sonkei) to a listener. For instance, take the word 愚息 (gusoku). Your parent may introduce you to others “this is my愚息.” 愚息is commonly accepted as “my stupid son,” however, some argue that it does mean “I” the parent is stupid, and this is this stupid’s son.
A similar expression is “豚児” – a pig child (tonji). Fortunately, it is old, and I have never heard this expression being used. But it can be used for both genders, and unlike 愚息, who is a pig is a child clearly, not the speaker. According to Waraeru Nihongo Jiten, it originated in China, but the expression was too bold to become popular in Japanese society that favored more subtle (微妙な bimyona) expressions.
So let’s apply this social rule to a compliment – you lower yourself to respect the other.
“Your bag is very nice.”
“It was on sale.”
I am implying “the bag is cheap because I am not worthy of (〜値する〜ataisuru) having a nice bag. You need a listener for you to “herikudaru,” and the subject is always “I”.
When we give a gift, we ALWAYS used to say, “Please accept this trivial, useless thing.” In Japanese, 「つまらない物ですが」(tsumaranai mono desuga). The reference does not mean that the gift is a useless thing, rather it means the receiver is too good for anything or “I am not qualified to choose a good item.” Again, the speaker (giver) is lowering oneself to respect the receiver. However, it is common, among most Japanese, to interpret it simply as “Here is a useless gift.” So this custom of saying 「つまらない物」is dying as the Japanese culture is slowly but steadily changing – “Why do you give me what you think is useless?” Of course, among good friends, we always could say “Here is something for you – you will love it!” or “It took a long time to find this for you!
Since my friend told me about her research, I started to pay more attention to Japanese, including my own speech, and also my non-Japanese friends’ non-Japanese replies to compliments. And you know what? Some non-Japanese friends had the same humble responses regardless of their background. And in the business setting, I noticed our Japanese visitors (訪問者 houmonsha) did not refer to their gift as a “useless” thing but more appropriately “You may have it already” or “It is from our region.” These are exactly what American experienced international business persons use. So the world may be shrinking culturally.
On a side note, parents do not say to their sons and daughters that they are “stupid sons” or “lazy daughters.” These expressions are used only for those outside the family to show respect. But it is not really nice to hear, as a child, that your parents are introducing you to a stranger, “this is our stupid son.” I have to believe this must be one of many reasons that the self-esteem (自己肯定度 jiko kouteido) of Japanese children is the lowest in 6 cities in the world.
If you hear a Japanese parent introducing his/her child as “stupid son,” don’t take it literally!
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