Funny things Japanese say
1. “Could / Couldn’t”
Japanese often misuse the conditional voice, like this, “I couldn’t watch the movie on TV yesterday,” when what they should say is “I didn’t watch the movie.” “Couldn’t” might be correct, but only if the speaker means that something prevented him from doing something - and conversely for the word “could,” that the intervention of something allowed or enabled him to accomplish something. The problem here is that Japanese speakers are literally translating vague Japanese verbs into English. Japanese language is notorious for its designed vagueness. Using “could” or“couldn’t” helps the speaker evade responsibility for actions, or from sounding too forward and direct in conversation. In English directness is a virtue, but it is often impolite in Japanese. Furthermore, the conditional voice contributes to the notion that Japanese have little control over their lives and environment and that stuff just accidentally, unavoidably happens. It’s balderdash, of course but Asians like to think that they live in a world beyond their control, hence the prominent place of Luck, Fate, and Destiny in their religious rites and ideas.
2. "We Japanese”
“Ware, ware” in Japanese. It sounds like “wally, wally.” In English it is grammatically unnecessary unless you are using it specifically to emphasize “Japanese” in a special way. Mostly it sounds offensive from a social point of view because it sounds exclusionary, condescending, elitist, or even racist (which is the usually the case). If the intention really is to emphasize a separate Japanese-ness, we English speakers are left to wonder “Why?”
1) We Japanese are weaker than foreigners, so the number of foreign baseball players per team must be limited.
2) We Japanese have shorter intestines than Westerners, so we cannot eat meat.
3) We Japanese have shorter legs than foreigners, so foreign participation in Japanese marathon races must be restricted.
4) We Japanese have a unique metabolism, so we cannot use foreign medicines.
5) We Japanese have unique snow in our country, so it is appropriate to restrict the import of foreign-made ski equipment. (This argument was actually used by a cabinet minister many years ago to rationalize limits on the import of French skis. Japan has a long history of closed or heavily protected markets and has often used logically tortured and absurd arguments to defend the practice.)
6) We Japanese are unskilled at foreign languages, so Japanese students who have a foreign parent cannot participate in the school’s English Speech Contest.
Incidentally, rules like number six, which is a real and common rule for high school English Speech contests, is actually illegal because it violates both the Japanese Constitution as well as the Nationality Law.
3. "Japan has four seasons”
I’ve been telling Japanese for twenty years that everyplace on the planet has four seasons, but to no avail. It is a strange thing to say for that reason. Arctic climates, tropical and desert climates certainly have four seasons just as temperate climes do, although the weather might change little from season-to-season in some places. When Japanese say that Japan has four seasons they are talking about the weather. Usually when Westerners talk about the seasons they are talking about the position of the sun and the stars in the sky. Although there is weather characteristic of each season - rain showers in the spring, heat and occasional thunder storms in the summer, cool temperatures and autumn colors in the fall, etc. - it is not how we define the seasons in English.
4. “Japanese is a difficult language”
Japanese like to think that their language is more difficult than it actually is, contributing to a sense of uniqueness. Many foreigners play along with the myth of unique difficulty as a kind of crutch to excuse them from trying harder to learn the language - I’m one of them. But I like to point out that even children can speak Japanese - Japanese children, anyway - so it cannot be as difficult as people like to pretend. But it serves foreigners’ often lazy purposes to be accomplices in the myth of difficulty.
5. `Your Japanese is so good”
An annoying reaction to foreigners who speak Japanese, even if it is only a few words, like “ohayo gozaimasu” (Good morning). A common exchange goes like this,
“ohayo gozsaimasu.” Good morning.
“nihongo ojozu!” Your Japanese is so good!
It’s disingenuous and sounds a little stupid, even though it may be meant with the best intentions. Some foreigners complain that if their admittedly lame attempts to speak Japanese are so habitually praised rather than corrected then they are robbed of opportunities to improve.
6. “Japanese women are weak”
Used to explain why Japanese women are kept - literally kept - in the hospital for an entire week after giving birth, compared to just 1-or-2-days of hospitalization in North America. Conversely, foreign women are so strong. Weakness - or strength - has little to do with it, of course, and the expression masks the reality that pregnancy is still regarded here as somewhat of an illness - a“delicate condition” - and that women are actually held, or forced to stay in the hospital so long.
7. “How many times?”
This is confusing, not to mention a little annoying. What is meant is “How much time?” or, “How long?” and it reveals how students are learning how to count in English. Counting in any language is irregular, depending on whether you are asking a question, or giving a statement, speaking negatively or positively, and what exactly you are counting.
“How many times do you go to your station?”
“How many times? Well, I’ve lived here for 20-years, so that’s maybe somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 times I have gone to my station.”
8. “Almost people”
Japanese commonly omit the word “all” as in “almost all .....” I’m not sure why, but I suspect it is a counting thing: different ways of conceptualizing a group and counting units between English and Japanese. Counting in both languages is rather irregular with a lot of vocabulary in each to account for different types of items, and different methods of grouping in different situations (two, twice, second, bi, a couple, a pair, a twin, a copy, a duo, a duet, etc.).