You may never find a people less eager to voice their personal opinions than the Japanese, and I’ve even met a few who claim that contrarily, they have no personal opinions. It’s a quiet and often lonely country full of Billy Bashfuls and Meek Marthas. Sometimes people even squeak, if you lunge at them suddenly.
But if there’s one case in which the Japanese don’t skimp on the gab-gab, it’s in greeting people at a place of business. No matter where you go, if it’s a profit-making enterprise of some sort–and that’s key–you can expect to have the shit greeted out of you by some greet-happy automaton. Greetings in Japanese are delivered in sonkeigo, which is bloody full-on, boot-lickingly polite, and which causes a perfectly decent word of reasonable length like “kue”–the tough guy’s word for “eat(!)”–to morph into a hideous abomination like “doozo omeshiagari-kudasaimase”, which takes countless eons to say completely, and translates to “Please grant me the honorable favor of the eating of the thing, though I am wholly unworthy. Also, might I add that these Birkenstocks taste exquisite.”
Store clerks, waitresses, and bank tellers are required to rattle out these greetings every single time a customer enters, exits, or takes any other type of action. To present an abstract example:
Man: Enters a store
Not one, but every godforsaken employee: Welcome and thank you for the entering of the store, kind sir and/or ma’am!
Man: Pulls out his own chair. Sits.
Server/Bottom-feeding clerk: Your generosity fills me with fear, good sir!
Man: Pulls out a sandwich, takes a bite.
Serve/Bottom-feeding clerk: Please forgive my obscene display of gratitude as I thank you for the eating of the thing.
Man: Leaves without having said a single word in response to any of this completely unwarranted praise.
Everyone: We extend our unending thanks to you, good sir. Your grandchildren and your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be no strangers here. Please lean slightly in the direction of our humble and unworthy establishment the next time you should pass by, that your incandescent figure and intoxicating musk might caress our senses once again.
As a result, these jobs have employees streaming out scripts of praise all damn day like it’s some kind of Southern Baptist church.
Presumably due to all of the fainting and comas this has caused, as well as to the complete lack of sincerity behind any of these words, most greetings nowadays are abbreviated into a single, unintelligible spewing of sound, like a deflating balloon possessed by Satan and speaking in tongues. Example:
Guy: Walks into store.
Underling clerks: Sssss.
Now, these greetings generally sound the same no matter where you go, with the very notable exception of gas stations. You would think that with the barrier of a windshield separating customers and clerks, they might just dispense with the niceties altogether, but the truth is quite to the contrary. All Japanese gas stations have pump attendants that come at you in twos and threes, screaming as loud as they can so that their voices penetrate the metal and glass shield of your car. They wave you into your spot like air traffic controllers, shouting “Ourai! Ourai! Ourai!” until your car’s gashole is perfectly aligned with the pump. Each customer’s arrival is a celebration of life, like Cinco de Mayo. That’s a great thing, especially in this gray, gray country. But why do they shout “Ourai”? At first I thought it was some kind of Chinese phrase for “Come along now!” but I asked around. I’ve heard the facts, sister. “Ourai”, it turns out, is just them trying and failing hardcore to pronounce the English phrase “All right,” which is an abbreviation for “All right, keep backing up your car,” not for “All right, you can stop.” Why do they use this particular English phrase instead of “Okay,” which they have already thoroughly assimilated into their language?
My theory is that Japanese people just love to use English, as long as they don’t actually have to learn what the words mean or how to use them, kind of like how Americans treat French, or how Taco Bell treats Spanish. In so doing, these foreign words are stolen into the Japanese (and American) consciousness and given completely new purpose. Are these words mistakes? In a sense, yes. Are they “wrong”? Well, yes. In a sense. But arguably, the phrase “Ourai” and the phrase “All right” are simply two different phrases, or at least two different mutations of the same thing. It’s easy to say, “Hey, asshole, that’s not even a word!” Especially if it’s some pouty-faced haircut boy, or some guy trying to order a rubiladê. But what is a word? Many will tell you it’s anything that’s in “The Dictionary,” as if it’s just the one book. But to those people I urge, unwedge that elongated pole from your anus and give reality a try. When I was a kid, I often heard people in the know complain that “Yo” was not a real word. Imagine my shock when I learned that Yo! MTV Raps was 33.3% lies. Imagine my shock when I watched Yo! MTV Raps. This unreal word proceeded to spend the next twenty years pretending to be real, making appearances in both text and human speech. Most people didn’t even notice its fraudulence. James B. Regular would say something like “Yo, guy!” and Henry R. Examplesworth would think “Oh, my boy-boy Jimmie just used that word that means that thing that I understand.”
Don’t even get me started on the word “Oh”.
Before you knew it, all accusations regarding the non-word had ceased. Does this mean it’s a word now? That’s the only explanation I can think of, considering human beings still find the need to correct each other as frequently as possible. At what point does something go from being a sound with a meaning attached that everybody is aware of, to a word that people accept as part of their language? I don’t know the answer to this, but I’m sure it’s disappointing.
A friend of mine and fellow linguistic spelunker points out, however, that although English has also adopted any number of foreign words into its vocabulary to suit its own needs, in general these words come from languages of a shared origin, namely Latin and/or Greek. Consequently, most of said borrowed words are used in a more-or-less accurate sense, their original meanings preserved. Moreover, the majority of English’s borrowed words come from Latin, German, or French, all of which are languages of academics; you have to go out of your way to study them (or at least, you originally did). The presence of English in Japan, or in the lives of the Japanese, on the other hand, is entirely incidental. the final, mushroom-shaped events of the Pacific War left in their wake a generation of English-speaking G.I.s who inhabited bars, beaches, and bathrooms across Japan, from Okinawa to Yokosuka (or a place that’s further from Okinawa). As a Japanese, you didn’t have to be some decorated literatus to pick up the basic idea of words like “love” or “communication” or “style”; they were used all around you. But “basic” means “semi-impractical” in this case, and what resulted was an understanding for this language–spoken by a wholly resentable pack of invasive water buffalo–that was as fragmented as the Japanese archipelago itself. Sixty years of filtration through various economic conditions and the wavering state of the country’s balls have produced a society of people who almost instinctively find themselves fumbling clumsily with the English language and not knowing why. The final result? Bizarre, linguistic meat monsters like “nau-i” (nowwy), the adjectival form of “now” (e.g., “Those shoes are so nowwy”) (though it is admittedly and ironically out of fashion), and expressions that just completely miss the point.
“You have good style,” in Japanese means you have attractive proportions–long legs, a thin waist, non-bulbous forehead, comparatively fleshless face. “Style,” in other words, refers to the natural, unselected features of your appearance. The meaning is perfectly flipped.
A roller coaster in Japan is called a “jet coaster,” a jet being a rearward-thrusting device used to propel something, and a coaster being an object which moves without propulsion.
“Training pants,” which are, in reality, pseudo-diapers used to “train” kids to take command of their own urine, et al, are, in Japan, comma, what people call track pants. If somebody compliments you, saying “Your style is so good, you’d even look good in training pants,” don’t panic. Just remember to thank them. “Please excuse my obscene display of gratitude as I thank you for the saying of the thing, of which my ears are wholly unworthy.” Or if that’s too wordy, just give ’em a “Yo.”
Afterword: I’m always impressed by the kindness of gas station clerks in the U.S. But a trip to a Japanese gas station is nothing short of luxurious. The dangers of having throngs of employees constantly screaming at a place where they inject gallons upon gallons (sorry, liters) of flammable liquid into machines that turn on by “igniting” notwithstanding, I’d bet hard-earned yen that no other gas stations in the world offer service as considerate or attentive. At the end of each trip, attendants bow self-fellatingly low, guide you back onto the road, and, if need be, will stop traffic. Say what you will about their English; those guys are ourai with me.