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How do you address the spirits of dead nobility?

JAPAN | Thursday, 4 February 2016 | Views [252]

On Thursday we actually started Tobira. Which meant I finally had a good reason to be carrying around 800+ pages of Japanese textbooks. The rest of the week must have just been for strength building or something like that.

We’d all messed up on the homework, but we’d all messed up in different ways. See, the homework for Thursday was two-fold: we needed to read through grammar points 1 and 2 and write example sentences on a sheet to be collected at the end of the chapter, and we needed to do pages 3 and 5 in the textbook. One of my classmates wrote the answers to the questions for pages 3 and 5 on the grammar sheet. The other wrote the answers to workbook pages 3 and 5 on the grammar sheet. I got the point of the example sentences, but I ended up reading and writing examples for grammar points 3 and 5.

I don’t think Yamaguchi-sensei intentionally kept us 10 minutes over to punish us, but she did need to get new grammar sheets and explain it better, which had the effect of keeping us 10 minutes over. Which ate up the entirety of the break between Yamaguchi-sensei and Suzuki-sensei’s classes. So, with 70 solid minutes of Japanese and no break, I was expected to review, practice, and learn honorifics.

Yeah, that was definitely not going to happen.

Here’s a complete list of everyone I’m aware of who doesn’t mind honorifics*:

  • Teachers

  • Lords

  • CEOs

You know why? Because they don’t need to use them. They just need to listen as their subordinates struggle with the right verbs and feel smugly superior in their status.*

The idea behind honorifics is at once simple and rather unfamiliar. I mean, English doesn’t even have different words for “you” because you might want to show additional respect to the person you’re talking to. French does, and even that can get complicated when you start questioning your relationships too much. (Well, she is five years older than me… but she was also my host sister for a bit… but I haven’t talked to her much in the past 7 years... ) Imagine how much worse things get when you introduce whole different forms of verbs. Because now, you don’t even need to be in a direct conversation to need to use honorifics. If you’re talking to a friend about your teacher or your doctor, you should (theoretically) use them.

There are theoretically three different kinds of honorific speech. I’m genuinely confused about what exactly those kinds are, since they seem to vary from book to book and course to course, so I’m going to simplify this discussion by saying there are two. When I do that, it also seems to make a lot more sense.

You want to show honor to another person. There are two ways to do this: you raise the other person, or you lower yourself. The first one is truly honorific language, the second is humble language, and we’ll refer to them as such. Now, let’s practice with some examples.

You’re the personal secretary of a CEO at a major company. The CEO comes in, and you want to ask him a question. What type of language do you use?

(If you said honorific, you’re right.) Now, the CEO asks you a personal question, and you answer. How do you respond?

(Answer: humbly.) Now, you’re at lunch and you’re talking to your sister. How do you speak to her.

(Answer: Casually. She’s your sister!) Conversation moves on to your day, and you talk a bit about the CEO. How?

(Answer: with honorifics. But still casually. Still straightforward, right?) Conversation moves on, and finally your sister reveals that she’s getting married. And then you need to go back to your job, but you ask the CEO for a day off. How do you explain that your sister is getting married?

(Answer: humbly. Since she’s your sister, she’s part of your circle, and not humbling her makes you seem conceited.) The CEO agrees, and you get back to your job. A customer calls (I don’t think this is the kind of thing a personal assistant normally deals with, but it makes the example clearer.) How do you address them?

(Answer: Honorifically. That’s how the Japanese treat customers.) They have a question for the CEO. What kind of language do you use to explain that he is currently out of the office?

(Answer: Humble. Because, in the context of you and the customer, the CEO is suddenly part of “your circle.”)

If that all makes sense, then you’re ready to move on. Otherwise you should probably reread the chapter in the hopes that this time, it will make sense. (It won’t.) And all that is just for the general theory. I am not getting into the specifics of how you change verbs, or what you do if you need to change a sentence using a grammar with two verbs smashed together into an honorific sentence. Because honestly, I still don’t know how that works.

I can take some comfort in the face that my roommate made when I mentioned that we’d been reviewing honorifics in class. Even if you’re born and raised in Japan, speaking Japanese, it still isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.

After lunch and a break, it was time for the spirituality class. This time we began with meditation, got all of our stresses released, and then learned that you never mess with Japanese spirits via a story by Lafcadio Hearn. We read the more interesting sections of the Wikipedia article on him (European by birth, Japanese by marriage and choice, with a wife who sounds like a less romantic, more macabre version of Scheherazade) and then read “Mimi-nashi-Hoichi” (Hoichi the Earless.) It is about Hoichi, a blind man who is extremely skilled at playing the biwa and lives at a temple.

One night, while his good friend the priest was away, Hoichi was playing the biwa when he heard a samurai summon him to play for the his lord. Samurai are to be obeyed, so Hoichi follows him to a castle he couldn’t recall having passed, and sings the story of the battle of Dan-no-Ura. When he gets to the point where all the children and women of the Heike clan died, (jumping by jumping into the waters when it became clear they would lose) the listeners cry wildly and uncontrollably, but by the end of the tale, they are calmer, and simply tell him to come back every night for the rest of the week and tell no one about this.

Hoichi does, but the second night they notice he’s gone. He refuses to say where he was, so the priest orders men to follow him the third night. They find him playing, in the rain, in the graveyard in front of the graves of the Heike from the Dan-no-Ura. They drag him back to the priest, who eventually gets his friend to tell him what happened. The priest then explains that he was playing for ghosts, and he is in great danger. So they write words of protection all over his skin, and tell him to be silent when the ghost samurai shows up. Hoichi does exactly as he was told, and since he has the words of protection, he is invisible… except for his ears, which aren’t protected. So the samurai rips them off to show his lord (“It would have happened sooner or later, but I really thought we had a few more nights out of him”) and Hoichi (who can still hear) goes through the rest of his life with a new nickname.

After reading the story, we started to watch it on film, but we only got through some of the introduction, which was a mix of stills of traditional art of the battle with re-enactments of it while someone sang and played a biwa. And then class was over. Still with no homework, which helps make it a generally enjoyable and easy class. After last semester, I could use that.


* I am completely making this up. It’s possible these people hate them too.

Tags: ghosts, honorifics, japanese, spirituality

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