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The Japanese language has no future.

Literally.

It has got a present tense, a past tense, many inflections for each, but absolutely nothing to accentuate a verb in a way that shows it is taking place in the future.

This is not as inconvenient as one might think at first: present tense is used instead, and, when the lack of context calls for it, precisions such as “tomorrow”, “later”, “after” clear up ambiguities.

Sometimes, though, it gives strange results.

in Japanese, “I will miss you” becomes “I miss you”.

In fact, because the closest equivalent in Japanese is 寂しい (samishii: lonely, desolate), instead of saying “I will miss you” or even “I will be lonely”, you say “I am lonely”…

In other news, arguing all day long while walking aimlessly in a city taken over by muddy snow and icy wind chills is about as fun as it sounds.

Yesterday, Jus and I ended up stopping for drinks at Sports Café for a little while. She kinda wanted to check out the All Blacks game and we were also to meet a few friends there.

The night was an interesting one to be in a sports bar, since, along with the important rugby game, Judo finals were on in Athens. Judo being one of Japan’s stronger discipline in the olympics, one half of the place was packed with Japanese fans (many of them still wearing yukatas and jimbeis from their evening watching fireworks) cheering for the Japanese competitors, while the other half was occupied by mostly-gaijin rugby fans rooting for the All Blacks (the place was definitely big enough to fit everybody happily).

Since both girls’ Tani Ryoko and guys’ Nomura Tadahiro brought this year’s first crop of gold medals to Japan, the mood was definitely upbeat. And while I usually loathe most sports on TV, Judo can be really entertaining to watch: especially if you compare a mere 5 minutes of intense fighting and people flying all over the place to, say, three full hours of painfully boring commercial-laden graceless ball-pushing by slices of 10 seconds.

Watching Judo here made me realize something really interesting that had completely slipped my mind up to that point: when I first arrived to Japan, I actually spoke much more Japanese than I thought.

My level of Japanese back then was a resounding zero. nada. nil. If you were to exclude the three weeks of rushed crash course readings and the few notions Yutaka had been kind enough to try and impart on me, I had absolutely no knowledge of Japanese whatsoever until I set a foot in Narita for the first time in my life in October 2002. At least that’s what I thought. But yesterday, I realized that, without knowing it, or more exactly, without remembering it, I had known a whole bunch of Japanese ever since childhood.

See, as a kid, I could not be bothered much with sports… particularly the kind that required you to build some form of “team spirit” and where smashing your opponent’s head in the concrete was not considered the principal objective… if said sport involved the use of a ball, then I downright hated it. Don’t ask me why, I just couldn’t stand soccer, basketball, handball, to say nothing of hell-spawn cricket.

My parents, instead of spotting an obvious display of what would later bloom into my current fully asocial psychotic personality, decided I just needed to have some kind of regular physical activity that didn’t involve being nice to my fellow schoolmates and gave me to choose between judo or ballet dancing…

Well, we all know how parents are: just pick one thing and they’ll give you the other. bastards.

[lang_jp]昨日は日本が柔道で二つ金牌を勝った。
日本に来た時、日本語を全然喋れなかったと思った。でも子供時、ヨロッパで日本語を勉強したの!
フランスで柔道をしながらいっぱい日本語の言葉使った:”初め”や ”それまで”、”待って”、”技あり”、”一本”。これは全部柔道の競技で使う。[/lang_jp]

Ouch.

While I was precisely in the middle of recording a new track, the property manager called and left a message on my cellphone: seems my neighbours are not all dead after all… and some of them are apparently not happy with the level of noise coming from our place.

To be honest, there have been a few early night sessions lately and I might even have left the bay window open, which obviously would not help at all. So first thing I did was drop the level on the amp by about 90% and close every window in the apartment…

Then, there was the delicate problem of figuring what to do with the call, and more importantly with the caller. See, in most any other cases, I would have either called back and apologized or turned the volume down and forget about it, but here, the situation was a tad more complicated than that. Among the many factors worth considering, were the fact that:

So… I was still racking my brain about that whole interesting content concept I’ve mentioned a while back… when I had another stroke of Genius:
why not do a series of posts on the Japanese language! be useful, teach something to the hords of morons who land on this page by typing “furry pokemon porn” in their search engine, appeal to my US otaku readership, who would die rather than read translated versions of their favorite manga, as well as the more serious japanophiles who have had a fascination for all things Japanese since at least “Karate Kid” or “Kill Bill”.
That kind of useful.

Now, before I go any further, just so you know: I do not speak Japanese.

I mean, sometimes I utter words in Japanese. When hunger gets the best of me, for example, or when I need to share my utter displeasure with the shitty quality of the hardware that was sold to me 6 months ago by some innocent salesman from Apple Japan. I would even tend to communicate in this language with friends and significant other whose practice of my native idiom is somewhat even less desirable than my butchering of theirs. With usual reactions ranging from “Dave-san, your Japanese is getting pretty good for somebody who just arrived in Japan last month… oh wait… you’ve been here nearly two years… err… [hides face in shame, looks for diversion] oh! look, here is some natto… I bet you’ve never eaten natto!” to a more direct approach, such as Eriko’s, who usually soberly punctuated most of my sentences with a semi-discreet laugh and a half-hearted attempt to convince me she was not laughing at my Japanese, but with my Japanese.

But anyway, these are exceptions. Most of the time, I just speak in fast pig-latin while making expressive hand-movements and hoping nobody will notice the difference. And it works.

Which is why I am perfectly qualified for this slightly unordinary Japanese course.

See, I won’t be teaching you any fundamental grammar rules or pronunciation tips or even useful phrases: that’s what Google is for, there must be at least 3 billions websites dedicated to teaching you rudimentary Japanese (whether they are all written by people who have more knowledge of Japanese than me is actually quite debatable, but that’s another issue). I will be focussing on something more realistic and therefore, much more useful. I will be teaching you how to fake your way into Japanese!

Why bother trying to learn a language that you will never be able to speak properly when it is so much easier to draw appreciation and praise through a few correctly used tricks. Your average ability to communicate won’t be affected much either way, but with this method, every encounter will be an incredibly more enjoyable experience, with none of that awkward “what? you want to buy an electric suitcase for your beaver?” kind of stuff that you would get by otherwise attempting to speak Japanese for real.

So, now that we are done with this introduction and clear on our goals and expectations (pretty low, I hope). Let’s start!

Today, we will review the single most useful expression in all of Fake Japanese (FJ). If you only must learn one, let it be this one:

そうですね
Romaji: sou desu ne
Pron.: “soh des’neh”

Some people will tell you that Sou Desu-ne means something along the line of “isn’t it” or “really”… But the truth is that it absolutely doesn’t mean squat.
People just use it when they don’t want to express an opinion, or when they don’t have one, or when they just feel like moving their lips without fear of consequences. The fact that it doesn’t mean anything, in a classical illustration of Zen philosophy, implies that it also means everything. It is therefore adapted to every situation. Let me illustrate with this little conversation sample:

Neighbour: 今日はいい天気ですね
    kyou-ha ii tenki desu-ne
    “Nice day, isn’t it”
FJ Student: そうですね
    sou desu-ne
    “Indeed” (alt. meanings: 1) “Really?” 2) “If you say so.” 3) “You call that sweltering heat a nice weather???” etc.)

Neighbour: 日本が好きじゃあない?
    Nihon-ga suki jaa-nai?
    “So you dig Japan, huh?”
FJ Student: そうですね
    sou desu-ne
    “Indeed” (alt. meanings: 1) “yea, kinda” 2) “I’m only here because there’s a warrant on my name in 25 US states” 3) “you bet: where else would I be receiving money to teach my substandard level of English to unsuspecting students? if only my third-grade teacher could see me” etc.)

Neighbour: 日本はぺらぺらです!
    Nihongo-ha pera-pera desu!
    “Oh my, you speak Japanese fluently, honorable western friend!”
FJ Student: そうですね
    sou desu-ne
    “Indeed” (alt. meanings: 1) “yea, kinda” 2) “Ha, sucker.” 3) “Is the conversation over? ’cause there’s a rerun of Gundam vs. Doraemon on the telly, and I would hate to miss it.” etc.)

And so on, and so forth: there is not a single statement or question in the Japanese language that cannot be answered by sou desu-ne. Don’t be afraid to overuse it. I mean, you might need to vary your delivery a little, just to ensure a natural train of speech. Especially when your interlocutor seems perplexed by your latest answer: nothing like laughing a bit or nodding knowingly to remove any ambiguity from your “sou desu-ne”.

Of course, you won’t know much more at the end of the conversation, but at least, you will have made one more solid believer in your incredible Japanese skills. And if anything, you’ll be able to end the conversation and go back to watching Gundam vs. Doraemon quicker.

See you next week for another episode of Fake Your Way Into Japanese.