Fake Your Way Into Japanese, Pt. 1

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:

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.

Filed under: 日本語


  1. Hi, I’m a 17 year old portuguese boy who recently took the habit of randomly saying “sou desu ne” in every response possible, which is all of them.
    Curiously enough I didn’t actually hear “sou desu ne”, rather, I thought I had but what Goenitz from King Of Fighters ’96 actually said on his teleport move was “osoi desu ne”.
    Regardless I started saying it anyway but always with that sense that i knew what it meant and at the same time didn’t.
    I actually found this site by first typing “sou desu ne” on Google’s image search which revealed, amongst other things, a Pepsi bottle fronting a lake background. Switched over to web search to find a page dedicated to sou desu ne…kowaii…
    I thank you for explaining me that it in fact has no meaning, as I suspected.

    PS: A note to Fake Japanese enthusiasts, playing through the King Of Fighters series will give you plenty of sentences to cleverly trick the average person into thinking you actually know japanese.

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