Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Bagfulls of language

When I first came to Japan about 10 years ago, I had a lot of time on my hands and took to learning the local tongue using a book titled “Japanese for Busy People 1 .”

I found it to be a very good introduction to the language, filled with realistic practical examples and clear explanations, but also extremely revealing in the order it chose to present kanji to its foreign learners.
The first two Chinese characters it taught after the numbers and days of the week were 会 and 社, or kaisha (company), a clear forewarning of the importance society places on an institution that many of the hoi polloi have to been seen to prioritize over family, friends and other pursuits.

The glossy exterior of this incorporated mentality is most evident at the nation's retail outlets, especially at chain supermarkets and convenience stores.

I've been picking up bottles of water and snacks from the same chain store in Otemachi every morning for the past three years. The same young woman has been working there the entire time. Yet, every time we seem to do battle.

With a big smile, she insists on putting my Kit-Kat into a plastic bag. With the same growl, I insist that I do not require her putting my fun-sized treat into a receptacle I will promptly dispose of.

Victory in our daily skirmish hinges on a number of factors. If I've had a good night's sleep, I can get in a pre-emptive strike by requesting a bag-free purchase even before I've put my munchies on the counter. She admits defeat by giving me one more regimented "Arigatou gozaimasu" (Thank you very much) than permitted in the AM-PM service manual

However, when the tables are turned and I'm purchasing a bottle of Pocari Sweat to dehydrate me after a beer too many the previous night, I don't stand a chance. She swiftly takes my drink, puts it into the polyethylene and sends me on my way before I can barely growl in protest.
The big events, however, are when we are both on our game and unwilling to submit any ground to gain the upper hand. Her favoured tactic is to completely ignore my request and pretend to be swimming in her thoughts. I counter this with a strategic argument (taking the eco-warrior approach) of "I don't need a bag. It's not good for the environment." These contests can continue for a full 10 seconds or so, before she smugly withdraws the bag knowing she's made me earn my lack of plastic.
Having lived in Japan for about 10 years in total, I find that rather than using the greetings taught me in "Japanese for Busy People 1" such as "Konnichiwa" (Hello) or weather-based chit-chat, the words I use the most are "kono mama de ii desu" (It's fine as it is," "fukuro ga iranai" (I don't need a bag) and "kekko desu" (I'm alright, thanks).
I wonder if the publishers of this textbook have ever thought about altering their opening chapter. I would be happy to provide the explanation. But I'd also appreciate it if someone could tell me why everything has to be bagged in the first place.


  1. haha, we all have our battles! Mine are weekly rather than daily, when I pick up my shirts from the dry cleaners. The lady in the shop feels the need to tell me that she "saw me on my bike going to the supermarket the other day" and that "I like cycling". This is fine, but she tells me the exact same thing every week! The only time she one broke the repetition was to one week randomly ask me whether I like America!?

  2. Let's make a "konomamade iidesu" T-shirt!!

    I'm wondering what do I say in that situation.
    "fukuro ha kekkou desu"
    well, "konomamade iidesu" is the best answer...

    "Eco" is not just a boom. Need to think about the environment seriously. I use a heater and watch TV almost whole day,so I can't say I'm eco-friendly,though.

  3. Well, said! I had to laugh when I read this, because I found myself in the same situation on numerous accounts when I was in Japan :) In fact, YOU were the one who taught me the phrase "fukuro ga iranai"! I still have the Japanese-English dictionary and the Hiragana cards you gave me for my birthday one year when I was still living there.

    Andy-sensei, you always impressed me by how naturally and quickly you picked up the language. Amazing how you were always able to communicate in Japanese with such ease. I studied and tried hard, but I always ended up having clumsy conversations that ended up in a comedy of errors.