Translating Japanese politeness

Japanese and English are pretty different languages, and although I’ve been studying it more or less for 10 years (essentially since my daughter was born), I am still fascinated by the differences.  Human feelings and sentiment are the same everywhere, but it’s intriguing how each language approaches how to express those sentiments.  In the case of Japanese, I find its polite expressions or keigo (more on keigo here thanks to Tae Kim) one of the more challenging aspects to translate.

Here are a couple examples I found on my last trip and often see.  These are kind of stock-phrases in Japanese, and while I have come to intuitively understand them, if you try to take apart and find English equivalents, it can be tough.

First example:

go-kyōryōku onegai-itashimasu

To me, the best way to translate this is “thank you for your cooperation”, and usually is found on plaques that warn pedestrians to be careful, or refrain from smoking at such and such place, etc. Basically, a polite and formal warning.

The phrase kyōryōku (協力) means cooperation. Easy enough. The “go” in front of it is an honorific that makes the noun more polite and respectful because they’re asking for your cooperation.

The verb onegaishimasu (お願いします) can mean something like “if you please” and is used in all kinds of polite circumstances like introducing yourself (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) or just when you’re formally asking a favor of something. You’ll often see in dramas where one character bows deeply to someone he’s asking for help and says “onegaishimasu!” in the process.

Except here, the verb is onegai-itashimasu. The itashimasu is not just polite, but also conveys deep humility. This is the sort of thing you might only use when talking to someone much higher ranking than you, or a very formal situation.

So, if you try to translate this literally, it’s more likely “we humbly ask for your cooperation.” That’s all well and good except Westerners just never talk like this because the sense of “humble” and “honorific” just isn’t as strongly expressed in English. Hence “thank you for your cooperation” is more than sufficient and probably more natural-sounding in English.

Another example that might be even harder is:

go-meiwaku ni narimasu no de go-enryo-kudasai

This lengthy phrase probably might be best translated in English as “please refrain from (annoying others by doing) X”.

Whoa, all that for 3 words in English?

Let’s break it down. First, the word meiwaku which means something annoying or a nuisance. Again, as we saw above, the leading particle “go” is added because they are speaking to you the customer, passenger, etc and therefore it should be more polite and honorific.

The next part of the sentence, ni narimasu no de, is just normal Japanese grammar meaning “because it becomes …” but the narimasu here also expresses state, so “because it’s a …”. In this case, “because it’s a nuisance…”.

The next part of the sentence, go-enryo-kudasai, is another phrase you see a lot in Japanese and just means “Please refrain from”. The word enryo means to refrain or restrain oneself and often times you’ll housewives and nice old ladies tell you something like “enryo shinakute ii” or something like that when offering treats. They’re telling you don’t be shy and help yourself. As with meiwaku and kyōryōku, this is a noun, you so can make it polite by prefixing it with “go” because of your target audience.

Kudasai is probably one fo the first things you’ll learn in Japanese and is one of many ways to say “please”, and one fo the most useful. In polite Japanese, when you’re suggesting something to someone, like “come into the house”2 or “take a look”2 rather than saying “please do X” like in English, instead you often say “go-(noun) kudasai” or sometimes “o-(noun) kudasai”. It has the same nuance as “please do X”, but is grammatically quite different because there’s no actual verb in the sentence.1As with the previous phrase we looked at, even if you translate literally though it doesn’t sound that natural in English where it is sufficient to say “please don’t do X” or more politely “please refrain from X”.

Anyhow, Japanese, like all languages, has its own internal logic, but that logic may be very different than one’s own native language, and so it can be hard mechanically translate things from one language to another.  The key is getting enough exposure to intuitively understand what is being said, because then you can find a suitable feeling or expression in your own language.

Good luck and happy language studying!

1 The word “kudasai” comes from the verb “kudasaru” (to oblige) but is not exactly in verb-form here. It basically is just another set-phrase.

2 These are o-agari-kudasai (お上がりください) and go-ran-kudasai (ご覧ください) respectively by the way. 😉


Fall Ohigan 2017: The Power of Guilt

As per tradition on the blog, I like to give a little sermon every Ohigan holiday. Ohigan (お彼岸) meaning “the Other Shore” is a holiday that started in early Japanese-Buddhist history and is celebrated every Spring and Autumnal Equinox which is a comfortable time of year in between the muggy, hot summers and bitter, cold winters. Started by the pious Emperor Shomu, the holiday was meant to give Buddhists a chance to pause and reflect upon their practice.1And, let’s face it, we could all use a little reminder from time to time.

Today’s “sermon” was inspired by a number of Roger Zelazny books I was reading while I spent some quiet time reflecting and grieving. If you’ll indulge me a moment, you’ll see how this relates to Buddhism…

Take a look at this quote from Roger Zelazny’s novella Home is the Hangman:

“Without guilt, man would be no better than the other inhabitants of this planet….Look to instinct for a true assessment of the ferocity of life, for a view of the natural world before man came upon it. For instinct in its purest form, seek out the insects. There you will see a state of warfare that has existed for millions of years with never a truce. Man, despite enormous shortcomings, is nevertheless possessed of a greater number of kindly impulses than all the other beings, where instincts are the larger part of life. These impulses, I believe, are owed directly to this capacity for guilt. It is involved in both the worst and the best of man.”

In the story Jack of Shadows, one of the (nearly) immortal Darksiders named Jack is now undisputed ruler of the Dark Side of the Earth. However, he is forced to confront his own terrible actions by an old lover that he had spurned, named Rosie:

“I told you long ago that the Baron was always kind to old Rosie. You hung him upside down and opened his belly when you took his realm. I cried, Jack. He was the only one who’d been kind to me for a long while. I’d heard much of your doings, and none of what I’d heard was good. With the power you have, it is so easy to hurt so many; and you have been doing it. I thought that if I went and found you a soul it might soften your disposition.”

Finally, Roger Zelazny explores this same subject again in his famous book Lord of Light when the main character, Siddhartha (not to be confused with the historical Buddha) is possessed by the king of the Rakasha demons. In time, after days and weeks of demonic debauchery, Siddhartha’s will triumphs over the demon and he says:

“Know then, that as we existed together in the same body and I partook of your ways, not always unwillingly, the road we followed was not one upon which all the traffic moved in a single direction….You have learned a thing called guilt, and it will ever fall as a shadow across your meat and your drink. This is why your pleasure has been broken. This is why you seek now to flee. But it will do you no good. It will follow you across the world. It will rise with you into the realms of the cold, clean winds. It will pursue you wherever you go. This is the curse of the Buddha.”

All of these quotations have the same theme of course: guilt is a painful feeling that counterbalances pure instinct and emotion. It’s uncomfortable but tends to make us reconsider our actions, and sometimes gain wisdom from it.

Now, a lot of people who come to Buddhism usually do so leaving another religion, and with that, any moral guilt that is imposed. This is not the same kind of guilt I am talking about. This is guilt from without. It is there to make you feel inferior and keep you in line. What I am speaking of here is a kind of guilt from within. This is a kind of guilt that arises from the wisdom of knowing right from wrong, and reflecting upon one’s actions. In another sense, it is emotional maturity.

But even more than this, the capacity of self-reflection and guilt are seen as part of one’s “Buddha nature”, that intrinsic quality that all beings have to realize full awakening and to break out of the cycle of life imposed by one’s condition, accumulated habits and circumstances.

Jōkei, a Japanese-Buddhist scholar/monk from the 12th century, wrote of himself:

If I desire to enter the vast and great entrance to the mind, my nature is not equal to the task.
If I want to practice just a little bit of cultivation, my mind is difficult to rely on.
By means of none other than my foolishness, I know my posession of the Great Vehicle [Mahayana] nature.
If there is not even a state of [two-vehicle] extinction, how could I possibly be lacking the [buddha]-nature?

Living Yogacara by Shun’ei Tagawa, trans. by Professor Charles Muller

Here, Jokei, a Buddhist monk reflects on himself, and realizes that although he wants to a good and dedicated monk, he struggles with his himself to stick to even basic Buddhist practice. This is human nature of course, but what Jokei says here is that the very fact that he reflects on these things and knows right from wrong means he possesses the Buddha-nature, and thus maintains hope for the future.

Happy Ohigan everyone!

1 Culturally speaking, it is also a time in Japan to return to one’s hometown and pay respects to one’s ancestors and reconnect with family. As it is a public holiday, the Buddhist aspect is not necessarily foremost on their minds, just as many Americans tend to focus on Christmas shopping than the actual message of Christmas. Such is the way of Man.

Projecting Happiness

Posting a few, final quotes this week from Karma Yeshe Rabgye‘s book The Best Way to Catch A Snake.  In this quote he talks about the joy of getting a new iPad:

Every time you look at it [your newly purchased iPad], a warm feeling fills you.  You are so happy, your life seems complete.  Then the inevitable happens—a newer, faster, smaller and more powerful version comes out.  You hold the iPad in your hand, but our happiness has turned to discontent.  Why is that?  The Buddha taught us that all sense objects, including these fashionable technical gadgets, are impermanent.  There is no happiness inherent in them; we simply project happiness onto these objects. (pg. 165)

This reminds me of the famous Yogacara school of Buddhism that I wrote about here, here and here among other places.  The main teaching of Yogacara Buddhism is that the you experience is a projection of one’s own mind and ego onto the world (overlaying the raw sensory input).  There’s basically no world outside your own interpretation of it.

This may seem kind of weird, but let’s look at another example.  Imagine falling in love with a pretty girl.  You meet, and as you both fall in love, the world is new refreshing and wonderful.  Every moment you’re together is just pure happiness, and your life before you met her seemed so dull and grey.  The future with your partner is bright and you feel like you’ve finally found true contentment.

….or did you?  (duh-duh-duhhhhhh)

Fast-forward 6 weeks, 6 months or even 6 years later.  Whatever.  Inevitably, you’ll meet another girl that you’ll find hotter, prettier, more attractive than your current partner.  Sure, your partner is great, but something’s changed and you’re no longer content with her.  You two don’t do things like you use to, don’t quite have the same passion as before, and now you’re not happy as you once were.

But did she really change?  Or did you change?  When you first met and all was right in the world, were you not projecting your happiness onto her, and yet over time as reality differed from your projected happiness, did you not start to feel a bit of disappointment?  Now, are you not doing the same thing again but with another girl?

That’s basically how the mind works.  We do it not just with people, but with TV shows, new restaurants, etc.  Over and over until we breathe our last.  Always projecting our happiness onto something, thinking “this is it! This thing will make me happy!”, but like water slipping through our fingers, it always eludes us again and again.

The first step in avoiding a trap, is becoming aware of its existence

P.S. Another example of projecting happiness on something that clearly won’t give you lasting satisfaction.

Korean Woodblock Prints in Japan


A while back I had talked about Buddhist texts in Japan and Korea and in particular wood-block printing. Wood-block printing of Buddhist texts, rather than copying by hand, predates printing in the West by centuries and, in particular, Korean Buddhist temples had developed a refined approach that is still preserved in temples like Haein-sa among others.

While visiting the temple of Kawasaki Daishi in Japan, the family and I took a trip to the sutra room there, and that was when I saw this photo above. It seems that the Jogye Order in Korea has lent a woodblock used for printing the Heart Sutra to Japan, along with an example print of the Heart Sutra (the Chinese writing on the right-hand side of the plaque).

In fact, the woodblock above does bear resemblance to the ones at Haein-sa, based on this photo on Wikipedia.  It’s not clear which temple this block came from, but it would be interesting if it really did come from Haein-sa.  Of all the temples I would like to visit in Korea, Haein-sa happens to be very high on my list.

Anyhow, it was really neat to see this first-hand.



Flowers on a cross remain, marking an ending scene
Damn it all if blood you spill, turn the grass more green…

–Alice In Chains, “Private Hell”

Recently I took some time away from everything, somewhat abruptly.  It all started with a phone call a few weeks back.  My mother informed me that my grandfather, whom I had not seen in person in about 10 years, was dying of stage 4 lung cancer.  Ever since my grandmother had passed away back in the 1990’s,1 he had become a very private person and didn’t correspond much with the rest of us.  The last time I had seen him was when my first child, Princess, was about 1 year old, and since then we had only talked on the phone briefly for birthdays and such.  He had never even met my second child in person.

After talking with both my mother and uncle, it was clear that grandpa was going to be gone soon, and that he was in no condition to see anyone anymore.  The news wasn’t terribly surprising because I knew he was a lifelong heavy smoker, but I had no idea how ill he had become.  When I spoke to him on the phone, he never gave any indication of his condition, and had sounded like the grandpa I had known all these years.

Finally, while hiking with the family at Mount Rainer National Park (and therefore out of phone signal coverage), I got a phone call from both mom and my uncle that grandpa had finally died.  Yet another missed opportunity.

A few days later, I met my uncle and we went through his house together to try and clean up some of the mess and maybe put some things in order.  Since he had been ill for so long, the house had become somewhat neglected despite his best efforts, and it was kind of surreal seeing all the old Christmas cards and such I had sent him over the years neatly stacked up by the fireplace, old pictures of my daughter (his great-granddaughter) and such.  I saw parts of his life I never really knew, like old photos from his Navy service and met his neighbor who had spent a lot of time with him in his final years.

It’s been quite a while since I had lost someone in the family,2 and the particular way in which he died, coupled with the fact we had very little contact over the years really left my kind of hurt and numb. When I was younger, I looked up to him a lot as the gruff, but lovable old sailor. When I graduated college, he gave me a couple items: a ring he got in South Dakota, and a money clip. No one else in the family had cheered me on like he did (apart from my future wife) and it really meant a lot to me. I still have old pictures of him when I was a kid. My wife and I met him once shortly after we got married, and he talked a little bit about his days in the Navy stationed in Japan just after WWII, but before the Korean War. You could tell he liked Japan even if he never had much chance to get to know the culture or language.

But now it’s all gone. I will not get to meet him again and tell him thanks for all he did for me as a kid. I never got to introduce my son to him either. It’s all done. Over.

Between this and a stressful month at work, I just shutdown in a way. I didn’t notice it at first, and was still being productive at work, but more and more I feel haunted by his memory, and no amount of Buddhist prayer and dedication of merit helps that. When I visited his home just after he died, I remember saying a prayer to him, and also many times that following week in front of the Buddhist altar at home, but it always felt a little hollow. Did any of it make a difference?

Since then, the altar at home has been closed, and I have been feeling kind of numb all the time. I just haven’t been able to pick up the keyboard, make another Buddhist video, or even read another Buddhist book or sutra. I just couldn’t give a shit.

Maybe this is all just the Five Stages of Grief, but I guess I still don’t give a shit. I’ve been playing Magic with friends, playing with my kids or reading old Zelazny books mostly. Some days I don’t even really think about him, but then the memory comes back again. But in general I feel kind lethargic and a bit sullen even at work.

And yet, in spite of all this, I wanted to start writing again, and so I have dusted off some of my half-finished blog posts and started writing again.

Not sure what will happen over the coming weeks and months, but for now please enjoy more (possibly a bit dated) posts and thank you for your understanding.

1 Also due to cancer, and she too had been a heavy smoker like grandpa. I remember she died just days after Thanksgiving (I always get a bit moody after Thanksgiving as a result) and seeing her lying dead in the hospital, her face still wracked with pain. 27 years that memory hasn’t left me.

2 The last death in the family had been my other grandpa. My daughter was just a few months old when he died, and we only had one picture of him holding his great-granddaughter.