The other day when browsing Kinokuniya’s Beaverton store (near Portland, Oregon), a book titled “その日本語、大人はカチンときます！” (“That Japanese is offensive!”) caught my interest so I decided to try it out. It was published in 2016 by 青春出版社 (Seishun Publishing Company), edited by ビジネス文章力研究所 (Business Bunshoryoku Kenkujo), and is a little under 200 pages. (Note: the title technically literally says “The Japanese is offensive to adults”)
The theme of this book is to point out how certain Japanese expressions can be considered rude, improper, or at least not ideal, and gives suggestions for more appropriate (which often means more polite) expressions. The examples are categorized into 17 chapters, each about an important topic such as apologizing (謝る), inviting (誘う), congratulating (祝う) and giving thanks (感謝する). Each example also has icons to show what situations the phrase can be safely used in: oral conversations (口頭), e-mail (メール), phone (電話), or formal letters (手紙). Furthermore, there are explanations in the beginning and end of each chapter to help in understanding key areas.
I’ll give two examples (excerpted from pages 34 and 84) to give you some idea for what the book is like, along with my rough translations. Note that English translations don’t really have too much use here since it is the (sometimes) subtle nuances of the Japanese phrasing that is important.
Chapter 3: あいづち・会話 (phrases used in conversation)
Case 3: 自慢話を聞く時のあいづち (phrases used when listening to someone bragging)
(Situation): 自慢話に万能な返し方 (all-purpose way of responding to someone bragging)
(Category): 口頭 (conversational)
NG (inappropriate phrase): それで？ (so?)
(appropriate phrase): よかったですね。 (That’s nice.)
例文 (example sentence): 夢がかなって、本当によかったですね。 (That’s nice that your dream came true.)
Chapter 8:褒める (making compliments)
Case 1: 仕事の成果を褒める (complimenting someone’s work achievements)
(Category): 口頭 (conversational)
NG (inappropriate phrase): マネしたいですね。(I’d like to emulate you.)
(appropriate phrase): お手本にさせていただきます。(Please allow me to use you as a role model for the future)
例文 (example sentence): ○○さんの資料はわかりやすいです。今度、お手本にさせていただきます。 (Your materials are very easy to understand. Please allow me to use you as a role model in the future)
For someone who hasn’t lived in Japan and had little experience with business Japanese, this is a treasure trove of information that can potentially be very useful. The book’s organization makes it easy to just read a page or two at a time without requiring a big chunk of time.
Having said that, the examples range widely from those that are only useful in very specific circumstances, those that useful to a large number of situations, and those that seem forced or obvious. A few even seem over-polite or use Japanese that does not seem to be in common use (especially the ones in the ‘formal letter’ category). Surely, even among native Japanese people there will be a wide range of opinions as to the suitability of each expression that will depend, in part, on the generation they were born in. But I trust the content in this book, which was written fairly recently, by and for native speakers, much farther than I would the average Japanese textbook, where you can sometimes find stale expressions. (One of the reviews of this book on Amazon Japan refers to how the book contains some out-of-date expressions, but there is not enough reviews to be statistically significant).
For that reason, I don’t think it would be wise to just memorize these and use them indiscriminately. Rather, write down and commit a few to memory that you think might be useful, and if the chance comes up you can try them out cautiously. Be sure to observe the other person’s response and try to determine if the phrase helped to further the topic at hand. Also keep in mind that tone is voice is very important and can effect how you are received by those you are speaking to. (For example, imagine how a difference in intonation can make the phrase ‘That’s great!’ sounds either genuine or sarcastic).
If you are using business Japanese on a daily basis while living in Japan, you will surely pick up appropriate phrases on your own (eventually), and that type of real-world experience is undoubtably more valuable than a book. But, having said that, if you are considering starting a job where you expect to use Japanese frequently in a business or other formal situation, I think this book can give you a really good start. Of course, you’ll need good Japanese fundamentals such as grammar and the ability to read katakana, hiragana, and kanji. I’d say you need at least a year or two of intensive Japanese study before this book would be palatable for you due to its difficulty in terms of kanji and vocabulary.
For me, although I don’t use formal Japanese too often (one exception is when talking to authors to get their permission to translate their works), I found this book very informative, and it gave me a unique view into Japanese’s culture of politeness. While I’ve read through the book once from cover to cover, I’m considering going through it again and taking notes on a handful of the most useful expressions. If I do that, I may generate another post from that content.