The Kimochi Warui Diary
“The last thing you want to do in Japan,” the Professor said. “Is to appear like some idiot foreigner.”
The classroom erupted in laughter.
“Anyone here taking Japanese?” he asked. “Come on, raise your hands.”
Before anyone could, he was already speaking again.
“They probably teach you to use watashi to refer to yourself. And that’s not wrong. At the same time, it’s not right, either.”
My professor was a 40 year-old white guy with shoulder-length, curly brown hair. He paced back and forth across the front of the room as he centered in on his main point:
“Watakushi, wagahai, ore, uchi, jibun… These are all Japanese pronouns, but you’ll sound weird if you use any of them.”
I rarely took notes in “Japanese Culture Through Films,” but this time was different. I had my Pilot fountain pen at the ready for the professor’s next words.
“Let me explain,” he said. “Some years ago, I was in Japan for a conference. While waiting for a train, I saw an older Japanese woman struggling to carry her luggage. I ran up to help her, and when I did, I used my best Japanese to greet her…”
The professor slowed down his frantic pace, ran his fingers through his hair, and took a breath.
“…and I used ‘boku’ to refer to myself. And when she heard that, she stopped. She looked me straight in the eyes, and she said to me in fluent English: ‘Don’t use boku. It sounds like you have an Oedipus complex.’”
The classroom was silent. A couple students chuckled nervously.
“Okay, okay, weird example,” the professor said. Then he revved himself back up to his normal pace.
“I just thought of a much better example. It was during grad school, in Japan. A colleague of mine said he was having a hard time fitting in.”
My pen was uncapped, ready to write down what came next.
“He said no one wanted to hang out with him. He was envious of our colleagues who had found girlfriends. In the classroom, everyone appeared to be friendly with him, but outside of that, they had no interest in him. To him, it was a complete mystery. But if you saw how he walked… How he carried himself… How do you explain it?”
The professor held up his hands as if he was grasping the words as they appeared in front of him.
“He was the kind of guy who spoke louder than everyone else in the room. He had no sense of personal space. He was the kind of guy who couldn’t keep to himself—he had to touch everything as he walked by it. I wanted to say to him, ‘Look around, do you see anyone here acting the way you do?’ But no one in that society would ever tell him that directly.”
The professor stood there in silence for a few seconds.
“Anyways, sorry for the tangent. I promise it’s relevant to the film we’re about to watch.”
I was capturing the last of his words in my notebook. Before he could leave the topic behind forever, my hand shot up.
“About the pronouns,” I said. “You never said which one was best to use.”
He laughed softly and wagged a finger.
“None of them, actually. A fluent speaker will use the context of the conversation to make it clear when they’re referring to themselves.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“Okay, I see you’re confused,” he said. “I’ll make it easy: You’re best off using ‘watashi’ in almost every case—just don’t blame me if someone says you’re being too polite.”
I nodded my head and scribbled a nearly illegible note:
“I don’t have to call myself anything, but if I do, I can be Watashi.”