Contextualization - The basis of the Japanese language

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Contextualization. This is something present in Japanese. For those who have been studying Japanese for some time, this is nothing new. Now, for those who started now, here's a warning: Context is everything in the Japanese language.

The Japanese language is highly contextual. It is difficult to know how to say something in Japanese, unless you know the details of the social context. And this reflects a long-standing concern for order, hierarchy and consensus.

To be honest, this is one of the reasons why Japanese is a difficult language. Because it is a severely contextual language, sometimes a dialogue in Japanese can end up being quite ambiguous and open to others' interpretation.


Is context in Japanese something that difficult?

Contextualização - a base da língua japonesa é o contexto

When translating something into Japanese, you often need to know: the time of day, the time of year, the formality of the situation, the age, the sex, the speaker's social status, the age, the sex, the social status of the speaker recipient, age, sex and social status of any mentioned third party, sex and then the social connections between the speaker, the listener, the sex and the third party. Are they family members? Do they work for the same company? Did I mention that you need to know the sex?

Unlike English, or even Portuguese, where the level of formality is quite simple, in case it is something very necessary, which is rare to say in passing. Even more so in Brazil, we don't have a headache regarding social hierarchies, age, sex, etc.

When we communicate, we don't have different ways of saying "you". "You" it is a word that can be used almost any time, with anyone. Does not exist “Polished form” and “Casual way” in verbs. You don't have to change the "way to talk" depending on the person because in Portuguese there is no such thing. At most, you mean a stranger with "Sir" or "Lady". This accompanied by a "please", "thanks" and "Excuse". Only. 


It gets even more so when in Japanese, you have to “Read between the lines”. This is quite common among the Japanese. “Read between the lines” is the most complicated part of Japanese. It's like walking on thin ice. He wrote, he did not read, the stick ate.

Let me give you some concrete examples of how contextualization works. We can think of each speech situation as having a position on two axes. One is the axis of the social hierarchy.

Some people are above the speaker and some people are below the speaker. The second axis is formality. Almost every Japanese verb is different based on these two axes mentioned earlier. In fact, Japanese adjectives and many nouns also vary based on these two axes.


Contextualization within Japanese verbs

Contextualização - a base da língua japonesa é o contexto

Let's analyze the following situation: A group of friends from college get together to have a drink, and one of them says:

"Hey, I saw our favorite teacher, Professor Tanaka, the other day."


Well, clearly the situation between friends is informal, but Professor Tanaka is the social superior of all friends. As a result, the speaker's language should be honorary, but informal.

So, to say that “Saw professor Tanaka”, it is not enough to simply say “田中先生を見た” (tanaka sensei wo mita / I saw Professor Tanaka). Will have to say “田中先生にお目にかかった”(tanaka sensei ni ome ni kakatta). Literally, the phrase means "My eyes fell on Professor Tanaka". But, translated into this context, the phrase means "I saw Professor Tanaka". 

At this point in the championship, you must be thinking: "Wow, the Japanese like to complicate things." 

However, while there are things that are simplified in Portuguese but complicated in Japanese, the opposite is also true.

Example of this: Let's take the sentence "Although the live octopus is delicious, it didn't want to be eaten." That same sentence in Japanese would be: “美味しおかったが食べられたくなかった” (oishiokatta ga taberaretakunakatta). Literally, "It was delicious but I couldn't eat it". 

Yeah. The sentence in question may seem somewhat ambiguous, however, that would be the answer to the question: "Did you eat the live octopus?" *** (生き作りを食べたますか)

Yeah. Did you notice that in the original Portuguese sentence, you had to use a lot of words? In Japanese, things got simpler. Even more so when the subject that would be the “Live octopus”. Well, this is quite common in the Japanese language. When you understand who the subject is, the Japanese do not mention the subject. For them, mentioning the subject is very redundant.

Okay, to recap. Japanese is highly situational and nothing - not even pronouns or adjectives - is socially neutral. You have to be extremely careful when speaking to someone in Japan. Especially because you don't need much to do badly in a social situation. Just use the wrong word.


*** The term “生き作り” (ikitsukuri) does not necessarily mean “live octopus” but rather, a common dish in Japan that is Sashimi served alive. But the dish can also be served with octopus, shrimp or lobster.