Language as a Cultural Mirror: Holy, Honorable Fatigue

Japanese greasers look like punks, but after they perform their toe-tapping dance numbers, they all slap each other on the back and say, お疲れ!. Even the kids trying to be gangsta (not やくざ) do.

I think one of the reasons I really enjoy studying languages (to date: French, Chinese, and Japanese, with a bit of Spanish thrown in for good measure) is that language represents something beyond our means of communication.  Who we are as a culture is reflected by how we speak.  In German, the word for bridge is masculine, while it’s feminine in French.  Does that say anything about a particular culture?  Or how about the fact that English, despite it’s origins in Europe, is one of the few languages from there that doesn’t even use masculine/feminine categorization of nouns?

There are plenty of data and analyses out there regarding the effect of language on culture, and vice versa, but I thought I’d throw my two cents in using my knowledge of Japanese.

I could go many places with this.  First of all, Japanese people (like Spanish, I think) often drop the subject when it’s already known.  We could claim that emphasizes their community-oriented outlook.  Or the fact that there are about 1000 levels of politeness you can use depending on how you conjugate the verb.  (From “I am a rude asshole” to “I doth speak with the Almighty God, Amen.”)  But today, as I edited my student’s conversations for their oral exam, I was thinking instead of phrases that just…don’t exist in English.  And let’s start with this:


おつかれさまでした、o-tsukare-sama deshita.

Literally translated, this means “You were honorably exhausted“.  I say this phrase every day when I leave work–it’s kinda like saying “Thanks for all your hard work, guys, see ya tomorrow,” but instead it’s overwhelmingly polite.  You can see this in three places.  First, the initial お (o-), an honorific that has no meaning except to exemplify the politeness.  Second, さま (sama), which I mentioned before in my terrible hair joke, is an addendum to names or things like Miss or Sir, but on a completely different level.  Think of it as the Catholic church adding “His Holiness” to to Pope.  So perhaps this could be better translated as, “Oh, you have completed your Holy, Honorable Tiredness.”

Be sure you bow as you say it. That way you can get the full Japanese politeness effect.

This reflects a number of things about Japanese culture.  Foremost is the quality of hard. work.  For example, in Japan, all teachers receive 40 days of vacation a year.  Yeah.  Forty Days.  And if they don’t use all of this vacation, it rolls over into the next year.  So, feasibly, after five years of super hard work, a teacher could take more than half a year off work.  But the thing is…they don’t.  Take vacation, that is.  Because taking vacation means they’re “not working hard enough.”  Or, if they’re sick, rather than taking sick days–of which they also have 40, I believe–they instead use their vacation time.

This is completely mind boggling to me.  (I take my vacation.  I only get 20 days, but then again, my job is super easy.)  But I’ve heard of many an American teacher of English who came to Japan, used their vacation, and was viewed by their Japanese coworkers as lazy and ungrateful.  Potentially even when they didn’t have any classes.

Diligent, undaunted hard work is incredibly important here, and it’s reflected by that phrase, お疲れさまでした*。So if you ever go to Japan, learn it.  You can impress your cab drivers!  (I often say it when the cabbie drops me off.  “Thank you!  You experienced the holiest of honorable fatigues!”)

Anyone you feel the need to “o-tsukare sama” sometime?  Those of my readers who have also studied Japanese, did you ever learn this in class?  Because I know that, despite years of reading manga/watching anime and three years of Japanese in college, I never did.


*This phrase is in past tense, but you can also use the present tense, お疲れさまです (o-tsukare sama desu), for people who continue to work*.  Or, if you have a comfortable relationship with the person you are “thanking,” you could shorten it to お疲れさま (o-tsukare-sama) or even plain old お疲れ (o-tsukare).
**For things you have not yet done, they have another set phrase, よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku onegai shimasu), which I may cover in a later blog entry.