投稿者 HakuAi | 7月 6, 2009

適当に? … Ah, what the heck!

I partially dislike the Japanese word 適当.

The meaning expressed by the word is one of those elements of “Japanese culture” that simply cannot be perfectly comprehended by foreigners and therefore needs no English translation.  Even the folks at http://www.alc.co.jp, the free online Japanese-English dictionary that most often contains the words I am looking for, have failed to come up with an appropriate English equivalent of this word, settling for the not-even-marginally-close yet oh-so-ironic translation “appropriate.”

Thus, those of us native English speakers who do understand the meaning of the word learned it not from consulting a dictionary or textbook, but by experiencing the phenomenon in daily Japanese life.  Allow me to relate a few examples.

Some people, if they are fortunate to have a big enough house to fit a large bed, have their own side of the bed, whether or not they are sleeping alongside their “other half”.  But I would argue, based on experience, that almost everyone has their own DIRECTION of sleeping.  It’s so widely accepted that I’ll bet it’s something few people have probably ever even considered.  You have your pillow at one end, usually the head if it is distinguishable from the foot, of your bed, right?  And that’s where you lay your head at night, with your feet on the opposite end, right?  Not for some Japanese (I won’t name names; the person who does this is an easily offended friend of mine) who like to take their pillows and plant them on the end of the bed where their feet normally go, and then proceed to lie down in a way that most people with any concept of space would label as “backward” or “upside down”.  But such behavior could just as easily be labeled as 逆向き or 逆さま (“backward” or “upside down”) in Japanese.  What makes it 適当 is the fact that these people have not decided, for once and for all, to change the direction in which they sleep.  Instead, they switch back and forth whenever they feel like it, for no apparent reason at all; and if you asked them why, they’d be likely to include the word 適当 in their answer, if not its cousin なんとなく.

Ah, なんとなく.  I remember when Ryusuke Ono (definitely not a friend, and common enough of a name not to provoke any lawsuits without any further identifying information) taught me that word for the first time.  I had accepted a date with him because he seemed nice enough and smart (in that he spoke Japanese and Spanish and understood a good deal of English), although he did say quite a lot of 適当な things in his emails, things so meaningless that I can’t recall even one now.  Pure excuses to email me, I supposed, and didn’t dock him too many points for not having anything of substance to say.  But when I met him at his home station at 7, hungry for a big dinner after a long train ride, I was incredulous to find that he hadn’t thought of a game plan at all!  Instead, he said that he wasn’t really hungry and didn’t know what to do, and when I insisted we go eat because that’s what one expects when asked on a date and therefore doesn’t eat beforehand, he finally took me to a fast food restaurant, where he didn’t seem interested in talking to me at all.  We ate in complete silence and after a painful few minutes I finally asked him why he had ever bothered to ask me out in the first place when he didn’t seem to like me the slightest bit even as a friend.  He muttered “なんとなく” in response.  I asked what that meant, and he said something like, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”  Little did I know, the jerk was right!  It’s not something you expect to be taught by asking, it’s something you learn from experience.  And after several more equally random-in-a-bad-way experiences in this country, I did.

As you may have deduced, the very essence of 適当ness goes directly against reason.  So why would the Japanese, among the world’s leading producers of quality machines which are so because they have been thoughtfully produced according to math, science, data, and other manifestations of reason, treasure such a concept?  Perhaps they are so thoroughly exhausted from thinking so darned hard at work that when they come home at the end of a fourteen-hour day, they just feel like doing something CRA~ZY, like (gasp) taking their pillow, putting it at the foot of their bed, and lying down the wrong way for a snooze – just for the hell of it.  Wow!  I think I just discovered the elusive English translation.  Somebody better notify alc.co.jp!

(Editor’s note: After discussing the issue with Rody, our resident expert in spoken Japanese with almost 40 years of experience, it turns out that the translation provided by alc.co.jp is in fact an appropriate [once again, pun intended] translation for the word 適当 and that the Japanese word originally had a positive connotation, meaning “to match the action to the given situation”.  However, he acknowledges that over time the word has indeed come to be used casually to mean something closer to “just for the hell of it”, which he thinks is a shame.)

(Editor’s note 2: I was just making fun of alc.co.jp because I found it ROTFLOL hilarious that they would use the definition of “appropriate” at all.  They do include a few entries among the many variations of the word “appropriate” that are less misleading in modern context, and any translator knows you need to read all of the entries before jumping to conclusions about word usage. I would never seriously dump on alc, as they are still the free online dictionary that has given me the most support in all my translation needs when Rody wasn’t around or didn’t know the English equivalent for something.  I also prefer their textbooks for English lessons as I find they contain the fewest mistakes of any ESL textbook published by a Japanese company.)

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