Singing the Osaka Dialect Blues

Last night I dreamed I was sitting across a huge conference table from one of my company’s high-level executives. He was in the place of honor in the middle, of course, and I was one chair off from the middle on the other side.

He spoke to me in chatty, informal Osaka dialect. He was one of those “Osaka ojisan” AKA “Osaka ossan,” the iconic middle-aged Osaka guy. Many of my coworkers are Osaka ossan.

Even if you don’t read Japanese, you can get a nice impression from the photos in this article called “Osaka Ojisan Psychology”:

Anyway, in my dream, even when he spoke to me in the most down-to-earth, guttural way, I responded in perfect, standard, humble-polite, women’s form.

I woke up with tears of triumph misting my eyes.

Then my bubble popped.

I’m an eternal optimist, but when it comes to my ability to ever accomplish this feat outside of dreamland, I’m also a realist. Faced with Osaka ojisan talk, it seems I will always slide into Osaka ojisan responses. Not to mention that almost all of the people I work with directly are men, so I rarely hear how women talk in these situations.

My current manager speaks with one of the strongest Osaka dialects of anyone I know, but unlike the archetypal Osaka ossan, he clearly enunciates every syllable. Most of the guys slur their syllables together and trail off in the middles of their sentences with suggestive naa’s and maa’s, leaving their listeners to fill in the rest. Not so my manager. Every syllable is crisp and loud, every sentence complete. He performs his Osaka dialect like a Shakespearean actor.

Unfortunately for me, this adds fuel to my tendency to mirror his Japanese.

“Sugu sen t-akan,” he says. (“We gotta do it right away.”)

In my dream, I would have responded something like, “Soo desu ne. Sugu shinakute wa ikenai no nee.” A nice long and flowing confirmation, feminine and respectful and confident, without being obsequious.

In actuality, I say, “Soo yo. Sugu sen t-akan wa.”

Then I cringe inside. He gives me one of his quizzical looks, and the conversation is no longer about the work but about my odd Japanese. Anyone in the vicinity overhearing me gives a little snort of laughter.

When Americans hear that men and women have different language forms in Japanese, and that people use different forms depending on the power relationship, they tend to jump to the conclusion that this locks women into a subservient role. The reality is much more complex than that.

For instance, women managers can wield women’s Japanese like a sword. One woman in my office, who’s at the manager level, can turn any of the Osaka ojisan in the room into a quivering bowl of jello with a single polite-yet-firm turn of phrase. Gender inequities in the workplace may have kept her from being a company president by now, but not women’s Japanese per se.

I also wonder if the codified politeness forms that make power relationships explicit are one of the reasons Japanese people are often so hesitant about speaking English, even when they’ve studied it for years and have a strong grasp of the language.

The same power relationships exist in the U.S. (I won’t speak for other English-speaking countries), but they aren’t expressed explicitly in the language, or at least the ways they are expressed are less obvious, perhaps more in body language than in verb conjugation. A Japanese person must have the opposite problem from me–of having an innate tendency to explicitly differentiate the relations, but on finding themselves unable to, becoming tongue-tied.

I’ve been asked a lot about the different nuances of might and may, and would and could. As if cracking the code of these verbs would give them the answer to this conundrum.

Well, I’m going to strive this week, just once, to pause when my manager says something to me, to breathe for a second and focus on not mimicking what he says when I answer. Practice, practice, practice.

About July McAtee

American gal turned Japanese "salaryman" for a while. I'm blogging my experiences as my daughter and I move from Silicon Valley to Japan and beyond.
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