Watashi and shi

Reading Patricia J. Wetzel's Keigo in Modern Japan: Polite Language from Meiji to the Present, I noticed something interesting in her translation of a passage from a set of keigo guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture in 1941 under the name Reihō yōkō (礼法要項, translated "Important points in manners" by Wetzel). Here's the passage (p53):

For self (jishō) reference, one uses the usual watashi 'I'. With regard to superiors, it is a matter of using either shi 'sir' or the name. With regard to men, it is all right to use boku 'I' with equals (dōhai), but not with superiors.

And here's the original, with kanji modernized:


So, I see two errors in Wetzel's translation:

  1. The intended reading of 私 is surely watakushi, not watashi. I wasn't able to find an original printing of Reihō yōkō to check for furigana, but a flurry of books based on the Ministry's guidelines in 1941-1942, and they all agree that it is watakushi. My general understanding is that in 1941, watashi was still considered rather informal. (It wasn't new; it dates back to the Edo period, but, for example, the ruling class didn't use it then either.) In fact, I think that the 1952 pronouncement in the Kokugo shingikai's Kore kara no keigo ("Keigo from now on") that "watashi will be taken as the standard form" (「わたし」を標準の形とする), with watakushi designated "a special form for formal contexts" (あらたまった場面の用語) might have been watashi's big break. Certainly, declaring by fiat that the forms that were used when speaking to superiors and equals would, respectively, now be considered "standard" and "special", with no hierarchical implication at all, fits very well with the stated aim of Kore kara to transform keigo from something "based mainly on vertical relationship(s)" to something that "must be based on mutual respect" and reflects "mutual equality" (all translations Wetzel).
  2. The second sentence actually means "When talking to superiors, the surname (氏) or given name (名) are sometimes used [for self-reference]." Wetzel has mistaken the intended usage of 氏 for another usage of the character, which means something like to "the [aforementioned] gentleman" (in turn deriving from a usage which is more or less equivalent to "mister").

Note that I don't intend this post as a cheap gotcha. Anyone writing seriously on a topic of any depth is bound to make the occasional mistake. (I put the chances at about 50% that I've gotten something wrong in the corrections I wrote above, for example; after I hit post, the deluge of commenters providing documentary evidence that watashi was okay to use with superiors.) To be honest, I think this underscores her thesis: keigo is so prone to arbitrary redefinition and reanalysis, so liable to be discussed as a Platonic ideal rather than with reference to the actual current state of the language, that it is possible for a modern scholar to misunderstand the details in something issued to scholars, as guidance, only a couple of generations ago.

One other interesting thing about Kore kara no keigo: it specifically singles out jibun ([my]self) as something to be avoided (避けたい) as a replacement for watashi. Could this be because, as I suspect, the use of jibun was associated with the armed forces and militarism in general?

Popularity factor: 25


What I want to know is, when did the delightful words 小生 and 小職 get phased out?

Vilhelm S:

> forms that were used when speaking to superiors and equals would, respectively, now be considered "standard" and "special"

Should this be the other way around?


Vilhelm: Yes. (I knew it!!)

Avery: Probably also dealt a serious blow by Kore Kara no Keigo! Wetzel points out that KKnK singles out "obsequious humble forms" as an indication that their user, "without even knowing it ... miss[es] the point of their own and others' human dignity." (I once interacted with a man who used 小職 but it felt more like hobbyist dandyism than anything else. He carried it off well!)


Hmm.. I recall participating in a research project, some native Japanese speakers said a variety of sentences containing "jibun" and a group of 4th year Japanese language students were supposed to write down whether we thought they sounded like proper usage or not. I wonder how we did, I never saw the research results. I had forgotten all about that survey. My class of JSL students was treated like lab rats sometimes. I often said that if the Japanese Pedagogy MS students could do their research on how to teach language to students, without ever having to deal with students, they would eliminate students altogether.


I'm rather fond of calling myself 拙者.
But I do all kinds of weird things like say させて頂くぜ.


I'll only accept 拙者 if your copula is でござる。


As I'm sure many people could point out, 自分 in Osaka is second person, i.e., it means 'you'. It's common enough in conversation that I picked it up when I lived there.

I doubt that Osaka dialect was ever a consideration in ruling 自分 to be avoided, but anyway there it is.


Also, I'm a little nonplussed that using one's given name or surname as first-person usage was recommended in 1941. It somehow sounds strange, which is probably more a profession of ignorance than of disagreement. But did people really say (when speaking to superiors) 浩二は同感です! or 長谷川は存じません。?


In anime name-as-first-person is a marker of sugarly cute characters, to the point of childishness, and is often marked as female and/or quirky. Examples include Misa from Death Note, Ed from Cowboy Bebop, Maria from Sayōnara Zetsubō Sensei, Nel from Bleach, Suzuna from Pokémon etc. TVtropes has a lot as expected.

Chris Kern:

Referring to oneself by name is actually still done in some formal contexts; I often receive e-mails from professors or graduate students that say things like 何かありましたら、田中までご連絡ください. I've never heard this usage in speech, though.


Referring to onself would be the best way to achieve self effacement/humbling but at the same time still be 'present' for communicative purposes...


I didn't consider the Kansai connection for "jibun". It seems vaguely possible that they want to avoid it because it's ambiguous, but you'd think they'd say so if that were the case. The lack of an explanation makes me suspicious that it was something hard to explain. (Plus, what about "ware"?!)

Re name as self-reference, like Chris I have seen it in written communications and I *think* I have seen it in "impersonal speech" ("OK, this presentation is over... see you all later... if you have any questions, send them to Tanaka [i.e. me]".). But it's hard to imagine saying a boss "Tanaka/Kenji thinks this is a bad idea, sir."

This could just be because we were all born relatively recently, though. For example, if you look at 解説礼法要項 (ed. 九華会), published 1941, available at Kindai Digital Library), it comments on this passage as follows: "高貴の方に對しては『私』といはずに、例へば『山田は……』などと自分の姓を申し上げるのである。" (And just before that it supports my "watakushi" theory, woo!) So it seems that the idea that you would call yourself "Tanaka" even when speaking to superiors, and that calling yourself "watakushi" to superiors was *wrong*, was at least out there as a prescriptive ideal. (No idea how common it was in practice, tho!)

Petrus Petrus Teaspoon:

Avery: my boss still uses 小生 in his emails. Lovely!


My late tea teacher (a pre-war Japanese immigrant lady) used to address me as "otaku", which I couldn't help but find amusing.


Well, 'otaku' is extremely common in Japan, too, even in contexts like 'otaku no kaisha' as an informal alternative to 'onsha' or 'kisha'.


I like to translate "otaku" as "good sir", so that latter-day otakus can be "Good Sirs". This is only in my head, of course.

小生, on the other hand, is untranslatable-- the closest I could get would be "yr obt svt", but this conveys little of the awe-inspiringly feudal office etiquette that drove Japan through its boom years. (It's not a term veiled in mystery, though. Google it and you'll get the idea.)


you are not stating which side of the agnumert you are on. When you talk about why it is banned the points make it seem like you agree that it should be banned. You go on to say that it is important for readers to understand the contemporary issues that adolescents face. The point of writing a thesis is to show your viewpoint of the issue and mention the points that you are going to expand on later on. Furthermore, the above is a run on sentence, it should read:The Alice Series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is recognized as one of the five top banned books in America for its foul language, sexual content, and unsuitability for young readers. Despite those aspects, it is important for readers to understand the contemporary issues that adolescents face.You will have time to speak about the opposition to your stance later on. You probably should refrain from speaking of the opposition in the introduction.If your stance if that the books should be banned than the thesis could be:The Alice Series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor should definitely be banned on the grounds of its foul language, sexual content, and unsuitability for young readers.If you are more liberal and believe the books should not be banned than you could say:The Alice Series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor should not be banned on the grounds of the importance of readers to understand the contemporary issues that adolescents face, ___your second point here___, ____your third point here____.


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