February 13, 2012

It sounded like a good idea

Taken offense takes many forms. Japanese very often simply do not get the English concept of "vulgarity" as it relates to language, hilariously illustrated here. And for reasons other than meanings getting lost in translation.

Take the ubiquitous kuso. It translates as "(bull)crap" or "(bull)shit," depending on whether it's uttered by a kid or a gangster. Why, a Japanese might logically ask, have two words that mean exactly the same thing?

Though if you're referring to what bears do in the woods, it's fun (rhymes with "spoon").

As Peter Payne points out, only the "c" word is guaranteed to be bleeped. Widely self-censored is the old word (穢多) for Japan's feudal outcasts, which has since gone through a rigorous "euphemism treadmill."

(A fascinating parenthetical about the evolution of the latter can be found here.)

I saw a interview with Brad Pitt on NHK, accompanied by an excerpt from Moneyball that included several expletives the FCC would frown upon. Nothing was bleeped. (Often true of foreign coverage involving bleep-worthy expletives.)

Why should they be? There's nothing intrinsically offensive about a collection of phonemes (as opposed to certain bodily noises). Japanese are drawn to them for the same reason NBA stars tattoo kanji on their forearms.

Because it's cool!

In this case, the phonemes were intended as an (all things considered, pretty clever) alliterative pun on fukubukuro ("lucky bag"). A fukubukuro is a grab bag of overstocked items sold at a steep discount on New Year's Day.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
2/15/2012 5:57 PM   
On the other hand, one point of vulgarity is to offend. The Japanese have invented plenty of ways to do that.

I suspect that navigating the minefield of Japanese protocol is much more difficult than figuring out when to censor your language.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
2/16/2012 11:56 AM   
Indeed. The most common "fighting words" in Japanese attack a person's status within the social hierarchy. Even in the course of everyday life, dire offense can be taken over the improper use of an ordinary pronoun. No surprise, then, that over 800 "Honorifics for Dummies" type books are listed on Amazon-Japan.