Tuesday, March 28, 2006


TELL ME ABOUT IT


I've been trying to teach Japan to swear for decades now, without any sign of success; it's hard to carry on with a string of internationally colorful epithets when no one understands any of it; the fun all leaks out somehow.

The fine art of swearing is the lifeblood of most societies, especially developed ones, like the US, say, or Italy, France -- Spain has a lot of really good stuff too. But in what would otherwise be the ideal situation for voluminously venomous vituperation, even the best stuff I've got, verbiage that would summon steam from the ears of a New York cabbie (I do my best stuff in NY) or generate a very capable counterflow from a French postal worker, falls flat in the face of the vast fluff of politeness that prevails here in Japan, where no one swears, even for fun.

Tourism Australia seems to have encountered the same problem, though I would have presumed they'd been here long enough to know better; they must have caught a Tokyo rush-hour train at some point in time. Anyway, they unwisely chose to use a couple of pabulum-level swear words in an ad campaign to attract Japanese tourists, but nobody here seems to get it. Apart from the fact that saying such a thing is, well, impolite (I can hear touristic mother-in-laws all over Japan saying, How could one ever make such a basely offensive utterance when inviting an honored guest? Unthinkable!), Tourism Australia seems to be unaware that the swearword vocabulary in Japan remains at the prenatal level, despite my years of effort.

There are, of course in Japan, as everywhere else in the world, any number of private occasions on which a lengthy and well-arranged parade of epithets would be right at home, at least theoretically, as when in my case I'm fighting a tight lugnut or hammering a lot of nails, or when in my garden I kneel on a chestnut burr or find my onions gone and such like moments, when I'm going one-on-one with the cosmos.

In public situations as well, such as at immigration or when I get an elbow in the kidney on a rush-hour train, a spontaneously selected American blend of colorful nouns and suggestive verbs - often with a soupcon of French, a staccato of Italian or some flaming Spanish (I even have some good Turkish stuff) - does the pressured spleen a world of good, but even in social settings here my swearing is purely unilateral; thus, half the effect, indeed the far more important half, is missing. This is even true with the large databank of gestures I bring individually to bear as appropriate; the other party just looks at me with puzzlement. No fun at all. So I've pretty much given up swearing in public here (excepting reflexive monosyllabics), I mean, what's the point, if no one is offended.

Hell, you'd think an organization like Tourism Australia would know better by now; they have a bloody Embassy here, for #$%&!sake!


In radical contrast...

9 comments:

Joy Des Jardins said...

That's #/?&(#%@! heartbreaking Robert. What are the chances of you losing the ability to express yourself through this art form altogether? I say, if you have no audience to play to or to appreciate your efforts...take moments out of your day, find a quiet spot somewhere, and let 'er rip. Just to keep your hand in. Otherwise, how in the world will you effectively communicate with all of us back here in the states? How could we take you seriously? Besides,who knows the possible physical and emotional damage you may yet meet attempting to stiffle that which you honed and nurtured all those glory years growing up.

Robert Brady said...

Yes, Joy, thank you for your concern, it is a deep problem. Extended periods of vituperative deprivation can take a heavy toll at my age. I do get some practice on the crows and monkeys though, and the occasional deer around here, so I still have something of an edge left for my trips back to the states, which can be embarrassing at first, when the old epithets just seem to lack that necessary impact. But I get it back pretty fast, it's sort of like riding a %&$#&!! bicycle.

butuki said...

Someone has finally voiced my own !#$%&"#$% frustration when the words just come flowing naturally out of my mouth here. In the midst of some heated arguments, in which I always lose to my much more headstrong and logical, but imminently polite Japanese wife, I always attempt to conclude the tiff with a definitive, "Well, then just f-$#@ it all. Even 12 years later she still manages a shocked expression. "How can you SAY such terrible things?" I don't know. How can you manintain politeness when you've just smashed your finger flat with a hammer?

Swearing in public here is beginning to take, though. I was on a crowded train going home about three months ago when this Japanese business man, joking around with two frineds, jostled me a little bit too often. I turned to him and politely asked him, in Japanese, if he could move a little bit less. In English he said in a loud enough voice for everyone in the car to hear, "F-$#@ you!" Now coming from a Japanese mouth, in public, in a place where no one swears, that was more shocking than any invective I ever got in New York, Boston, London, Frankfurt, or Madrid!

Chancy said...

Robert

"You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe!"
-----------------------------------


(Taken from: Henry IV, part 2)


http://www.pangloss.com/seidel/Shaker/index.html?

Robert Brady said...

Butuki: Shocking! Absolutely shocking! A Japanese swearing like that in a public place! But of course he DID have to resort to a foreign language to do so...

Chancy: Those epithets might work; I'll try one on the train tomorrow...

M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) said...

Whenever I read "Gone With the Wind" I'm always struck by how Japanese the method of insulting seems: snubbing, freezing one out. I love it. It's subte and biting. Having a Brit from the upper middle class for a husband provides similar experiences. I burst into laughter the first time he got really mad while driving and yelled, "You peasant!"

Do you really want to live in a society where every other word is fuck? It doesn't have any shock value any more and the result is boring and unimaginative. (Compare the dialog in movies from the 1940s to movies of the 1990s.)

Spewing expletives is egocentric...the words pour out of your mouth in a self-centered rant. You lose yourself in words, don't you? In a language like Japanese which relies so much on empathizing with the listener and choosing the correct forms appropriately, I don't see how American-style cursing can catch on. It's too coarse...and I mean that in the true sense of the word. It just doesn't hit the mark accurately.

Robert Brady said...

The type of swearing I speak of is more of a creative endeavor, suited to the situation. Saying 'fuck' every other word is just a form of slow brain death. Similarly, its growing casual use in the US is a sign of deeper linguistic deterioration, a shortcut from noplace to nowhere. 'Traditional' Western swearing will never catch on in Japan because here it really makes the individual stand out. And that's about all it does. It still feels good on inanimate objects though, when it is a great (and organic) reliever of stress, if artistically delivered.

M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) said...

Well maybe traditional Western swearing has never caught on in America, either. The only thing I can think of along these lines is the wonderful rant by Chevy Chase in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation". I laugh everytime. It goes something like this.

"And I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat-assed, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spineless, worm-headed sack of monkey shit he is! Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where's the Tylenol™?!?"

Robert Brady said...

Now if I could just figure out how to say that effectively in Japanese...