July 20: THANK YOU for reading this column. Thank you for reading the previous sentence, this sentence, and the following ones. Thank you for not printing out this page and lining a bird cage with it. This columnist has decided to adopt Japanese standards of politeness as an experiment today. You see, theres ordinary politeness, and then theres Japanese politeness, which is a different thing altogether.
This becomes clear if you take a ride on the Gomen Nahari Line, a semi-private railway in Kochi Prefecture. One station is now called Arigato, which means thank you, and another is Gomen, which means sorry. Gomen has been around for a long time, but officially turning the pair into Thank You Station and Sorry Station was the idea of Takashi Yanase, 85. Mr. Takashi is famed for his original thinking, being the creator of the cartoon superhero Anpanman, a bean paste-filled roll of bread which fights crime with superhuman (super-bakery-item?) powers. (Im serious.)
The obvious question, at least to anyone non-Japanese, is: Why? Theres no answer to this. Just saying sorry and thank you together makes you feel good, Yanase told the Mainichi Shimbun. Id like this to be useful for tourism.
Imagine the next meeting of the Kochi Prefecture stationmasters association:
Thank You stationmaster: Thank you for coming. Sorry, but which station do you represent?
Sorry stationmaster: Sorry. Thank you, Thank You.
Thank You stationmaster: Sorry?
Sorry stationmaster: Sorry.
Thank You stationmaster: Oh, Sorry! Sorry, Sorry. Thank you.
Sorry stationmaster: No need to say sorry, Thank You, but thank you.
Et cetera, et cetera.
Actually, its very Japanese that there is no indication about what Thank You Station is thankful for, nor what is being apologized for by Sorry Station. The Japanese (like the British) scatter the two terms around willy-nilly to create a general feeling of good breeding. Meetings between Japanese and British delegations often collapse from the sheer scale of pleasantries involved.
However, the rigidity of Japanese communication is loosening in one key area: personal names. For decades, parents have only been allowed to choose names from The Official List of Allowed Names. The result is that huge numbers of boys are called Kaito and Takumi, and huge numbers of girls are called Misaki and Aoi. In 1993, a creative (if insensitive) couple tried to call their child Akuma, meaning Satan, but officials refused permission.
But now 578 new words have been proposed as additions to the list, to be ratified later this year. These include the kanji characters for Cancer, Corpse, Excrement and Hemorrhoid. The government is trying to be non-prescriptive, giving members of the population freedom over their own language.
But Japan is not America. Critics have apparently failed to realize this is an anti-censorship move, and have lambasted the government for enabling parents to curse their own childrens livesquite literally, since another of the new words is Cursed.
Yet the freedom to criticize leaders must also be defended. One thing Japan has developed in common with the West is a refusal to let powerful people get away with saying things which are sexist or just plain stupid.
State Minister for Disaster Prevention Kiichi Inoue said the recent killing of one schoolgirl by another was an example of how women were becoming lively participants in Japanese society. Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki added that in his opinion, arson was a girly crime, while cutting someones throat was a manly offence. Both were criticized for being inappropriate.
Japan needs to learn that the freedom to say what you think doesnt mean that saying what you think is always a good idea. Similarly, being able to choose inappropriate names for ones offspring doesnt mean people have to do that.
But Asia being Asia, they probably will. In a years time, you could easily be making a tourist visit to Sorry Station sitting next to a baby named Cursed Hemorrhoid.
Thank you for reading this column. You may now print it and approach the birdcage.
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