JOK Notebook

Crappy, Shoddy, and Incompetent

Not long ago, I told one of my proofreaders that I had dreamed about her. The response I received was classic: "I'm sorry for bothering you in your dream." That may be the most Japanese thing anyone has ever said to me!

At least, I assumed she was being typically Japanese, apologizing when she had no cause to, but I later learned that she was just joking. 

Even though I'm now clear on that particular comment, many Japanese apologies leave me confused about how much remorse is real and how much is just another set phrase—something people say without meaning it.

I'm even more puzzled about Japanese people's self-deprecation—whether it's scripted or authentic and whether one should respond to such humility with compliments and praise or whether one ought to move along with the conversation as though no one said anything unusual.

This came up several years ago when a Japanese friend complained incessantly about her boyfriend. To me he sounded borderline abusive, but I wasn't sure if I should be taking her criticisms at face value or whether she was putting him down as a form of modesty. I asked her, and she said the problems were real. (Fortunately, they have long since parted ways.)

With all this uncertainty in mind, I'd like to look at a few expressions that have raised such questions for me.

1. Our Crappy Company

This word is a shocker:

弊社 (へいしゃ: our company, stated in humble language)

I'm surprised that the first kanji is in the Joyo set. (Have I ever seen that strange shape before?!) I'm even more startled that that initial character primarily means "evil practice"! What kind of humility is this?! And what kind of a way is it to promote a company?! 

Actually, although 弊 has several negative meanings, including "broken" and "harmful influence," both Halpern and Kanjigen say that the 弊 in 弊社 is just a humble prefix. My proofreader says that 弊 can convey that humbleness precisely because it has such negative connotations. One might as well hang out a shingle saying "Our Company Completely Sucks." 

2. My Shoddy Output

The following word adeptly conveys humility with its first two sets of meanings:

拙い (つたない: (1) poor-quality; shoddy; crude; (2) unskillful; inexpert; maladroit; inept; foolish; clumsy; (3) unlucky)

I've come upon this term after asking people for permission to use their comments or photos in my writing. Here are two responses I received:

Giving you my shoddy comment is an unexpected joy.

私* (わたし: I); 引用 (いんよう: quoting); -下さる (-くださる: humble aux. verb indicating that the action is for the benefit of the speaker); 事 (こと: nominalizer); 望外 (ぼうがい: unexpected); 喜び (よろこび: joy)

If it’s okay to use my shoddy photo, then please do so.

写真 (しゃしん: photo); 良ければ (よければ: if it's good); 使う (つかう: to use)

3. Incompetent as I Am

The newest essay has quite a bit to do with humility and self-deprecation. Essay 1391 is on 肖 (likeness), and it explores this term at length:

不肖 (ふしょう: (1) unworthiness of one’s father or master; (2) incompetence;     foolishness; (3) misfortune, unluckiness; (4) I, me)     no + likeness

Let's skip to the fourth definition—不肖 as “I, me.” Before you start using this freely to refer to yourself, you should be aware of several restrictions:

• Only men use this pronoun.

• The pronoun 不肖 constitutes humble language and is usually a self-deprecating term, as in this example:

Incompetent as I am, I will try my very best to do this job. 

精一杯 (せいいっぱい: to do the best one can); 務める (つとめる: to do one’s job, shown here in its causative form); -いただく (humble aux. verb indicating that the action is for the benefit of the speaker)   

The ながら conveys the “as I am” part of “incompetent as I am.” As for the -いただく (the humble version of -もらう), it acknowledges that the other person has allowed the speaker to take a stab at doing the job.

One accomplished and prolific photographer, 宮嶋茂樹 (みやじま   しげき, in which 嶋 is non-Joyo), habitually calls himself 不肖・宮嶋 (I, Miyajima the Fool). I mean, I don’t know if he introduces himself that way to people, but many of his book titles start with that phrase, including this one:

Here's the title:

不肖・宮嶋   誰が為にワシは撮る」
I, Miyajima the Fool: For Whom I Shoot

誰が為に (たがために: for whom); ワシ (I (for elderly men)); 撮る (とる: to take (photos))

I don’t know what he’s up to with this extreme self-deprecation because clearly he’s nobody’s fool!

To find out more about him, about 不肖, and about 肖 in general, be sure to check out essay 1391. Here's a sneak preview:

Have a great weekend!


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