When Politeness Isn’t Nice At All

One fascinating but sometimes frustrating feature of anime is that key facts about character relationships are often conveyed by the level of politeness in their speech. This often is not straightforward. A higher level of politeness can indicate respect and admiration. Or, since greater formality means greater distance, it could indicate resentment and hostility. (The latter is particularly common in women’s speech.)

Generally it’s a change in the politeness level that’s most significant. If a woman normally addresses her husband as “anata” she may switch to the less formal “omae” when she’s mildly annoyed with him. On the other hand her children will probably tremble in their boots if she addresses them using polite verb forms. (“Ii desu ka?”) That means they are in BIG trouble.
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Polite Speech in Anime

I’ve argued in previous posts that you as a non-Japanese-speaker can pick up a lot of information by listening to the Japanese sound track while watching anime with subtitles–nuances that are not available in the translation. One of the most useful and interesting things to listen for is whether the characters are using polite or plain speech.

English has different levels of formality. Consider the difference between “Is this Joe’s place?” and “Is this the residence of Mr. Blow?” [1]. They may mean the same thing, but they suggest very different situations. However Japanese goes far beyond English in it’s levels of formality. Polite speech (keigo) amounts to a completely different dialect with its own verb conjugations and specialized vocabulary [2]. Because there is no real English equivalent the subtitles rarely attempt to show that it is being used, but sometimes you need to know when it is being used (or not used) in order to fully understand the characters’ reactions.
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Japanese Pronouns in Anime

At the moment it seems that the two most popular posts on this blog are the ones about how to pick up subtle points that don’t survive the translation to anime subtitles–even if you don’t understand Japanese (Japanese Honorifics in Anime and Japanese Family Titles in Anime.) So here are my notes on Japanese pronouns [1], which also can convey a lot of information about the characters in ways that are not easy to include in the subtitles. Once again, this will probably seem very elementary to long-term anime fans, or to anyone who actually speaks Japanese.
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Japanese Family Titles in Anime

Since my post on Japanese honorifics seems to have become pretty popular, I am going to post my notes on family titles. Once again, this is for the benefit of people who watch anime with subtitles but do not know Japanese, and who want to be able to pick up nuances that the subtitles leave out. (In dubbed versions these are totally lost.) This stuff will probably seem pretty elementary to long-time fans.

English, of course, has a number of family titles: words like “Mom”, “Dad”, “Grandma” etc. Japanese has many more of these, with numerous variations which can tell you quite a bit about the characters who use them. I won’t try to cover every possible title, but will focus on the most common ones heard in anime.
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Japanese Names and Honorifics in Anime

One of the main advantages of watching anime in Japanese with subtitles is that even if you don’t understand Japanese you can pick up a lot of information that will be lost in the English dub. A little effort spent in learning a few words can pay off in a wealth of information about the culture and the relationships between the characters.

I’ve collected a lot of notes on the subject and I’m going to try to organize them into posts. If you have been watching anime for years you will probably find this stuff very elementary, but newer viewers may find this useful.

The first thing to master are the honorifics. There are only 5 to learn, but there are many subtleties in how they are used. Continue reading