Dame (da-me): Before entering the preschool shower it was pretty clear I would be the target of a lot of mud-slinging (well, sandy-water-slinging) and was asked anxiously if it was daijoubu. I said it was and was told that if it starts to get un-daijoubu I should just cross my hands and say dame. That should stop anything.
Dame is very effective. I should know as I have been damed effectively by several people. Now when I say “several people” I mean several small children. Adults will only tell you what would be dame if someone were unfortunate enough to do it, but small children take great pleasure in telling you what is dame while you are doing it, or are just about to. Since this is information you want, small children are useful people to know.
Language and ditziness: Being hopelessly impractical, unaware of one’s surroundings and unable to process things like times and directions makes an odd combination with speaking the language you love most but speak poorly. In general it tends to make you look less ditzy (at least at first) but makes your language skills look (even) poorer than they are. Today for example, helping Okaasan to take down a big shade structure after my little sister’s tanjoubikai (birthday party) it looked as if I couldn’t follow simple instructions like “pull it out”. Actually I did know what she was saying. I just couldn’t work out the obvious-to-anyone-in-any-language part of what to pull out.
The same thing happens in most practical discussions about where one it going, what one will do, where one should put something or anything really that relates directly to the physical elements of one’s manifestation.
It also arises when one is out alone and lost. A tautology really since if one is out alone one is lost (I exaggerate but not by much). One tends to look linguistically hopeless when one is actually practically hopeless. In one way it is quite good as it provides a certain cover for one’s complete ineptitude, at least at first. The bus-information hito on my recent trip to Ichinomiya, for example, worked out pretty quickly that it wasn’t just (or even primarily) the language.
I am sure some people reading my adventures think if I would just be less stubborn and admit to knowing English I would have an easier time. They are absolutely wrong. The language is a small problem but nowhere near the main one, and actually makes things easier by giving me an initial “excuse” for being so improbably incapable.
There is another point too. I am an extreme extrovert from a South Novaryan culture. This means my social instinct will always override my instinct for survival. I recall a discussion elsewhere about the fact that you should never ask anyone from an non-Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic culture “Does this bus go to X”, because in almost every other kind of culture the hearer will divine from this that you want the bus to go to X and be too polite to say no. So you will be informed that it does and go happily off to Y, Z and W by way of あ, assuming that the information was factual rather than social. I suspect the Japanese being very “modernized” as well as very helpful, could be an exception to this – but I wouldn’t put it to the test, especially in a rural area.
Well there is a reciprocal corollary to this. If I ask directions (always avoiding closed-ended questions like the above of course) and am asked “Do you understand?” well of course I can’t say no, even though I haven’t understood the first word. This is what happens to me in English. In Japanese I can at least look a bit blank as if the language was the problem.
And it isn’t just a straight question like “Do you understand”, it goes deeper than that. When someone is talking to you the polite thing to do is smile and look intelligently engaged and nod in the right places (as indicated by tone and body-language) – in other words, give all the signs of understanding out of courtesy to the speaker, when in fact, even though they are speaking English, they might as well be speaking Martian (I don’t – I am not that kind of alien).
When you are speaking the language brokenly it changes the social compact a little. An understood incapacity on your part is an aspect of the understood relations between you, so expressing your lack of understanding is a little less – dame.
That does help a lot, even if it makes your language skills look hopeless.
Tatoos are dame: You go to a bath to relax, not to see people looking grotesque (if you wanted that you would go to a freak show instead). Consequently tatoos are very properly banned in onsen and other Japanese public bathing places. I saw a sign that, I felt covered all bases neatly. “No tattoos or stickers”.
“But this isn’t really a tattoo – it comes off.”
“Excellent. When it comes off, welcome to the bath.”