Last Thursday, at the end of my soroban class – we were running a little late – I wanted to finish the last of my addition exercises. No, sensei said, we’re past 8 already, please go and check your results. Oh, you’re kicking me out?! I replied and started to wrap up.
I should not have said that. Sensei’s reaction was straightforward: Within an instant he got really, really pissed. This simple sentence, jokingly used in English (we say something similar in German even) triggered an angry response as I have not thought a Japanese being capable of. At first he didn’t want to talk to me at all, then he was accusing me of thinking him rude (How can you think that, I never kicked you out) and then he said that he would not help me again.
It took me almost half an hour to smooth the waves, and I am still not sure whether I really understood why he became so angry, other than: well, it’s a language problem. The English phrase “You’re kicking me out?” can be used for example in a bar, when the bartender starts to clean the place, putting up chairs and such, without really asking you to leave. It’s used in a joking way, neither meant to express nor to cause offense, and as such it is understood in the situation at hand.
However, yet again, Japan is different. Apparently, just using the word “kick” in Japanese would be a rather rude thing to do. Add the implication that you as the host are kicking a guest out of your house… And finally, consider the fact that Kyoto is the last enclave of court-derived, serious politeness in all Japan, and there we are…
In the end, I think we’re okay again. I had to explain that we’re essentially navigating three languages, my German, his Japanese, and the English where we meet in the middle, and that of all of those the German is the most straightforward and the Japanese the most turning in circles. I hope I will not make such a mistake again – although, how could I possibly avoid that?