This Question Came to My Inbox: Why Are There So Many Honorifics in Japanese That Don’t Translate into English?

Language describes what we need it to describe. There are often words from one language that don’t translate directly to another language. For example, in English, we only have one word for “snow,” but in Romanian, they have at least two words for snow: “zapada” and “ninja.” The Romanians get more snow than many other countries in the world, and they felt the need to describe different kinds of snow differently. “Zapada” is the snow on the ground. “Ninja” is falling snow. We have snow in English speaking countries, so we have the word “snow” to describe it, but we don’t get the mass of snow that Romanians gets, so we don’t feel the need to have more than one word for “snow.” It is the same with Japanese. The honorifics were put into Japanese to describe how their culture works. Japan has a Confucian culture, and they need certain words that other languages don’t need.

In a Confucian culture, the older student, even if they are only two weeks older, will be helping the younger student The older student is in charge. The older brother or sister is always in charge in Confucianism, even if they are only a day older…Photo by Fox on Pexels.com

A good example of this would be the word “simpai.” In English, we don’t have a concept of a simpai because we don’t need it. In a Confucian culture, there is a person who has walked the road you are walking before you walked it. They know the ins and outs of what you are just learning. they are not teachers. If you are in a school, they are the students who are one or two years ahead of you in school. They have done what you are doing, and they understand it. In the Confucian culture, they have the responsibility to help you as you are walking where they walked. They feel the responsibility, and you feel the need for the guidance they can give you. It is just part of the Confucian model. The Koreans are also Confucian, so “simpai” has a translation in Korean. It is “songbae.” However, in English, we don’t have a good translation for that word because we really don’t have the same concept in our culture.

The Japanese have a whole system of bowing because of the Confucianism that is in their culture.//Photo by Satoshi Hirayama on Pexels.com

The Japanese and the Koreans need the honorifics. They need the different levels of speech. They need words to describe people like simpai and kohai to describe places that people fill in society. In Japan, the kohai is the person that the simpai helps. Japan and Korea are practicing Confucian cultures. There is a hierarchy in a Confucian culture. We don’t have that hierarchy in countries in the west. In Japan, they have a system of bowing because of the Confucian model for society. The Koreans also bow, but not as much. However, if a teacher walks by in Korea, and a student doesn’t bow, that student may be in trouble. Respect must be shown in a Confucian culture for those who are considered higher up in society. Confucian cultures need the honorifics to describe people in the culture.

Just as Confucianism influenced the creation of words in Japan and Korea, Christianity influenced the creation of words in the west. Christianity is our basic system of thought like Confucianism is theirs.//Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

We can take it the other direction too. In English, we have two different words: soul and heart. Both of these words ranslate as the same word in Japanese: kokoro. However, to us, they are two completely different things. It is because of the Christian roots that come with our language. We needed two different words to describe e what we were talking about. Just as the Japanese and Koreans made extra words to describe what was happening with Confuciansim, English speakers made different words to describe what what happening with our Christian concepts.

Language is more than a Science. It is also an art.//Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

Language isn’t a Science. I often say that you need to learn grammar which is similar to learning Math, but then after that, to speak a foreign language, you must also use creativity. Nothing really translates straight through. There may be some basis for translations, but when you get right to it, many words have a larger meaning or a smaller meaning when you try to translate. You,many times, just have to describe what is happening when you translate. When you know that what they are using is honorifics, but that your language doesn’t have a good word for those honorifics, it is enough. I often learn a word in a foreign language that has no good translation in English. That word becomes the primary word in my brain for that concept because it describes the meaning most concisely. If I speak to other English speakers who also know about that culture and so know that word, I will use a foreign word like it is English because it fits better than trying to describe the concept every time. Language is not as concise a Science as we would like to think it is.

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