Social Graces in Japan: A Quick Lesson

Hilda, Tales of Rebirth

The Situations

This is an exchange between different characters of the Japan-produced video game, Tales of Rebirth, which sadly never made it to America. These are loose translations I am providing to illustrate the situations, both involving a newly joined party member, Hilda.

First, she is approached by Annie, a teenage healer whose father was a nationally famous doctor.

Annie, Tales of Rebirth, wielding staff

Annie, conversation

Annie: Pardon me, Hilda… how old are you?

Hilda: …Why do you ask?

Annie: I’m sorry if I was impolite…! I was just… curious.

Hilda: I’m 21.

Annie: My, such an adult…

Hilda: And how old are you?

Annie: I am 15.

Hilda: My, still a child.

[Annie makes understated, disagreeable expression]

Next, she is approached by Mao (which is, I am told, Chinese for ‘cat’, but Japanese is my third language, not Chinese!). Mao looks and sounds quite a bit younger and is what you might call an androgynous boy full of life.

Mao, Tales of Rebirth

Mao: Um… Hilda, how old are you?

[Hilda makes an unpleasant expression and sound.]

Mao: Did I… say something bad?

Hilda: It is thoroughly bad manners to ask a woman’s age, boy.

Mao: H… hey! Don’t talk to me like I’m a child!

Hilda: That you’re upset only proves that you are one.

What Just Happened

We have just seen a variety of Japanese (and non-Japanese) social values in action.

  • An assumed respect for elders
  • An assumed need to preserve politeness
  • Girls/women can discuss age with other girls/women
  • Boys cannot discuss age with girls/women without being rude
  • A child always betrays himself by behaving as one
  • A mature teenager resents being seen as a mere child
  • An immature teenager resents it too, but with less just cause

Of course,  we should not simply ignore the fact Hilda is being mean to both teenagers. She joined the party with no intention of getting touchy-feely with anyone and made no secret of the fact. She has a very troubled background, which I won’t go into great depth here except to say that she is mixed-race in a world with two main races, humans being one. This is an unusual, mature, and deep subject for an RPG to address, and Tales of Rebirth does a marvelous job of it.

So, in spite of these circumstances, Annie’s instinct is to look up to Hilde as a more mature female and someone poised and confident. It is expected that children want to grow up, and that is why they look up to elders.

Mao, on the other hand, hasn’t given two thoughts about “growing up” and is asking what he thinks is an innocent question, but which is contrary to gentlemanly manners – at minimum, in both Japan and in countries of European culture.

Conclusion

We have just seen two examples of how Japanese social interactions happen, both in the setting of social expectations and measuring actual interactions by how they depart from expectations.

In other words, since Annie behaved in line with social expectations for someone of her type, Hilda was being gratuitously mean to her.  On the other hand, Mao was engaging in what society regards as bad manners, so Hilda had every social right to give him the verbal smackdown she did; he was in the wrong.

In two short skits, we have learned a great deal about all three characters and where their relationships, such as they are, begin from. – J

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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