Japan DiaryMinnesota Musings

I Am I. Or Am I? Watashi No! Part 2: This is getting personal

By August 14, 2020No Comments

This is part 2 of a two part series from my book excerpt edited for blog reading consumption. If you have not read Part 1 it is HERE.

NOTE: These two posts are not in the final edited book form.

Angry glances from my wife and other family members finally came to a head during a gathering at my in-law’s house, after deploying my watashi’s at least ten times during a two-minute conversation. She pulled me aside and with contained annoyance said, yamete kudasai, “Please stop it.” Confused I asked, doshita no? “What happened?”

Wife, calmer in English so I could grasp the situation, “You have to stop using watashi all the time. Japanese rarely use it in conversation.” Driving the point home, “You have used it more than all my family members combined this evening.” (There were twelve in attendance)

I had no idea how serious my watashi problem really was. My cultural roots of an American narcissist run so deep that it carried over to the Japanese language.

As evidence of the seriousness, Japanese are not known for being chokusetsu, “direct and to the point.” No, they are much like Minnesotans and “beat around the bush.” Without warning when my wife suddenly and overtly asked me to stop using the word watashi I was deeply wounded. Narcissism runs deep in this shallow man.

I am I. Or am I? Sounds like a koan, known in Buddhism as an unsolvable question meant to unravel greater truths and reveal one’s true nature. If this seems like an impossible task, it is. But nobody ever said the path to enlightenment would be easy.

One of the more famous koans is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I have witnessed people answer this koan by relaxing one hand and flapping it back and forth hard enough that it makes a sound—one hand clapping. Clever, but not quite it.

Much like my “I” dilemma koans take a very long time to solve. If this sounds overly esoteric, fear not, for much like the objective of Buddhism it is much simpler.

Using “I” also with the word “want” is an unfortunate combination in Japan. Japanese do use want, but it is only acceptable for children under the age of ten. For an adult to use it, well, you will sound like a child under the age of ten or a full-blown narcissist in a culture where narcissists are few and far between. Want, is done by simply adding tai the end of a verb like the above examples, ikitai, “want to go,” tabetai, “want to eat,” or mitai, “want to see.”

This explains why for the first few years of my life in Japan whenever I used my I’s and my want’s together, before coming to a head during that family gathering, the reply in Japanese from my wife and others was always in a child-like tone, daijoubu desu, “It’s ok.”

For the longest time I thought they were agreeing with me, but in hindsight they were putting up with me. It wasn’t until I eventually let go of my “I” and my “want” that I felt more mature, like the Japanese man I was beginning to be.

Rather than saying, kaimono ni ikitai, “I want to go shopping,” I would say, kaimono ni ikimashou, “Let’s [‘Let us’] go shopping!” You wouldn’t believe the level of respect I earned after letting go of these two simple words.

I am happy to report that at the five year mark of living in Japan I finally reached the surrender phase. While things began to flow, it didn’t make it any easier. Rather than the koan-like question I am I. Or Am I? A new question emerged, “Who are you?” My old American reply, “I don’t know,” was replaced with my new Japanese reply, “Don’t know.”

By surrendering the I when using Japanese I started to not know who I was. It has taken years to begin to even get a sense if there is still even an old I left inside me. So as not to slip back into those old ways, as a reminder whenever narcissism creeps in I tell myself, “Watashi No!” I am nobody.

For fun, pay attention to how many times you use the word “I” in conversation across ten minutes. Sorry in advance, because once you do, you will become forever aware.

Enlightenment begins with the awareness of your own I.

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