Why Cats Are Good And Polite Japanese Is Bad

One of the sleeper gems of the current anime season is My Roommate is a Cat (Japanese title Dokyonin ha Hiza, Tokidoki Atama no Ue, or My Roommate Sits In My Lap, Sometimes on my Head), the story of an anti-social Japanese writer named Subaru whose parents die, causing him to withdraw from society. Happily, he’s supported by various friends, as well as a stray cat he adopts, who provides the inspiration for a novel. In a world of endless idol and isekai shows as well as anime based on meandering, poorly written light novels, it’s a breath of fresh air, with each new episode smartly building on the last.

One of the themes of the story is kizuna, which means “bonds” as in the relationships and connections that bind us all to each other. In each episode, we discover new connections we didn’t know about previously, sometimes revealed to us through the “human” half of the episode, but more often in the “cat” half, which is told from the point of view of the cat, Haru. Early on we meet Okami-san, a girl working at a pet shop who gives Subaru advice on how to care for his new cat. Later she and her brother gush about their favorite book about a cat detective, which of course is written by Subaru. Subaru holds an autograph event, and naturally, Okami-san shows up, suddenly realizing that her favorite author is the man who she was giving cat advice too. This leads to lots of embarrassment by Okami and Subaru, and both freeze up and start using extremely polite Japanese language with each other, which is a very Japanese thing to do.

As I write in my long post about how I learned Japanese, there are many areas of learning Japanese that are downright easy for foreign learners, including no weird intonation to master and grammar that’s often much simpler than English — you don’t even need to differentiate between count and non-count nouns or plurals. However, one area that is a challenge for students of Japanese is keigo, the various levels of polite speech used in various situations, like in business settings, or when meeting your favorite author. While this keigo system makes formal relationships flow smoothly, it also adds social distance, something I felt in the episode, when Subaru and Okami-san went from being close-ish friends to speaking extremely politely.

When foreigners learn Japanese, it’s often best for us to “manage” how politely we speak. Of course, we want to make good impressions on others and be trusted in business relationships, but one of the “selling points” foreigners in Japan is that we’re excused from having the “common sense” that Japanese are required to have. Japanese enjoy being able to relax and speak freely with foreigners, and focusing too much on using proper polite speech actually impedes this.

Got any questions about polite Japanese or any other topic related to Japan that you’d like J-List to write about? Tell us on Twitter!

J List Spring Coupon

 

It’s finally starting to warm up here in Japan, which puts us all in a happy mood. So we decided to hold a flash coupon this weekend only, giving everyone $10 off an order of $50 or more. Want to score that awesome anime figure? How about browse for English visual novels, or some delicious Japanese snacks? Or even get something naughty for yourself? The coupon is JLIST-SPRING19, and it ends at the end of Monday, U.S. time.

About the author

Peter Payne

I live in Japan and I run J-List, an anime shop famous for shimapan and Tentacle Grape. I love being able to bring Japanese culture to the world.