Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, November 27, 2010


(Cue Yes soundtrack)

When my adventure here in the Land of the Rising Sun first began, getting across Lake Kitaura to and from the Kashima Peninsula was never an easy task. Basically your options were:
  • Going across the Jingu Bridge. This was the main bridge connecting Kashima City directly with the mainland. Unfortunately, it's on Route 51, which in those days was always bumper-to-bumper traffic moving at sub-walking speed. Even now it can tend to be a slow, aggravating route.
  • Going across the Rokko (Great) Bridge. (I inserted the "great" because they call it an oh-hashi [大橋], which literally translates as "big bridge" or "great bridge".)I don't know whose idea it was to call this a "great" bridge. In fact, I'd like to track down the person who designed the thing in the first place and throttle him for the good of humanity. This has to be the most idiotic bridge ever conceived. The span, which links the villages of Kitaura (now part of Namegata City) and Taiyo (now part of Hokota City), consists of a single lane with turnouts. Getting onto it and off again requires passing through a gate that is only just wide enough for a full-sized car to get through without losing its mirrors and then carefully taking turns with oncoming traffic hopping from turnout to turnout. It's almost like someone was trying to fulfill a video game fantasy when they built it. At any rate, most people avoid it at all costs.
  • Circling around from the north. Yes, bypassing Lake Kitaura altogether was always an option...if one didn't mind spending an extra half hour or more weaving around on narrow country roads.
  • Circling around from the south. Going down through Chiba Prefecture and coming up via the various bridges into Kamisu offered better roads than the northern route but also meant a much longer distance. In other words, it wasn't any better.
Finally, in the late '90s, they opened the Kitaura (Great) Bridge, and it was a godsend. It gave us a nice, two-lane span with plenty of room and a link to the just-completed Route 18, an open stretch of road that allowed a decent flow of traffic. At the same time, the bridge was still just remote enough not to wind up overwhelmed. It became my principle route to and from work and remains so to this day.

The New Jingu Bridge was added in the early 2000's, paralleling the old Jingu Bridge a few hundred meters away along a new bypass route that leads directly to the expressway. Now they are once again continuing work on a (long-stalled) replacement for the Dumbass Rokko (Great) Bridge which, when completed (hopefully before the end of the next decade), will open the flow of traffic even more.

Yes, there has been an explosion of road and bridge improvements during the two decades I've been here. It has come together with an equally explosive increase in population and development that has completely transformed the landscape of this area. At the same time, it's kind of ironic to note that the Kitaura (Great) Bridge is now undergoing construction to repair sections that have become decayed or damaged during a little over a decade of use. It has been here only about half as long as I have been in Japan, and it's already looking old. What does that say about me?

Some other significant changes that have occurred over the past two decades include:
  • The Death of Towns and Villages. The fact that Ibaraki Prefecture consisted mostly of rural towns and villages with very few cities was part of its charm. Then, in the early 2000's, Prime Minister Koizumi enacted a policy of consolidation as a way of trimming government costs. Suddenly the map underwent a sort of reverse mitosis. First the towns/villages of Kashima and Ono linked to become Kashima City. Then Itako and Ushibori became Itako City, while Kamisu and Hasaki united into Kamisu City. Then Aso, Tamatsukuri, and Kitaura disappeared into Namegata City as Hokota, Taiyo, and Asahi became Hokota City. In a disturbing game of big-eats-little, towns and villages with long histories were sucked into larger neighbors and quite often forced to bear the latters' names. Pretty soon the Ibaraki Prefecture map became a lot less complicated but a lot less recognizable. Unfortunately, far from saving costs, the consolidation drive quite often left the new cities with horrible debt as the burden of raising poorer former villages to the standards of the richer siblings fell onto the new municipal governments. Changes in public utility contracts and services forced by annexation sometimes boosted fees for some districts as much as 300%. Only now are things starting to settle back down into an uneasy equilibrium, but a lot of problems have yet to be solved.
  • The Death of White Cars. In the '90s, the overwhelming majority of cars here were white, and any other color stuck out like a sore thumb. That is happily no longer the case. Now silver seems to be the color of choice for most, but it is not a whopping majority like white used to be.
  • The Death of Full-Service Gasoline. Japanese gas stations have long been renowned for their excellent service. Entering one, one could expect to be descended upon by a whole team of workers in clean, well-pressed uniforms cheerfully shouting confirmations to each other as they gave the car a full going-over. Then the first self-service gas stations started appearing in the early to mid 2000's. At the time they were considered something of a curiosity. Strangely, they were also quite often more expensive than the regular stations. However, once the intimidation wore off and the prices started coming down, people started using them in greater numbers, which naturally meant that they began replacing the conventional full-service stations. As for me, a native of Oregon (a state in which self-service gasoline is illegal), it took a while for me to muster the courage to try one. Now I tend to prefer them. The full service is nice, but I like the speed and in-my-own-hands security that comes with pumping my own.
  • The Death of the "Drop" and the "Squatty". Traditional Japanese "squatty" toilets were still very much the standard when I first arrived, and I had to get used to using them. I also had to get accustomed to the general lack of sewage systems, which meant many if not most toilets dropped directly into tanks which had to be hosed and vacuumed out at intervals and were often not well sealed (i.e. the smell of human waste was an inevitable part of everyday life everywhere you went). However, perhaps as a metaphor for things to come, in 1992 the drop-squatty toilet in my teacher's flat was replaced with a Western-style flush-toilet which was then connected with a newly-installed local sewer line. I considered myself extremely lucky. However, as sewers became more widespread in the early to mid '90s, flushing toilets became the norm rather than a luxury. By the turn of the century, Western-style toilets had also begun to displace the squatty. Now they are saying that many if not most Japanese children are unable to use squatties, partly because they don't know how, and partly because they no longer have the leg strength to squat long enough to empty themselves. All of the student restrooms at Ye Olde Academy now offer a choice of squatty or Western-style toilets, though the latter is by far the favorite. It's kind of a pity, really; squatties are definitely nice in winter, since your hind end never touches them.
  • The Death of the Directory. You need to find someone, but you don't know their address or phone number? Tough. Not yours. It's extremely ironic that, in this age of cell phones, GPS navigation, and The Internet, phone directories are officially extinct. In fact, my school doesn't even give us a staff directory anymore. You see, the issue of personal privacy became a witch-hunt in the early 2000's. That's when the government decided that the white pages were evil and had them banned. In fact, you can't find any kind of phone/address directory for anything except businesses and services...unless you happen to be a business or service. They have access to personal phone and address information, particularly if they do anything that involves mailing. As for the rest of the population, well, we're all just SOL, which makes giving obligatory summer and winter gifts a far more complicated thing than it used to be.
  • The Death of Manners. Japanese etiquette is extremely complex. There are just so many rules. Even the way you talk to someone is regulated by a system of codes and standards that dates back centuries. Children are sternly indoctrinated from a very young age so that they know all the proper turns and phrases. Or at least they used to be... Actually, from the mid '90s observance of proper speech and manners...or even awareness of children took a sharp nosedive. This accompanied the explosive growth of parents who flip out if their kids get anything that even slightly smacks of discipline. Now there are actually quiz shows on TV based on knowledge of proper etiquette, and kids tend to get a big bang out of them simply because they see it as such a novelty.
  • The Death of Self-Respect. I know this is kind of an iffy topic, and there are lots of opinions out there, but when I first came to this country it was still acceptable to be acceptable. The Yuppie '80s had only just ended, and the proper-and-successful style was still very much in. Then, in the late '90s, the key fashion points became "lazy", "sloppy", and "sleazy". Guys dressed (and acted) like they'd just woken up after a drunken party and thrown something on. Girls dressed (and acted) like whores. In fact, in the early 2000's, a lot of girls really were whores as the trend of "compensated dating" (a polite term for prostitution) caught on as a way to get easy money to feed the insatiable appetite for brand-name items. When that generation finished school and entered society, there was a sudden explosion of so-called NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), i.e. young freeloaders living on their parents' money. That seems to be on the decline now, and there are indications that pride is starting to become acceptable again, but it looks like a long, hard climb.
Anyway, the roads and bridges are being repaired. Things will continue to flow.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Overdrive, Distortion, or Fuzz?

Every once in a while, after discussing something on a blog or on Facebook, it suddenly hits me that not everyone knows fut the whack I'm talking about. Just as an engineer might forget that a lot of people have no idea what an angstrom is, or a programmer might overlook the fact that many if not most of us don't really know the difference between REXX, C++, Java, or Var'aq, I quite often fail to take into account the fact that not everyone is a musician. Take my recent interest in guitar effect pedals, for example. Since last summer I've been blathering on and on, first about overdrive pedals, and more recently about fuzz types. So what exactly are they, anyway?

Overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals all work on the same basic principle, that of an overloaded amp circuit. The distinction between them can also be kind of fuzzy (he he). However, to an experienced guitarist, each is a very different animal. I'll explain, but first, here's a little history.

The electric guitar has been around since the 1920s, but it wasn't until the 1950s that it really became widespread. During that same decade there was also an important development: The solid-body guitar. In addition to being smaller and more convenient to handle, the solid-body guitar wasn't as prone to feedback as the early hollow-body types, with the result that it could be played louder. That was when an interesting discovery was made. Guitarists soon learned that if they turned their amps up high enough, i.e. if they drove them, the sound would start to distort. That would add warmth, resonance, and sustain to their tone. To understand the reason for this, picture the audio signal going through an amp as a wave inside a pipe. If the wave gets to be too large, its peaks are blocked, or clipped, by the pipe, distorting its shape and making it behave more like a square wave. This process is called overdrive, and it is what causes the distorted tone. There was a lot of controversy for a while as to whether such a sound was desirable, let alone acceptable, but blues and rock-and-roll guitarists in the '50s soon fell in love with it.

(Trivia point: A lot of famous recorded guitar performances of the mid to late '50s and even later [Eric Clapton's 'Layla', for one!] were performed using the Fender Champ, a small, cheap, and dirt simple amp designed for beginners but popular among pros because it had a punchy sound and was so easy to overdrive.)

When the '50s gave way to the '60s, and amps became bigger and more powerful, guitarists were suddenly faced with an ironic problem. In those days, amps had only a single volume knob. (Modern ones have pre- and master volumes.) That meant that you generally had to crank your amp up high to get overdrive. In other words, to get the right sound, guitarists either had to stick with a small amp (like the Champ mentioned above) or play at ear-blasting (and neighbor-infuriating) levels. That posed some interesting dilemmas. Some guitarists tried experimenting with alternatives such as slashing the speaker cones in their amps with razors to create distortion. However, by far the most significant breakthroughs of all came about thanks to broken or chopped equipment.

Fuzz - Back in 1961, a well-known session guitarist recording a bass part for Marty Robbins' "Don't Worry" found to his surprise that his bass came out with a weird, fuzzy tone. The cause was a faulty circuit in the mixer board, but that sound attracted some attention. The Ventures in particular fell so much in love with it that in 1962 they hired an electronics expert to reproduce it. That led to the birth of the fuzzbox, or fuzz pedal. A fuzz pedal uses transistors (germanium for those who want tone, silicon for those who want edge) to force the audio signal through a very narrow "pipe", chopping off the wave peaks right around the middle to produce something close to a square wave. The result is a very buzzy, edgy sound. The first mass-produced fuzzbox was the 1965 Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone (which Keith Richards used in "I Can't Get No Satisfaction", perhaps the most famous use of a fuzzbox ever) followed by the Sola Tone Bender (later made by Vox), Arbiter Fuzz Face (later made by Dunlop), and Electro-Harmonics Big Muff Pi, among others. The latter two are still considered industry standards. Fuzz boxes lost popularity in the 1970s when distortion boxes came into use, but they saw a resurgence in the late 1980s mainly thanks to alternative and grunge artists who used them to produce an extremely intense sound.

Overdrive - In 1964, when guitarist Dave Davies recorded the famous riff of The Kinks' breakthrough hit, "You Really Got Me", he plugged his guitar into a small, stripped-down, chopped-up amp, which he cranked to the point of damage, and then ran it through a larger amp to produce a gritty, aggressive tone. Purists were outraged, but a lot of people took notice, and thus was the overdrive pre-amp born. Unlike a fuzz pedal, an overdrive pedal is designed to perform like a miniature amp in its own right, so it produces a more natural tone. Initially intended only to boost the signal so as to drive the amp, overdrive pedals soon came to be used for the distortion they produced on their own. Most are of low to medium gain as opposed to the high gain of fuzz pedals (i.e. they don't pull as much signal out of the guitar), so the level of distortion is less. Although many do use transistors, most overdrive boxes use diodes to produce "soft clipping", i.e. only the tips of the waves are chopped off within the "pipe". The result is a warmer, gentler form of distortion. I'm not sure what the first overdrive pedal was (The earliest type that I know of is the Colorsound Overdriver of 1972, used by Jeff Beck), but the Boss OD-1 Overdrive (no longer available) and the Ibanez TS808/TS9 Tube Screamer (still a staple among blues and rock guitarists, especially in reissue), both of which came out in the late '70s, are considered to have set the standard. Ever since then, overdrive boxes have been considered a fundamental component of blues/rock guitar.

Distortion - In the late '70s, some guitarists began to be dissatisfied with the sounds generated by the pedals of the time. They felt that overdrive didn't produce as much distortion as they wanted, but they also didn't like the buzzy, unnatural tone of fuzz. That led to the development of a high-gain variation of the overdrive pedal designed to generate hard clipping and thus heavy distortion. This was what is now known as the distortion pedal. The standard was initially set by a box called the Rat, which first appeared around 1977 and is still very popular. Other important classic distortion pedals include the original Boss DS-1 (made famous by Joe Satriani and Kurt Cobain) and the MXR Distortion Plus (made famous by Randy Rhoads and Joe Garcia, among many others). Now even higher-gain types like the Boss Metal Zone and Maxon DS-830 have become significant among heavy metal and shred guitarists.

Overdrive/fuzz/distortion pedals saw a rapid drop in popularity during the '80s, mainly because new developments in amp design such as pre- and master volume and effect loops made them seem superfluous. They were also widely replaced by multi-effectors. However, from the early '90s more and more guitarists came to prefer using a clean setting on their amps and relying on pedals to create their tone. That led to a new wave of interest in quality pedal effects that is still going today.

Fuzz/overdrive/distortion pedals that I've owned include (in chronological order):

  • Boss OD-2 Turbo Overdrive - (Overdrive) I had one of these in my college days, my first overdrive pedal, and got another one soon after coming to Japan. It's basically a modification of the iconic OD-1 that includes a "turbo" switch which, when activated, boosts the gain. This was my main workhorse overdrive for my home recording for a number of years and one of few pedals I've used live. The only problem is that it's hard to get the right amount of drive with it; the normal mode is weaker than the OD-1, and the "turbo" is almost more like a distortion pedal. I mainly used it for rhythm guitar. Now I sometimes use it to boost a distortion pedal.
  • Boss DF-2 Super Feedbacker & Distortion - (Distortion) I grabbed this in 1991 to give me heavier distortion for a more "rocking" sound. It also has the added "feedbacker" feature which will continue to sustain a note (or overtones of it) as long as the pedal is depressed. I used this pedal quite a bit but was never really happy with its sound.
  • Ibanez "Sound Tank" TS5 Tube Screamer - (Overdrive) Ibanez says that this pedal has the same circuitry as the famous TS9 but in "more affordable" casing and "less labor-intensive construction" (i.e. reduced quality) to lower the price. After hearing so much about the Tube Screamer in 1991, I looked all over for one and finally snapped this one up in Tokyo. It was my main lead guitar pedal for a while, and I have used it live. Ibanez claims it sounds just like the TS9, but reviewers consistently disagree. Still, it was good enough for my modest needs at the time...until its switch went bad. Now it resides in a drawer.

  • Zoom 5000 Zoom Driver - (Overdrive/distortion) I picked this up on a passing whim in 1992, and it turned out to be fortuitous. It's now a rare collector's item. Produced before Zoom became synonymous with cheap (sucky) multieffectors, the 5000 is a multi-mode overdrive/distortion box with a wide range of possibilities. It was also designed to be used either with an amp or direct-lined, which was VERY useful for me at the time. I used it heavily from 1992 until 2002 and still occasionally get it out. I have also used it live. Even so, I've recently come to discover that I've only scratched the surface of what this baby can do.
  • Boss BD-2 Blues Driver - (Overdrive) This is a boost/overdrive pedal made with blues in mind. In 2003 I was invited to join a blues/rock band as a keyboardist, saxophonist, and rhythm guitarist. The only pedal I had at the time that would really work in that genre was the TS5, and its switch had become too unreliable. I bought this one instead. I wound up being fired as a regular member of the band after managing to attend only two of their weekly rehearsals in three months. I haven't used this pedal much since, but I do dig it out once in a while for a bluesy solo. (The first solo in my song "Sudden Blast from the Past" is played on my Telecaster using the Blues Driver.)

  • Marshall Guv'nor Plus - (Overdrive/distortion) In 2002 I started using guitar processors beginning with a discontinued Yamaha model I found in a bargain bin. This was replaced by my Line 6 PODxt in 2004. At any rate, my pedals wound up more or less mothballed for years. Then in 2008 I ordered a Marshall Reflector reverb pedal (mainly for its reverse gate reverb, though it sounds great in any case). I figured, since I was at it, I might as well get the Guv'nor Plus, too. After all my experimenting with the POD, there were certain sounds I wanted that I just wasn't getting, and the Guv'nor Plus seemed like a way to do it. It's designed to sound like the JCM2000 amps and has similar tone controls, including a built-in sub-bass circuit. It also looks really cool. Anyway, it offers a wide range of sounds, from a fat, bluesy overdrive to a really beefy distortion. I have used it for playing leads, but mainly I get it out when I want either juicy power chords or alternative-rock-style noise.
  • Boss MT-2 Metal Zone - (Distortion) This was a purely impulse buy, snapped up in 2008 just a couple of months after the Marshall Guv'nor Plus (above). It's still a very popular box among heavy metal and alternative guitarists, and I was interested in checking it out. It offers a wide range of tone control, but it's built to produce a rippingly intense, metallic scream. Incidentally, I found that it's fun to layer it with the Guv'nor Plus by recording unison tracks with each. (You can hear me doing this in the power chords in my song "Intelligent Evolution" and at the very end of "Glowing Zone".)
  • Vox Satchurator - (Distortion) In 2010 I found myself getting interested in pedals again...mainly because I'd stumbled on the Facebook page for a little New York shop called Pedal Geek. I'd never really had much exposure to boutique pedals before, and my curiosity was piqued. I'd found some pretty good lead sounds using the POD by itself or with the Blues Driver or Guv'nor Plus, but I was still interested in finding an overdrive pedal that would give me a nice, singing tone. I researched, put together a list, and went shopping. My regular music shop had an Xotic BB Preamp pedal, which was near the top of my list, and I almost got it. However, they also had a Satchurator. The Satchurator was actually on my "maybe" list (as opposed to "grab if possible"), but I got it partly because it's very hot and hard to find in the US...and partly because it cost only half as much as the BB. It's actually a very good pedal, designed and built by Vox with Joe Satriani's direct cooperation. It's a distortion box rather than simple overdrive, modeled after both the original Boss DS-1 Distortion (a favorite of Satriani's...before Boss cheapened it) and the Rat. It has a sound that is more ringing than ragged, perfect for soloing, and I'm liking it so far. (It is featured in my tune "Starship Impala" together with...)

  • Xotic BB Plus Preamp - (Overdrive) Wouldn't you know it! Only a few weeks after I'd bought the Satchurator, I found a used BB Plus at my favorite second-hand music shop! The BB Plus is a double pedal, including both a regular BB Preamp and a second, souped-up one. The two channels can be used separately or together. The pedal has a variety of tone-control options and allows you to select the level of compression/filter both for tone balance and sustain. The BB Plus is clearly designed for soloing, though it can give an excellent rhythm sound, too. I tried it out, and it came home with me. Now I'm seriously liking it. (You can hear it in the second solo in "Starship Impala", played on the SG, and in "Sudden Blast from the Past", played on the Strat HSS.)
  • Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi - (Fuzz) Another side effect of my discovering Pedal Geek was a sudden interest in fuzz, something I'd never paid much attention to before. A number of my favorite guitarists use or have used it, after all. I'd played around with the emulated Big Muff Pi included in the POD and had produced some cool sounds (such as can be heard in "Sudden Blast from the Past"), but Pedal Geek convinced me that I needed the real thing. Once again I made a list of models I liked, tracked down sources, and fussed over which one to get. Then, just a few days ago, on the advice of friends, I finally made a visit to a local "recycle" (i.e. second-hand) shop, and voila! There was a used Big Muff Pi for less than half the cost of the pedals I was considering! I snapped it up. I have yet to record with it, but I'm really looking forward to it. Electro-Harmonix calls it a "distortion/sustainer" rather than "fuzz", but it is definitely an archetype fuzzbox. A lot of famous artists have used the Big Muff since the first ones were cobbled out of spare parts in the late '60s. I'm only too happy to join them!

And that, my friends, is that. I hope I've cleared things up a bit. Maybe I'll explain other types of effect pedals some other time.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Lost in Translation

Cross-cultural communication can be tricky at the best of times. (As someone who teaches English on the planet Nihon, I can say this for a fact.) Subtle differences in culture often manifest themselves in language. That means it can be quite difficult to translate in such a way as to convey the meaning of the original expression while also maintaining its nuance. Context itself can be shifted by cultural influences, meaning a word or phrase translated directly can still wind up meaning something very different.

A very good example of this can be seen by watching a Monty Python video with Japanese subtitles. Frankly speaking, I don't know why they even bothered trying. I mean, call me biased if you will, but baka-aruki sho (馬鹿歩き省) just doesn't have the same ring as "Ministry of Silly Walks".

Which brings me to my main point: Some things just don't translate well because they have no direct equivalent. Even related languages like Czech and Russian have their own unique terms which have no counterpart in the other (like Czech "litost" [the shock at realizing just how awful one's life really is] and Russian "toska" [a deep longing for something not really known], which are mutually untranslatable). Things can get even more complicated with two languages which are completely and utterly different, such as English and Japanese. There are some words in English that don't translate directly into Japanese even though they would seem like a staple of everyday life (such as "bullshit"). The same is true of Japanese; there are some words and phrases which just seem so practical and useful that we have to wonder why there is nothing like them in English. Some examples of the latter include:

Dame - [駄目] Pronounced "dah-may". Perhaps the closest translation in English would be "unacceptable" or "won't do"...or maybe even "sucks". It is an extremely versatile term expressing badness without really meaning "bad" per se. For example, if a Japanese tries to eat something but finds he doesn't like it, he may say, "Kore ha dame da!" (This is unacceptable!) The exact same expression will probably be heard with regard to an unfavorable choice, such as if someone picks up a fruit and finds it bruised, or to something that doesn't work, such as when someone turns on a light only to find it burned out. On the other hand, with regard to a person, saying, "O-mae ha dame da," means something like, "You're hopeless!" Saying that an action or event is "dame" can mean it is forbidden, immoral, or dangerous, such as when a mother yells the word at her child just as it's about to put a slug in its mouth. Perhaps similarly, one of my first experiences here in Japan involved me trying to greet one of my new neighbors only to have him yell, "DAME," and slam his door in my face.

Boke - [ボケ] Pronounced "boh-kay". While not necessarily a part of everyday speech, this word still seems incredibly useful. Its noun form refers to someone who is spaced out or otherwise out of touch with reality. In manzai, or traditional Japanese stand-up comedy, it is the title of the fool's role, as opposed to the straight counterpart (tsukkomi). In society, a boke is someone who is totally out of it, i.e. the type of person who has to be occasionally reminded which way is up. The verb form of the word can appear in expressions like, "Ano hito ha bokete iru," which basically means, "That guy is clueless," or, "Gomen...watashi ga bokete shimatta," which is perhaps best rendered as, "Sorry...I spaced out [and didn't catch what you said]." Interestingly, the word can also pop up in unexpected places such as on the end of jisa-boke [literally "time difference space-out"], which means "jet lag".

O-tsukare-sama / Go-kuro-sama - [お疲れ様 / ご苦労様] I am asked about these expressions far more than any other, usually by students who want to know how to say them to English-speaking pen-pals or exchange students. My response is always, "You can't." There is simply no way to translate these terms into English, at least not directly. "Tsukare" (after the verb/adjective honorific "o") is a verb (which can also function as a noun) that means "to become tired". "Kurou" (after the noun honorific "go") is a noun which means "suffering". The "sama" ending is an honorific title roughly equivalent to English "lord/lady". In other words, "o-tsukare-sama" literally means, "My tired lord," and "go-kurou-sama" means, "My suffering lord". Perhaps now you are thinking, "What...the...f..?" Well, simply speaking, "O-tsukare-sama deshita," ("You were my tired lord") is the proper thing to say to someone who has been working hard. Coworkers always say it to each other just before going home. "Go-kurou-sama deshita," ("You were my suffering lord") is what you should say to someone who has just gone to a lot of trouble for you. Both these expressions are highly polite but are an important part of everyday discourse. There is nothing at all like them in English. Perhaps the most realistic translations I've been able to come up with so far are the comparatively pitiful, "Good job," and, "You poor thing," respectively.

Itadakimasu / Kudasaimasu / Itashimasu - [頂きます/下さいます / 致します] Keigo, or honorific speech, is a complicated but colorful Japanese tradition which is sadly on the decline. Several verbs and even some nouns have an honorific and/or humble form to be used in polite situations. Learning how to use keigo properly can be a headache for Japanese students, let alone foreigners, which is probably why it is fading out in today's convenience-oriented culture. However, there are three important keigo words that continue to be a part of everyday life. "Itadakimasu" (plain form "itadaku") is the humble word used to mean "receive". Actually, it is probably closer in meaning to "partake", since it conveys the idea of receiving a boon from someone higher. It is also what Japanese usually say before eating. At any rate, businesses in particular tend to use the word a lot, such as when saying, "Kongetsu no o-shiharai wo itadakimasu." (lit. "I shall partake of your monthly payment," i.e. "Pay me, damn it!") Kudasaimasu (plain form "kudasau") literally means to give from a higher position to a lower one (i.e. "bestow"?). It is also used in polite situations such as when saying, "Kacho-san ha tokidoki watashitachi ni chonaigasu wo kudasaimasu." ("The boss sometimes bestows intestinal gas upon us.") The shortened form "kudasai" is used like English "please", either by itself when asking for something (e.g. "Sushi, kudasai!") or attached to a verb to make it a polite command (e.g. "Damatte kudasai," lit. "Bestow upon me the honor of shutting your mouth!"). Itashimasu is the humble way to say "do", and it is a favorite for making otherwise ordinary statements seem very self-deprecating (and glorifying to the listener). Take for example the oft-used "onegai" [お願い], which means "request". If a Japanese wants something, s/he may say simply, "Onegai," and it would mean more or less the same thing as, "Please!" Making it, "Onegai shimasu," [shimasu = "do"] would increase the politeness level to, "Would you, please?" However, bumping it up to, "Onegai itashimasu," brings it to the level of, "I'm begging you on my hands and knees!" Japanese are even more fond than foreign learners of their language of griping about keigo. However, as long as brown-nosing continues to help people get ahead, these three words will no doubt continue to be used.

[To be continued...]