Wednesday, June 25, 2008

天の邪鬼 あまのじゃく (Heavenly Evil Spirit)

Today, my email word-of-the-day was "devil's advocate". I really enjoy the word, as well as the concept behind devil's advocacy. Though some people enjoy playing the devil's advocate because they enjoy argument, others do it for the much more fulfilling purpose of opening their minds as well others' to ideas in which they don't necessarily believe. These people are often thought to be liars and as a result of their advocacy, they are commonly misunderstood.

Wordsmith defined devil's advocate as a noun meaning "One who argues against something for the sake of argument, for example, to provoke discussion and subject a plan to thorough examination."

The etymology of this term comes from Latin "advocatus diaboli". The Roman Catholic Church used to have a person appointed as a devil's advocate to argue against elevating someone to sainthood. The person arguing for the proposition was known as God's advocate (Latin advocatus dei).

A habit I've come to develop as a foreign language learner is that when I commend a word on its coolness, I immediately wonder "how do you say that in Japanese?" The closest equivalent, says my sexiest Japanese English teacher, is "ama-no-jaku" or a "heavenly evil spirit". This teacher did warn me though, that it is not as commonly used as its English counterpart. I imagine the reason may be that it is not really typical for Japanese people to create argument or discord, especially if it involves opening your mind. Ouch. That was harsh. I take it back, but only in words, not by actively pressing backspace. Of course, everyone is different, even if most try to be the same. Or perhaps I, myself, engage in the evil pleasures advocating for the devil.

This concept is actually quite new to me. Very early in my Japan days, I learned that there are many words in both English and Japanese that do not have exact translations or even exact meanings. There are things you can express in Japanese that are near impossible to exactly say in English, and of course, vice versa. (You see, a new wonderment popped up in my brain's inbox. "how do you say vice versa in Japanese", but i digress) So even though I learned that early on, it wasn't until a sunny day in Yoyogi Park, that I realized how language is dependent on culture and a society's behavior. On one early spring day, Chu and I had bought pastrami sandwiches and rode the motorbike to the park. We ate, talked and people-watched, enjoying the warm sun and happy park sounds. We were very close, and I wondered "How do you say "cuddle" in Japanese?" She thought about it for about three seconds and answered, "there is no word for it". I was a little taken aback and sat there pondering her answer with that weird-looking, confused face I sometimes get. She must have sensed my long silence and read my face, because she then said "i think the reason there isn't a word is because Japanese don't cuddle". My response was immediate. "What are you talking about? Of course Japanese cuddle! Come on." She laughed, and I could tell she was joking, but then I thought about it more, and finally felt the realization that there are things without names in Japanese because it is a culture based more on sensory communication rather than verbal.

There's this thing called KY, or 空気読めない (kuuki yomenai), which means a person who cannot read the air. It describes that dumbass who isn't sensing the mood of the others around him and either destroys it or makes it worse. I can't help but wonder how many times I've misread the air. Anyway, we say things like "kill the mood" or "oblivious" but I wonder if the sentiment is similar. So, this makes me wonder, since English lacks a direct translation for this, does that mean that we have less of a tendency to be able to read air? I wonder. Perhaps, i will counter the opinion of the unlucky sap who unknowingly brings up the topic. However, I'm not sure how heavenly my evil spirit can get. Gambarimasu.


  1. I've had people say "KY" to me before...does that mean they're calling me "dumbass mood-killer" to my face? Now I'm gonna hurt somebody...

  2. Oh yes! Some definite ass-kicking is definitely in order, Mr. American Rinehart.