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Hospitable ceremony

The mentality of appreciation plays a large role in Japanese

Freiburg, Jul 02, 2018

Hospitable ceremony

Photo: Klaus Polkowski

Around 127 million people speak Japanese worldwide – and not just in Japan, but also in Australia, the United States and Brazil. Through Japanese emigration the language is quite pervasive there. Despite the global spread, the language is not often taken at the University of Freiburg. In a series on seldom-learned languages, Christine Hohlbaum talked to the Japanese lecturer Etsuko Minamikawa about the advantages and misunderstandings of Japanese.

Etsuko Minamikawa has been teaching Japanese at the Language Teaching Centre since 2014. Photo: Klaus Polkowski

Ms. Minamikawa, why is Japanese considered one of the seldom-learned languages?

Etsuko Minamikawa: A lot of people think Japanese is an inaccessible language. Most languages are grouped together by common origin and common characteristics in language families. But in Japanese there is no linguistic relationship to other languages. The grammar, the pronunciation, the characters are quite different than, for example, European languages. As a result, the number of Japanese learners is rather low compared to English, French or German.

What are some of the reasons people should learn Japanese?

There are two aspects to consider: Languages are not just a means of communication, but also a vehicle for acceptance and tolerance. The language is completely intertwined with the history, culture, society and mentality of the country. You learn new things about the country by learning the language. At the same time, you also learn to see your home country through a new lens.

It's not just about learning the pronunciation and the characters. It is important to know how to use the terms within the proper context.

Which Japanese expression should everyone learn?

The word “arigatō” is a must. It means “thank you”, but its meaning extends far beyond that. It is about showing your gratitude for another person’s existence. The word’s origin is in viewing your counterpart’s existence as very valuable, thereby earning your appreciation of that person. People are happy when they hear the term “arigatō” from someone and vice versa. It is really about mutual appreciation.

What is your favorite word?

My favorite saying is “ichigo ichie,”, which means “once-in-a-lifetime chance.” The Japanese proverb originally comes from the tea ceremony where the host and his guest realize how unique this opportunity is in life. It will never come around again. That is why they show each other their sincere gratitude for this moment. Thus, people are reminded to appreciate every single encounter in life.

What “false friend” should people look out for in Japanese?

There are no false friends in the sense of the word because the languages are so far apart. The German word for “work”, however, has been translated into Japanese to mean “having a job” or “side-job”. In Germany, the term is rather used for a main profession or occupation.

Which Japanese expression do you miss in German?

In Japanese, you use a greeting that you use after work or as a welcome at home: “otsukare sama desu.” The intention behind this is to show compassion or comfort to someone after he has made an effort. I have not yet discovered a similar phrase in German.

Which Japanese word best describes the University of Freiburg and what does it mean?

Because the University of Freiburg is one of the oldest universities in Germany, the word “dento” – that is, “tradition” – comes to mind.


Language Teaching Centre

The Language Teaching Centre (SLI) at the University of Freiburg offers courses in more than 20 languages that are open to all students, staff and University guests along with the general public.

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