Humor of Japanese Indirectness

Humor of Japanese Language Indirectness in Tokyo is adapted from a humorous book by David Sedaris: ‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames’, with this part about struggling to learn in a Japanese language school in Tokyo.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter The Smoking Section, pages 288-290:


Following yesterday’s midmorning break, the teacher approached me in the hallway.

“David-san,” she said, “I think your homework is CHOTTO...”

This means “a little” and is used when you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

“You think its chotto what?” I asked. “Chotto bad?”


“Chotto sloppy? Chotto lazy?”

The teacher pressed her hands together and regarded them for a moment before continuing.

“Maybe, ah, maybe you don’t understand it so much,” she said.

I used to laugh at this Japanese indirectness, but now I see there’s a real skill, not just to using it, but to interpreting it.

Miki-sensei went on to explain how to ask for things.

If you want, for example, to borrow some money, you ask the other person if he or she has any.

If you want to know the time, you ask if the other person has a watch.

”Why not just ask for the time?”

“Too much directness,” Miki-sensei said.

“But the time is free.”

“Maybe, but in Japan, not a good idea.”


My new thing is the Cozy Corner, a Western-style coffee shop. I pointed to something in the bakery case last Saturday, and the woman behind the counter identified it as “shotokeki”. This, I’ve come to realize, is Japanese for shortcake.

After school I went to the Cozy Corner with Akira, who spent many years in California and now works as a book translator. We both ordered “shotokeki”, and as we ate he observed that,

as opposed to English, Japanese is a listener’s language.

“What’s not being mentioned is usually more important than what is.”

I asked him how I’d compliment someone on, say, his shirt.

“Do I say, ‘I like the shirt you’re wearing’ or ‘I like your shirt.’?”

“Neither,” he told me. “Instead of wasting time with object, you’d just say

‘I like,’

and let the other person figure out what you’re talking about.”


Our teachers offer much the same advice. Give them a sentence, and they’ll immediately trim off the fat.

“No need to begin with “I”, as it’s clear that you are the one talking,” they’ll say.


The next session of Japanese class begins on February 8, and I’ve just decided not to sign up for it.

Should I announce this in advance, I wonder, or would that be too wordy and direct? Maybe it’s best just to walk out the door and never return.



Humor Speaking Japanese Slowly is more from David Sedaris.

Humor of Japanese Vocabulary Cards is more from David Sedaris.

Humor of Japanese Placement Exam is more from David Sedaris.

Humor of Japanese School is more from David Sedaris.

Humor of Speaking Japanese with Skill is more from David Sedaris.

Humor of the Last Day of Japanese School is more from David Sedaris.

Return to Humor of Language Learners.


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