Hidden Meanings: Language and Culture in Rakugo Shinju

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Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū is a show-don’t-tell masterpiece. In fact, I’m inclined to cut out the qualifying ‘show-don’t-tell’. Whether I write about it in more detail at the end of this year, or after the second half of the story has graced our screens, I have no doubt that the way I feel about this show will not change—I might just be far more effusive in my praise. There are so many things running through my head that I barely know where to start, but perhaps this one statement fits:

Rakugo Shinjū is the most Japanese anime series I’ve ever seen.

There are so many nuances in this show that I can make sense of only through what I know of Japanese language and culture. Some I did not notice until I started rewatching various episodes partway through the show. Others I only came to understand after some lengthy discussions with two different Japanese people, one a fellow Rakugo fan I met online, and one that I personally know. And still others I would never have noticed if the former had not pointed them out. So here, I bring you three language-related ‘show-don’t-tell’s that you might have missed in Rakugo Shinjū, even if you understand Japanese.

“Are we done?” — politeness and familiarity in Japanese speech

After episodes 4 and 5, I found myself wondering just how many viewers noticed the different ways in which Kiku addressed different people. He was always very polite with his master and the other rakugo elders, which contrasted greatly to the familiar language that he used with his one equal, Shin. What really caught my attention, however, was the change in the way Kiku spoke with Miyokichi over the course of these two episodes and beyond. When she came onto him at the theatre, you could hear the distance he was trying to keep in the pointedly polite forms he was using. But when he visited her to give her the dance lesson as she’d suggested, that veil of politeness was slowly stripped away… In fact, Kiku’s “If you work hard, I’m sure it will come true” was the very last time we heard him use polite language with Miyo.

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Also, I loved this scene, which gave us a Kiku we don’t often hear!

Politeness, formality and familiarity are encoded in all languages. However, the way these are conveyed differ depending on the language; English, for example, relies largely on the choice of word or phrase that you use.1 Japanese people use keigo, a system of honorific speech that one uses with respected elders and strangers, and which consists of polite, respectful and humble ways of speaking. Most second language learners of Japanese can probably get by with the polite form, where you generally end sentences with desu and verbs with -masu. More often than not, however, particularly outside of work settings, you’ll hear people use shorter word and sentence endings such as -ru and da—you can call this ‘familiar language’. This is what you’ll hear from most anime characters, though you’ll get the occasional shot of ‘crude language’, such as Kiku’s annoyed rant at Shin in episode 11.

Even if you don’t speak Japanese, you can probably learn to tell the difference between these different ways of speaking. Less obvious is what they suggest about the relationship between the people talking, largely because there are a few different rules. For example, seniors within an organisation—such as one’s upperclassmen in school—will use familiar language with their juniors, but the latter will generally stick to polite language in return. On the other hand, equals—for example, students in the same class—will generally use familiar language with each other. Needless to say, family members and really close friends do as well. Given all this variation in use, it’s clear that just observing one instance of familiar language in use isn’t going to tell you exactly what kind of relationship any two people have.2

However, there is one thing about these different ways of speaking that is pretty easy to pick once you know what to look for. A shift from polite to familiar language is significant: it signals that the two people in question have gotten closer. In other words, Kiku switching from polite to familiar language in between episodes 4 and 5 of Rakugo are a sign that he has become much closer to Miyo. And if you realised that they were dating for 10 whole years before the Anti-Prostitution Law was passed and Miyo found herself out of work, would you again have read their relationship a little differently?

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Before and after…

“Darling”? — Or ‘how to say “you” in Japanese’

The second example of Rakugo’s language ‘show-don’t-tells’ comes from episode 12. I must be getting better at ignoring subtitles, because this one did not catch my attention until I started reading how other viewers felt about what they’d witnessed. What surprised me was the number of people who felt that Shin/Sukeroku and Miyokichi had ‘reconciled’ before they died. When I rewatched the scene and registered the translation of “Darling,” I finally understood why. You see, ‘Darling’ in English suggests a close, affectionate relationship between the couple in question.

Based on what we were shown, however, I personally felt that Miyo had never really loved Shin. Even though he really loved her, and even though they knew each other’s real names, Shin was never really more than ‘Kinzō-san’ to Miyo’s ‘Osome’, the person she went with because there was no one else;3 She may well have been grateful to him for his kindness towards her when she was dating Kiku—even though she appears to have actively targeted him to get revenge on the man she loves—but Konatsu’s stories of her mother make it clear that any ‘affection’ she’d felt for him soon dissolved into anger and frustration. She may also have been touched when Shin finally made up his mind to give everything up for her, but I saw that as a suggestion of what might have been possible if they had lived, rather than an indication of sincere affection in the past. And that’s why I was taken aback to see ‘Darling’ as the term that the translator chose for Miyo’s last words.

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It seems pretty obvious that Shin was always quite keen on Miyo…

Miyo’s address term for Shin—translated slightly earlier in the scene as just “Y-you…”—is “anta.” This is a diminutive of anata, which Japanese learners might have been taught is the standard way for Japanese women to address their husbands, especially amongst older generations.4 In fact, this is one of the few places in which this feminine pronoun for “you” is used—when speaking to other people, women typically use the person’s name with the -san suffix. There are also different conventions for whether one should use the surname or the first name, with the general rule that you use the surname unless you’re especially close equals.5 If you do not know the person’s name, or have no other substitute (like “Okyaku-san”—’Sir/Madam’ when working in customer service—or “Sensei”), then “anata” is an acceptable, respectful alternative that you can use as a last resort.6

But it does not end there. For example, anata is also used outside of marriages to convey anger or a sense of superiority over the person one is addressing. You can hear politicians use it when arguing with each other in Japanese parliamentary debates, or in schools between close friends or teacher and student. In the latter cases, there’s usually a bit of affection in it, perhaps akin to exasperation. The key issue to note is that these uses of anata and anta can also appear within a marriage. Where a woman’s standard way of addressing her husband is “anata,” the use of “anta” might reflect anger or exasperation. Alternatively, if she normally uses his name, then she may switch to “anata” in a fight. And finally, these two terms are also used when scolding one’s children.

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Miyo with Shin in episode 5, and with Kiku in episode 9…

Given all this variation, it’s actually pretty interesting to examine how Miyo’s way of addressing Shin changed over time. She started off with “anata,” which she used through to episode 10 (with one instance of “anta” in episode 8). When they have been married for several years, however, we find that she had switched to “anta.” Even more interesting is the contrast with how she addressed Kiku—it remained “Kiku-san” or “anata.” As the friend who studies how anata is used pointed out, it seems to be a pretty neutral term overall, conveying different extra-linguistic information depending on whom Miyo is speaking to. That said, as my fellow Rakugo fan—who goes by originalforeignmind on reddit—pointed out, her use of “anta” does tell you that Shin is her husband.

The most telling piece of cultural evidence, however, comes from considering how else Miyo might have addressed Shin. “Otou-san”—the casual way of addressing one’s father in Japanese, something like “Papa”—and its variants like “Tou-chan” comprise another way in which Japanese women address their husbands. This is based on the idea that the family’s way of speaking with and about each other switches to the perspective of the youngest child, who is the only one addressed consistently by name. In fact, this switch in perspective can be observed in other cultures, too—I’ve heard “Pa” and “Ma” being used in my own family, and even the equivalents of “Onee-chan” and “Onii-chan” in lieu of names within my extended family. To me, the use of “Tou-chan” and “Kaa-chan” would signal that the relationship has the level of affection suggested by “Darling” and similar terms like “Dear” or “Honey.” As our online discussion meandered through this facet of language, originalforeignmind and I agreed that Miyo would never have called Shin “Tou-chan.” Their relationship simply did not have that level of affection at that point in time.

How, then, would I personally translate Miyo’s second “anta” in episode 12? Based on how I interpreted their relationship, I’d have left it ’empty’ and substituted an “I—”. I hope I’ve explained the Japanese side well enough, but I can elaborate on why from the English side if anyone’s interested. And if you speak Japanese yourself, I’d certainly like to know what you would have done.

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“I—I’m sorry… I’m really sorry…”

Of course, the caveat is that this is the story that Yakumo has told us. It’s his version of what transpired, which is necessarily based only on what he knew or what he wanted to share with his audience…

“Can I walk you home?” — A ‘linguistic routine’ you might have missed

And finally, I come to something that was completely new to me, which originalforeignmind enlightened me about just a few days ago. Returning again to the first time that Kiku went to see Miyo in episode 4, most English viewers seemed to think that the following exchange was yet another example of her pushing herself onto him, with him resisting and trying to get away:

Apparently, however, the “Shall I walk you home?” “Maybe, if you come visit me again.” exchange is a set farewell routine that a geisha has with her customers. When Miyo says, “O-yakusoku na no,” she’s emphasising to Kiku that this is the custom, one that she has been taught as part of her training. The key to this is in the grammar: the “na no” sentence ending is used “when a speaker gives new information that has not been shared with the listener yet.” A better way to convey this might have been “It’s a ‘promise’.” If Miyo had meant to say “That’s a promise!” as the subtitle had it, she would probably have used “yakusoku yo” or “yakusoko ne.” In other words, rather than her being pushy, this exchange is merely what linguists would call a ‘linguistic routine’, something akin to the English greeting of “Hi, how’re you going?” “Good, yourself?”

Hence, rather than pushing her supposedly unwanted advances onto Kiku, Miyo was sharing a little lesson about geisha etiquette with him. She could have wanted to educate him, since he appeared to have had little experience with women in her profession. However, originalforeignmind suggests that the most likely explanation was that Miyo was indirectly reminding Kiku that she was treating him as one of her customers. This scene in episode 4 thus highlights that he had, in fact, come to see her on his own accord. And even if it is by her invitation, that he is the one who will choose whether to see her again…and the implication of the scene in episode 5—which the rain indicates probably took place around May or June—is that he had indeed taken up that invitation in the intervening months.

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A show about performing

These are just three little things that helped make this half of Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū the first TV series that I’ve ever given a full 10 out of 10 to on MAL. Admittedly, it was only after I started listening very carefully to the acting that I started rewatching the show and realising all the little cues I missed. In particular, I have to point to the emotion in Kiku’s voice in episode 8 when he told Shin that he loved Miyokichi—until then, I had been unsure just how Kiku had felt about Miyo. But the feelings that Ishida Akira packed into that one line of “This is the greatest lie of my life” told me what I needed to know, and prompted me to seek out all the other little nuances I’d missed. And that process has led me to my interpretation of the show and its three core relationships, which seems to stand at great odds with most of the rest of the English-speaking fandom.

I cannot fault either the show or other viewers for this. All those little nuances—the three I’ve mentioned above, and many many more—are so very Japanese that I’m not sure I know any person raised outside of Japan who would have picked up on all of them. In fact, elements like the ‘geisha farewell conversation’ are arguably so obscure that even native Japanese people may also have misunderstood it. But this example also links the core nature of language to the a major theme running through this show: communication is made up of performances, as we take on a range of roles in the relationships we have with others. As so many others have previously pointed out, Rakugo Shinjū is a show about performing. But the depth of the story being acted out upon our screens goes far deeper than you might think.

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It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see what’s happened to both Kiku and Konatsu since…

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And that’s one of the reasons I’m really really looking forward to the second half, which I hope will be about healing those wounds! Should we expect it next year, perhaps?

I am immensely grateful to originalforeignmind, who generously shared what she understands of Japanese culture, language and tradition as it pertained to both Rakugo Shinjuu and ERASED in our long discussion in a thread she created on reddit. The only reason I have been able to return to the linguistics terms I used so long ago was because she and my RL friend were there to answer my questions and share their own thoughts. So I hope the rest of you will find it as illuminating as I have, and I look forward to your thoughts and critique!


  1. For example, although they are basically the same question, “May I enquire as to what time the meeting begins?” and “What time does the meeting start?” say different things about the speaker and his/her relationship with the listener. 
  2. The speculation can run wild, though. In the first few episodes of the Sound! Euphonium radio show, that’s all the seiyuu quartet seemed to talk about with regards to Kumiko and Shuuichi… 
  3. from Shinagawa Lovers Suicide, the Rakugo story that Kiku tells in episode 6. 
  4. Anata is the more polite form that might be used amongst the mid- to upper-classes, whilst anta is coarser form that might be used by women in more rural areas. One of my friends, who’s actually studying this for her doctorate, told me that using “anata” is in fact quite a dated practice. Younger women are more likely to use their partner’s first name, with or without the -san suffix, or a nickname based on it. 
  5. This also applies to men—note, for example, that Matsuda is the surname of Yakumo’s housekeeper. However, the masculine pronouns of kimi and omae are less restricted in use. You can hear Kiku and Shin use “omae-san,” which is a polite way for men to say “you.” 
  6. Interestingly enough, “anta” is also how Yotarō addressed Yakumo in episode 1 at least once or twice. I don’t really know enough about his usage of it, but I suspect it can be classified under ‘a respectful way to address someone whose name you don’t know’. 

About karice
MAG fan, amateur translator and political scientist in training. I also love musicals, photography, travel and believe it or not, the game of cricket. よろしく!

7 Responses to Hidden Meanings: Language and Culture in Rakugo Shinju

  1. Romy says:

    I was actually feeling very empty this saturday morning not having my addictive dose of “showa…” Any other anime of this new season seem bleak compared to this……so i truely loved your explanations which iwill keep in mind the second time watching it……….

    Like

    • karice says:

      I know exactly how you feel!! That’s probably why I’m going to start slowly reading the manga. I’m hoping not to get into the second half before the anime does…but that’s going to be difficult because I already know a few details about it…

      First up, however, I’ll be picking up my BD for volume one soon, and I’m excited to watch the director’s cut of the first episode, which is apparently quite a lot longer!

      Like

  2. Dollar says:

    This was a great read!! I can’t believe there are so many nuances to anata – before, I just kind of knew that it was a polite way of addressing someone/a husband (as most English google search results will tell you); I had no idea it could be used condescendingly, or that there are just so many LAYERS to addressing someone i.e. switching it up when you’re angry at them.

    As for the geisha conversation part, Kumota Haruko must be super literate if it’s obscure even among Japanese speakers (although I suppose you can tell she is just generally from the rakugo pieces she includes).

    I’m looking forward to the next season too! (Sorry if this ends up being a repeat comment but I wasn’t sure it posted)

    Like

    • karice says:

      Thanks ^^ I’ve had a lot of fun discussing it, and I’ve probably failed to convey even half of all the little nuances that have me constantly going back looking for more. The different uses of anata and anta were something that I kind of knew in the back of my mind (I’ve used anta before myself, in the ‘exasperated, joking kind of anger’ sense), but talking about it with my friend was really really eye-opening.

      I started hunting for Rakugo interviews as well, once the show ended, and most of them are actually author interviews. I was interested in reading some anime-creator ones, because I want to find out more about the additions they made to the show–e.g. most of episode 6–and why and how they went about doing that, i.e. did they work with Kumota-sensei. But her own interviews look really interesting too–I’ve only skimmed them so far, but there is one where she shows a few pages of the books of notes she’s taken on rakugo and the other things she’s researched for this series. When mangaka say they research something, they really do research it!

      (and it was a repeat comment, but don’t worry about it–I’ve done it before myself, elsewhere. I’ve set this blog up such that your first comment needs to be approved, but after this, your comments should appear immediately. ^^)

      Like

      • Dollar says:

        Yeah, I did kind of pick up on the anta thing from other anime – it’s not too difficult, I think, even for someone who’s never learned any Japanese to pick up on the tone and associate them with the pronouns. There’s so much more to it that I expected, though… I should probably put more effort into self-studying Japanese…

        Are you planning to translate some of the interviews then? They sound like they would be great to read!

        Like

        • karice says:

          True, tone of voice is important. But I also remember seeing a lot of comments from English-speakers about how Japanese is quite ‘flat’ in terms of intonation. That makes me wonder just how much the average viewer will pick up if the translator doesn’t represent the additional meaning in the subs as well…

          I’m not sure yet. I’ve got quite a challenge for what I’ve said I’d write about this week, so I’m trying to take things one at a time at the moment!

          Like

  3. Pingback: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu Season 1 (2016) | Popcorn By Proxy

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