This week's Cultural Conumndrums (from The Daily Yomiuri) focuses on the ambiguity of the term "hazukashii":
After the abovementioned meeting, one friendly and plainspoken senior colleague, told me bluntly but cheerfully, "Elwood-sensei, you were late!" I explained that I got the time mixed up and added, Hazukashii desu ne. ("I'm ashamed.") I had felt mortified walking in with everyone already seated, but I wondered whether I would have felt as self-conscious if it had happened in the United States, and also whether I would have made a point of alluding to my discomfiture if I had been speaking in English.
Sometimes when I'm speaking Japanese the words that pop out of my mouth surprise me. Did I just say that? Was I "ashamed" of a simple mistake, especially one that was my first and only such slip-up? Or did I say I was ashamed because it had seemed to be to be the right thing to declare in Japanese? And if that was the case, were my intuitions about what seemed proper in the situation actually valid?
Part of the problem is with the word hazukashii. My various dictionaries translate it mainly as "ashamed," a pretty heavy word in English. My students use "ashamed" when they want to say hazukashii, which leads to some rather over-the-top formulations.
For example, when we were talking about how Japanese beauty parlor attendants always ask whether the temperature of the water is OK when rinsing hair, one student said in English that even if it's too hot or cold she never says so because she's "ashamed."
It's hard to imagine feeling shame about water temperature preferences. (You like cooler water!? I'm appalled!) The word she probably should have used was simply "shy" or perhaps "embarrassed." I, too, was more embarrassed than ashamed by my tardiness.
My unconscious use of the "h-word" led me to examine once again the notion proposed by Ruth Benedict in her classic The Chrysanthemum and the Sword that Japan is a "shame culture" relying on "external sanctions for self-respect" as opposed to the United States, which is a "guilt culture," based on "internalized conviction of sin."
It also led me to dip yet another time into Anna Wierzbicka's fascinating study Emotions Across Languages and Cultures. According to Wierzbicka, "shame" involves a sense that someone can know something "bad" about one, while "embarrassment" is related to another person witnessing something over which one has no control (not necessarily "bad"). "Guilt" on the other hand, is associated with feeling that one has done something "bad" but requires no audience.
The word that's generally thought of as corresponding to a feeling of "guilt" in Japan is zai-akukan. But in exactly the same way that translations of hazukashii into "ashamed" sometimes come off sounding too extreme, substitutions of zaiakukan for "guilty" when used about something trivial usually backfire because zaiakukan is more closely related than "guilty" to real crime or sin.
My Japanese students once looked at some data I had collected about what Americans thought they would say if presented with an unanticipated Christmas gift. One man wrote, "Wow, that's really nice. You're making me feel guilty because I didn't get you anything!" This use of "guilty" flabbergasted my seminar members, seeming just as excessively intense to them as their use of "ashamed" does to me from time to time.
Let's see...I was guilty of forgetfulness, not exactly a sin but hardly a good thing, either. I couldn't control the unpleasant situation of sauntering in late because I had not foreseen it, obviously, and this surprise element certainly contributed to my distress. My reputation as a responsible, hardworking colleague is important to me and so I did indulge a bit in hand-wringing and soul-searching along the lines of "Why was I so stupid?"
The more I pondered, the more confused I became about what I had been feeling, but I was pretty sure that whatever it was, it had been influenced in part by living in Japan and by the notion that I should be aware of social norms and demonstrate through words that I was aware, especially when I transgressed them.
Bottom line: I won't (I hope!) be late again. In all senses of the word, that would be a real shame.
I have always felt that "ashamed " and "embarassed" are two quite different states of feeling, and my Japanese friends contend that they know the difference of meaning according to circumstance. But as mentioned in the article above, it is almost always translated as "ashamed" by the speaker in English-which seems way too severe to me in most situations.