Saturday, November 16, 2013

I learned something new about いただきます and ごちそうさま

I imagine that most people who are at all interested in Japan and Japanese culture somewhere along the line learn about the customs of saying “Itadakimasu ( いただきま )” before eating andGochisousama deshita (ごちそうさまでした)” after meals.  I believe I first learned these expressions from Episode 2 of Neon Genesis Evangelion; when Shinji moves in with Misato and they have dinner to celebrate, Misato cries out いただきます!before swilling her beloved beer.  The translation provided in the English subtitles was “Let’s eat!”

For a while, I didn’t give it much more thought than that.  Then during my second year here, I started teaching a very bright young engineer whose English skills were far surpassed by her knowledge of a wide range of topics.  She asked me how to say いただきます!in English, and I told her that my first Japanese textbook translated it literally as “I am about to receive.”  She thought about it and said that this seemed an incomplete interpretation because いただきます is keigo, or honorific language, the kind that a person would use toward someone of higher status than the speaker him/herself.  So, my student suggested, “I am about to receive with respect” would be a better translation.

I gave it no further thought for years, until this week, I learned something new about いただきます and ごちそうさま.  One of my high school students, the granddaughter of a Buddhist priest, explained to me that while both phrases are ways of giving thanks, いただきます expresses appreciation to the creatures that died for you to eat and ごちそうさま expresses gratitude to the people who made this meal possible, not just those immediately responsible for paying the bills and preparing the food, but also the farmers, hunters, butchers, and everybody in between. 

Not everybody in the class knew this, but most did.  It seems to be something that has to be taught, to be learned.  It took me a long time to come upon.
I wonder if the subject ever came up in my Japanese class (I took Japanese 101 and 102 before coming here). . .Maybe I was distracted for the moment and missed it. 

One of the most often asked questions for me is how to translate these two expressions, or what the English equivalents would be.  A lot of people ask if “Let’s eat!” is the custom back home; I don’t know where they pick that up. . .Maybe that’s how most translators for English subtitles interpret it.  I explain that I don’t think “Let’s eat!” properly conveys the gratitude intended in the Japanese phrases; if anything, saying grace would be the closest equivalent that I could think of.  ( Some years ago, one of my students disagreed with me on the function of saying grace, arguing that Western people tend to thank God for things while the Japanese thank people.  I didn’t completely disagree with him but  added that who is being thanked and appreciated in a prayer of grace depends on the person saying and thinking it; but I saw his point. )

Anyway, it was a nice thing for me to learn this week. . .I'm trying to make more time to write down all the things that students teach me.


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