Cultural Conundrums / Slouching Toward Self-aggrandizement: Understated Japanese Boasting

Self-aggrandizement is rare in Japan, perhaps because family members won’t let you get away with even the teensiest whiff of it. That’s my takeaway after taking particular enjoyment in two commercials for the home appliance retail giant Yamada Denki.

One aired about three years ago featuring Shihori Kanjiya and Naoki Matayoshi as a married couple. The commercial opens with a short but humorous eight seconds of conversational interchange. In the first frame, the viewer sees Matayoshi, seemingly motionless and gazing into space, as he says, “There’s not only one.” The camera pans out to show the couple walking up a sloping road in a residential neighborhood, as Kanjiya looks toward him with a puzzled, “Hmm?” Matayoshi says — musingly or pompously, depending on your take — “There’s not only one reason to live, right?” To this, Kanjiya replies briskly, “Aren’t we going to see washing machines?”

Kanjiya’s words appear to gently rib Matayoshi’s portentous notion, juxtaposing the high-flown contemplation with the normal goings-on of daily life, impeccably encapsulating a certain loving-teasing dynamic in marital unions between dreamers and realists. The husband is not bragging, certainly, but his inclination to hold forth in this way shows a certain degree of self-importance. The wife is having none of it. The vibe is amused not irritated, yet she’s definitely calling him out on his words.

In a more recent portrayal in Yamada Denki’s “Making life happy, everything” series, the two actors are once again husband and wife, visiting the husband’s sister and her family. As the sister-in-law, played by Risa Sudo, shows off her new kitchen to the wife, she happily confides, “Despite looking like this, I like cooking!” It’s not clear at all what she means by the first part of her comment, since she looks perfectly likely to enjoy cooking even if not apron-clad. Nevertheless, her brother, the occasional philosopher, dryly remarks to his nephews, “Liking and being good at are different, though, right?”

In both commercials, the speakers can’t really be accused of self-praise, but even the slight drawing of attention to themselves triggers the wife/brother to gently poke fun in response. Such faint forays into the sphere of self-aggrandizement appear to be the norm, based on examples analyzed by the applied linguist Hiroko Itakura.

Itakura has made a study of naturally occurring self-praise in face-to-face conversations in the Basic Transcription System for Japanese (BTSJ) corpus, making use of 25 conversations between men and 25 conversations between women on non-task-related topics for a total of around 17 hours of conversation. Among the 50 conversations, Itakura identified 63 instances of self-praise in 21 conversations, with the remainder including none. But much of this “self-praise” is so unassuming that it might not match an English speaker’s notion of this self-enhancing activity.

Itakura first slots the self-praise into three categories based on a taxonomy developed by applied linguists Wei Ren and Yaping Guo, finding that 25% is explicit self-praise, 46% is modified, and 29% is implicit. But her main concern is in examining the micro-elements in the discourse that enable the self-praise to happen at all, like hedging, self-denigration, disclaimers about how the praiseworthy thing is transitory, or slipping it in as a side comment.

What struck me most forcefully, however, was how inconspicuous the boasting is in the six examples provided by Itakura. The first two examined are the most overt although still fairly mild: a man admitting he’s popular with women at the moment but afraid that his popularity will wane, and another man telling his friend that he threw the ball quite fast during practice. Two other instances of self-praise are brought up as related topics to the matter at hand, and don’t appear aimed at provoking admiration or displaying self-love: a woman discloses her company has employees who are graduates of an elite university when the subject of such graduates is raised, and a man who has dropped out of school mentions that at the time his grades had been good. In another example, one woman tells another that she has passed an employment test as a side comment after previous remarks related to studying.

The final example really expanded my understanding of the subtle parameters of self-praise in Japanese. Itakura includes an extended section of a conversation that relates to how an older sister pays for the speaker when taking the train together. Rather than self-praise, this is something I’d merely label as enthusiastic sibling appreciation. Nevertheless, the listener also appears to view it as some kind of mild boasting, as she chimes in to praise the sister’s behavior actively, calling it “good,” “cool” (twice), and “amazing,” reactions that seem rather over the top. Sure, “My sister always takes me to a chic French restaurant when we meet up” is a bit of a brag, but “My sister pushes the button for two people when buying train tickets?” That’s a stretch for me.

To even detect potential self-praise in Japanese discourse, you have to be finely attuned to understated utterances that in a roundabout way end up reflecting well on the speaker. It’s a communicative style that might indeed make life happy, everything.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.