Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Famous Word in Japan

Farm Tomita, Hokkaido
There's an English word that's very famous in Japan. This is the word  "FAMOUS."

"Famous" is "the word" when the Japanese want to describe anything related to Japan- food, place, person, movie, shows, thing, festival. It's like everything in Japan is famous.

I must admit that there are indeed many famous Japanese things, places,  food, shows and festival. Even people who haven't been to Japan can probably name things related to Japan such as sushi, cherry blossoms, Mt. Fuji, anime, manga, kimono, World War II, etc. etc. But there are also a lot of things that Japanese people claim to be "famous" when in fact, other Japanese don't even know about them.

But, how do I know that Famous is NOT Famous at all?

I've been handling group business classes. All students are Japanese. Several times, I ask them to talk about Japanese culture including food, places and whatever they want to talk about. Half of the things students mention are described as "famous" but half of the students don't know about it. So, how can something be famous when it's not even known to a group with less than 10 people living in the same place?

A scholarly article also mentioned how fame is related to image recall. When more people can instantly imagine something- a food, a festival, a place, a concept etc, then that thing can be qualified as "famous." But when most people can't imagine what a name or a word means, then it's not really "famous." There were many instances when we had to resort to our smart phones to see the image of what a student described as a "famous food," "famous place," "famous onsen," "famous festival, "famous person." If that was really famous, we don't have to do that, right?

Even in my private classes, my students use the word "famous" all the time.

Me: What did you do last weekend?
Student: I had dinner with my friends in a famous restaurant.
Me: Really? Where is that?
Student: In ______. They're famous for (food).
Me: I see. What else did you do?
Student: I went to a famous onsen. (or anyplace they've been to.)

Everything just seems famous, I feel I'm actually living in a very famous land with really famous people.

But when I ask Japanese friends or other expats who lived in Japan for sometime, they have no idea what I am talking about. What my students said as "famous" is not famous at all.

But why, oh why, do the Japanese like the word "famous"? 

Here's a curious observation. The Japanese use the word "famous" all the time but "popular", or "well-known." I rarely heard a Japanese use these terms. Possible explanation is the word "famous" is shorter and easier to pronounce. But that's just a personal opinion.

Just from my observations, I think they use it all the time for two reasons.

First, "famous" is one of the few English adjectives Japanese people learned in school. The English textbooks used in school are peppered with "famous" when presenting a place in Japan, a food in Japan or a Japanese person. So I'm supposing that all Japanese people are familiar with the"famous" unlike with the words like "lovely," or "relaxing.

Second, the Japanese use "famous" probably because it can be used with almost anything. I mean compare it with other adjectives. It's more acceptable to say, "This is a famous mochi, " than,  "This is a beautiful mochi" or "This is an exciting mochi." "Famous" can be widely used like the words "good," "bad" and "nice."

So when is "famous" really "famous" in Japan? 

The term, "famous" just like other adjectives is still relative. It's hard to quantify. But with my experience here in Japan, I agree that something or someone is "famous" when Japanese people in the same generation know it. Or, when a great number of people living in the same area know it. And something is especially famous, when foreigners know it.

When something does not fall in any of these categories, I'm supposing it's not really famous. 
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