One of the first things you learn in any introductory Japanese language class is how to introduce yourself. In my opinion, the reason for this is the many cultural and syntactical elements that become obvious to even a beginner. I am going to dissect the following paragraph in order to demonstrate some of these elements.
Here is an example of a very basic and simple self-introduction:
Japanese Version (without use of kanji so that it is easier for anyone to read):
Hajimemash(i)te. Misheru des(u). Mishigan daigaku no gak(u)see des(u). gonensee des(u). senmon wa gengogaku des(u). nijyuunisai des(u). Doozo yorosh(i)k(u).
The letters within parentheses indicate that they are eliminated in speech and the bold indicates a deviation from the Japanese. The second “e” of “gak(u)see” is written as “i” in Japanese; this is because in order to extend a syllable that ends with an “e” sound you write the い even though it sounds like “e”. This same instance occurs with the “o” sound replacing the う in “doozo”. The “n” of “senmon” actually sounds like an “m” when spoken aloud, however, most speakers – even native ones – are not consciously aware of this. Lastly, the は is pronounced like “wa” because of its function in this particular sentence where it is acting as a subject marking particle.
How do you do? I am Michelle. I am a University of Michigan student. I am a fifth year student. My major is linguistics. I am twenty-two years old. Nice to meet you.
The bolded words indicate a difficulty in translating from Japanese to English. Hajimemashite is translated as “How do you do?,” however, this is not a literal translation. Hajimemashite is simply a ritualistic phrase that is said by Japanese speakers the first time they meet someone – and is roughly equivalent to the English version of someone asking, “How do you do?” The same is true of the translation of “doozo yoroshiku” as “Nice to meet you”. The Japanese phrase would literally translate as something like, “I put myself in your care” or “Please watch over me,” because the context greatly affects the meaning of the phrase. “Mishigan daigaku” can be translated as either University of Michigan or a Michigan university and depends on the context to determine which it is. The words “student” and “my” are implicit in the Japanese version, but must be made explicit in the English translation.
Looking at this self-introduction from a cultural point of view, you may notice several aspects. First, you would most certainly bow before or after your introduction (or both.) Bowing is an essential part of the Japanese culture that may seem somewhat foreign to outsiders. Depending on to whom you are introducing yourself, you would bow more deeply (formal) or more shallowly (informal.) I would discuss bowing in more depth here, however, it really deserves its own post.
Secondly, the beginning and closing phrases for this self-introduction are static phrases that describe the relationship between the speaker and the listener. Hajimemashite is a phrase meaning something about the two (or more) people meeting for the first time and beginning their relationship. This seems to indicate a much more personalized interaction between the two parties than the phrase “How do you do,” that is used in the English language and this is further developed in the closing phrase, “doozo yoroshiku,” which emphasizes the speaker’s dependence on the guidance of the listener. This closing phrase also demonstrates the speaker’s awareness of and respect for the listener’s superiority in rank or seniority. This is further demonstrated by the speaker’s use of more formal language (desu in place of da, etc.) which is commonly used by a personal of lesser rank to someone of higher rank or possibly between equals that do not have a very close relationship. This type of interaction between and awareness of ranks is another integral aspect of the Japanese culture where the language is conjugated based on the difference in ranks between the speaker and the listener.