April Fools: How to Talk About Big or Little Lies in Japanese

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On April 12, 2018
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Photo by Becca Takano

April is always the trickster’s month. While the エイプリルフール (April Fool) tradition remains relatively unknown in Japan, it can be amusing to introduce this concept in the classroom or workplace — if only to get your students and coworkers to have fun working out and calling you on your fibs.

For learners of Japanese, this can be a great time to brush up on your vocabulary related to “lying” and make learning a little more entertaining.

One of the popular questions in exams is the verb that is associated with lying in Japanese. This often catches learners out, as the verb is (うそを)ける (to lie). You will also find this in the compound noun 嘘つけ or 嘘つき (liar). As a noun, 嘘 can also form unusual compounds such as 嘘なき (crocodile tears) or 嘘八百はっぴゃく (full of lies).

Most intermediate to advanced learners will be familiar with the prefix っ that basically means “totally.” This can be added to the beginning of colors to make words like 真っあか (completely red) and真っしろ)な (completely white). Intriguingly, it can also be put in front of lies to indicate that they are 100 percent 真っ赤な嘘 and 真っ白な嘘 (completely blatant lie and completely harmless lie, respectively).

The opposite of a 白嘘 is, of course, a serious lie. To make it clear that a falsehood is not acceptable, it is often called a 深刻しんこくな嘘 (serious lie) or even a 悪質あくしつな嘘 (malicious lie).

Of course, much like English, the Japanese often expresses how grave or trivial a fabrication  is by putting it into a proverb. One of my favorites is: “嘘と坊主ぼうずあたまはゆったことがない. (I would never utter a lie.)” due to the hilarious thinking that went into it. The ゆった part of this proverb can be written as ゆいった>ゆった (to tie), which is a homophone (-ish..) of った (to say). This double meaning reveals the true comedy of the expression, as it is a play on words combining the sentences 嘘は言ったことがない (I would never tell a lie) with 坊主ぼうずの頭はゆいったことがない (Buddha’s head has never been tied).

Japanese puns, folks!

Overall, the Japanese attitude to lying reflects the culture of these isles. Much like the specter of Christianity informs a lot of English proverbs, Japanese proverbs are full of references to Buddhism.

While 嘘と坊主の頭はゆったことがない is the type of religious punning that could only exist in Japanese, the interesting differences in culture between Japan and England can be nicely seen in another proverb: 嘘からたまこと. While in the U.K., the importance of the British sense of humor leads us to say that: “Many a true word is found in jest.” In Japan, however,  嘘から出たまこと means that “many a truth comes from a falsehood” — a subtle but interesting difference in cultural language between the two countries.

Similarly, a lot of the other proverbs show the Japanese cultural attitude towards degrees of deception. These can include:

  • 嘘つきは泥棒どろぼうはじまり. (Lies are the first steps toward becoming a thief.)
  • 嘘と牡丹餅ぼたもちついたことない. (No sweet rice bean cake without sweat.)
  • 嘘をえば地獄じごくく (The road to hell is paved with lies.)

The last one is a personal favorite, though all reveal insights into how the Japanese can view the world — and would also make excellent heavy metal album titles!

Overall, the Japanese attitude to lying reflects the culture of these isles. Much like the specter of Christianity informs a lot of English proverbs, Japanese proverbs are full of references to Buddhism. Equally as interesting is the fact that Japanese words often express similar ideas to English, but in a fascinatingly different way.

So, while both countries view lies differently, in this month of playful deceit and fictions, it’s worth taking the time to realize how falsifications and exaggerations can expose the similarities — and differences — between the two cultures.

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