One of the most difficult language problems I have encountered in Japan came out of nowhere. While getting my things ready at my desk for the day ahead, I noticed that my co-worker was looking unusually pale that day. Assuming that she had caught one of the many viruses going around, I joked that she was a good worker for coming in despite her illness.
Unfortunately my offhand comment was horrendously poorly timed as she told me that her father had recently died after a long illness. The shock coupled with my lack of study about such situations left me dumbstruck. I literally couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say in Japanese. Luckily my co-worker spoke English, so I was able to simply use the English phrases to save myself from falling into a deep pit I could potentially have put myself in.
This kind of situation creates a lot of problems for learners, as when we study using textbooks, we are seldom taught the essential words needed for these unexpected social situations. Take for example, the standard textbook response to problems: なんとも気の毒です (That is pitiable misfortune). In this situation, it would be considered unnatural and even too blunt.
If I had known better, I would have known that Japanese has a number of expressions for these situations. For example, 心よりお悔やみ申し上げます (From the bottom of my heart, I would like to give you condolences) is a common written form as well as このたびは誠に御愁傷様でございます (On this occasion I feel your pain).
The phrase 御愁傷様 (Literally, honored griever) in the second sentence is often used as a way to talk about someone in mourning. The 愁傷 in 御愁傷様 is a useful word in Japanese that means something like grief or regret in English. It is often found in phrases that talk about your feelings upon hearing that someone has died such as お母堂の訃報に接し、心よりお悔やみ申し上げます (I feel your grief upon hearing news of your mother’s death).
Of course, all this talk about death is an extreme example. You are far more likely to encounter a coworker with a parent or loved one in hospital. If things are a bit less serious and the person is simply ill, then お大事に is far more useful. Usually 大事 means a serious matter, but in this case, it means ‘get well soon.’
A closely related idea to お大事に is お元気で. In this case, you are saying that you hope someone will be healthy. A useful phrase is 早くお元気になってください which means ‘I hope you will return to full health quickly’.
気をつける is a very common phrase for other situations. 気をつけて literally means ‘take care’ such as in the common phrase 頭に気をつけて (Watch your head). You will often find this saying used when someone is planning a trip abroad or similar.
Of course, it shouldn’t be negative things that you need to prepare for. There are also the pleasant occurrences. Weddings, engagements and other happy occasions are all great chances for you to experience Japanese people at their best. For most of these おめでとう is the most useful phrase such as in ご結婚おめでとうございます (Congratulations on your wedding).
It is always useful to add some of these kinds of phrases to your vocabulary just in case some of these unusual situations occur. Sometimes you may be surprised by some of the situations that you find yourself in. What are some of the situations that have surprised or confused our readers and how did you deal with them?