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Oh My My

From ‘my boom’ to ‘my pace’, Japanese people are obsessed with ‘my’ words.

By 3 min read 1

As anyone has walked around Japan and seen the meaningless English t-shirts will know, Japanese people have a strange fondness for English words. This love of English phrases goes beyond simply using them to decorate clothing; English phrases also decorate the language, offering ways to say things that are tricky to say in Japanese.

Some of the most common used ‘decorative’ English words are the words that begin with マイ. For the most part these words are used to indicate that something belongs to the speaker or listener. So while Japanese has plenty of words for cars and houses, if the speaker wants to talk specifically talk about their house or car, マイカー (My car) or マイホーム (My home) are used.

One of the interesting things about this vocabulary point is that the マイ in the sentence doesn’t have a grammatical meaning. Therefore sentences like 私のマイホームは関西です (My house is in Kansai) and あなたはマイカーで通勤しましたの? (Do you commute in your own car?) are grammatically possible in Japanese even though the literal translations would be a mess of possessives.

マイ can also be used in a more abstract way to refer to someone’s attitude or behavior. Of course, when things get a bit more abstract in Japanese, they get significantly more complicated. One of the most telling differences between the use of these words in Japanese and English are that the Japanese meanings and the English ones are often very different.

While artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and, ahem, Fred Durst have sung about the benefits of finding ‘my way’ in English, the Japanese version ゴーイングマイウェイ (I’m going my own way) can equally be used to celebrate someone’s individuality and devil-may-care attitude or can be a subtle way to infer that someone is acting selfishly against the good of the group.

A more common expression with a similar meaning is マイペース (Doing things at my own pace). Interestingly, マイペース is usually perceived to have a slightly negative meaning in Japan. It usually infers that someone does things whenever they want to instead of when they should be done!

Often it can be hard to recognize what Japanese people are trying to say from the English words that make up the expression. Instead you have to learn the マイ-words as if they were Japanese words. マイブーム made from ‘my’ and ‘booming’ is a good example of this. マイブーム describes something that you are really into at that time except with the added caveat that it doesn’t necessarily mean that that thing is popular in Japan.

Again the sentence doesn’t follow English grammar rules, so sentences like あなたのマイブームは何ですか (What are you really into at the moment?) are perfectly acceptable.

Because of the popularity of the マイ-words, companies often use them to try and share some of their popularity. Some recent examples include: NTT’s マイライン landline services; the Instant Ramen Museum’s マイカップ which offers visitors the chance to design their own cups of instant ramen; Starbucks’ マイカップ which is a reusable cup that gives customers a small discount; and a special day-pass for the subway in Osaka which is called a ノーマイカーデー (No to your own car) pass.

The ecological movement has also piggybacked on the マイ-words’ popularity. マイバッグ describes an eco-bag that people bring with them so that they don’t use too many plastic bags and マイ箸 which are used to describe the reusable chopsticks that people carry to save wood.

Therefore, it is probably no surprise that when the government launched its recent scheme to unify all the citizens’ activities under one number, the name it chose was マイナンバー (My unique identity number). For some reason, the マイ-words seem to tap into a part of the Japanese psyche that other 和製英語 (English-looking words made in Japan) words don’t. So regardless of whether you want to subtly chide someone or talk about you eco-warrior habits, there is almost certainly a マイ-word for it.

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  • أبا الحكم says:

    I think it is because of the lack on individual-related wording in Japanese language.
    It might also indicate how much Western culture is affecting Japanese by adding focus on the individual rather than the group.

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