Arguably, Japanese is an ambiguous language – however, it is not the grammar or vocabulary that make it ambiguous, but how we express things in the language. This post explains one of the causes of ambiguity: “omission of words” in Japanese.
1. Omission of Words
In Japanese, it is very common to omit words and/or information from a sentence. To begin with, let’s see the following example where a child talks to his/her mother:
This “sentence” literally means “Mom, tea!”, but actually means “Mom, (I wanna have a cup of) tea!”. Since it is sort of obvious what the child wants to do with tea (i.e., to drink), the mother can easily understand what her child needs despite the lack of information. Similarly, when we notice that someone (e.g., 田中 (Tanaka)) has gone somewhere, we say, “あれ、田中は？”, which literally means “Ah? Tanaka is/does?” and actually means “Where has Tanaka gone?”. This is a shortened sentence for “あれ、田中はどこに行った？” and the latter part “どこに行った” (“where (one) has gone”) is omitted because it is sort of obvious, i.e., what else you would ask about the person who has just gone somewhere. Instead of omitting the verb, it’s also common to omit the subject and say “あれ、どこ行った？” (“ah, where have gone”) to ask where the person(s) are who have just disappeared.
As in these examples, we often omit subjects and/or objects of a sentence whenever they are obvious. For instance, when we say “I will call you tomorrow” in Japanese, we’d say “明日(あした)電話(でんわ)するね” meaning “will call tomorrow, OK?” rather than saying “私はあなたに明日電話するね。”, meaning “I will call you tomorrow, OK?”. In this case, the sentence-ending particle “ね” plays a very important role, as it indicates that the speaker asks for the listener’s agreement and makes it clear that the speaker is asking to phone the listener tomorrow. Similarly, it is also very common to omit possessive cases such as “私の (my)” and “あなたの (your)” in Japanese. When referring to one’s boyfriend/girlfriend, for example, we just say “彼氏(かれし)/彼女 (かのじょ)“, not “私の彼氏/彼女 (my gf/bf)” or “あなたの彼氏/彼女 (your bf/gf)”unless you want to make it very clear.
Sometimes, we omit words from a sentence to leave it ambiguous on purpose. For instance, when we talk about a hospital rumoured to be haunted, we say “あの病院(びょういん)、出（で）るらしいよ” which means “(I) have heard that (ghosts) appear in that hospital”. As in this sentence, when talking about ghosts, we often leave the word “ghost” unmentioned to make the statement mysterious; this is very similar to the usage of “You-Know-Who” in Harry Potter. Similarly, we also tend to omit words when we talk about sensitive matters, e.g., when we see our old friend after a while who has changed dramatically and looks like another person, we may ask him/her in a joking way, “いじってないよね?”, meaning “You haven’t fixed (your face), have you (by having plastic surgery)?”, where we intentionally drop the word “顔 (かお)” (face) to avoid being direct and blunt.
2. 言いさし文: “Unfinished Sentences” (Advanced Topic)
Sometimes, we even omit a conclusive part of a sentence and leave the sentence incomplete. This phenomenon is called “言いさし文” (“unfinished sentences”) in Japanese linguistics, and usually we use “unfinished sentences” to avoid being too straightforward. Here is an example:
Do you have time tomorrow?
Sorry, tomorrow is a bit…
Here, the person B omits the conclusive part of the sentence (i.e., 都合(つごう)が悪(わる)い “inconvenient for me” ) and leaves the sentence unfinished. The main reason for doing this is to avoid declining an offer/invitation directly and to act modestly. In fact, there are various ways of using “unfinished sentences”, and so are the reasons for leaving them unmentioned. Let’s take a look at a couple of other examples following below.
Well, I wouldn’t say it’s totally impossible, but…
In this case, the speaker omits the latter part to avoid saying something negative directly, i.e., とても難(むずか)しいと思(おも)う (I think it’s gonna be very difficult).
2. ねえ、あんまり時間(じかん)ないんだけど …
Hey, I don’t have much time, so …
In this case, the speaker omits the latter part to avoid directly urging the listener to do something, i.e., もっと早(はや)くしてくれる？“Would you do it faster?”.
Excuse me, I have a favour I want to ask you, and/but …
In this case, the speaker leaves the statement unfinished to avoid being pushy by saying, “お願いを聞(き)いてもらえますか?” (“Can you do me a favour?”).
Would you like to eat a cake?
Sorry, sweet things are a bit …
This is similar to the very first example “明日はちょっと…”, and here the person B omits the latter part to avoid declining the offer directly by saying “好(す)きではありません” (“I don’t like”). As you can see, the phrase “~はちょっと…” meaning “~ is a bit…” is frequently used in unfinished sentences.
Why We Prefer Ambiguous Expressions
In Japan – an ethnically homogeneous island country floating in the Pacific Ocean – it has been of vital importance to maintain harmony and avoid conflicts in society. This national trait is evidently demonstrated in 十七条憲法 (じゅうななじょうけんぽう) “Seventeen-Article Constitution”, one of the earliest constitutions in Japan’s history promulgated by Prince Shōtoku (Shōtoku Taishi) in 604. Although named “Constitution”, it consists of moral maxims rather than legal norms, and its very first article among the 17 injunctions is “以和為貴（和(わ)を以(もっ)て貴（とうと）しとなす）”, which means “Harmony is to be valued” and emphasises the importance of harmony in Japan’s society. Presumably, this mindset has influenced how we express things in our own language, and through living in the society that highly appreciates harmony, we have developed a penchant for expressing things indirectly and an aptitude for understanding what other people hint at in a conversation. This propensity is also reflected in a great number of Japanese words and phrases that we use daily; see my past article ‘“Read the Air and Hold Back”: Japanese Words Mirroring Japanese Mindsets‘ for more detailed explanations.
Abbreviation in Japanese
Not only omitting words, we Japanese people also love abbreviating words and phrases. For instance, we abbreviate “ブラッドピット (Brad Pitt)” as “ブラピ (Brapi)” and “スマートフォン (smartphone)” as “スマホ (smaho)”. If you’re interested in learning how we abbreviate words (at times obtusely) in Japanese, refer to my past article “り” means “I got it” – 30 Enigmatic Abbreviations in Japanese!