Cracking the Code of Kyoto Colloquialisms

Lifestyle Culture Language

After a double-edged Kyoto “compliment” goes viral, we seek out some expert advice on deciphering Kyoto euphemisms.

Perplexing Praise for a Wristwatch

Kyoto folk are known for oblique speak, occasionally giving outsiders the wrong impression.

If a Kyotoite praised your watch, how would you respond? A recent viral tweet in Japan had people pondering the true intent of just such a compliment.

Twitter user @da_masu writes: “While I was visiting a company in Kyoto for business talks, the other party complimented my watch, so I proceeded to tell them all about it. Imagine my surprise when I learned the remark was intended to signal that I’d been talking for too long.”

The tweet’s author was recounting a presentation made while working for an IT company during negotiations with a well-known Kyoto firm. The client suddenly remarked “That’s a lovely wristwatch,” prompting the visitor to discuss the timepiece. Afterwards, the client discreetly clarified the remark, leaving the tweeter with egg on the face.

The tweet garnered well over 100,000 likes and was retweeted more than 40,000 times, receiving much attention for the euphemism’s perplexity. It also sparked humorous comments, including “Difficulty Level: High,” and apologetic explanations, such as “Kyoto people aren’t ill-natured, rather, their indirectness springs from over-concern for other people’s feelings.”

It is not unreasonable to interpret praise for one’s timepiece as an invitation to discuss it, entirely missing the point that your time is up. Such roundabout speech might be incomprehensible to all bar Kyotoites.

Is the phrase common in Kyoto?

We asked Momoyama Gakuin University’s Professor Muranaka Toshiko, a specialist in Japanese dialects, to shed light on such Kyotoisms.

“Behold Your Watch, Note the Time”

“I’ve never encountered this expression per se, but I guess that, instead of directly insinuating that the other person has talked for too long, it is intended as a nudge, in the hope that they realize how much time has passed. Rather than a direct criticism, it‘s a cry for help,” says Muranaka.

“I doubt this particular phrase is used widely in Kyoto,”she continues. “My guess is that it’s more common among middle-aged or older people, and is used with casual acquaintances, such as business connections or neighborhood folk.”

“Care for Some Rice Broth?”

Ochazuke is rice served in soup stock or green tea with simple toppings.
Ochazuke is rice served in soup stock or green tea with simple toppings.

Another Kyoto euphemism that springs to mind is “Care for some rice broth?” If you’re visiting someone’s house and they offer you ochazuke, it is time to take your leave. Rice is traditionally the last course served in a formal meal, and ochazuke is commonly enjoyed as a late-night light meal to end a long day. Anyone foolish enough to accept its offer during a visit like this, though, would be considered insensitive or uncouth. The expression is infamous.

I am not sure if it is unique to Kyoto. In a similar vein, I have heard “Your daughter plays piano well” to express “You’re making a lot of noise, could you keep it down?” As with the watch reference, the phrase praises something belonging to the other party to draw attention to it, in the hope that they realize something is wrong.

Various theories have been proposed to explain euphemisms used in Kyoto speech. Some suggest that Kyoto folk are haughty, sarcastic, and often obtuse, while others believe that they speak indirectly to avoid embarrassing the other party. Yet another theory is that it creates an escape route, leaving room to later deny uncomfortable interpretations.

Muranaka continues: “Maybe it was prudence developed by Kyoto residents to endure living conditions under the various leaders who have ruled them through the centuries—the imperial family, the Fujiwara, Taira, and Ashikaga clans, and many other warlords over the years. It feels like the phenomenon has been over-analyzed, though. No new answers have been advanced.”

Given that Professor Muranaka, a dialect expert, was unfamiliar with “That’s a lovely wristwatch,” it would seem that the author of the tweet encountered a rarely used circumlocution.

Either way, there is little doubt that Kyoto’s culture is unique and profound.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on September 4, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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Kyoto dialect Fuji News Network language Kansai region