Here it is! Using the ancient koan of the eel and the diner, the mysteries of invisible Japanese pronouns and the wa-particle are about to be finally unveiled
Enlightenment commences in 3… 2…
Watashi wa unagi desu is a common joke among Japanese learners. It is a kind of expression Japanese people often use and the idea is that it literally means “I am an eel”.
After all, Watashi wa gakusei desu means “I am a student”, doesn’t it?
What Watashi wa unagi desu really means, of course, when said in context (probably in a restaurant) is “I will have eel”. The common Western impression is that the speaker has literally said “I am an eel” but by a sort of colloquial contraction, it is understood in context to mean “I will have eel”. Even the scholarly and usually excellent Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar says that “I am an eel” is the literal meaning.
But it isn’t. And the idea that it is shows a quite deep failure in the average Western learner (and even “expert”) to feel how Japanese really works.
This takes us back to the famous “vagueness” of Japanese. Cure Tadashiku and I have written about Japanese ambiguity here and here and it is a real phenomenon, but not in the way that Western learners often think.
First of all, let’s look at the way nouns and pronouns are dropped (this is important to our eel as you’ll see in a minute). It is sometimes considered very obscure and confusing. It isn’t. It is really only doing what all languages do but in a slightly different way. Consider this English sentence:
As Mary was going upstairs, Mary heard a noise. Mary turned and came back down. At the bottom of the stairs, Mary saw a tiny kitten.
Is that grammatically correct? Of course it is. Just as correct as saying “watashi wa” all the time when it isn’t necessary. Would any native speaker ever say it? Of course not.
Why not? Because having established Mary as the topic we don’t keep using her name. We refer to her as “she”. Japanese refers to her as ” ” – that is, nothing, or the no-pronoun.
The absence of a visible pronoun is slightly startling to the Anglophone mind, but actually it is scarcely more ambiguous than English. The words she, he and it could refer respectively to any female person, any male person and any thing in the world. They only have any useful meaning from context. Once the thing or person is established, we no longer name it, but replace it with a catch-all marker that actually catches what context tells it to catch.
Japanese works almost exactly the same but without the marker, which is actually not semantically necessary. If a small child says:
Mary was going upstairs. Heard noise. Came back down. At bottom of stairs saw tiny kitten.
We are still in no doubt as to what she means. That is how Japanese works. Putting the unnecessary “she” marker in every fresh clause is actually a slight linguistic inefficiency.
What is the sound of no-pronoun?
But – and here is the very important point – there is a pronoun in Japanese. It is a no-pronoun. The vital point to understand is that the invisible no-pronoun works in very much the same way that English visible pronouns work.
If we don’t realize this, we will continue to think that “watashi wa unagi desu” means literally “I am an eel”.
However, in order to reach complete enlightenment on the unagi koan, we need one more piece of understanding. The particle wa.
In beginners’ texts it is often said that the wa-particle means “as for” or “speaking of”. And it literally does. The best translation is probably “as for” (which accounts for the differentiating function of wa too – but that is another question).
So: Watashi wa gakusei desu literally means “As for Hanako-chan, she is a student”.
Note that there is both a noun and a pronoun in that English sentence. The proper noun “Hanako-chan” and the pronoun “she”. It is the same in Japanese. Except, of course, that the pronoun is ” “.
Understand this and you will be a long way toward feeling how Japanese really works.
Here is the golden rule. Always remember it:
The wa-particle never marks the grammatical subject of a sentence.
Taking the wa-marked noun as the grammatical subject is what leads to the belief that the diner is calling herself an eel. It turns Japanese inside-out in our minds and makes it feel strange.
The grammatical subject of “As for Hanako-chan, she is a student” is not “Hanako-chan” – it is “she”. “As for Hanako-chan” merely defines who “she” is.
Similarly the grammatical subject of Hanako-chan wa gakusei desu is not Hanako-chan, it is ” “. Hanako-chan wa merely defies who ” ” is.
Understand this in simple sentences, and much more complex Japanese will begin to form a correct pattern in your mind.
One may think this is splitting hairs, since in this case (and in a large number of cases) the no-pronoun grammatical subject and the wa-marked topic happen to refer to the same thing, and indeed one defines the other. But that is not always the case. And that is the cause of the unagi confusion.
So let us finally return to the eel that has been so patiently awaiting us.
Watashi wa unagi desu is often spoken by a member of a party of (or at least two) diners. It means “As for me, it (=the thing I will have) is eel (as opposed to Hanako-chan who is having omuraisu)”. When spoken by a single diner it still means literally (if you want the literal meaning – which is certainly not “I am an eel”) “As for me (as opposed to any other customer) it (= the thing I will have) is eel.
You see the desu does not refer to watashi, which, being marked with wa, cannot be the grammatical subject of the sentence. It refers to the actual subject of the sentence which is the no-pronoun ” “. The no-pronoun – just like English pronouns – is determined by context.
Literally the sentence means: Watashi wa, (” ” ga) unagi desu.
What we are talking about here is “what I will eat”. Therefore that is the “it”, the ” ” or no-pronoun, of this statement.
There is no doubt whatever about what “it” is since either it is the subject of an actual conversation (Hanako-chan has just ordered omuraisu or the waitress has asked “what will you have?”) or it is obvious from the fact that the waitress is a waitress and has approached your table. She has not come to ask you for a stock-market tip. Or if she has, she will say so. If she doesn’t it can be safely assumed that the unspoken question is “what will you have?” which determines the it of the reply. The watashi wa (which can very well be omitted, especially when the diner is not one of a party) is merely distinguishing the person (as distinct from other persons) to whom the it pertains.
It really is as simple as that.
Did you know what “it” was in the above sentence? Of course you did – even though it was quite abstract – “the gist of this article, the subject I am trying to explain”.
In Japanese I would have said
Hontou ni, anna ni kantan desu.
No written “it”, but just as clear.
NOTE: Watashi wa unagi desu is not a particularly polite way for a lone diner to order a dish. The main use of this common pattern is precisely when there are several diners in a party, and it is used to specify what “it” (the food one will have, which is the subject under discussion, and therefore the understood content of the no-pronoun) is in relation to a particular member (hence the use of watashi wa).