The linguistic error was seen as insensitive in light of a horrific situation.

If you’re a foreigner learning Japanese, then you can expect some leeway when speaking the language. But if you’re the superintendent of Shibata City schools in Niigata Prefecture, then your Japanese had better be impeccable.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the case for Ryoichi Yamada. As superintendent, he was sent to visit the family of a thirteen-year-old male student who had killed himself in June of last year due to relentless bullying. What should have been a heart-wrenching meeting with plans to make changes for the future instead ended up boiling down to one poor choice of words on behalf of the superintendent.

At some point during the conversation with the boy’s father, the superintendent asked: “Omae mo hogoshakai ni kuru ka?” (お前も保護者会に来るか)

The literal English translation of this phrase would be something like: “Are you going to come to the PTA meetings too?” (“PTA meetings” here meaning something closer to parents meeting and discussing policy with school staff.) But a more faithful translation might be something like: “So whaddya think about coming to some PTA meetings, you old rascal?”

▼ That kind of casual speak is not
appropriate for this serious meeting.

For those who don’t know, Japanese has several different words for “you,” depending on who you’re speaking to. There’s the neutral anata, the diminutive kimi, the insulting kisama, and more. You can also just use the person’s name, or not use any pronoun at all, since it’s usually obvious when you’re staring straight at someone that you mean “you.”

Omae, the pronoun that the superintendent used, is a bit of a sharp word for “you,” used for men roughing around with each other, when you’re yelling at a thief, and other less-than-savory situations.

The reason that the superintendent used omae with the father is because he used to be the father’s teacher when he was in elementary school. You can kind of see where he was coming from, perhaps thinking that using the more informal word would bring them closer together. Or perhaps it was a simple slip of the mind.

▼ His use of omae made the news, as you can see here.
(It’s the big red word in brackets in the bottom right at the beginning.)

Either way, the father was not happy with the superintendent’s word choice. He said: “I couldn’t believe (he said it) at that time. It felt like he was making light (of the suicide).”

The superintendent later apologized for his inappropriate utterance, but it was too late. He submitted his resignation a few days later, and will be stepping down from his position next week. The father of the boy has said that even if the superintendent changes, he still wants to work toward actually taking steps toward eliminating school bullying.

Here’s how Japanese Twitter reacted to the situation:

“What is wrong with his head?”
“How does someone like him become a superintendent?”
“Even if he was his old teacher, it doesn’t matter. You should never use omae with someone you’re apologizing to.”
“Using omae with rowdy kids is whatever, but that’s completely different than people you’re working with.”
“I’ve never respected anyone who uses omae to refer to other people.”

At the end of the day, words matter. Whether it’s the pronoun you use to refer to someone, or whether you’re telling them you love them or love them. But what matters even more are actions, and let’s hope that this is the start of something changing for the better in this school system.

Source: Yahoo! News Japan via Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso