Linguistics professor explains the centuries-old background of the omnipresent anime and manga verbal tic.

If you’re studying Japanese, three of the first words you’ll learn are arimasu, imasu, and desu. While they all more or less translate into English as “be,” they’re used for different situations in Japanese.

Arimasu is for showing the existence or location of inanimate objects. For example, if you wanted to say “Mt. Fuji is in Japan,” you’d say “Fujisan ha Nihon ni arimasu.” Imasu, on the other hand, is for the existence/location of people and animals. So for “I am in Japan,” it’d be Watashi ha Nihon ni imasu.” And finally, desu is used with adjectives that describe the condition of things or people. “Mt. Fuji is beautiful” is “Fujisan ha kirei desu,” and, if you’re confident enough to make the same boast about your own fetching good looks, it’d be Watashi ha kirei desu.”

But in the world of anime and manga, if the scriptwriter or author is creating dialogue for a Chinese character who’s supposed to be less than fluent, there’s a better-than-even chance the character will completely bypass imasu and desu and just use arimasu, or it’s more casual version, aru, for everything. Instead of the grammatically correct “Watashi ha Chugokujin desu” (“I am Chinese”), you’ll often hear Chinese characters saying “Watashi ha Chugokujin arimasu.”

The weird thing, though, is that you’ll rarely, if ever, hear actual Chinese learners of Japanese putting arimasu at the end of everything like this. So where does this stock speaking style for anime and manga come from? According to Satoshi Kinsui, a linguistics professor at Osaka University, it comes from history.

Manga artist Hebizo and author Umino Nagiko asked Kinsui about the “Chinese people say arimasu” stereotype as part of the research for their new book, Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo 3 (“Japanese Language that Japanese People Don’t Know 3”). Kinsui says this overreaching use of arimasu has its roots in the mid-19th century, as Japan’s feudal Edo period was coming to an end and the modernization of the Meiji period was beginning.

▼ Cover of Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo 3

With Japan finally opening up to international trade and relations after centuries of government-mandated isolation, there was a sudden influx of foreigners coming into the country. However, this was long before online dictionaries, budget-priced phrasebooks, or other easy ways to bridge low-to-moderate language barriers. So instead, a simplified, pidgin-like version of Japanese came about, in which arimasu, imasu, and desu all got lumped together as arimasu.

▼ One of Hebizo’s illustrations for the book, showing a topknotted Japanese local explaining to a light-haired Westerner that he can still make himself understood even if he lumps desu (です), imasu (います), and arimasu (あります) all together as just arimasu.

But as the caricatured Kinsui himself points out, this form of simplified Japanese was used by foreigners of many different nationalities, not just those who spoke Chinese as their native language. So why has the verbal tick been attached so firmly to Chinese anime characters?

Kinsui himself doesn’t address the question, but a couple of possibilities come to mind. First, Kinsui mentions that the “everything is arimasu” style of pidgin also seems to have been used in Japanese-occupied China, with the Imperial Japanese Army holding on to those territories until the end of World War II. On the other hand, few foreigners were coming into Japan during its era of military aggression. Once the war was over many of the foreigners in the country were part of the occupying Allied Forces, and the balance of power became such that Japanese businessmen and politicians were now expected to be able to communicate in English for international affairs. That would make the era of arimasu-style pidgin a few decades more recent among native speakers of Chinese than other languages, and could be why Chinese anime characters are so much more likely than any other ethnicity to speak that way.

▼ A selection of pages from Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo 3

There’s also the practice that when looking for dialogue-based ways to emphasize a character’s foreignness, if said character is from a Western background, anime creators often just have the character speak English, or pepper their Japanese dialogue with English vocabulary that Japanese audiences will be at least somewhat familiar with. English is a required subject in Japanese schools, and loanword-loving Japanese has adopted a large number of English terms, so it’s a simple matter to have, for example, an American character suddenly say “Great!” instead of “Ii na! or “Me ha very happy desu,” instead of “Watashi ha totemo shiawase desu.”

Doing that makes the character still sound foreign, but also leaves the dialogue understandable to a Japanese audience (even if the English isn’t being used like an actual English-speaker would use it). But with the average Japanese person far less familiar with basic Chinese vocabulary, that’s not a viable dialogue-writing option, leaving many creators falling back on just slapping arimasu at the end of Chinese characters sentences.

▼ English being a required subject also no doubt makes it easier to ask anime voice actors to power through a few lines of English dialogue than to do the same with Chinese.

Granted, anime and manga are first and foremost entertainment media, and having a simple way of telling he audience “This person isn’t a Japanese national” lets creators quickly move on to what they want to focus their storytelling on. Still, the fact that real world Chinese natives who’re learning Japanese don’t put arimasu at the end of all their sentences can be irksome and distracting for anyone who’s spent much time around learners of Japanese as a second language.

Source: Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo 3, Twitter/@nyorozo
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo 3, Twitter/@nyorozo
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