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Richard VanHouten (richvh at TJP.com) has been working on a serialized, fictional story in Japanese called Yuki’s Story. I had the idea to have Yumi record some of the chapters for readers to listen to while reading. Rich graciously accepted the offer. But I’m a little behind on reading the story. It’s been a while since I read what I read, so I decided to start from the beginning.
While reading I came upon this:
「いいえ、つまらないものですよ。この繕っていただいた網で、たんと魚が捕まえられると思いますから」と漁師は言いました。
In this scene, a fisherman is offering Yuki a gift for helping him fix his net. (BTW たんと=たくさん) She refused politely and the fisherman says the above.
worthless.gifWhat caught my attention was 「つまらないものです」 tsumaranai mono desu – It’s a small, trivial thing. It is polite to downplay the value of a gift you are GIVING. We do this in English too. “I wish I could give more.” “I’m not sure if you will like this, but…”
This reminded me of a classic example of how dangerous half knowledge can be. My friend Mark was with me on a trip to Japan a few years ago. He had read about the phrase 「つまらないもの」 but had forgotten the exact circumstances for its usage. (Danger, Will Robinson)
A friend of Yumi’s mother had invited us over for a Tea Ceremony. After that, she presented Mark with a present. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it wasn’t a cheap present (wasn’t very expensive either, but it was nice).
RECEIVING the gift, Mark turned to me and said, “How do I say, ‘It’s a worthless gift’ in Japanese?”

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