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775: The M-List
774: Compatriotic Spirit
773: The Naked Truth
770-71: It Ainít Easy Being Green
769: íTwas the Night Before Christmas in Japan
768: Japanese Lessons
766: Bad Credit
765: Chew on this
764: Red faced
763: Down and Out in Tokyo
761: Kicking the bucket
760: Thumbing It
759: Fixing the System
757: Smoke rings
756: Stalking the Predators
755: Banding Together
753: No Competition
752: Sex and This City
751: Letís Shogi
750: The Yasukuni Follies
748: Loud and Clear
747: Iíll be back
746: Raiders of the lost SMAP
744: Magical Mystery Tour
743: Murder in Lotus Land
742: Stereotypes íRí Us
740: The Mother of all Mothers
739: Crimes of Fashion
738: The Hafu Dad Brigade
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734: The Wind-Up Writer Chronicle
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731: The 2008 Nazi Olympics
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727: Dying for a doctor
726: Footloose Revisited
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724: Japanís Peace Monster
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721: First Action Hiro
720: The Return of Asashoryu
718-719: A Time to Give
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541: Developmentally challenged
By Erin O’Hanlon

Give me back my bye-bye

Here’s hoping that school-girls say “Sayonara!” to their annoying farewells

Erin O’Hanlon is a teacher and freelance writer living in Saitama

It’s no secret that English is a versatile language. From London to New York, Johannesburg to Manila, Sydney to Vancouver, English varies in meaning from nation to nation. I’ll take a holiday and you’ll go on vacation. I’ll call you on my mobile and you’ll answer on your cell. You need gas and I have to buy some petrol. We might not share the same vernacular, but we’ll get through to each other just the same.

But in the last two years that I’ve lived in Japan, something’s been troubling me. And it’s been troubling me a hell of a lot. Well it’s less to do with something and more to do with someone. Someone who encouraged Japanese schoolgirls to take the casual English “Bye-bye,” rework it into a high pitched “Bai bai,” and in effect claim it as their own.

I’m sure that many foreigners living in Japan can testify to how surprised they were the first time they boarded a train and were overwhelmed by a chorus of “Bai bais” piercing through the carriages as a swarm of schoolgirls alighted. I certainly remember being puzzled. Where was the sayonara I’d read about in my Quick Guide to Speaking Japanese? Oh, no—“sayonara,” I was soon to learn, is saved for more final bids of farewell.

I’ve also learned that in certain fast food restaurants, English words and phrases are replacing the apparently more cumbersome Japanese equivalents. Despite the fact I’ve taken some time to learn the basic Japanese for ordering food, my use of “Omochi kaeri” is often confirmed with a nod of the head and the reply “Take-out-o.” A Japanese friend of mine who works for one such chain recently explained to me that when asking for a cheeseburger to be made by the kitchen staff, the counter staff are instructed to shout “Cheeseburger please!” instead of “Cheeseburger onegaishimasu.” And instead of thanking the kitchen staff with an “Arigato,” they respond with a “Thank you,” though this more often than not sounds like “Sank you,” because of the Japanese inability to pronounce English’s “th.” This, I learned, is actually where the name for the convenience store chain Sunkus comes from. Thanks and bye-bye—who would’ve known they could be pronounced so differently?

But it’s not just that the well-meaning youth of Japan have morphed “Bye-bye” into a high-pitched “Bai bai.” It’s that now, whenever I myself use it, I’m taken for a joke. I’m an English teacher, and I’ve recently became frustrated when, after finishing my lessons and leaving the room with a casual “Buh-bye,” my students giggle and nod their heads knowingly at me. It’s as though we’d just conspired to secretly place whoopee cushions under the seats of unassuming salarymen on a packed train. After much thought and consideration, I came to realize these people actually believed I was making fun of schoolgirls, mimicking their departure chime.

I’ve tested this theory out, too. If I am to say “See you later,” “Take care,” “Good-bye” or “See you next time” to my students, I’ll be met with a nod of the head and a similar acknowledgement of good-bye. However, if I throw in a “Buh-bye” (which is the way I naturally pronounce “bye-bye”), along with one of the aforementioned farewells, smiles will break out across my students’ faces and giggles will fill the room. It’s frustrating, to say the least, because ever since I was a child—and long before I stepped off a plane at Narita and onto a packed Yamanote line train—I’d always bid my friends and family a sincere “Buh-bye.”

Japanese schoolgirls are cute. They wear cute uniforms and collect cute Disney characters. They talk about cute things, like which side to part their cute hairstyles on or where to go for their next cute print club snapshot. “Bai bai,” I’m told by my Japanese friends, sounds cute. So by that rationale, schoolgirls choose to say “Bai bai.”

That’s fine by me. I have no problem with that. These kids aren’t the first to get wind of another land’s lingo and mold it to their own liking. I’ve been known amongst my friends to use the French word tres in place of “very” when I’d like to give my adjectives a little more feeling. Tres hungry, tres happy, tres tired. The problem is that, because “Bye-bye” has taken on this whole new cute schoolgirl image in Japan, I can longer use it without being giggled at. It has been stolen from me. And that makes me tres annoyed.

Schoolgirls, please by all means use “Bai bai” as much as your cute little hearts desire and as long as the train’s windows can withstand the pitch. But to all of the well-meaning folk of Japan, please don’t laugh at me when I bid you “Buh-bye” as though it was something I’d never said before I came to this lovely land. That is all I ask.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.