Say, Cheese!

Akira Kurosawa

People come up with all sorts of generalizations about why cultures differ. For instance, I have often heard that Japanese people don’t smile for photos because they don’t like to show emotion. That may be true, of course, but there may be more to it.

One of the many English phrases that have made it into the Japanese language is, “Say, ‘Cheese!” In Japanese, it would sound something like, “Hai! Cheedzu!” (??!???!). Hai can be translated different ways in different contexts. Here, it means something like, “Okay, I’m ready to shoot!”

Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa. (2012). Biography.com. Retrieved 01:01, May 19, 2012.

Urban legends aside, the real reason photographers ask us to say “cheese” is that the vowel in the word makes the corners of our lips curve upward, revealing our pearly whites and the joy in our souls. Why, then, does this not work when Japanese speakers say it? Ask a Japanese friend to say the first vowel in the Japanese word cheedzu, and you’ll notice that it is close to our ‘ee’ in sound, but not exactly the same. Specifically, Japanese speakers do not raise the corners of their lips up and back for their ‘ee’-like vowel the way many English speakers do for ours. Instead, Japanese speakers just show a few front teeth up top. At left is a photo of late filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. His eyes are smiling, but I wonder whether he didn’t say cheedzu

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