Say, Cheese!

Akira Kurosawa

People come up with all sorts of generalizations about why cultures differ. For instance, I have heard that Japanese people do not always smile for photos because they don’t like to show emotion. Actually, there is a practice of smiling for photos in Japan these days, but the smiles are not always ear-to-ear — and language may have something to do with it.

Japanese has borrowed many words from other languages, keeping the main features of the pronunciation of the lending language. One of the many such English phrases that have made it into the Japanese language is, “Say, ‘Cheese!” In Japanese, this would sound like, “Hai! Cheedzu!Hai can be translated different ways in different contexts. Here, it means something like, “Attention!” or “Ready!”

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

In the lending language, English, photographers ask us to say “cheese” because 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 show a few front teeth up top at most. 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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