Obligation in Japanese - what you 'should do' and when you 'have to'
The idea of obligation is a fairly big thing in Japan. Society tends to dictate what you should do in certain situations in every country. That's universal. With Japan, the rules feel a lot stricter and harder to follow. There's an unwritten hierarchy for where people should stand in the lift, for example.
I first discovered the Japanese word for 'social obligation' and 'duty' - giri, 義理 - around this time of year, because of Valentine's Day. Girls and women giving chocolate to the boys and men they like is what the day's all about in Japan. (There are also times when they give the presents to other girls, don't freak out.) The blokes have to wait until White Day, a month later on March 14th, when they're obligated to give a gift in return.
Sometimes, you may have to give chocolate to people you aren't that keen on. This is done in order to save face and keep the peace. In these cases, the ladies pick out and give 'giri-choco', literally 'obligation chocolate'.
I would rather be shunned completely than receive obligation chocolate. Sheesh.
Although the idea of honour and doing the decent thing is alarmingly pervasive, when you're speaking in Japanese the sense of 'obligation' is hard to get across. It's typical of most spoken Japanese, as people will do all they can not to give you a definite answer or get to the point. You circle around a topic, largely going by what's implied and not said rather than by what is.
Let's say there's something you need to do. By all accounts, you should. It is the right, logical and sensible thing to do. It might be giving chocolate to that boy you like. It might be a trip to the dentist, or having a suspicious mole removed. It could be anything.
Explaining that you have to - or must - do something feels backwards in Japanese. You use the formal verb suffix 'なければなりません'. Now, '-nakereba narimasen' here essentially means 'if I don't do this, it won't happen'. You should, because nobody else will. More than expressing the urgent need to do something, '-nakereba narimasen' carries the added implication of social responsibility.
It's also a long phrase to say when you need to be getting on with the urgent thing. In informal Japanese language you can shorten it to just '-nakya' (なきゃ), but the trouble with the impolite form is that it's impolite.
What's also rude is telling people directly that they should or should not do a thing you suggest. Instead, you're meant to say something along the lines of 'I think that would be good, for what my opinion's worth'.
The verb suffix for 'hey, you should probably do that' or 'yeah, that's not something I'd recommend' is 'hou ga ii' - 方がいい. The 'hou' is directional, indicating the split between two choices as different paths in life. The underlying heavy meaning in this one is that every decision you'll ever make is super important.
There's one other obligation-related phrase you should know, and that's 義理人情 ('girininjou'). Japan's many 4-character idioms hold a lot of weight and meaning. You'll recognise the first 2 characters from up above. The 'ninjou' bit refers to humanity. This phrase cements the Japanese idea that duty and being humane are intertwined. Meeting your many and varied obligations will make you a more compassionate person.
Maybe that's true. It's certainly something to think about. What I don't want to think about is the inhumanity of deliberately giving someone giri-choco in front of other people.