I’ve watched the video of Pope Francis slapping–in something of the manner of a YMCA self-defense class; his movements are a standard way in martial arts to break an unwanted grip on one’s arm–a young Asian woman in St. Peter’s Square numerous times now, trying to work out what the woman is saying to him. I recognized the language immediately as Japanese, a language in which I majored in college and which I can still understand better than I can speak it. Almost everything the woman says ends with -asai or -kudasai, imperative verb endings used in spoken Japanese to communicate polite but direct requests. (There are less-polite versions of the imperative in the language as well.) It’s clear from the way the woman is speaking that she is at least attempting to treat Pope Francis deferentially; however, subjecting him to unwanted physical contact and refusing to let go would be seen as even ruder in Japanese culture than in most Western cultures, and vitiates the politeness in her speech.

What she is saying proved harder to decipher due to the poor quality of the audio and the significant background hubbub in the square, which is why I had to watch the video a number of times. (She may also be speaking in a regional dialect, of which Japanese has many.) What I was eventually able to surmise was that this is a request for Pope Francis to meet with her privately, for a reason that she is not specifying. The first thing she says is either mate kudasai or haite kudasai, “please wait” or “please enter“; the second thing she says, after she’s grabbed him, is au de tore kudasai; this means “please meet with me” or “I’d like to meet with you, please”. She then says something that might be hitori de,alone” or “privately”, followed by something I still can’t quite make out, followed by au de tore again.

Normally I wouldn’t devote an entire post to this topic, but in this case, obviously false misinformation is being spread about what this woman is saying and even what language she is saying it in. At first many people seemed to assume that she was addressing the Pope in Chinese and pleading on behalf of Christians in China and Hong Kong; the way Japanese sounds is so obviously different to the way Chinese sounds to anybody remotely familiar with either language that the only reason I can imagine for anybody seriously believing this is that the woman is Asian. Now, apparently, people are claiming that she is speaking in English, a claim that should be even more obviously false. (This article has the temerity to provide an alleged transcript that sounds absolutely nothing like what the woman is saying.) Evidently there are people who will believe anything, even over-against their lying ears, if it fits the right anti-Francis narratives.

The audio is poor enough that I could be proven wrong despite my own very high level of certainty about this. Nevertheless, I would bet cold hard cash that the language that the woman is speaking is Japanese or some regional variant of Japanese. The -kudasai form is recognizable even to many people who haven’t studied the Japanese language, since it appears commonly in subtitled anime and in Japanese pop music. I wouldn’t stake money on my specific interpretation of what she is saying above, mostly because the -de tore verb form seems to me like it’s probably a variant (again, possibly a regionalism) on the -te yaru form of which I know little, but I am confident that the language is Japanese and beyond positive that suggestions that it is Chinese or English are, simply, flatly, false.

Image: The calligraphy of medieval Japanese poet and artist Fujiwara no Teika. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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