An Experience with Maybe

The first time I came to Japan I did a summer internship at a propeller company. That’s right, a company that makes propellers of varying sizes for boats. Small ones, medium ones, and giant fuck-all ones.

Fortunately they also had a medical division that made artificial joints and a design division that made ceramic lights. I worked with the latter, helping to make English pamphlets, teaching English after work, doing a small amount of “market research,” and trying as hard as possible not to get in the way.

At the end of my two months I had to give a final report. I talked about all the possibilities of ceramic lights in the US. Maybe they could do this, maybe they could do that. Maybe you could try and sell through this magazine. Maybe you could sell through that website.

Afterwards I spoke with the youngest of the group, the person I was closest with, and asked her how it sounded. “Really negative,” she told me bluntly. I was shocked. These were the eight people I knew the best in all of Japan, and I had just told them, take your ceramic lights and shove them! Not so explicitly of course.

The pattern I was using – have you guessed it yet? – is ~かもしれない. This, I had been taught, is a way to express something that might occur. And it is, most definitely, but it has a very distinguishable negative tinge to it that I didn’t fully comprehend until that moment.

Try a quick search of かもしれない on alc.co.jp. Here are the first ten results:

– teenage years might be bad
– people might not sign up for something
– conventional wisdom may not apply
– someone might fucking disappear
– something might be indiscrete
– someone might have seen two cars but isn’t sure because there was crazy shit happening
– something might help in the fight against metastasis
– a store might lose a customer
– some country might attack Iraq (guess that isn’t so maybe anymore, right?)
– smoking could cause fatal illness

Not a single happy thing in the top ten. No maybe getting laid. No maybe finding 100 dollars on the ground. And sure as hell no maybe selling millions of ceramic lights in America.

Probability is still something that gives me fits in Japanese, but I know exactly when to use ~かもしれない.

A couple of good examples:

事故があったかもしれません。    Maybe there was an accident.

A: 来ないかもしれない               He might not come.
B:残念!来てほしかったな。    Damn! I was hoping he’d come.

And here’s one I think I used in my introduction speech on the very first day of classes at the junior high school in town:

私はちょっと怖く見えるかもしれませんが、実は優しい人だから、ぜひ声をかけてきてください。

I may look a little scary, but I’m actually a very nice person, so please say hello.

5 thoughts on “An Experience with Maybe

  1. This is an old post, but I just found it.
    Kudos on this blog! But I am a bit worried. I asked out a Japanese guy recently, and when he accepted he told me エリのことが好きかもしれない。
    What’s the prognosis on my relationship? Am I missing out on some nuance?

  2. Hey elinor, thanks for the comment. That is a great little phrase. I think you should only be worried if you’re one of those people who are afraid of the “L” word. The Japanese 好き is a bit stronger than “like,” although I’m not certain how close it is to the English “love” or the Japanese 愛. The other thing to note is Japanese dating etiquette – the 告白 (confession) is a critical step in solidifying a relationship. 好き is used to confess (君のことが好きです), and then generally the person says つきあってください。Props for taking the initiative! What words did you use? I would say his response is closer to “I might be in love with you” than “Meh, I might like you.”

  3. I don’t speak Japonese so I used Google’s language tools to translate “エリのことが好きかもしれない。” and Google said that it translates to “She might like that area.”

    Japanese courtship sounds confusing.

  4. Thanks for your response! That is a whole different direction than I was expecting. “Meh, I might like you,” is what I was worried about after reading your post. I like him a lot, so that would have been disappointing. But “I might be in love with you” is beyond even what I was hoping for.

    I’ve been studying Japanese for a few years, but I hadn’t seriously considered the different cultural cues of relationships that you brought up. Navigating that is probably going to be a big challenge, and it seems like I got the 告白 part right just by dumb luck. I’ll come back here if there are any more tricky ones. But so far so good. Three dates and counting down to next weekend ;)