By Kai Ohata
Slang is something that we all are familiar with; not only is it easy to use but also it is sometimes useful to analyse what sort of implication they has for the society that uses it. Among young Japanese people, there is a slang expression that is now well-known. “Ishiki-takai(意識高い).” It interests me because of how its meaning varies from situation to situation.
The literal meaning of “ishiki-takai” is similar to ‘highly motivated’ or ‘highly conscious.’ The first use of “ishiki-takai” is to refer to these sorts of people. A master’s student in Todai said, “I would use ‘ishiki-takai’ to refer to a person who is job hunting like crazy or a master’s student who works on their research far more than the average student.” In this second use, the expression is used when the degree to which someone does something serious goes too far.
The expression can also be uttered towards someone who is showing off; just doing something considered to be hard in order to appear highly motivated. One student considers a person to be ishiki-takai when they talk about serious topics, such as their future or issues facing modern society at a drinking party. This kind of “ishiki-takai” can be replaced by the synonym word “ishiki-takai-kei (a “type” of ishiki-takai),” which has a much stronger negative nuance.
So “ishiki-takai” can be used for describing someone who is actually working hard and their work excels, or for ironically teasing someone who tries to appear efficient and successful by showing off that they are working hard, sometimes with an implication that they are not efficient in reality.
We might have to be careful not to abuse the expression; if we label those who zeal and ambition we cannot comprehend as “ishiki-takai” without differentiating them from the less ‘serious’ type (“ishiki-takai-kei”), it may amount to a sort of labeling, or even putting a stigma on them.
Complexity of the connotation of “ishiki-takai” might lie here. Just working hard is not a bad thing at all, and therefore the literal meaning of the expression. Why the expression is used in a negative way can be explained by Japanese culture, or rather a common human feeling of not welcoming people who show off their efficiency or hard work. If, however, we let this emotion get the better of us and keep regarding those who seem to be working hard as a show-off, it cannot only be a kind of intolerance towards diligence.
As we see, the connotation of “ishiki-takai” varies from negative to positive so it might be a bit difficult to use it properly. However it is this complexity of the expression that interests me because it is something that sheds some light on social context in which the phrase is used as well as the subtle feelings of those who utter the expression.
Kai Ohata is a second-year student at the University of Tokyo.