It was my second year of college, in ’90 or ’91, and I sat at a desk in a classroom with maybe a dozen other students of second-year Japanese. The first year, the class had been much bigger, with a good 30 or 40 students. But the workload was heavy, and the grading tough. The enrollment had been whittled down.
The teaching methods were pretty old-school, with textbooks that were probably from the 50s. We did a lot of in-class drills.
That particular day, we were learning the expression “to use something as something else.” (“X to shite Y o tsukaimasu.”) The instructor gave us some examples. He picked up two pencils, and held them as if they were chopsticks. Hashi to shite empitsu o tsukaimasu, he intoned in his booming fluent-but-American-accented Japanese. “I use pencils as chopsticks.” Then he asked for more examples from the class using the construction.
“Use a rope as a belt,” someone might have said. “I use a book as a tray,” someone else might have offered.
I really can’t remember what examples my classmates came up with. Because as I sat there, I needed all of my concentration to contain the urge to giggle. The one sentence that popped into my head was: Nihon de wa, naihu to shite te o tsukaimasu.¹
In Japan, the hand is used like a knife.²
I’m sad to say that I was not called upon to share my example. I was relieved at the time, as I had not yet released my inner goofball. Also, it’s hard to say how the very serious instructor would have taken my contribution. Especially had it been accompanied by uncontrollable fits of giggling.
¹ Google translate helped me arrive at this:
日本 で は ナイフ として手を使います. There was once a time when I could have written this sentence without looking it up, but that day has long passed. Also, I only wrote Japanese by hand. I would have had no idea how to type any of it!
² The actual wording from the 1978 Ginsu commercial is: “In Japan, the hand can be used like a knife.”