へんじ – henji – 返事 – reply or answer
返る／巣（カエル／返す）- to return (something), to go back
事 – a thing
Mr. Tanoue, a truly unique and incredible teacher that I work with, has an incredible system of classroom management. His students have formed groups – notice I didn’t say he made the groups. They designed them by a series of interviews, as though the student leaders in the classroom were heads of teams at a company. Student leaders interviewed other students and decided which teams they wanted. At the start of every class, a student puts 7 circles on the board, making a map of the groups in the class. These circles act as scoreboards, in which the students keep track of their points throughout the class.
If you answer correctly in English, you might get 5 points. If you answer correctly in Japanese, you might get 3 points. If you give a truly spectacular answer, 10 points to Gryffindor (they aren’t named, but that would be fun). However, if you are called on and give an answer without properly responding with, “Hai!” (Yes!) first, you have to sit back down. Such is the nature of also learning Henji.
The best teachers have a way of layering lessons within their classrooms. The idea of henji, like aisatsu, is one that permeates many aspects of Japanese culture. The reception desk person at a hotel will always respond with, “Hai!” before answering any question you have. They will of course use a very formal tense structure (teinei-kei) when serving customers.
Why is Henji important?
According to the book “Becoming Japanese: the World of the Japanese Child,” children are taught from a very young age to respond properly to being called upon. It becomes a game in pre-school, and parents take pride in their children being able to respond properly and clearly. This leads into their ability to speak clearly in front of an audience, which is a requirement for all students as they get older. Stage fright does not seem to be a concept here.
Much like aisatsu, or greetings, henji is a custom to show that a person is considerate and aware of their connection to the people around them. Of course they go hand-in-hand. If you are greeted, and do not respond brightly, how does that make the other person feel? What will they think of you?
This seems natural of course. In English, when called upon, what do we say? “What?” Maybe if we’re in a slightly more formal situation, “Yes?” I don’t ever recall being required to respond with a, “Yes,” before answering a question in school. I think this is more likely furthering the discipline of the students to think before they respond; perhaps to evaluate their response thoroughly by taking an extra moment to say, “Hai” first. This is much like the space provided when using an inkan to sign documents.
It’s interesting to think, in a world where so many of us are looking down at our phones, clutching to our hand-held digital relationship maintainers, perhaps henji as a cultural concept is becoming only more important.