[Originally written a few days before my return to the US]
When hearing or seeing something interesting, beautiful or amazing, many Japanese people emit distinctive vocalizations, either closed or open mouthed, or sometimes saying and stretching out a word. It can last 1-3 seconds and the pitch rises, like a motor spinning up. Some examples:
1. Hearing an interesting story (how my grandfather shipped food and clothing to starving relatives after the war, about my picture-bride grandmother – a concept completely foreign and unknown in Japan today, etc.), people will often say “mmmmmm” or “eeehhhhhh” on a rising note.
Here’s a short example of a dear friend and her mom “mmm”ing together in response to a comment from my mother.
2. Upon seeing a beautiful picture (pictures of the cherry blossoms, wedding photos, etc.), many (mostly women) will say “kireeeeeiii” on a rising note (kirei, pronounced “kee-ray-ee” means “beautiful”).
3. Seeing something impressive or hearing an amazing story (viewing pictures of my friend’s steel factory with huge equipment and hearing the size of some of the orders they fill, learning that my grandfather delivered 7 of his eight children at home, etc.) many will say “sugoooooiiii” on a rising note (sugoi, pronounced “soo-goy-ee” means excellent/wow/awesome!).
To hear 2 or more people doing this in unison almost sounds like a couple of car engines accelerating together. It just makes me feel good. I’ve never heard this in many of the other countries I have visited. It feels like an aural heart massage. I will miss hearing it when I return stateside in a few days.