Disclaimer: I know it's scary when an essay starts out with a disclaimer, but I've made mistakes often enough in Japanese to know that one's needed. I would like to say that as far as I know, the things I write here are correct, and I try to confirm them as well as I can with the Japanese people around me, but I don't have an authoritive textbook on the matter and mistakes and errors are always a distinct possibility. If you find an error, please let me know, and I will correct it as soon as possible. I cannot guarantee that everything in here will be completely correct, but I can guarantee it will be as correct as I can make it!
As anyone remotely familiar with Rurouni Kenshin must know, history is intricately entwined in the series. This also applies to the language used by the characters. The Japanese language and its history actually figures quite strongly in the plot surrounding Kenshin.
The story of Rurouni Kenshin takes place ten years into the Meiji Era, but Kenshin himself is a product of the Tokugawa Bafuku (Shogunate), and his speech patterns are a relic from that time. Respect today is a very large part of the Japanese language, and any translator must struggle with how to represent the intricacies and connotations inherent in Japanese that don't exist at all in English. As I mentioned in passing in "Names, Suffixes, and Methods of Address", referring to oneself or others is fraught with layers of meaning that never exist for the English speaker. Modern Japanese, despite these difficulties, is very simple compared to the Japanese of the Tokugawa Bafuku. The rulers of Japan during the Meiji Restoration abolished most of the respect speech in Japanese in their attempt to get rid of the remnants of Japanese aristocracy and the old social order. Kenshin, however, has kept a lot of these speech patterns during his ten years of wandering, though his companions in the series speak relatively modern Japanese, with fewer levels of respect.
First I'll give you a crash course in Japanese politeness levels. There are two distict ways you can be polite. The first way has to do with how well aquainted you are with someone. If you've just met them you will be formal, while if you've known each other for a long time, you will tend to be more informal. For Americans, the time between formal and informal speech is usually one five minute conversation. The Japanese take a little longer to become informal, though the younger generation has a more western attitude to that sort of thing. The second, distinct type of politeness has to do with social status and in-group/out-group. If you are on a lower social level than the person you are talking to, you will be more polite, using in-group/out-group language carefully. This means that when you are referring to your in-group, you will use humble language. When you are talking about the out-group, you will use honorific language. In this area of politeness there is also neutral polite language, which is polite to the person being spoken to, but it is not humbling to the speaker.
The in-group in a conversation depends on who is speaking to whom, and what sort of situation they're in. If a secretary is talking to a visitor about her boss, she and her boss are grouped together in the in-group because they both work for the same company, while the visitor is in the out-group. Thus, when she refers to her superior in a conversation with the guest, she will use humble words to refer not only to herself, but also to her superior. If two classmates are talking about a girl at another school, they can think of themselves as the in-group and the other girl as the out-group. At the very minimum, the speaker is his/her own minimal in-group.
The Meiji government abolished all the different politeness levels and suffixes of Japanese in an attempt to erase old feudal loyalties from the minds of the people. The essense of the Meiji Restoration was destroying the very rigid class structure of the Tokugawa Bafuku, and replacing it with a much simpler, but still strict, heirarchy. They got rid of the shogun, daimyo, and samurai, and gave the emperor central importance in the hearts and minds of the people. Because of the simpler class structure, there was no need for most of the Japanese respect language, and much of it fell into disuse. The rest was discouraged by the government.
Just about anyone remotely familiar with Japanese will probably know the phrase "arigato gozaimasu". The "gozaimasu" is a "neutral polite, formal" way of saying the English verb "be"...kind of. Gozaru is the informal form of gozaimasu, and it is never used in modern Japanese anymore. Kenshin, however, uses "de gozaru" constantly (They even made a slight joke of it when the young child keeps calling Kenshin "Gozaru"). I was studying Japanese in university the first time I watched Kenshin, and my professor got understandably frustrated when I would burst out in the middle of a normal class with a "de gozaru" instead of "desu" (the common polite form of "be" in modern Japanese). It was probably like having a person with broken English suddenly start using "thee" and "thou"!!
Kenshin's constant use of "de gozaru" is very polite. There is no direct translation into English. He is being polite to everyone when he uses "de gozaru", yet he is not being "distant". The "gozaru" form is more informal, more direct and friendly, than "de gozaimasu" would be. So he's polite, but he's still being friendly.
There are some situations where "de gozaimasu" will appear in modern Japanese, especially at official occasions where guests are being welcomed or the schedule for an event is being announced, but I have only heard "de gozaru" in other Japanese historical dramas.
I cannot give much exact information on this suffix because it doesn't appear in my Japanese/English dictionary and my Japanese friends are unable to explain it much. I have seen in some tranlations of Inuyasha that -tono is a suffix referring to someone who has some claim to nobility, but I'm not sure if -tono is related to -dono or not ("t" often changes to "d" in Japanese when placed after different words). I do know that Kenshin uses it to refer to all women and to children he doesn't know well. He doesn't use "-dono" with Yahiko, who he feels very close to, or Sanosuke, who is a friend, but he does use it with the young rich boy Yahiko has constant fights with. I'm quite sure it's more polite than -san, but seems to have the same sort of meaning and applications.
This is an especially important word in Kenshin's vocabulary. Watsuki-san used it to symbolize the rurouni. Evidently (again, this word is no longer in much use and I can't find it in my dictionary) this is a very humble form of the word "I", and Kenshin always uses it to refer to himself when he's rurouni. Whenever he starts to become the Battousai he uses "ore" instead, which is not so humble or polite. In Kenshin's fight with Saitoh this became a major translation issue. When Kenshin is still in Battousai mode he starts talking to the government official, but he stops suddenly when he realizes that he's saying "ore" instead of "seissha". He punches himself in the face, then starts his sentence over, replacing the "ore" with "seissha". Kaoru hears this and realizes that Kenshin's pushed the Battousai back once again. In the Shinsen Gumi's subtitle they did a skillful workaround, making Kenshin say "I", punch himself in the face, and then replace it with "we". It gets some of the same feeling across to an English reader, so I think this translation was amazingly effective, but it's not exactly right, and it's yet another reason I find Japanese and anime so fascinating, and Rurouni Kenshin the most fascinating series in particular. The entirely different structure of the Japanese language is frustrating to learn, but intensely interesting all the same.
In the subtitled version (I have yet to see the "official" releases) I was disappointed by all the swearing in the subtitles. I wanted to show this series to my younger brother, but was prevented by the language. I've heard others complain about it to, so it's worth addressing.
I'm pretty sure that the foul language of the other characters is an attempt by the translators to distinguish the politeness of Kenshin's speech from everyone else's. Since there is no way in English to represent the extreme courtesy of Kenshin, they distinguish him by making everyone else foul-mouthed. This is unfortunate for would-be younger fans, and it gets a little ridiculous when Yahiko seems to be swearing like a sailor, but it was simply because of the difficulty of translating between such completely different languages. I would be very interested to find out how the official translation deals with this and other problems in switching between English and Japanese. I don't have particularly high hopes, however, since the English title "Samurai X" seems pretty stupid to me. If the title's bad, I don't hold out much hope for the rest...Fanfic Japanese Dictionary