A thirst for vengeance as big as his front wheel

The Yamanote line rings the innermost sphere in my Tokyocentric cosmology, but I often have occasion to stop for dinner at a certain station a few layers out. The station's west exit leads into a brightly-lit labyrinth of pachinko parlours and cabaret clubs. To the east, there are a few coffee shops and fast food restaurants huddled by the station's main staircase, but you can walk into the silent residential murk in five minutes.

Why? Because the west side is run by one group of Yakuza, and the east side by another. I like to imagine them as two denominations of the same urban religion, both insisting on order, respect and tribute, but disagreeing fiercely on which of the old pagan traditions remain permissible.

Speaking of old pagan traditions, I can't believe they seriously made the Ghost Rider movie (via Gaijin Biker). I totally thought that character was just a huge in-joke. I also can't believe that they didn't proof-read the text in the trailer. "What he didn't know / is the price he would have to pay"? Someone get the New York Times on the phone -- I have a great story for them about gnarly flaming skeleton tribes with no understanding of the concept of time.

I love the flaming skeleton guy on the horse, too. Is this a thing in the Ghost Rider-verse, like all those historical Flashes? If not, it should be! I want to see:

  • Flaming skeletons in fine silk robes, lounging around in bitchin' black palanquins carried by four other skeletons who only have permission to smoulder gently
  • Fur-draped skeletons with pronounced brows and squat, stocky frames, balancing on crude stone wheels, but not flaming because they hadn't discovered fire yet
  • Flaming skeletons with shoeboxes on their feet whose "flying boats" allow them to right injustices on land or water

Once word of this post gets out, I fully expect to be hired as a consultant for Ghost Rider Zero: The Penny Farthingening.



My friend Maki found this page full of short lessons in reconstructed Joumon-period Japanese. For example:

aba akaki kOrOmObO kOnOmibumu.*
私は赤い着物が好きです。(I like red clothes.)

(* The capital O is their way of writing the notorious ancient Japanese o-with-umlaut.)

Quick summary:

aFirst-person singular pronoun. Usually written 吾, sometimes 我. Already mostly replaced by wa(re) by the time the earliest Japanese was written down.
baOld pronunciation of what would become today's wa (は), the topic marker.
akakiakai (red) with old-style adjective ending -ki. This one survived well into historical times.
kOrOmOkoromo is still a perfectly serviceable word for "clothes", but it's been replaced by "kimono" in the general vocabulary and has a musty, archaic feel. You see it in a lot of poems, though, even modern ones.
bOOld pronunciation of what would become today's (w)o (を), the direct object marker.
kOnOmibumu konomu is, like koromo, still an acceptable Japanese word meaning "to like", although in sentences that mean "I like X" it's been almost entirely replaced by the ... ga suki da structure. (The nominalized form konomi is still going strong, though, used to mean "type" as in "He's not really my...") As for the -bumu, presumably this is a reconstruction of proto-Japanese verb endings. I have to admit I'm not really hip to what's going on here, but it appears in a lot of the examples.

Bonus, English-speaker-friendly link about Joumon studies.


With kaeriten



Some modernist observations on Douglas Coupland's new novel

  1. Is the title JPod or jPod? In the text it's consistently jPod, but the cover design has a capital J. This kind of thing really bothers me.
  2. The Japanese on page 102, with accompanying pseudo-Engrish, is machine-translated near-gibberish. So the question is: is this page supposed to represent actual Japanese with actual bad English translation, but Coupland messed it up, or is it supposed to represent the results of Coupland's zany characters writing pseudo-Engrish and then machine-translating it into Japanese, just for kicks?
  3. It is inconceivable that characters as steeped in The Simpsons as the ones in this book would, immediately after making one clown-related Simpsons reference, discuss enrolling in Clown College against your family's wishes without even mentioning the classic line, "That's it! You people have stood in my way long enough. I'm going to clown college!" -- yet this occurs on page 45.
  4. Enjoyable reading, though.


View of the night sky from my basement window on the second floor

Where did itadakimasu come from?

Everyone who's anyone knows that the Japanese word itadakimasu is a set phrase said before eating -- in unison by all parties present, ideally -- and means "[I] [will?] receive [+humility] [+politeness]". But today I got to wondering if it's an actual speech act (i.e. "I hereby humbly receive this meal [in toto, and having received it I shall begin at once to eat it]") or just a statement about the near future (i.e. "I will [over the course of the next X minutes] humbly eat this meal").

I didn't reach a conclusion that satisfied me, but I did open up another fruitless line of internal inquiry: where did itadakimasu, as a set phrase said before eating, even come from? I know that people like to identify it with ancient Shinto, traditional Japanese respect for life, mists of time, &c., but can anyone point to an actual example of it (or even an equivalent phrase) being used in this way in a text written before, say, 1900?

Even going back just to the early 1900s, the only examples I can find at Aozora Bunko (after admittedly non-exhaustive searching) are suspiciously conversational, rather than set-phrasid. For example, take this heartwarming passage from DAZAI Osamu's Student Beggar (乞食学生):

 少年は、急に顔を真赤にして、「君は? 食べないの?」と人が変ったようなおどおどした口調で言って、私の顔を覗(のぞ)き込む。
The old teahouse lady brought over a tray with a bowl of oyako donburi on it.
"How about you eat that?"
The boy's face went red. "What about you? Aren't you going to eat it?" he asked in an entirely different, much more timid tone, sneaking a glance at my face.
"I don't want it." I drank my bancha as naturally as I could and looked over at the forest beyond the pond.
"Itadakimasu," I heard the boy say in a quiet voice.
"Go ahead."

The more I look, the more likely it seems to me that itadakimasu as a set phrase uttered to no-one in particular (or/and therefore to god/s, in some accounts) appeared relatively recently, a fossilization of regular conversational uses of itadakimasu. In fact, there is still some overlap, like when someone says "You want some pizza?" and offers the open box, and you say "Itadakimasu," and reach for a slice.

This is pure speculation, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if its genesis as a nationwide, prescribed, unchangeable thing was early this last century, when the government was using the schools to push three things which were necessary for their imperialist project: nationwide conformity of and obedience to behavioral norms, gratitude for whatever food was available, and shady revisionist Shinto.*
Having said all that, virtually this entire post could be shot down by an example or two of unambiguously non-conversational itadakimasu (or itadakisourou or whatever) from the 1800s or earlier. So does anyone have any?

Incidentally, this post isn't intended as an attack on the custom of saying itadakimasu itself. Even if it was only five years old, I'd still be all in favor of it.

* Please do not interpret this as a cue to make barbed ironic comments about modern Japanese schools. This blog has a fifty-year minimum wait for political commentary.


A Krummhorn, a unicycle, a wax cylinder

The complex system of pulleys, gears and insulting recommendation algorithms within Amazon.co.jp has at last yielded my copy of Far from the Madding Gerund, which is of course the best of Language Log (except all the Yoda stuff, which is a bit disappointing, but perhaps there were legal concerns.)

One post I either missed the first time or simply forgot about completely was the jinx roundup, which concludes:

I wonder what the jinx culture of non-English-speaking countries is like, and whether there is any international effort to establish best jinx practices and harmonize jinx standards.

I have not kept up with the proceedings of the relevant ISO committee, but I have learned that in Japan the most widespread equivalent of "jinx!" is "happy ice-cream!", which allegedly obliges the sayee to buy the sayer a delicious frozen treat. (Although, of course, this obligation is shirked far more often than not.) There are other traditions in which something like "I got your luck!" is said, and no dairy goods are expected to change hands.

This highlights the genius of jinx: it is not a vague demand that something be bought at some unspecified point in the future, or an untestable claim about fortune in general. No, jinx consists only of an obligation to be silent, conditions the meeting of which free one from that obligation, and the threat of punishment underlying it all. No aspect is inaccessible to even the poorest, most determinedly empirical-minded eight-year-old, which both empowers them to impose it on others and obliges them to submit when they are slower on the draw.


Mana from heaven

I was trying to figure out if and how made (until) and ma (place, gap) were related when, in the Nihon gogen daijiten, I ran across this bold hypothesis regarding the origin of ma itself:

"Word that came out of heaven?"

This is attributed to Wakun no shiori, "A guide to Japanese readings [as opposed to Chinese ones]", a book published by TANIKAWA Kotosuga (谷川士清) in the late 1700s. NGD says that it is generally considered Japan's first etymological work in a modern(ish) style.

I am curious about how closely Tanikawa's actual words match what is attributed to him here. Obviously, the intended meaning is "there is no deeper root beneath ma", but did he actually use the word 天 (heaven)? And if so, how figuratively did he mean it? I know that the idiom ten kara ("from heaven") is still found in modern Japanese meaning "from the start" or "all along", although I mostly see it in negative sentences like 天から信じてない, "[I] never trusted [that guy]".


Two monologues that have recently been delivered to me by Japanese people because I am foreign

  1. "But you! You don't turn away and ignore me. You don't understand what I'm saying, but at least you listen to it! Because I want to look this way! I got up this morning and dressed like an idiot on purpose! But all of these damn Japanese people, they just ignore me. They don't have any love in their heart! They don't understand that I look this way on purpose! That's what's wrong with Japan today."
  2. "Australian? You're Australian?! Oh, man, it's my lucky day! For sure! I bet on Australia in the World Cup match against Japan, you know that? I did! And now I know they're gonna win! Wow, talk about luck!"

The first guy didn't look that funny. His baseball cap clashed vigorously his pants, but that was the extent of the problem as far as I could see.


There ain't OE in it

Mysteriously-named quack sauce Fibe-Mini has a new poster campaign in which undesirable tendencies and personality traits are personified by people in rubber costumes reminiscent of the golden age of Rangers.

Am I the only one strongly reminded of Houdini here?

You can see a few of the others here and here, albeit in angled glarey photographs taken on moving trains while surrounding passengers emitted high-frequency disapproval waves. (I wasn't there, but I know what it's like trying to photograph ads on public transport.)


Now if we can only get her to rename Hard Off

Roy, who reads the parts of Japanese newspapers that aren't about the physical appearance of celebrities (making him my nemesis, I think), hepped me up to this story about secondhand bookstore chain Book Off's new president: HASHIMOTO Mayumi. Hashimoto was personally chosen by current president and company founder SAKAMOTO Takashi, who plans to magically transform into a chairman.

Why is this story interesting? Because now Book Off will only sell diaries written in kana Hashimoto started her career with Book Off only 16 years ago, as a part-time shop assistant. Of course, that was at the very first Book Off store, and a year later she was already manager of the second Book Off store, so it isn't so much a rose-from-the-ranks story as a was-there-from-the-beginning,-paid-her-dues-and-had-her-talents-recognized story... still, I understand that it's still quite rare in Japan for a person to rise from the customer-sullied shop floor to the top of the pyramid like that.

After all, in Japan, a part-time worker is a paato or baito (from German Arbeit), but a full-time worker is a "true employee" (seishain). (Yes, yes: "he said, implicitly invoking naiive Eskimo-words-for-snowism.")


I bore witness

Looks like that week of oxygen-in-a-can at 7-11 that I witnessed was the pilot for a nationwide launch.

I wonder if they plan to revise the promotional materials. Back then, they showed a schoolgirl enjoying the product. I would have thought it more logical to target magic health gases at the chain-smoking, out-of-shape oyaji market.


I love legitimate theater

A few months ago Nestlé released a new snack called "Crispy Monogatari" (クリスピー物語), which is basically a kit-kat without the chocolate coating. At the time I considered posting about my musings on whether its name is best translated as "Crispy tale(s)", "The tale of Crispy" or "Tale(s) about crispiness", but common sense prevailed and the post was never made.

But I am posting now because Crispy Monogatari has just released a book. Available only with packages of Crispy Monogatari, it contains six short horror stories about "transformation" (no word on crispiness or whether anyone in them is named "Crispy"), including one by SUZUKI "The Ring" Kōji and another by ŌISHI "Ju-on house novelizer" Kei.

I don't really see the connection between tasty chocolate snacks and eerie kids that stand in your closet staring at you. It's certainly less intuitive than Kit-kat and "kitto katsu". Maybe some Nestlé marketer lost a bet.


Andou Shoueki: Spiritual Linguist

ANDOU Shoueki is another Edo thinker I have been reading lately. His Toudou shinden (『統道真伝』, "A Truthful Account of Everything", maybe) is a series of interlocked and opinionated mini-essays on everything from climate to marriage, all viewed through Shoueki's idiosyncratic philosophy of Everything. This is the kind of thing I enjoy in any case -- ah, for the heady days when "science" meant "drawing wild conclusions from 500-year-old books and cursory examination of the flora and fauna in your backyard" -- but what I most enjoy about it is Shoueki's approach to language, which at times borders on the mystical.

This is apparent from the very first few pages, in which he outlines his Unified Theory of Climate, using the curious word 転定. Intended to be pronounced tenti, it is apparently his way of writing 天地 ("heaven and earth"): the sounds are the same, and if you squint you can see the meanings too (the heavens are always in motion (転), while the earth is fixed (定)). The notes by Iwanami-edition editor NARAMOTO Tatsuya (奈良本辰也) hypothesize that Shoueki was consciously avoiding the character 天 because he felt it was too reminiscent of words such as 天皇, "Emperor", and the hierarchical ideas they reinforce.

Later in the work, he rhapsodizes about the Japanese language in general, picking out word-pairs like 男・女 (wonoko, wonago, "man, woman") 有り・無し (ari, nasi, "exist, not exist"), and 楽・悲 (tanosimi, kanasimi, "pleasure, sadness") and concluding that the similarity of sound each pair exhibits, in particular the rhyming, is due to their being two sides of the same coin:

If there were no yosi (good), there would be no asi (evil); if there were no asi, there would be no yosi; the combination of good and bad is nothing less than an expression of sintai (進退, "advance and retreat", kind of like yin and yang).

Shoueki furthermore attributes this quality of Japanese to Japan's being the original Source (of everything, basically), and proceeds to rail against imported Chinese thinking, for denying the essential truth of these dyads and encouraging people to seek joy without suffering, heaven and not hell, which as he has just shown is a logical (and phonemic) impossibility. "We have been led astray by these false teachings of Buddhism, this materialism of Confucianism," he concludes...

... and then moves on to his next topic, which is about the unity of all languages.

The Ainu say hiruko for "man" and menokosi for "woman": these [words] fall within the fifty sounds [of Japanese, i.e. the syllabary extended to its hypothetical limits]... the Chinese say inshu for drinking liquor (飲酒), and kouin (好婬) for relations between men and women: these too are within [the fifty sounds of Japanese].

Obviously, it is already cheating to claim that every language can be pronounced using the sounds of Japanese and offer as proof fully katakanified versions of these languages, but he doesn't stop with humans:

Beasts -- which word (kemono) derives from the phrase "thing that grows hair" (ke naru mono) -- say wan-wan [dogs], ii [donkeys?], meiwe [sheep?], nyan-nyan [cats], woho [wolves], and kon-kon [kitsune]; these too are within the fifty sounds.

Talk about anthropomorphization. He also goes through the sounds of birds, insects, fish, and even plants! (While unable to speak themselves, he notes, when blown by the wind they make sounds like soyo-soyo and saa-saa.)

Ah, how logical! Nature, the union of heaven and earth, people and things, is a harmonious, unceasing system, thus producing the fifty sounds; and so is it, therefore, that no speech of man or thing falls without these sounds.

It would have been humbling enough to learn that my pronunciation of English, incorporating as it does phonemes and clusters forbidden in Japanese, goes against nature to such an extent. But to further discover that all this time dogs and chickens and even the grass have been outdoing me... I'm completely mortified.


Holiday in Korea

via thrift store, with minor Internet Detective work.


Meet the G that killed me

The standard Japanese counting units go like this:

KanjiPronunciation10 to the power of ...

(There was actually an older system whereby the number of zeros kept increasing at the same rate, so that, for example, a kei was only 10,000,000 instead of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000, but since the Edo period at least things have worked as described in the above table.)

Obviously, going up to one gai is enough for almost any conceivable purpose to which counting might be put. Nerds, however, have always been with us, and nerds crave more, more, more useless definitions. Thanks to the tireless work of these geeks of old, an even more magnificent set of pointlessly vast numbers crowns the standard ones. This is the series as described in in YOSHIDA Mitsuyoshi's 1627 mathematics textbook Jinkouki (『塵劫記』):

KanjiPronunciation10 to the power of ...
* As one character -- can't find this in Unicode, and according to the Iwanami Bunko edition it's probably a mistake on Yoshida's part anyway. But I can't find the correct character (禾市) either.

10 to the power of 48: that's a big number. Surely Yoshida would stop there? But no! He presses on, assigning specific values to various phrases from the Lotus Sutra that were never meant to be treated that way:

   Kanji   Pronunciation10 to the power of ...Meaning
恒河沙gougasha56"Sands of the Ganges"
阿僧祇asougi64Transliteration of Sanskrit word meaning "uncountably large number"
那由他nayuta72Transliteration of Sanskrit word meaning "extremely large amount"
無量大数muryoutaisuu88"Infinitely large number" (oh, the irony)

You'll notice that the number of zeros starts increasing by eights instead of fours at the start of this series. This was, it seems, a quirk of Yoshida's, and nowadays it's more usual to stick with the fours all the way through, so that a fukashigi is only ten to the power of 64.

But, seriously, that's only a trillion times greater than the observed universe's total mass as measured in kilograms (at least according to some site I it-chou-muryoutaisuu'd up just now). What possible use could such a tiny number be? Silly modernizers and their lack of vision.


In entirely unrelated news, "dabudabu" is a kiddie word for "bath"

Dove's Real Beauty campaign has come to Japan. Since half the women featured have Korean-sounding names I correctly deduced that it has hit Korea, too (although I should warn you that Dove's Korean homepage was apparently designed primarily for the purpose of destroying malicious robots by shocking their visual receptors beyond endurance.)

In America, Dove used this campaign to sell firming cream, the message being "It's OK to have curves, as long as they're smooth. Sisters are doin' it for themselves, thanks to Dove: friend of women!" In Japan, they didn't bother with the pseudo-feminism: the message becomes "with the help of our cream, you won't feel the need to conceal your skin any more". (I'm not sure if it's the same cream or not -- it's called "lifting cream" here -- but I assume so.)

The subtle change in focus from "size" to "appearance of skin" intrigues me. I wish I knew enough about the Japanese cosmetics industry to comment on it properly. The obvious answer is that since statistically speaking the Japanese population is less overweight, appealing to fear of fatness is less effective. But in the real world I know plenty of normal-sized Japanese people who still worry about their weight, so I doubt that's it.

Update: While I'm at it, I may as well link to this commercial for Slim Beauty House which, if nothing else, has a novel value proposition: if you are beautifully slim, you will be able to gracefully duck and weave between clumsy drunkards at parties.


The town that nezer sleeps

I spent two out of nine Golden Week days in Nezu. In the Edo period there was a pleasure quarter there, smaller than the Yoshiwara but bigger than the one in Shinagawa, but they were all forced out in the 1880s. This was allegedly because what would later become the University of Tokyo had moved in next door, although it's hard to imagine either teachers or students complaining about the situation pre-move. Later the area became a literary center and yada yada Meiji literature the very paving stones that MORI Ougai trod et cetera.

We also hit up the Tsutsuji Matsuri (Azalea Festival) at the local shrine, although, since I wasn't willing to join the slow-motion conga line of old people through the actual garden, I only saw the flowers themselves from a distance. That's okay, though; I've read a few poems about them.


No-Girl Winter Death Screech

"I Got Earplugs for Valentine's Day": rewarding article by "the girlfriend of a dude who loves noise."

"Perfect" might be pushing it

Today I came across Kanzen Maid Sengen ("Declaration of perfect maiddom") singing a song about "Rockristmas" (ロックリスマス) and dancing in the rain outside Shibuya station for an audience that included everyone from curious passers-by to die-hard fans. (See the guy on the right, in blue? He, along with about five other guys spread throughout the audience, knew exactly which beats to pogo to and when to stay still.)


  • Rockristmas carolling before Rocktober is a serious faux pas.
  • It is jarring to see such traditionally-attired maids jumping around to aggressively synthesized pseudo-trance doof-pop. Shouldn't their musical backing owe a little more to Elgar?
  • Kanzen Maid Sengen have as many ex-members as members.
  • Their blog had a post about this event up by 3:57, photo and audio greeting included.

I know that some of you may feel that my fascination with the maid thing has long ago crossed the border into Tiresome County, but this is living anthropology. It is a bubble of performed sexuality, and the only question is how it is going to pop. Will maids vanish entirely from the psycho-erotic landscape? Will they stake out some remote but unassailable territory like their 80s cousins the stewardesses, enjoying only periodic revivals? Or will they infiltrate pop culture so deeply that they become a permanent fixture, like schoolgirls?

And what will it take for Japan's women to get it together and start demanding that their boyfriends dress up as firemen or butlers or something?


The depths

Japanese poetry is notorious for its tendency to dissolve into unforgivable puns, but it's nothing compared to the candy.

It's the only way to be sure

K. and I took her pug P. to a "dog park" over the weekend. Since P. is too simple-minded to be mean, humans love him, but dogs seem to find his heavy breathing, slobbering enthusiasm, and squashed-up face quite unnerving. They register him from a distance as a dog and walk up to exchange butt-sniffs, but when they get near enough for their feeble monochrome vision to reveal what kind of dog he is, they veer away and pretend to have been doing something else.

Fortunately, because they are dogs, "What? Oh, no, I just wanted to closely examine this bug on the ground here" is a perfectly reasonable excuse, and so P. remains blissfully oblivious to the snub. He just wags his tail and watches them walk away, like a man drunk enough to completely believe a woman who says she "just has to go find her friend" and vanishes onto the dance floor immediately after he vomits on himself a little.

In the end, it seems that the only dogs willing to associate with pugs are other pugs, and some of the French bulldogs.

The most disturbing feature of the day was a visit to the Freshness Burger next to the park, which -- like most of the shops in that area -- is 100% dog-friendly. It being a sunny day, the glass front was wide open. People were smoking, dogs were shedding, children were weeping and soiling themselves. It was like a gateway into an alternate history in which Louis Pasteur had gone into woodworking, and the germ theory of disease had never been discovered. I could hardly believe that the health department would allow such a place of business to even be described in principle, let alone exist. The owner must have signed a release form giving them permission to nuke the site from orbit if things got out of hand.