Machine language

So, as various blogs have reported, Japan's minister of labor, health and welfare (厚生労働) YANAGISAWA Hakuo referred to women as "birth-giving machines". It always bugs me in cases like this when no-one bothers to reproduce his actual words, so here they are for the record... though they don't improve matters much:

15−50歳の女性の数は決まっている。産む機械、装置の数は決まっているから、あとは一人頭で頑張ってもらうしかない。 (Source)

"The number of 15-50-year-old women is fixed. The number of birth-giving machines, [the amount of] equipment, is fixed, so all we can do is have each [person] do their best." Yep, there it is. Plus, qualifiers like "機械って言っちゃ申し訳ないけど" ("Sorry for using the word 'machines', but...") only dig the hole deeper: they suggest that he knows his phrasing is inappropriate, but expects a token pseudo-apology to get him off the hook.

But wink-wink PC theater of that kind works only on people who wouldn't have been offended anyway. All Yanagisawa accomplished, in the end, was a demonstration of his staggering inability to relate to the women of Japan -- or, indeed, any women, anywhere, ever. And it isn't like these are "Was will das Weib?"-type mysteries, either. Consider a hypothetical 13-year-old boy who got kicked out of his LARP club for being too dorky. Even he could tell you that calling women baby machines is a one-way to ticket to Greater Asskickings. I wouldn't be surprised if the birth rate drops even lower now, purely out of spite.

On the other hand I would support her if she campaigned to revive the word yamatomoji for kana

It took Timotarou to tell me about KUNISHIGE Tomomi, who has just released a book of her "eekanji"*, a strange but awesome blend of Roman and Chinese characters. I've seen this idea before, but never executed so well.

Her opinions on character set naming are dubious, though:

Though thoroughly modern -- her natural black hair is dyed a brilliant, shining yellow -- the artist is fiercely proud of her Japanese heritage: those same locks are worn up in a traditional style, she wears a colorful dress made out of one of her grandmother's old kimono and cringes when kanji is described in English as "Chinese characters."

"If I'm using them to write Japanese, what does that make them?" she says, throwing her arms into the air.

It makes 'em Chinese characters used to write Japanese, of course. I suppose you could be pedantic and call them something like "the Japanese branch of the Chinese-character tradition", but that's beside the point. It's most unsporting of her to get all huffy about the English term "Chinese characters" when it is more or less a direct translation of 漢字, kanji: "Chinese [specifically Han] characters". I mean, come on.

* Pronounced /e:kanzi/: it's a pun on 英漢字 ("English kanji") and ええ感じ ("Good feeling, lookin' good" in a western Japanese accent.


"Dr. Morris assures me that he has seen 'schepe' used for 'shepherd' more than once, and so have I; but we have both lost the references"

One great thing about studying Middle English is that it dramatically increases your chances of reading something by Skeat. The man had other names, but, like Tolstoy or Athena, didn't need them. Today I bought his 1923 edition of The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman, and -- what? You thought it was just called Piers Plowman? Oh, man, are you ever in trouble.

The title 'Piers Plowman' or, as I prefer to write it, 'Piers the Plowman,' is one which has been frequently misconstrued and misunderstood by many authors, and concerning which many text-books have blundered inextricably. It is most important that the reader should have a clear idea of what it means, and as it is rather a difficult point to explain accurately, I must ask him to give me his best attention; and I cannot refrain from adding the hope that, if he succeeds in mastering the explanation of it, he will abstain from using the phrase in future in the old slovenly way.

That is the first paragraph of the introduction. It takes him only a few sentences to:

  1. Insist crankily on our ignorance;
  2. Accuse us of not paying attention;
  3. Insinuate that we may not understand even if we do pay attention; and
  4. Demand that we stop being such a bunch of slobs.

Via the above Wikipedia link, I learn that two of his works are on Gutenberg.org: A Concise Dictionary of Middle English ("Wlanc, adj. proud, fine, grand, S2; wlonk, S2; wlonke, fine woman, HD.--AS. wlanc (OET)") and English Dialects From the Eighth Century to the Present Day, which is a much better example of the Skeat-man in action:

The Ormulum, written in the North-East Midland of Lincolnshire [...] is the first clear example of the form which our literary language was destined to assume. It is an extremely long and dreary poem of about 10,000 long lines, written in a sadly monotonous unrimed metre...

Now that's philology!


The face that should not be

No, kanji should not have eyelashes, ever. Even if you manage to overcome your brain's desire to parse them as little random tufts of hair, you then realize that those words must be covered in randomly-placed eyes, like unfortunate fish who grow up near the wrong kind of factory. No wonder they only show them in silhouette.

No, Japan only admits one type of hairy character: hige moji, where /hige/ = "beard, whiskers". (Apparently the same term can also be used for Fraktur, weirdly enough, although I've never heard that usage myself. Then again, I've never set anything in Fraktur.)


"You are linguist, no? So listen, and try to understand."

Great anecdotes at Language Log about encouraging students to learn languages. I have to say, following the "oh, just learn it -- it's easy" approach to French has delivered some very satisfactory results, although that's partly because French is just a subset of English with extra trailing vowels and some of the Ws replaced by Qs. At last, I understand exactly what Satie wrote on the carte postale to Jean Poueigh that got him thrown in prison! "Monsieur et cher ami: Vous n’êtes qu’un cul, mais un cul sans musique." (Is all of his correspondence that good? Maybe I should get that giant book collecting it.)

Completely without segue: Claude Piron's "Evolution is Proof of Life" is quite an interesting read about how Esperanto has evolved over the years. No doubt a lot of this change was driven by the sharp drop between the two world wars in the proportion of its speakers with luxurious waxed moustaches hampering their articulation.


For a bit deeper Sugorokians

I can confidently say that SUGOROKU NET is the best Sugoroku-related site I have ever seen. Their "full-size" scans are still too small to read, but apart from that, no complaints. It's not even worth linking to individual sub-pages: if you like any of it, you'll like all of it.

Oh, all right: A sugoroku board commemorating the silver anniversary of Japan's "opening" by Perry! "The main topics between the end of Edo and the beginning of Meiji are covered chronically so well that it [...] explains the relationships among the events more clear than many trite textbook." Sugoroku contains all human knowledge and can do anything, kind of like Emacs.

Sugoroku has been banned in Japan multiple times, mostly because it was used for gambling (until someone "invented" the much more efficient chō-han bakuchi*). According to the Nihon shoki, the first ban was in 689 AD -- actually, I guess it'd be 690 by the Western calendar, because it was in the 12th lunar month: the text says "十二月己酉朔丙辰、禁断雙六", which means "12th month, the first day of which was the day of the Yin Earth Rooster; day of the Yang Fire Dragon [i.e. the 8th**]: Sugoroku banned."

* Which is kind of like vi: clean, simple, and beloved by aficionados, but harmed by its association in the popular mind with scary, unapproachable men in darkened rooms.

** 53 (Fire Dragon's position in cycle) - 46 (Earth Rooster's position in cycle) + 1 (because the first day of the month isn't the 0th, alas) = 8.


Five things you don't know about me, unless I already posted about them and later forgot

I got tagged! But don't worry, I won't pass it on.

  • I am bookish, weak, and contemptibly bad at all sports, but I can walk more or less indefinitely. And I can read while I do it. Rocky field, moving walkway, Shibuyaic throng, rickety staircase: it doesn't matter, I don't ever have to look up. (Feel free to gaze sadly at me with Little Princian bafflement at my priorities here. I have no counterargument.)
  • I had never been to an onsen, or any other kind of public bath, until earlier this month.
  • I was terrible with languages until well into my university career. My early experiences with foreign language education (Italian) were all of the "learn to say hello, learn to ask for a red shirt" variety, but then I transferred schools and landed in the middle of a four-year German course that was much more hardcore (they also taught Latin at that school, if that helps set the scene). You can fudge a lot of stuff in Italian, but if you don't know your cases in German, you can't even say "the". (Postscript: This experience warped me so thoroughly that the next language I studied, years later, was Klingon.)
  • Borrowing this one from Clunis: I think that Akikonomu is an awesome name for a girl. And, given that in Japan it is quite common for fathers to get the final say on their kids' names, if labor weakens my hypothetical future wife to the extent that she can't physically stop me from writing it on the form...
  • I was vegan for a couple of years, and married for roughly the same couple of years.


Edo writing

I just stumbled across the sci.lang.japan FAQ site's neat summary article on shotai (書体), a word which, as they say, can refer to anything from a broadly defined calligraphic style to a specific typeface.

I like the Edo moji (江戸文字, "Edo characters") best, and though I have a soft spot for the sheer perversity of kakuji* (角字, "square characters"), my favorite kind of Edo moji is Kantei-ryū (勘亭流, "Kantei school").

According to kanteiryu.com, the Kantei school as we know it began in early 1779, when actor NAKAMURA Kanzaburō IX (九代目中村勘三郎) asked OKAZAKIYA Kanroku (岡崎屋勘六), brush name Kantei (勘亭), to write the sign for that spring's kyōgen production.** The process by which Kantei's brushmanship proceeded to conquer the meta-world of Japanese theater administration is still unclear to me, but it probably had something to do with courtesans. Certainly everything else in Edo did.

Today, you can study it among like-minded nerd-calligraphers or just admire their works (thumbnail links broken, remove the superfluous ".html" or just view the images on that page full-size). And, of course, since there are still a few kabuki theaters that haven't closed down and that signage don't just write itself, some people make a living Kantei-style.

To get you started, here are three sympathetic-magical principles which are often invoked in discussions of the Kantei mystique:

  • Fat characters = Less negative space = Fewer empty seats
  • Rounded characters = No pointiness (togari) = No (unscripted) drama (togari)
  • Characters that "turn" (haneru) inwards = Patrons that are drawn into the theater

Kantei's grave is in Asakusa and has an inscription reading:

ありがたや 心の雲の晴れ渡り 只一筋に向かう極楽
Arigataya / kokoro no kumo no harewatari / tada hitosuji mukau gokuraku
Hallelujah! / Soul clear and unclouded / Paradise goes on forever

... carved, of course, in a cheerful Kantei-school hand.

* Kakuji are to the Japanese writing system what corsets are to clothing: ridiculously exaggerated, haughtily impractical, and often painful, but some people really get off on them. (The extension of this analogy to standard East Asian orthography, and thence to romanization, is left as an exercise for the reader.)

** Kanteiryu.com claim that the title of the play in question was "御贔屓年々曽我", pronounced On-hibiki nen-nen soga, but I don't understand how that could work. I could understand on-bi(i)ki, or even on-bihiki, hypercorrection though it'd be. Anyway, setting the pronunciation aside, my best guess is that it means something like "Support waning by the year". (Oh... unless 贔屓 here is some confusing alternate spelling for 響き, in which case the pronunciation /onhibiki/ would be more plausible and it'd mean "Reputation/rumor waning by the year", I guess.)

UPDATE: See comments for discussion leading to TNH's more accurate translation of the title, The Soga Brothers Across the Years: the Supportening.


"After careful consideration I have decided that [...] I can also include sexy pictures of the actors who play fictional witches!"

This is far outside No-sword's normal purview, but I can't resist: Sexy Witch (possibly NSFW) is one of those fascinating internet oddities, stumbled upon entirely by accident in the outer reaches of a Google search but impossible to leave once visited.

Every single post is about one or more sexy witches, but the context varies wildly: ceramics, Walpurgisnacht and literature ("The Passionate Witch is credited with [inventing]... the modern sort of sexy witch that this blog attempts to document"), Bierbaum's "Jung Hexenlied", broom-riding technique controversy, flapperdom, trashy costumes and related meta-commentary, Brocken money... It's like one of those great link-rich Metafilter posts, except in slow motion and never-ending. And so many mysteriously removed comments!

(The money angle seems to be Amazon referrals; the absence of any kind of automatic text ad is, frankly, baffling. The conical hat fetishist market alone must be huge.)

Obligatory Japanese content: The standard Japanese translation for "witch" is majo, 魔女, literally "magical woman", but this is Sino-Japanese. A rough native Japanese equivalent would be yamaonna or yamauba (→ yamanba), "mountain woman" or "mountain hag", a word that has found new life in the past couple of decades to describe young women who dare to exemplify certain extremes of fashion.



Difference between Japanese and U.S. framing squares. (Sashigane as in the framing square (指矩) is not to be confused with the homophonous sashigane used in the arts (差金), like the one in kabuki which consists of a stick to which things can be attached so that everyone can pretend they are flying, or the intra-arm gadgetry used in bunraku. The metaphorical meaning of sashigane, "manipulating someone, controlling things from behind the scenes", derives from one or both of these, not from carpentry.)


Those who study the past too closely are doomed to repeat it

T. and I went down to Mishima this weekend, to eat eels and immerse ourselves in hot water. We also dropped by the Sano Museum to see their exhibit about the new Genji Monogatari picture scroll recreation -- re-enactment, really, given the focus on original methods, tints and tools.

You can get a general idea of the principle by comparing OKADA Motoshi's recreation of the second Suzumushi picture to the original (via Arthur Choi's handy page). Obviously a lot depends on how the images are lit, digitized, and stored, but you can see that Okada's has already lost that shibui, atmospheric feeling that is the very foundation of the appeal of these images to us today.

And Okada's is apparently one of the recreation industry's more subdued styles. The "Heisei recreation", of which no individual piece dates from before the late 1990s, and which is based on the very latest scholarship and investigation, is garish beyond belief. I found the greens especially jarring and ugly. If you saw this stuff in a gift shop, you would assume it was an ultra-cheap knock-off, unfit even to shine the metaphorical boots of the browned, crumbly original -- and yet, the people who commissioned that original, who thought it so appealing and cared for it so well that it survives to this day, delighted in precisely that repulsive shade of aqua.

Lesson: if you revere ancient art to the extent that you come to attach as much importance to the accidents of time and wear as you do to its actual content, do not ever attempt to recreate the original as the ancients themselves saw it. You will only be disappointed.


Miscellany: wishes, dreams, tacos

  • One of the wishes-on-a-scrap-of-wood I saw at the shrine in Kamakura last week read, in full, "May I make my debut as a novelist while still in high school." So that's how all those kids keep winning the big prizes.
  • Leah Dizon, the "black ship"* of Japanese gravure, has a blog, and it's bilingual. Actually, it's an intriguing code-switching pastiche: the impression we are supposed to get, I think, is that she writes it in English (at the bottom of each post) and somebody translates it to Japanese for her (the top). But her English (let's just assume that she actually does write it) is sprinkled with Japanese, which ranges from completely OK in context; through OK in principle but strange in context; all the way to erroneous. (Examples of the last category are mostly the kind of minor mistakes that everyone makes when they start learning Japanese: ureshii da yo, etc.) The translator then has to decide what to keep and what to fix.
    It's tough: they want her to come off fun, exotic and cute, but not mockably bizarre or awkward, so the decisions they make can be interesting. When "Mita koto nai! Ita koto nai yo! IKITAI YO! GET! GET! GET!" becomes "見たことも行ったこともない!行きたいよー!ゲット!ゲット!ゲット!", they've fixed a spelling/pronunciation mistake, smoothed out some syntax, and left in "GET! GET! GET!" -- which makes their version ("ゲット!ゲット!ゲット!") a Japanese translation of an English imitation of a Japanese usage of an English loanword. (On the other hand, elsewhere, "YUME! GET! GET!" is de-frenzied to "夢を手に入れよう!") If Japan-fronting overseas models becomes a bigger industry, there'll be a thesis in this.
  • From the "sounds like a dirty euphemism, is an innocent eatery" files:
* N.b.: Not a member of the crew, which was apparently 90% wolfman.


Final kanji cartoon post: foreigners

First, the answer to the question at the end of the last post: it's supposed to be 今 and 古, or "new/modern" and "old". Notice that the distinctively Japanese headgear is 古, old. This is a common theme in the 今/古 pictures:

(The hairstyles at the top are entirely intra-Japan; I just like the illustration, and the reminder that at one time one of these two unspeakably old-fashioned hairdos was considered "modern".)

Word fact: the modern replacement for the fundoshi (traditional Japanese jock strap) is a sarumata, or "monkey-crotch", western-style long underwear.

Here's a set of illustrations based on the characters 洋 (ocean → overseas) and 和 (Japanese):

The pair at the bottom left is "mythology"; the West gets the apple-serpent double whammy, while Japan gets a bird which I presume is supposed to be Yatagarasu, a name that means "eight-handspan bird" and was applied quite carelessly in Japanese mythology, so that we can't be sure that Japan's version of the pan-Asian sun bird was considered exactly the same bird as the one that led Emperor Jimmu to the promised land, etc.

Here's an example of using Western orthography to tackle Western themes:

Yeah, OK, we'll let that one go.

And finally: outlanders go like this, while locals go like this.


More kanji kartoons

(All ibid.)

Let us begin with the first non-writing use to which any writing system is put to: faces.

Clockwise from top left:

  • 淫相: lewd physiognomy
  • 盗相: a thief's physiognomy
  • 善相: virtuous physiognomy
  • 悪相: evil physiognomy (note that the actual picture uses an alternate version of the character for "evil": 惡)

Next up, a tour de force entitled 小大 ("Little and Big"):

Most of these are pretty obvious even if you can't read Japanese, but there are a couple that won't be:

(If you have difficulty with the one at 9:00, congratulations: you have class.)

Next, images made with the characters 女男 (man/woman):

Note that the 女 in the middle looks like (is, really) the hiragana め, because that is the cursive form.

Tomorrow! Similar images directly dealing with the west. In the meantime, why not try guessing what kanji this headwear pair represents?


Back to basics: kanji humour

There've been a lot of things said about Chinese characters in the linguisticblogosphere of late. It seems to me that we're losing sight of their real value, which is as kaleidoscopic pun material. So here are some, ahem, imaginative etymologies by MIYATAKE Gaikotsu (宮武外骨)'s Kokkei Shinbun ("Satirical news"), handily available in Kawade Bunko's excellent Kokkei manga kan ("Hall of satirical cartoons").

Person + Dollars = Buddha. (Fun bonus trivia: "弗" was chosen as the character for "dollar" based solely on its superficial resemblance to the "$" character.)
Wave + Woman = Old woman.
Person + Tree = Rest. Love that guy in the center panel. Also, if I am not mistaken, this is just a sexed-up version of the real etymology.
Person + Ladle = Become a monster. My absolute favorite fake kanji etymology ever.


"I made the mistake of talking as I pointed"

Interesting article about trying to get by in Ireland speaking only Irish. Starts off depressing, but gets much better:

I was rapidly approaching a point of despair when some children came on the line. I found they spoke clear and fluent Irish in a new and modern urban dialect. They told me how they spoke the language all the time, as did all their friends. They loved it, and they were outraged that I could suggest it was dead. These were the children of the new Gaelscoileanna - the all-Irish schools that are springing up throughout the country in increasing numbers every year.


Public Domain Day: Japan

To add to the excellent list at CopyrightWatch of authors whose work was freed for all humanity on January 1st...

And last, but not least...


Si le poisson-chat remue la queue

Found: the National Science Museum's Earthquake Reference Room. (We're six years even more overdue!)

The namazu-e on the front page shows the 1855 (Ansei) Edo earthquake catfish being punished cruelly, unusually and immediately, as an example to all other earthquakes, for its crimes against the people.

The hammer-wielding man charged with carrying out the sentence elaborates with glee on his plans for the prisoner: specifically, to split it open and serve it kabayaki-style to the citizens it has wronged. "Ouch, ouch!" cries the catfish, conveniently named "Edo". "Just spare my life, and in return I will never again fight with other catfish or emerge above the gravel."

In the foreground his similarly guilty relatives are repentant, and apparently angling for community service by gratuitously bigging up their respective 'hoods before the judge. "I'm from Kai province, so I've broken out in a cold sweat [the individual droplets of which are so big that they are] like grapes!" says "Kō Province" ("Kō" (甲) is short for "Kai" (甲斐) here).

Ahem. Available within the site:



Happy new year! At midnight I was sitting next to an off-duty clown. But enough about that.

2007 is a Year of the Fire Boar. The new Chinese year won't start for another couple of months in China, but in Japan, the calendars were aligned long ago and we are already riding the flaming hog.

In Japanese, "Fire Boar" is 丁亥 hinoto-i: the i is the same one that's in the modern word for wild boar, inoshishi, and hinoto literally means "younger fire brother" (火の弟). This is contrasted with hinoe, "older fire brother" (火の兄). Hinoto is the yin version of the fire element, and hinoe is the yang version, which we just enjoyed in 2006, a Year of the (Elder-Brother) Fire Dog.

(Note that there is never a Year of the Yang Fire Boar or of the Yin Fire Dog, because the elemental and animal cycles mesh too cleanly.)

Things that have happened during Fire Boar years:

  • Kick-off of Japan's Warring States period with the Ōnin war, dealing a terrible blow to the tradition of nishijin weaving (1467)
  • Most recent eruption of Mt Fuji (1707)
  • Publication of Unua Libro ("First Book"), the draft specification for Esperanto (1887)
  • Coming into effect of Japan's postwar constitution (1947)