Fashion vocabulary

I don't remember how it was on the outside, but here in Japan, fashion magazines are inexhaustible linguistic innovators. In particular, they are constantly coming up with new modifiers and affixes to denote subtle evolutions in the field.

This month, Oggi's major headline is:


Which breaks down like this:

  1. 知的華やぐ (chiteki-hanayagu) - Chiteki is an adjectival noun meaning "smart, cerebral"; hanayagu is a verb meaning "be like a flower, be gorgeous", derived from hanayaka in a regular but mysterious (to me) pattern (cf /azayaka/ → /azayagu/, etc.) Oggi has put the two words together to form a verb which means "to look intelligent and gorgeous". By creating a compound word like this, they mark out the concept as a persistent, coherent one, important enough to have its own word, to which readers might aspire. A mere phrase is more weakly linked and less urgent, even if it has the same semantic content.
  2. 攻めベージュ (seme-beiju) - Another compound word, roughly translating as "attack beige". (Semeru, "attack", is obviously being used metaphorically here; inside the magazine they speak of "attacking" those around you with "luxury", "use of gathering", etc.) Again, creating a word like this -- and putting it in quotes, no less -- marks the concept as an important one. It's not just a beige that happens to attack, it's an attack beige, and that's why it gets 30 pages.
  3. 通勤ベーシック (tsūkin-beishikku) - "Work basic". Literally means "commuter basic"; I have a theory that the term tsūkin for "work" clothes derives from the time when virtually all the women in the workplace were OLs who would change into a uniform once they got there, and so the clothes you wore to work really were just for commuting... but I haven't bothered to, you know, research it or anything. Yet again, this is a compound word rather than a phrase.
  4. 進化する (shinka suru) -- "Evolves". Things are always evolving in Japanese fashion. Island environments are like that. Those ill-equipped to survive a deadly dose of beige, for example, fall by the wayside, unfashionable and impoverished.


Brainy-gorgeous "attack beige": office basic evolves!

(Yes, I did just want an excuse to write "attack beige" a bunch of times.)


Tales of Ise

Nara Women's University is sitting on a powder-keg of old editions of the Ise monogatari, just a mouse-click-spark away from exploding through your monitor in a white-hot cloud of flesh-searingly handwritten, mercilessly high-res fragments of scholarship.

Allow me to throw myself on the tumbling ink-grenade and suggest something everyone can enjoy, even if they don't read-a the joined-up Japanese writing: Ise monogatari zue, which is to say, "Illustrated Ise monogatari". Behold our hero maxin' and relaxin' at his writing-desk, looking like he just got hired as a middle manager at his dad's lighter-flint concern! Thrill to the famous scene where he is visited by the Pineapple of Golden Week Past! Laugh as he is mistaken for a member of Aerosmith! Wonder why everyone is just sitting around smiling contentedly when the building is obviously on fire!

Before installing her infamous chainsaw hand.

If musty old books aren't your scene, pops, you might prefer this Taishō edition (with section links), translated into capital-M Modern Japanese by YOSHII Isamu and illustrated by TAKEHISA Yumeji. (Sample at right -- love that waterline.)

All of the rest are more or less words-only, which means that you either (i) don't need my help to find the interesting ones, or (ii) wouldn't find them interesting anyway. So I will close with one final shout-out to the Shinji Ise monogatari ("True-character Ise monogatari") from 1643, which is a translation into Kanbun (Japanese Chinese). For your convenience!


David Lynch merchandise found

This is a nice eraser for geeks. But it really doesn't compare to MYZAR, the Eraser Robot, produced decades ago by purveyors of educational stuff Gakken.

"The robot changes into [an] erasing-gum!!" cries the copy*. That sounds awesome! I don't really see how it's possible unless the robot is already made of either rubber or some alchemic wonderstuff, but I'm sure there's a reasonable and fantastic explanation! Let's open the box and see what it is!

Looks pretty much like a regular robot... maybe the instructions will clear things up, and...


Well, maybe it looks cooler if you...


... ...

Okay, but consider this scenario:


OPTIMUS PRIME: (writing with a pencil) "Do... NOT... let... the Decepticons... have... the Energon cubes." That ought to do it. Now to go find Perceptor and give him these important hand-written orders. (Exit)

Enter MYZAR, through the window.

MYZAR: So, you Autobots like to burn rubber? I'll show you how rubber can burn! BURN LIKE RUBBER! HA HA HA HA HA!

Still laughing, MYZAR transforms into his eraser form. His laughter becomes muffled as his head swings inside his chest. He erases the word "NOT" from OPTIMUS PRIME's orders, then dives out the window again.


OPTIMUS PRIME: And so, Perceptor, these orders are so simple that despite their importance I am not even going to glance at them again before I give them to you. Here.

He picks up the piece of paper and hands it to PERCEPTOR. PERCEPTOR reads it, then looks up.

PERCEPTOR: Are you sure you want me to--

OPTIMUS PRIME: Absolutely sure! Now roll out!

PERCEPTOR: But I'm a microscope.

OPTIMUS PRIME: I said roll out!

Spinning-head transition to Decepticon base, where STARSCREAM is doing his trig homework, which is totally unfair because MEGATRON said he could watch TV before dinner first, but then SOUNDWAVE said no.

STARSCREAM: Megatron! Your inconsistent leadership has caused me to err! How do you expect me to erase the offending graphite now?!

What really hurts is not having gotten the sweet sharpener or ball-point pen robots:

Because if I had them all, I could store them in this and pretend that I had... uh, a bulky flare gun!

Or I could just leave them out on my desk for that casual playboy look.

"This is the G[akken] B[oy's] Series!" In 2007, women can only dream of that golden age when the males of their acquaintance collected toys as sensible and healthy as these robots that transform into stationery.

It sure is.

* Well, not really. The components of 消しゴム (keshigomu) bear a 1:1 relationship to the components of the hypothetical English term "erasing-gum", but keshigomu is a perfectly ordinary word equivalent in effect to plain old "eraser". I translated it awkwardly just for kicks. (Back)


Parallel universe branch point #6

1979 photo of a mellow-looking Japanese coffee shop with Space Invaders games for tables.


Valentine's Day round-up

  • Your chocolate-giving skills are weak. Operating from the heart of Ginza, MASUI "Club Futagoya's mama-san" Shiho spends millions of yen on chocolate every V-Day. She will steal your man.
  • (Also, ever wonder why there are so many flower carts in Ginza? It's so that overpaid dudes can easily pick up a bouquet for their favorite hostess. Romance isn't dead in Japan -- it's just gone pro.)
  • Time magazine reports on Japan's Valentine's Day traditions, which I think means that those traditions are about to vanish without a trace.
  • And Japanese women wouldn't miss them a bit, apparently. Note that last sentence closely: "women are now becoming much more likely to buy pricey chocolates costing up to $200 a box as a special treat -- for themselves." This is the future. After all, Valentine's Day can only benefit post-high-school women in one way: indirectly, via the obligation it places on their boyfriends to reciprocate one month later. But as all soulless economists know, gifts are inherently inefficient, and serial gift-chains logarithmically so. Women, it seems, have realized that they can make everybody happier by short-circuiting the ritual and just spending the money on themselves in the first place.
  • Meanwhile, anti-whaling protesters used Valentine's Day as an excuse to lash out at Minister YANAGISAWA (of "birth-giving machines" fame) with a message-cake as devastating as it was delicious. Check out one of Yanagisawa's flunkies accepting the sarcastic confection here. From Hell's heart, etc.
  • Only two months left till Black Day!


HIP qin

Though unlikely to ever be screamed into the microphone by a sweaty, curly-haired lead singer as Wembley stadium goes wild, John Thompson on the Guqin Silk String Zither is the guqin site to beat all guqin sites. Tablature, historically informed performance, sound files -- it's all there.


Après moi viendra un autre encore plus puissant que moi

Japan's first Western-style (Western-designed, even) skyscraper was called the Ryōunkaku (凌雲閣, "Best-the-clouds Tower"), a.k.a. the Juunikai, which translates to "Twelve-storeys" and should give you an idea of the scale a tower had to be in 1890s Japan to qualify as skyscraping. On the other hand, since the rest of Tokyo was still built so low, the view was impressive (if black-and-white). At night, it looked like an evil lighthouse.

Its red bricks grew dirtier and dirtier as the years passed and Japan continued to modernize until it was finally dealt a critical blow by the Great Kantō Earthquake. It didn't collapse in the quake, but its injuries were so severe that the decision was made not to rebuild. TERADA Terahiko went to watch the dynamite mop-up, and likened the events to the standing suicide of a giant, the last defender of the red-brick Meiji era falling before the tide of reinforced concrete, talkies, jazz, and proletarian literature.

A pre-Earthquake English account by the mysterious T. FUJIMOTO (more about whose book The Nightside of Japan I will blog before long) reads:

You step up to the top of the tower by spiral steppings and, in rooms of each story, various kinds of toys and other articles are sold, or fine pictures and photographs are hung against walls. In 1911, one winter night at about eleven, a young man jumped down over the balcony of the eleventh story of the tower and killed himself, crushing his body upon the ground. After this event the windows and balconies above ten story are entirely covered with wire-nets.

Fujimoto also mentions the 15-horsepower electric elevator -- Japan's first -- which ran from the first floor to the eighth. For about half a year, anyway:

When the tower was first built the elevator was furnished for visitors; but shortly afterwards as there happened an unfortunate event, owing to incomplete adjustments of the machine, it was abolished by order.

I cannot find details of this alleged "unfortunate event" online; most sites simply say that the elevator didn't work properly, required maintenance too frequently, or something along those lines. The Japan Elevator Association even claim that the shutdown was straight-up anti-elevator hysteria, scandalously encouraged by the authorities of that benighted age "when elevators were poorly understood". They certainly exhibit no Ryōunkaku-related shame, having adopted the date of its opening (November 10th) as Elevator Day.

The word ryōun, by the way, had been used for over a thousand years in Japan alone, and no doubt much longer in China, before being applied to this tower -- most notably in the Ryōun Shū, a collection of Japanese-authored Chinese poems compiled in 814 on the orders of Emperor Saga.


Completely beyond reason

Eshingyō (絵心経) are, as the name suggests, renditions in pictorial form of the Heart Sutra. They were invented during Edo's Genroku period, allegedly by a man named Zenpachi (善八), for the benefit of people (including priests) who couldn't read. Because the only thing better than a writing system based on thousands of stylized glyphs is a writing system based on a whole bunch of non-stylized glyphs, right? Seriously, Zenpachi, it's called an alphabet. Look into it.

Anyway, eshingyō work on the rebus principle. Take this example: the sutra's full* title 摩訶般若波羅蜜多心経, pronounced maka hannya haramitta shingyō in the Japanese reading, is represented thus:

  • Pot (kama), upside-down → maka
  • hannya maskhannya (yes, this one is totally cheating)
  • Belly → hara
  • Winnow () → mi
  • Rice paddies (田) → ta
  • Holy Shinto mirror (神鏡) → shingyō

Meanwhile, at the other end, that glorious gate, gate, pāragate, pārasaṁgate, or gyātei, gyātei, haragyātei, harasōgyātei in the Japanese pronunciation, has become:

  • Monkey → monkey's cry → gyā
  • Hand → te
  • Monkey → gyā
  • Hand → te
  • Belly → hara
  • Monkey → gyā
  • Hand → te
  • Belly → hara
  • Priest →
  • Monkey → gyā
  • Hand → te

Sure, te should technically be lengthened, but I guess the idea is that the reader can do that him- or herself, much as they can add the gemination in /mitta/.

There are eshingyō all over the web, but this Tayama-style one and this Morioka-style variant are great places to start, being neatly drawn and including keys as they do.

* Minus 佛説, yeah, yeah. Whatever.


A fad is carefully and surgically implanted

Yawaraka-sensha ("soft-tank") videos are all over YouTube; a good place to start is the first one, in which we see several of the eponymous tanks mistreated by small animals, bacteria, etc. Homepage, interview:

But why tanks?

People say "marshmallow-soft", but that doesn't cut it for me. This is because I believe that soldiers on the battlefield are softer by far than any marshmallow.

I think if you've seen Saving Private Ryan you'll know what I'm talking about, but that first scene, with bullets flying everywhere, all those soldiers totally exposed and suddenly getting riddled with holes -- I saw that, and thought "Man, soldiers are soft!".

Pistols and knives only work as threats because humans are so soft. Seems like most people have a complex about this their whole lives. Well, maybe not [Korean-born karate legend] Ōyama Masutatsu, but you get the idea.

On the other hand, tanks are just unbelievably hard. If your doorbell rang and you opened the genkan door and saw a Type 90 there all like, "Hello! I'm from NHK," you'd shut up and pay your fee, right? Because you can't fight a tank. Well, maybe Ōyama Masutatsu wouldn't pay, but you know.

And so it's like, hey, tanks, why don't you soften up and feel the pain of being a soldier? You've gotten too tough. Come down to the streets where the common man lives, and get to know his heart. I'm even weaker than the old guy who collects for NHK, and that's what I wanted to say to them.

Actually, "soft-Masutatsus" would have been just as good as "soft-tanks", but they wouldn't have been very cute so I made them tanks instead. If looking at those little soft-tanks doodling around makes you feel good about yourself, you're probably a weakling. Congratulations.


Knifing your guests, in a good way

Behold the cover of 『不時珍客即席庖丁、全(附:日用惣菜まないた)』 ("The Impromptu Kitchen Knife for Unexpected Guests, Complete (Including Everyday Dish Chopping Board")!

It may not look exciting, but re-read that title. It's not a "recipe book" or a "guide". It is a "knife". You're not hardcore unless you entertain hardcore.

Another intriguing thing about this book: it seems to have been imported from Flatland. Consider the scene depicted on the cover:

Mr Kyaku ("guest") and Mr Aruji ("head of the household") are both circles, seated across the square zen, or table, from each other (with respectful angling on Mr Aruji's part).

"Dear me," says Mr Kyaku (top), using pre-war orthography for his topic-marker particle. "Terribly sorry to impose so suddenly."

Mr Aruji (for it is he!) replies with an apology of his own: "Unfortunately the help is off today, so here are a few things that we had lying around. Please, take a pair of chopsticks."

And where is (the presumably needle-shaped) Mrs Aruji? She's inside the book, reading fabulous lists of things she might want to prepare for the men. For example, this being February, she might rustle up some salted bamboo shoot or pickled abalone and bracken; maybe some chopped lobster, udo shoots, jellyfish, smartweed and/or ginger. Some piping hot vegetable and baby clam soup wouldn't go astray either. But don't go to any trouble.

There aren't many actual recipes, but here's a fairly representative example of one:


HOWTO: fast irizake
Aged sake four cups soy sauce one cup vinegar half a cup mix the preceding three colors [ingredients] together and over a charcoal fire bring this mixture to a boil three times then remove it from the flame and stir it with chopsticks and once it has cooled to the warmth of your skin put it on the fire again and bring it to a boil another three times as described earlier and it will be good irizake.

Sure, it seems obvious to us today that recipes are easier to understand when broken up with line breaks and punctuation, but times were different then. Seriously: this book does not contain any commas. I don't think it's so old that it predates Japan's adoption of the comma, but it might be so old that whoever printed it didn't hold with those newfangled foreign punctuatory marks and such. Also, having the recipe shouted at her in one long run-on sentence, as if by an impatient mother-in-law, probably helped Mrs Aruji retain that sense of urgency she would need to keep her two-dimensional unexpected guests happy.


About "about"

Good friends, I give you: the about-minute.

This is not something that spun loose during translation. The "about-minute" here is a straight calque of the Japanese 約分. This sign is asserting, apparently seriously, that it is correct to say "The train ride from Yokohama to here takes twenty about-minutes", and that the same is true of the equivalent structure in Japanese.

My native-speaker sense rejects the English version -- admiring nevertheless its ingenuity -- and I have my doubts about the Japanese one, too. I can't find any websites that use "(number)約分" more than once on the same page (except for sites using it in its other sense, "reduce [a fraction"), but I can find plenty of sites with a few "約(number)分" ("about (number) minutes") and just one "(number)約分", suggesting strongly that these cases are just typos.

Still, non-standard in both English and Japanese as this usage seems to be, I think it's brilliant. "About-minutes" are bold and concrete where their insubstantial cousins, "minutes (approximate)" are timid and hypothetical. Plus, "about-minutes" are totally commutable: if you define the "about" part to mean "+/- 10%", then sixty about-minutes do indeed add up to one about-hour, and so on.

Bonus information! "About" itself exists in Japanese as a loan word: an adjective/adverb (depending on trailing particle) meaning "rough[ly]", "vague[ly]", "flexibl[y]", "half-assed[ly]"... clearly, any definition of abauto must itself be abauto, but here's a fine visual representation of the concept: a "chō abauto" floor guide for some store somewhere. (Chō means "very".)