The octopus at home

Two senryū about the noble octopus and his domestic habits.


"Like a bare-root pine: the octopus walking." Bonsai enthusiasts will recognize ne-agari (literally, "root-risen") as the Japanese term for the exposed root style, which is in turn an evocation of the full-size aged pine look.

Octopuses were said to walk into unguarded seaside fields by night, to steal potatoes. No kidding.


"Octopus in the outhouse -- with which legs shall he squat astride it?"

雪隠 (setchin) is an extinct word for "toilet". The kanji literally mean "snow hide", and the etymology is not settled. A lot of people seem convinced that it has to do with a monk whose name included 雪 ("snow") and his strong association with the toilets of a temple with 隠 ("hide") in its name, but that sounds a little too neat to me.

Anyway, no-one says 雪隠 to refer to literal toilets any more, but I understand that it lives on as a go metaphor for an undesirable and cramped corner of the board.


The octopus at war

Most octopus buffs, even in the West, are familiar with Kyōsai's 1868 rendition of the Potato-Octopus Battle (芋だこ合戦) of the same year, but the broader context of the image remains poorly understood. In this post I shall use the materials at the nishiki-e collection at the Historiographical Institute, University of Tokyo to outline the basics of the late-Edo's cephalopod military remarkable dominance.

Let us begin by examining the famous picture more closely. The octopus soldiers display a confidence that borders on arrogance. One claims to be able to do the work of eight men -- clearly a hubristic miscalculation, unless he believes that humans and by extension potatoes can only use one arm at a time.

Nevertheless, the octopus troop is clearly unwilling to go on the offensive. They taunt and spit, but do not attack. This insulting treatment can only have be an attempt to provoke the potato soldiers into an ill-advised attack on the octopus position, and it seems to have worked precisely as intended.

In fact, the potato general is gambling everything on this final, all-or-nothing assault. "Big potatoes, small potatoes, with none remaining behind," he cries, "Charge! Charge! Charge!" A foolhardy leader -- or perhaps one driven by despair. By this point, after all, Imopolis had already fallen.

The potatoes had simply grown too overconfident and spread themselves too thin. Earlier in 1868 alone, they had already taken heavy losses in the brutal East-West Fart-Off (東西屁ひりくらへ -- left, right) even as they provided logistical support for another, unrelated Fart Battle (屁合戦兵粮 -- left, right) elsewhere.

Although some politically motivated potato scholars would disagree, the general consensus is that these ventures were, in a word, frivolous. Their consequences were catastrophic, and the potatoes' ancient alliance with the powerful Satsuma clan would not be enough to save them.

For the octopus nation had been far from idle. As early as 1859, they had carefully orchestrated the Great Battle Between the Armies of Produce and Fish (青物魚軍勢大合戦 -- left, center, right, real-life historical context), at which an unnamed tentaclesoldier slew General Mikan in the saddle. The winter gourd champion, meanwhile, fell before the blade of the octopus warrior monk Eight Legs.

Eight Legs was a born politician, able to unlatch and open the most Machiavellian of boxes. He knew that a full-scale invasion of the sea would disrupt the balance of power on land even among those not directly affected.

For example, almost ten years later, in 1868, the Battle of the Summer Night Insects (夏の夜虫合戦 -- left, right) was a direct result of produce's decline as a legitimate threat, as unemployed and desperate soldiers turned the traditional bug aggression inward. (And note especially that a potato bug is among the participants.)

Eight Legs, however, used the temporary respite from the war on dry land to neutralize his rivals underwater. A document from later in 1859 entitled The Potato-Eating High Priest's Sermon to the Fish (芋喰僧正魚説法 -- left, right) shows him at the pulpit in the Dragon Palace itself, going by the name "Winding Hooves" (絡蹄)* and claiming spiritual authority over all oceanic life larger than a crustacean.

Using crude Buddhist symbolism --- bald head, eight limbs -- to support this new power grab, he preached for one hundred days to an audience that included blowfish, turtles, and even the Dragon Princess. (And, according to the text, he was passing potato-inspired wind for the duration.) To become the preferred food of humans, to be cooked and eaten by them, he now claimed, was a distinctly unenviable fate and a punishment for terrible sins. This is dire stuff, and doesn't help set the mood for the segue into atrocious doggerel at the end (the ami in Amida Bodhisattva is used to pun on ami as in [fish] net).

Still, the sermon did its job. The fish fell back. The octopus nation pressed inland alone, to their ultimate triumph against the hated potatoes. In a few decades, imperialism and westernization would render much of this disputed psychic territory irrelevant... but as the Meiji era began, the octopus was king.

* The low scan quality makes this hard to read, but I think that's it.


On sate

Sate is made up of:

  1. sa, an older relative of "that" demonstratives , sono, etc.; and
  2. te, related to de and the verb ending te.

So its etymology is something like "that being so", and when sentences in which it appears are translated to English, it often ends up corresponding to phrases like "well, now" or "OK, then" or "let's see".

In modern texts sate is usually written in hiragana, さて, but kanji were assigned to it in the Golden Age. In fact, there were no less than three ways to write it without resorting to kana.

The simplest one to explain is 扠. The logic here is that one of the Chinese-derived pronunciations of 叉 is /sa/, and 手 (the full form of the part on the left there) is the standard kanji for the Japanese word /te/ (hand). /sa/ + /te/ = /sate/.

(扠 also has its own meaning, something like "pierce" or "pinch"; I'm not sure if Japanese orthographers overloaded this existing character with /sate/, or recreated it independently.)

The next simplest is 扨. This works on the same principle as 扠, except 叉 has been replaced by 刄, a variant of 刃. Since 刄 has no pronunciation anything like /sa/, I can only assume that the association is purely visual. I am also fairly sure that 扨 was invented in Japan.

The third, 偖, has a slightly more interesting story. It is a Chinese-derived character meaning "rip" or "tear" (?) that came to be used to write /sate/ by accident: the character 手+奢 was created here locally (奢 = /sa/), but succumbed before very long to the gravitational pull of the existing, superficially similar 偖.

Recall, if you will, that it is relatively rare to see Japanese and Chinese elements combined in a single word. In each of these three cases they are combined in a single character. Moreover, none of the elements used have any etymological relation at all to the meaning represented. Should any man doubt that perversity can be not only an art but also a craft, let him behold these breathtaking achievements.


Hair-eaters of Edo

Edo-period monster of the day: the kamikiri or "hair-cutter". Representative nishiki-e by Utagawa Yoshifuji (歌川芳藤) of a kamikiri in action (note the gandō). Index link to the relevant part of the University of Tokyo's collection. Transcription of text in image (with cute bonus graphic). Translation:

'There are no bumpkins or monsters [in Edo]', goes the saying, but this does not rule out tales of the uncanny (奇怪珍説). On Uzuki 20th, a maid in service at a Banchō mansion, having risen from her sleep in the middle of the night, was accosted on her way to the bathroom by something she knew not what-- a pitch-black thing which struck her head, upon which she lost consciousness and remembered no more. The commotion brought others to her aid shortly, but once she regained her senses, she discovered that her topknot had been removed and was lying two or three ken away. The black thing, she said, had been like a cat except all of velvet. This is a relation of the events as they appear in reliable sources (是は正しき書に出たるを爰にあらはすもの也).

Of course, even back in Edo days, people were capable of critical thinking. The Mimibukuro (耳袋), for example, explains that "in many cases, women cut their own hair due to some love affair or quarrel with their parents, and blame it on a monster." (Of course, it then claims that "some cases, on the other hand, really are the work of kitsune and tanuki." Thanks, voice of reason.)

Certain other possibilities should not be ruled out either. Edo was an overcrowded, urbanized society which revolved around courtesans, actors, and other groups with a financial interest in keeping everyone all het up. For women, hair was an erotic symbol, best displayed bound into a meaningful architecture accented with expensive, dangling trinketry. For leaders in the hair race, pre-fab wigs were far from rare. And you know what those wigs were made of? Another woman's hair.

With all this in mind, it doesn't seem unlikely that some kamikiri were just black-clad men driven by avarice, psychopathology, or both. In any case, the titillating possibility of such a thing was surely the key to the concept's popularity. I don't think any recorded human society has ever tired of stories about respectable women attacked and denuded by stand-ins for the male id.

The "bumpkins or monsters" saying, by the way, is most commonly seen in the form "Between Hakone and here, there are no bumpkins/boors (野暮) or monsters (化物)." It's a boast about Edo's size and cultural presence: bumpkins and monsters live in the countryside and wilderness, but from here out to Hakone, it's urban, man.


Point/counterpoint: suffering and fate

Here's a story from the Genroku seken-banashi fūbun shū ("Genroku Gossip and Rumor Collection"), attributed to a TANAKA Kenzaemon:

Unable to find any work to sustain him, a poor man spent the night at Asakusa Temple praying to Kannon for help. When he fell asleep, she appeared before him in a dream and spoke:

 To suffer like this is your fate--
 What good can come
   of praying at my gate?

Annoyed, the dreaming man responded:

 If fate had dealt me better cards
 I wouldn't need
   to pray so goddamn hard!

-- and kicked her off the verandah. Struggling to her feet, Kannon muttered "Yeah, I guess not," and went back inside the temple.

In the original, Kannon's words and the man's reply are both tanka:



By the way, this isn't one of those valuable-as-history-but-boring-as-reading books that you have to force yourself through. The very first rumor listed is about a guy who spills his guts, and yes I do mean literally.


The disappearing M in AneCan

CanCam (キャンキャン) is a fashion magazine for women in their late teens and early 20s. AneCan (姉キャン, although that 姉 really should be in a circle) is the "older sister" (ane) version. Now, I know what you're thinking: if both end in キャン, why does one spell it Cam and the other Can? Let me explain.

The name CanCam comes from the English words "can" (be capable of) and "campus" (spelt キャンス, in Japanese, because ン becomes a bilabial nasal before ). The magazine's assumed reader is a woman attending university, and its implicit promise is that if she follows its advice, she will be judged fashionable by her fellow students and become wildly popular as a direct result. A happy and fulfilling campus life will follow. In other words, she who reads CanCam "can campus". (See comments -- thanks Marxy)

So the final <m> in CanCam is not some wild romanization scheme to represent the utterance-final realization of /n/. (Uh... not that anyone would assume that.) It's just used because that part of the word happens to be short for "campus".

But the second half of AneCan is short for CanCam, not "campus", and so by the same rules (take the first part of the word) an <n> is indicated. This also allows AneCan to subtly excise the "campus" part of its identity -- its target readership has graduated -- while still retaining the CanCam part, one semiotic level above. Diabolical. Beautiful.


Respecting rats at New Year's

Peculiar entry about mice/rats (nezumi) from the Butsurui shōko:

In the Kansai region, they call them yome [night-eyes/wives; see below] or yome-ga-kimi [sir night-eyes/lady wife]. In Kōzuke, they call them yoru-no-mono [nightlings] or yome or ofuku [lucklings] or musume [daughters]. In the Eastern provinces, too, there are many places where people say yome. In Ōmi, they only call them yome at the New Year.

Kikaku wrote a hokku that goes: "At midnight/ rather pleased/ yome-ga-kimi." Kyorai of Sagano said, "I guess from New Year's Eve to New Year's Day, mice are called yome-ga-kimi or something. I don't know the details." [SHIDA] Yaba said, "Yome-ga-kimi is how you say 'mouse' in spring. Here's how I think it went down: around the New Year, there are all sorts of lucky words, but words related to sleeping and waking up (ne-oki) are taboo. So, [instead of saying 'sleep' (ineru) or 'wake up' (okiru),] people say ine-tsumu [pile the rice] or ine-aguru [raise the rice], [using ine (rice) as a replacement for ine (sleep)]; there are lots of words like this. Now Nezumi sounds kind of like the word for "sleep", so people say yome-ga-kimi instead, probably."

But 'spring' means months one through three, not just New Year's, so what's up with that? There is more detail; hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet.

The most likely explanation for the yome word is that it is from 夜目, literally "night eyes", but even if this was the root, by the Edo period everyone seemed to think it was yome as in "wife" (嫁), and you'd better believe they punned the hell out of that one.

The "lucklings" stuff is straight-up groveling, I assume. In a similar vein, in Okinawa, they call rats 'wenchu, equivalent to Japanese ue no hito. It literally means "superior" in the hierarchical sense. I suppose all of this stems from rural communities in particular; if my livelihood was riding on a barn full of dry goods, I'd probably suck up to mice too.


Saying yes from coast to coast

KOSHIGAYA Gozan's 1775 dialect dictionary Butsurui shōko ("Names for things, by type") on how to speak when spoken to, wherever you are:

In the Kantō region, they say ai. In the Kinai region, they say hai. In Ōmi, they say nei. Around Nagato, they say attsu. In Satsuma, they say ō. In Hizen, they say nai. In Tosa, they say ei (they also say etsu, and servants and the like say ō and yatsu). In Echigo, they say yai, and in Echizen, they say yatsu. In Mutsu, they say nai.

The replies of the various provinces listed here are basically the same, so despite the slight variations they must be related. Among them, ō is used in all areas to reply to inferiors, but it can be used when speaking to superiors in some parts of Kyūshū. This ō is commonly written 應 [modern 応], but since ō is a native Japanese word, it should really be written 唯. With this the traditional authorities, too, agree (先哲も沙汰し侍る).

In other words, writing ō with 應 would be using the Chinese pronunciation of the character to evoke the sound, even though the meaning of the character is different. This is an abuse; really, you should use 唯, which has the meaning (among others) of a reply to a summons, but sounds completely different (in Chinese, that is). It is no doubt indicative of my moral failings that I find this logic elegant and persuasive.

(Listen: you can't just be using characters for sound alone. The last time people did that, Japanese ended up with two separate syllabaries, each with hundreds of redundant characters that it took a thousand years to boil away. There have to be rules. We live in a society. With this the traditional authorities, too, agree.)

Ahem. After a couple of usage examples from classical sources (including "漢書二 唯唯 注:恭(ツツシンデ)應(コタフル)ノ詞ト有", natch), Koshigaya closes with this hokku by Kyorai:

"Ō, ō," to/ ihedo tataku ya/ yuki no kado

"Alright, already" / comes the reply, but the knocking continues-- / gate in the snow


Unacceptable orthography - folk spelling edition

I have argued in the past that kanji should not have eyelashes. I now propose an additional rule: kana should not exhibit anal bleeding.

ぢ means hemorrhoids. The word is Sino-Japanese, and the kanji is 痔, with an official, "dictionary" spelling in kana of じ. Nevertheless, ぢ is far more common. Why?

To backtrack a little bit, what's the difference between じ and ぢ anyway? In terms of pronunciation, nothing: most of the Japanese-speaking community does not distinguish between the two any more. And the standard modern rules of orthography reinforce this by mandating じ instead of ぢ, even when the latter would be more etymologically correct. Same goes for ず instead of づ.*

Now, it turns out that the old, pre-modernization spelling/pronunciation of 痔 was indeed ぢ. So the question is, how did it survive? Answer: with the assistance of hemorrhoid-healing concern Hisaya Daikokudō. (Warning: close-up photography.) They consistently employ the ぢ spelling in advertisements and elsewhere, and since this enables people to disambiguate piles from the many other words that じ might represent, the community embraced the concept. The end result is that ぢ is the the folk-standard spelling, no matter what official policy says.

There is a technical linguistic term for this. It is "sticking it to the Man."

* Exception: some compound words. やま + ち → やまぢ, かな + つかい → かなづかい. (Back)


More family planning

Some more images from yesterday's family planning book.

Folks learn about contraception while their children face off in their laps. I call symbolism.

The caption here claims that these women are "shining brightly" because they have life plans ("bored as that little boy may look"). I think it far more likely that the group leader just made a funny while pointing at something inside the model vagina. Either way, this is officially one of my favorite photos ever.

Aw, yeah: rappin' with Dr Love. "Seriously, baby, I can prescribe anything I want." Except birth control pills. They weren't legal until 1999.

I don't know how Calvin's dad and Sally Forth ended up studying the Ogino method* together in 1955 Japan, but their chemistry is incredible. Commas for eyes = cartoon lust.

"You can divert your sex drive into hobbies and other areas." Yes. But the tangled, frustrated border drawn tightly around you will reveal the truth.

* In Japanese, the rhythm method is called the Ogino method (オギノ式 or オギノ法). It's named after OGINO Kyūsaku (荻野久作), but it isn't quite true to say that he was its inventor. He did do the work of folding earlier research into a simple method that women could use to calculate when they were fertile, but his intention was to help couples who were trying to conceive. He was never happy about all those people taking his work and reversing the polarity, reportedly because it caused unhappiness (and abortions) that could have been avoided if a more reliable contraceptive method had been chosen in the first place. (Back)


Muffling the baby boom in postwar Japan

Today, courtesy of my girlfriend's marvellous used-book sense, two Japanese advertisements for contraceptives in a small booklet about birth control (産制 = 産児制限) that was given away free with the February 1955 issue of Shufu no tomo, a perfectly respectable magazine for married homemakers.

少なく産んで豊かな暮らし -- "Bear sparingly, live comfortably." Can't argue with that. Below the image is one of the greatest marketing slogans I have ever encountered:

1姫 2太郎 3サンシー

"1: Princess. 2: Heir. 3: Sancy." The first two items constitute an old Japanese saying about the ideal family-building order: girl first, because then she can help look after the the eldest son too. Item 3 is Sancy Jelly's suggestion regarding where you might go from there in an era of reduced child mortality but increased belt-tightening.

Moving on...

This one is more involved. The heading sets the scene: In the vanity drawer of a young woman soon to be married... the hidden contraceptive. The narrator explains:

As far back as I can remember, mother had Sampoon in her vanity. I felt so disillusioned... But she taught me well, and now whenever I see my wonderful trosseau, I feel respect for her instead, and so much gratitude... Mother isn't saying a word, but my trosseau is definitely going to include a contraceptive -- naturally, my mother's brand, Sampoon. Planned births (計画産児) are common sense...

Note that birth control isn't presented as women taking control of their own sexuality so much as taking control of the rate at which their assumed and inevitable reproduction takes place. I suppose you have to start somewhere.

You can still buy Neo-Sampoon. I don't know about Sancy Jelly, but they do make condoms now. And it's not a coincidence that they both start with /san/, by the way -- it echoes the Sino-Japanese phoneme for birth, /san/ (産).

And, finally, a successfully planned baby holding a tin of formula as big as his head.


The color of passion, 120 km off Tokyo

Women who are exotic but still Japanese have been a common theme since the earliest days of postcardery in Japan, but this is the most overheated example I've found yet:

靨に秘めた、椿のやうな、紅いパッション—— 島娘——
ハラリ、ふりかゝる—— 紺絣——
Hiding in her dimples a camellia-scarlet passion-- daughter of the islands--
Locks of black hair gone astray,
Gently flowing-- kongasuri--
   --Brilliantly outblooming the camellia,
          A feeling to discover here, on Ōshima--
                       Scarlet passion

This dress and appearance of the model here -- the blue-and-white clothes, the headgear, even the basket -- constitute what's known as an anko-sugata. (Sugata is standard Japanese for "form, appearance", and anko is Izu Ōshima dialect for "young lady", probably related to SJ ane*.) This anko-sugata is still a recognizable symbol of Ōshima today.

For example, about two-thirds of the way down this page you can see Ōshima's current Camellia Queen TAKEZAWA Yuika glad-handing folks in Chiba on behalf of her home town. And, of course, there are the anko-ningyō, anko dolls.

* Compare Okinawan angwā with basically the same meaning. Hypothesis: living in an island paradise makes Japonic language communities unwilling to pronounce the vowel /e/. (Back)


Atque in perpetuum, tabula, ave atque vale

This map of Tokyo's train system has been my constant companion since the year I arrived in Japan. It has taken me to awkward dates, successful job interviews, delicious Indian food, obscure museums and disastrous jam sessions. It has outlived wallets and pants that once contained it. Entire subway networks have changed their names since its publication. Stations once clearly visible have vanished into taped-up creases like fabulous ancient civilizations sinking beneath the waves.

I have come to know the face of my shrunken, slowly withering sage better than I know the actual geography of the area it covers, but I have only just begun to understand its true lesson: humility in the face of a higher power. Nevertheless, the time has come for us to part. Farewell, pocket-sized OIOI railway map.