1955 magazine advertisement for "Anojin", a medication boasting an "ideal blend" (理想的配合) of four superior ingredients to stop pain, calm hot flushes, and lower fevers -- in other words, work wonderfully in re colds.

But what I really like about it is the face:

The New You, emerging -- literally! -- from the discarded and already fading shell of your old self. Your eyes are wider, your features significantly daintier; you've ducked into the powder room to touch up your lipstick -- even your hairstyle has tightened from that frumpy nothing into a kicky bob. The implied age difference has got to be at least fifteen years.

The difference between this and our age's "before/after" photos (one slouched and the other photoshopped): a well-executed line drawing is pleasant on the eyes.


Clam shrink cool drum

Can you guess what the purpose of the book entitled 蜆縮涼鼓集, Ken-shuku-ryō-ko-shuū, or "Clam shrink cool drum collection", was? It's right there in the title. Right there.

Answer: it was a late 17th-century book listing words that used the "ji" (じ) in "shijimi" (しじみ, 蜆, a type of bivalve) versus the "ji" (ぢ) in "chijimi" (ちぢみ, 縮, shrink[age], plus various related meanings), and words that used the "zu" (ず) in "suzumi" (すずみ, 涼み, cool[ness]) versus the "zu" (づ) in "tsuzumi" (つづみ, 鼓, drum). Readers used it to check spellings of words using these dangerous sounds.

[So why not call it the Shijimi-chijimi-suzumi-tsuzumi-shuu? Well, for one thing, no-one would be able to pronounce that title properly. Ha! Seriously, for the same reason that the Tokyo (東)-Yokohama (横)-Chiba (千葉) area becomes "Keihinyō" (京浜葉) in abbreviation: Kanji-based abbreviations traditionally got the Sino-Japanese reading, I suppose analogous to English speakers saying "L.A." instead of "Lo'-A'".]

This was right about the time that the last traces of the difference between each pair were disappearing from the spoken language, but still centuries before any organized orthographic reform would be undertaken. Today's Japanese speakers (when writing) still have to know when to use じ and when to use ぢ, etc., but since most spellings have been normalized, you can get away with a few simple rules and a handful of exceptions instead of memorizing a whole book.


O-higan and o-hagi

This weekend was the autumnal equinox, a public holiday in Japan known as "O-higan" (お彼岸, "other shore", i.e. [a holiday centered around] the afterlife).

Buddhist temples traditionally marked the occasion by having masked superheroes brutalize small children until they paid their respects at the graves of their ancestors, but these ancient folkways are fading.

The hip urbanite of today's Japan is in no mood to revere their ancestors again after having done all that revering during O-bon a few weeks earlier. For all but the devout and the rural, O-higan has been worn down to the nub of "eating o-hagi", with an optional making phase if you are newly married and/or bored.

Originally, of course, at least a few were also placed on an appropriate familial grave. This explains the many thigh-slapping senryū about pounding one's lingering grievances into the o-hagi and so on. (It's not quite as pathetic to hold a post-mortem grudge when you're in a cultural milieu where reincarnation is considered the norm.)

Other senryū seem a little more surreal, though:

待女郎 お萩で嫁に 花が咲く
Machijorou/ o-hagi de yome ni/ hana ga saki
The maid in waiting/ being an o-hagi, the bride/ blossoms (=shines)

Here "maid in waiting" is a loose translation referring to the maid who would wait at the bride's new home and help her settle in. This doesn't clear things up much, though. Maybe you can guess how this is going to end?

Right: o-hagi can also mean "ugly woman", one whose face is round and irregular like an o-hagi. This usage was actually borrowed from the related botamochi, which seem to have been more common in Edo times. Certainly they worked their way further into the language. There was even a saying, "to be hit on the cheek with a botamochi", which meant "to run into unexpected good fortune". (Cue discussion of custard pies, hero with a thousand food-covered faces, etc.)


Make out like a bandit

Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and I have decided to ride this flimsy pretext all the way to the land of talking about kyōgen.

As any fule kno, kyōgen plays traditionally start with the main characters introducing themselves and the situation. Here is one of my favorites so far, with modern pronunciation:


Soregashi wa kono atari no kakure mo nai yamadachi de gozaru. Makoto ni, wakaki jibun yori oya no iken mo kikiirezu, tada akekure kono toshi made, aritaki mama ni mi o mochi, mochiron shōbai mo oboenu yue, kono kaidō ni ide, yamadachi o itashi, tosei o okuru. Kyō mo kore ni matte ite, nanimono demo tōre kashi, maru-hagi ni shite kureyō to zonzuru.

I am a bandit, infamous in these parts. I have ignored the counsel of my parents since I was very young, preferring instead to spend every day and every night of my life entirely as I pleased, never, of course, learning a trade; and so I came to this ocean road where I make my living as a bandit. I believe that today I shall wait here as usual for someone to pass, and then -- whoever they may be! -- strip them of everything they own, as usual.

Twainian antisocial characterization at its best. There's not even a comeuppance later in the play for being so lazy, although the character does fall for an embarrassingly flimsy massage-related ruse.


Age and perversity

Sorry about yesterday. I was Respecting the Aged. It took all day and I got covered in applesauce.

Here's a hokku about aging ungracefully, by Kikaku:

suirō ha/ misu mo agezu ni/ an no yuki
Decrepitude/ The screen unraised/ Snow at [Bashō's] hut

The word translated here as "decrepitude", suirō, etymologically means "declining with age" (or such a person). You have to understand that for a Japanese poet, not to raise the screen and gaze out upon the fallen snow was an act of violence against the natural way of things. This old man's failure to raise the screen was a clear sign of senility and decay.

Unrelated: I mentioned Neojaponisme before, and I'm about to mention it again because a translation of mine has just been published there. Sex, disease, high fashion... what more could you want?

Tomorrow at No-sword: Kyōgen!


Arabian Marriage Blues, by AKUTAGAWA Ryūnosuke

Offensive orientalist nonsense originally published in women's magazine Fujin no kuni (literally "Women's Country"). Original here. Translation was once-through, with no editing afterwards-- sorry.

Are you all familiar with the tale of Zeraiid?

Zeraiid was a beautiful princess. To put it all in literary terms, it was said that her feet were like soapstone, her thighs like ivory, her naval like a pearl in a clam, her belly like an alabaster urn, her breasts like a bouquet of lilies, the nape of her neck like a dove, her hair like fragrant grass, her eyes like a pond in the palace garden, and her nose like the turret on a grand gate, so she must have been a real one-in-a-million beauty.

Before long, Zeraiid was fast becoming a lady, and so it was decided that a suitable partner should be found for her to marry. If this had taken place in Japan, they would probably have asked a relation, an acquaintance, the principal of her all-girl high school or some other fiercely useless person to act as an intermediary. And if it had been the West, perhaps her mother and elder sisters would have been recruited as consultants to put together a strategic plan for capturing her future husband. But Zeraiid was not only a princess, she was also highly intelligent, and so she decided to choose a prince or minister's son for herself.

They say that the list of candidates I am about to give you took three years, seven months and sixteen days to put together once Zeraiid had decided to get married. The original is in the Oriental Library's "Arabia" section, under "Z", in volume 138; I invite the studious to consult it for themselves. I will provide here only the outlines, not bothering with names and so forth.

  1. An Indian prince. His physique was indescribably magnificent. But, he was not very wise. It was said that he once mistook an elephant for a mountain and came very near to being trampled to death.
  2. A Persian prince. He was said to have been as beautiful as a woman, yet aflame with blood-red passion. He already had 600 concubines, 2,300 wives, and as for slave girls -- well, he had so many tens of thousands of slave girls that one man could not even estimate their number.
  3. A minister's son from Zeraiid's own country. Though still young, he boasted great learning and wisdom. How terribly unfortunate, though, that he should have been born a hunchback.
  4. A Babylonian prince. His stock of gold, silver, pearls and jewels was perhaps the richest in the world. The only mark against him, it was said, was that he enjoyed torture, and frequently sliced off a maid's ear or some other appendage which he then ate with onions on the side.
  5. A Chinese prince. They say he was neither more nor less handsome than the Persian prince. But he came across as terribly impersonal, and even when blowing his nose had one of his ministers do it for him.
  6. A minister's son from Lydia. He had no particular flaw. But, he had 25 ex-wives and children, and it was said that one of them was a monster both of whose legs ended in chicken feet.
  7. A minister's son from Media. People spoke well of his strength and bravery. But they also spoke of his debt, which was so great that you couldn't bet against him selling his own father out if it came to that.
  8. A minister's son from Judea. He was said to be well versed in poetry and music. However, he preferred the company of men, and was highly unlikely to get married.
  9. An Egyptian prince. He was fair, educated, and an unbeatable shot with the bow. Marry this prince, and even a long journey in the desert might be pleasant. Tomorrow, let both families -- Update: We regret to report that our sources say he was just eaten by a crocodile while bathing in the river.
  10. The Sorceror King Zian Ben Zian. Whereabouts unknown.

Of course, the list of candidates did not end with these few. Volume 138 of the Oriental Library's "Arabia" section, under "Z", lists precisely 280 names. However, it seems that no candidate was quite what Zeraiid had hoped for. She spent every day with her maids of honor, passing the time amidst the blooming pomegranate and saffron blossoms of the imperial palace. Love, however, masters us all in the end, and this beautiful Arabian princess did not escape its clutches. One clear-mooned night, Zeraiid and her lover quietly slipped out of the palace. Romantic Arabian poet Dejar ("the Great"), put it thus:

O Zeraiid! O Rose of the Desert!
How fortunate your lover!
You are your lover's cane,
You are your lover's teeth,
How blessed your lover!
Oh, O Zeraaid! O Rose of the Desert!

"Your lover's cane" and "your lover's teeth" may sound a little peculiar. But that's because you're making assumptions about what kind of man Zeraiid's lover was. The story has it that he was an ugly, seventy-six-year-old black slave.


Every day that you've been gone away/ You know my heart does nothing but--

Two Kokin wakashū poems that start the same way, by two poetry immortals.

The first is by FUJIWARA no Okikaze, and the second is by KI no Tsurayuki (who was the chief editor of the 'Shū and wrote its Japanese introduction).

君こふる 涙の床に みちぬれば みをつくしとぞ 我はなりける

kimi kohuru/ namida no toko ni/ mitinureba/ mi wo tukusi to zo/ ware ha narikeru

君こふる 涙しなくは からごろも むねのあたりは 色もえなまし

kimi kohuru/ namida sinakuha/ karagoromo/ mune no atari ha/ iro-moe namasi

Kimi kohuru namida: [the] tears [I weep in] loving you. Koi (恋) the noun actually derives from an archaic verb, kohu, and that's what we see here.

The first poem says that the tears "have filled the floor, and I have exhausted myself, like the exhaust from a jet-ski racing down the resultant river of tears. Also, I touch your arm."

The sharp-eyed reader will notice that my translation is quite free here; in fact, jet-skis were not introduced to Japan until the Kamakura period, several centuries after this poem was written. The original relies on an untranslatable and unforgivable pun on mi wo tsukusu (exhaust oneself, squeeze oneself dry) and miotsukushi (a guidepost indicating the recommended current to use on a river*).

So the gist is, "I cried a river over you, and now I'm lying in it like a guide post. Hey, that rhymes with 'I exhausted myself because I cried most!'" ... Let's move on.

The second poem takes a different approach. Rather than elaborating on the tears themselves, it makes claims about what would happen if the narrator weren't weeping them: the chest area of his clothing would burst into colorful/passionate flames.

(I love this poem because it evokes a Heian noble blinking fiercely and claiming that he has something in his eye, right up until he spontaneously combusts. It's not good to keep these things bottled up.)

The really intriguing phrase, though, is iro-moe. I can't find any reliable commentator willing to state that they are 100% certain what it means, but it probably has to do with the color (iro) of the blaze (moe-), or its passionate (iro, cf modern iroke etc.) nature, or both.

* From mi (water) + o (thread, stream, life) + tsu (archaic genitive) + kushi (skewer, post). (Back.)


Give a hoot

This is how they advertise books in Japan. Specifically, books published by Shūeisha in the standard bunko small-paperback format and then selected to be part of their Natsuichi campaign.

The major theme of the campaign is... well, actually, it's "Doncha just love Aoi Yū? She's the new Ishihara Satomi!" The overt theme, though, is "Books. They're just a bunch of words lined up in rows... so how come they're so great?" The song further positions the reading of a book as a search for the words to say to that special someone when you finally meet them, which is mawkish but not entirely without merit as an idea.

The symbolism of the road trip is obvious: read a book and you too can depart on a pleasant but non-threatening solo journey in an appealing, unusual vehicle. The kid in the bunny suit represents the unexpected, exotic, and helpful things you'll find in books if you -- yes, you -- are individualistic enough to pick them up.

(Here's another one. Not as much to say here, except that the theme is still "Doncha just love Aoi Yū? Especially as genius art student Hagumi in the movie version of Hachimitsu to clover!" Yes, damn you, yes! We all love Aoi Yū!)

... Of course, the great thing about YouTube is that you can then click straight to the polar opposite of the naiive singing and subdued imagery of the Natsuichi material: Shiseidō's 2007/spring commercial.

There is absolutely no sign of irony or quirk here. These women are serious. They work hard, they smile hard, and they toss their luxurious waterfalls of shiny hair from side to side while crossing the street -- hard. Colors are merciless. Sunlight sears. SMAP take no prisoners.

Tsubaki is not for the weak.


After the storm

I've been waiting months to use this, and after nearly losing a pot-plant to the winds last night, I think the time has come: YOSANO Akiko on typhoons (and neologisms).

Amusing, this new word taifū (台風). Risshū began just a few days ago, so in the traditional terminology this storm would be a nowaki (野分, "field-parter"). "Nowaki" has the right flavor for haiku and lyrics, but not for science. The Heian period's refined sensibilities, as exemplified by Sei Shōnagon's "It is the day after the nowaki that is really moving", have of course been transmitted to the people of today, so it isn't that we don't feel the elegance of the word nowaki -- but it is nevertheless insufficient to express our own experience (実感) of these storms. In our modern lives, when we encounter a violent wind and rain, forewarning of which is announced from the weather towers, with science bustling at their back -- "Passing Luzon, it will come ashore at the southern coast of Kii before cutting a path across the center of Japan to come out in the Japan Sea and eventually reach Korea" -- we somehow do not feel satisfied unless we use some new jargon like taifū to refer to it.

Taifū was not in fact a new word, but it was new to Japanese when Yosano was alive. The early etymology of the word itself is summarized neatly at Etymology.com, and the Nihon gogen daijiten explains that Japan adopted it only during the Meiji period.

Apparently, it was initially written in katakana with the final /n/ (タイフーン), which indicates that the direct borrowing was from English, even though the word is attested in Chinese by that point as 颱風 (pre-simplification equivalent of modern 台風) or 太風. It wasn't until meteorologist OKADA Takematsu used kanji and a standardized Sino-Japanese pronunciation in his important works on the subject in the early 1900s that Japan gave in and just started writing it in kanji too.


Night in the west

Curiosity I found at Aozora Bunko: Kyōto-jin no yogeshiki ("The view by night with a Kyotoite"), a poem written in Taishō-period Kyoto Japanese by painter, writer and general layabout MURAYAMA Kaita.

どうどつしやろえええなあ ...

This is the sort of thing that makes me want to go all Sybilla from Last Samurai: Ohen ka dō e! Mitomiyasu na yoroshū osu e na! And later: tanto no hitode ya na, utsukushii hito bakari/ maru de tō to kao to no senjō/ a, bikkuri shita densha ga hashiru/ a, kowakatta -- but don't you see how he builds up the narrator and the city itself only to custard-pie them with a symbol of modernity encroaching rudely from the east but not with any malicious intent after all he lived in Kyoto from the age of four

Completely untranslatable, of course, even more so than regular poetry. Of course if you were completely confident in your understanding of the Kyoto dialect you could render it into English without too much difficulty, but then you'd still lose the contrast with standard (i.e. upper-class Tokyo) Japanese, without which this poem has much less reason to be. Translation into SAE is an option often exercised in these situations, but this is really a way of cutting the knot, not untying it. Ol' Virginny doesn't map 1:1 onto Kyoto, and you're liable to end up with a witty and marvelously clever translation that is nevertheless about something else entirely.

Better by far to learn Japanese and enjoy it in its natural habitat.


Rag market

Néojaponisme is here. If you like this blog, I think you will like Néojaponisme too.

Yanagihara, by MORITA Tsunetomo.

Admin note thrown to the bottom: I have not posted much over the past couple of weeks due to personal circumstances. Things should be back to normal now.