Natural color

In 1961, TANAKA Chiyo and her husband Kaoru published a book called 『原色世界衣服大図鑑』 (supplied English title: World Folk Costumes in Natural Colour.) The book contained photographs of and information about alleged folk costumes they had collected in their travels around the world. (As they explain in the introduction, there's nothing in there from Africa, China, the Soviet Union or Australia, because they hadn't yet visited those places.)

"Most of the clothing in this book is modeled by female students of [Chiyo's] school, with [myself] as the cameraman," explains Kaoru in his introduction. "There are pros and cons to this approach...."

The pros are that when comparing clothing from all around the world, using models of a single "folk" (民族) as the medium allows a more "objective and impartial" (各巻的に公平) viewing experience; that taking photographs in a studio rather than on location makes the result more consistent; and also that Japanese readers can see which fabrics and designs suit Japanese wearers, and incorporate them into their own work.

The downside, of course, is that the reader can't see how the clothing works in context, on a person of the appropriate culture (and skin color).

I love this book. Its color plates don't scan so well, but they are a delight on the page. But what I really dig about it is its tone. Its irony-free project of creating a context-optional catalogue of the world's folkways is very Meiji, especially considering its target audience: modern Japanese designers standing entirely outside any folk tradition. It is not for mere completeness that Okinawan bingata and even plain old mainland kimono are in here.


Still and understated/ like a shadow overhead

Detail from "Sunset in Autumn"
(秋の夕日), 1976

Went to the SEIMIYA Naobumi (清宮質文) exhibition at the Yokousuka Museum of Art on the weekend. Even if you're in Kanagawa, it's a serious trip to get out there (you have to ride a bus), but well worth it. There are several high-quality books collecting Seimiya's work, but you really have to see that woodgrain stamped on rough-faced fiber to get the full effect.

You could say the same for regular painting or any kind of visual art, I suppose, but Seimiya seems to have been more concerned than most artists with allowing his process to show through in the finished product, like a rung bell, fading but still half-heard. Seimiya: "The difference between a print and a picture you draw is like the difference between playing a musical instrument and singing." (版画と直接描く絵との違いは器楽と声楽の違いのようだ。)

Some links: "Bird on a black night" (黒夜の鳥), various pieces (my favorite from the ones there is "Seaside in September" (九月の海辺) -- third row on the right), three with close-ups (the three in the top row are by KOMAI Tetsurō, not Seimiya).


"Winter woman", by YOKOMITSU Riichi

A woman, alone, gazes absently over the fence into the yard next door. In the yard, a few winter chrysanthemums have run wild and covered the ground. Smoke emerges from under the swept-up pile of fallen leaves and rises to the sky.

Ask her, simply: "What are you thinking?"

She folds her hands over her breast. "A song of autumn."

If that was how she replied, then you must stop her. Gently take her hand:

"You must think of spring's arrival. Perhaps you would like to go back inside and brew some tea? And are your spring clothes ready? I beg of you, sit by a bubbling bronze kettle and sew. Your husband will be home in no time, hands red from the cold, no doubt. You must not wallow until then in thoughts of the autumn just passed. There is no happiness in autumn. Come, let us return indoors. If you dislike putting your hands in the charcoal box, I shall lend you my gloves. The water may be cold, but think of your husband soon to return. The flowers in the florists' windows have not yet withered. Dust off the vase over the fireplace and grace it with a single narcissus. No doubt the verandahs are filled with cats lulled to sleep by the warm sunlight, while elsewhere puppies frolic gaily with their shadows. But you must not look upon the camellia. It is too lonely a flower. In the shadow of the toolshed it silently blooms and scatters itself to the wind. Come, breathe out in good cheer a puff of white -- like the bird that takes flight, startled, when those petals fall. Open your eyes wide and take up a daikon in the kitchen, smiling. Your new shawl, I am sure, will leap out of the bundle your husband brings. But spring will be here soon. The sound of honeybees will buzz around your kitchen basin ladle. More cars will travel from the village into town every day. The shrikes will return to a distant land, and buds will spring afresh from the bare branches. You will see young lovers holding each other's hands as they stroll around the outskirts of the village. At such times, take your husband by the hand and say: 'Well, spring is certainly here, isn't it? isn't it?' But your husband's spring coat must not smell of mildew."


Tomorrow's man of tomorrow

My review of SUWA Tetsushi's double-award-winning, MURAKAMI-Ryū-equalling novel Asatte no hito (アサッテの人) is up over at Néojaponisme.


The other Earth Day

Yesterday was Civil Engineering Day in Japan. Why? Because the Japanese for "civil engineering" is "土木" (literally, "earth and wood"), from which you can handily extract "十一, 十八" (11, 18) if you're rough enough.

The word "土木" is popularly held to come from a passage in the 13th chapter of the Huainanzi, in which humanity's long history of being snowed on in the winter and bitten by horseflies in the summer finally ends when a certain luminary or luminaries has the good sense to 築土構木 ("pile up earth and arrange wood") into shelter.

(Osaka University, always the contrarians, apparently used to have a "構築工学科", literally "Arranging and Piling Engineering Department", but sheepishly switched to "土木" in the 60s.)


Personne n'en connaît la signification

Jindai moji (神代文字, "Characters from the Age of the Gods") are one of the legends of Japanese pre-war history: spurious syllabaries invented, promoted, and possibly even believed in by people who just could not accept the idea that Japan needed China's help to learn how to write.

And here is an encyclopedic page with samples out the wazoo. The introduction explains the obvious problem with all known jindai moji: they are clearly based on the modern Japanese phonetic system rather than its eight-vowelled ancestor as would be expected -- nay, required -- of any syllabary in use before the Heian period.

(There is also the obvious question of why any Japanese person in their right mind would voluntarily adopt the thrice-accursed Manyōgana system if they already had a perfectly functional native syllabary.)

Let us peruse the examples:

  • The laughably inept Ainu moji fail because they match the phonology of (modern) Japanese, not that of Ainu.
  • The Ahiru moji are a sadly transparent copy of Hangul, right down to the unnecessary detail of copying the use of the /N/ circle to mean "no initial consonant". The cursive version is particularly insane.
  • The Sanka moji are a reinvention of kanji, which is like setting out to counterfeit some banknotes but then deciding that your first task should be to meticulously construct a copy of the wallet you found them in.

My absolute favorites, though, are the Katakamuna moji, allegedly invented and used by the antediluvian Katakamuna civilization, which is in turn attested in the Katakamuna documents, which were probably fabricated by some joker in the Edo period before being discovered by NARASAKI Kōgetsu in 1949, allegedly through the agency of a mysterious man named HIRA Tōji, who claimed to be a representative of Katakamuna Shrine, the existence of which remains to be demonstrated.

"Mon père était prêtre de notre temple Shintoïste," Hira said (according to this French site.) "Notre famille a gardé ces documents de génération en génération, mais personne n'en connaît la signification." (The remote possibility that Hira was telling the truth and his famille had remained in a state of suckerdom de génération en génération makes this story worth repeating.)

Here are some fonts you can use to make your own fraudulent documents. Just be sure to tell the little girl's papa if you do.


Proofs of a conspiracy

The Japan Make-Up Association has awarded the first "Japan Make-Up Association Grand Prize" (第1回「日本メイクアップ大賞」) to YONEKURA Ryōko, apparently having deemed her "the woman who, with the help of make-up, is most dazzling right now" (今最もメイクアップで輝く女性). Were I Yonekura's publicist, I'm not sure I'd be entirely thrilled with such qualified praise.

That may be why at the awards ceremony she announced that when meeting a man she likes (you know, like likes), she doesn't slap on the paste at all: "He's going to see me without make-up sooner or later anyway."

Anyway this is almost as exciting as the time she won the inaugural Best Leathernist (ベストレザーニスト) award in 2001. Leathernist: another word with an extraneous /n/, presumably also owing its existence to the Japonic unwillingness to put vowel upon vowel combined with similar words such as "Jeanist".

(I note darkly and for posterity that almost half of Leathernism's past Grand Mistresses are also known to have attained the highest publicly acknowledged degree in Jeanism.)


Nor all the drowsie Syrrups of the world

Another Heppoko scan, here deconstructing the celebrated Japanese tradition of gravure.

"Summer..." There actually is such a thing as a natsuimo, "summer imo" -- it's what English speakers call a regular old "potato". But that picture looks more like a mandrake to me.

One more semiotic point I would like to make is that the potato in the magazine is naked, and it matters. We know this because Akiko, the teenage girl straight-man character, flies into a rage at the suggestion that she be photographed this way. It seems unlikely that she would get so mad about an innocent Shōnen Magazine-style, even-AIBU-Saki's-manager-lets-her-do-it feature. The beads of potato-sweat also pornography the proceedings.

Heppoko himself, of course, only ever wears clothes for the sake of cheap visual gags, and no-one finds it remarkable.


Measured out in

All I have today is an off-color old haiku:

He o hitte/ okashiku mo nai/ hitori mono
Farting isn't even funny: single life

Ain't it the truth. And here is some bonus information that I hope will protect my academic dignity.

Hitte is the te-form of hiru (放る). He o hitte is literally something like "letting out a fart" or "expelling a fart". Today, the verb koku (放く) is generally preferred; etymologically it seems to mean something like "squeeze out" or "wring out".

In other words, between the Edo and the modern period, Japan's vocabulary got more anal too.



I'm awake!

I just got back from a visit to the old country. As usual, it was good to see my loved ones and the people were friendly enough, but it failed to strike me as a viable place to live. I'm glad to be back in Japan now, where the portions of food are sensible and the coins don't distend my wallet with their gross, malformed bulk.

When you arrive at Narita airport, you are greeted by a bilingual sign. The English half says "Welcome to Japan", and the Japanese half says おかえりなさい: "Welcome back (home)". Some people consider this a sinister manifestation of Japanese (racio-)nationalism, but I disagree. The bar is set extremely low, after all -- if you can read Japanese, you get welcomed back.

That isn't to say that nationalism and racism don't lurk beyond the sign, of course, making it bitterly ironic for some people. You can find that in any country and Japan is no different. But when you're out in no-man's land, the text in the sky says what it says.


Night soil

My new translation for Néojaponisme, IZUMI Kyōka's "Night fishing" (夜釣), is up. (And thanks to Boing Boing and apparently William Gibson [!] for the extra publicity and ego fuel.)

A few people have expressed confusion over what exact sequence of events it is supposed to depict. To that, I answer only "amorphous dread". Other folks have wondered what the "like this" in the final sentence means. This is a translation issue, so I will step up to the plate. The source I am translating there is 恁う, . Although you very rarely see it written with that kanji today, it is the common word that means "like this" and runs with ("like that") ("like what"), and so on.

The NJ comment thread hypothesizes that this is meant to represent a sort of surprise physical ending, like telling a campfire story quietly and then shouting at the end to shock your audience. This is what I intended. Kyōka carefully frames the piece as a tale related verbally, though it was of course published in printed form, and although I did take advantage of certain facts of English syntax to rework the final revelation of imagery, I don't think I have strayed too far from his original intentions.

And here's a special bonus for blog readers. "Night fishing" was originally published in the Sunday Mainichi in 1911. Aozora's copy includes an extra, entirely unrelated paragraph at the end, separated by a diamond. It seems pretty clearly intended to fill up space. I'm not sure if Kyōka wrote it himself or whether some sub-editor threw it in, but here it is:

Santō Kyōden would work so feverishly when writing a story that he forgot even to sleep and eat. When a new story idea came to him, he would leap up and run to his writing desk, even if it was the middle of the night.

He would eventually become so deeply engrossed in his work that even going to the bathroom felt like a waste of precious time -- and so, they say, he kept the chamber pot beside his writing desk.



Here's another wordplay-laden Manyōshū entry:

Yoki hito no/ yoshi to yoku mite/ yoshi to ihishi/ yoshino yoku miyo/ yoki hito yoku mi
Good people heard that it was good, looked well upon it, and called it good: Yoshino. Look well on it, good people, look well.

The story is that Emperor Tenmu composed this poem while at Yoshino with his six sons, after having them all vow not to wage war on each other.

To commemorate such a solemn and important occasion, I personally would not have composed a tongue twister. But that's why Emperor Tenmu was Emperor.

Obligatory linguistic factoid: while all of the "good"s and "well"s are variations or conjugations of the same OJ adjective (yoshi, ancestor to modern ii/yoi; yes, the pun on "Yoshino" is intentional, although that yoshi means "reed"), they're written many different ways.

The first "good people" uses the kanji 淑 ("noble", etc.), but the second uses plain old 良 ("good", "superior"). Most commentaries explain that the 淑 refers to the emperors and extremely high-ranked folks of old, leading up to Tenmu himself, while the second refers to less exalted gentlefolk -- like, say, the Emperor's six sons.

Two of the "wells" are written with 吉 ("favorable", "splendid"); I have no idea why this is. (Anybody?) The last "look well" is written using kanji for their phonetic value (when used to represent Japanese words): 四来三 (yo.ku.mi).

Oh, and when 淑 people said that Yoshino was "good", they used the kanji 好 ("pleasing", "likable", "beautiful").