2007 Kanji of the Year

Most years, the Kanji Kentei's Kanji of the Year awards are pretty boring: democracy mills all the rough edges off public opinion and we end up with a character meaning "love" or "new" or "fluffy puppy drinking a bowl of warm milk". But not this year. This year the winner was:


And those Kanji Kentei copywriters aren't afraid to name names... of abstract concepts that can't sue. Food mislabeling, pension shenanigans, "an English conversation school", even "a fake amusement park that opened in China" (not to be confused with Disgraceland); all come in for a nonspecific, unactionable scathing.

Even the runners-up are bleak. From the top, you got 食 ("food", and you know that isn't there because the food was especially tasty and accurately represented by manufacturers this year), 嘘 ("lies"), 疑 ("doubt"), and 謝 ("apologize"). Only at number 6 does it begin to it degenerate into the meaningless everyear pap of 変 ("change"), 政 ("government"), 心 ("heart/soul"), etc.

(Do note however that 暑 ("hot") and 温 ("warm") are both in the top 20. Again, the reason for this is not, say, a Jack Lemmon/Tony Curtis boom.)

Now we shall proceed to the No-sword Kanji of the Year for 2008. In my capacity as Grand Master, I herebyc declare the winner to be:

鴨 is the character for "[wild] duck", kamo in Japanese. Kamo also has a metaphorical meaning in Japanese, dating back at least to the Edo period: sucker.*

Always granting of course that living in any kind of modern human society means a daily round of suckering by various forces ranging from the abstract and emergent to the all too tangible, let us all move into the Year of the Rat with a new vigilance against the scams that we can see, at least. And always remember the golden conman-busting rule: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Happy new year!


I grow old... I grow old... I shall buy The Best of Richard 'Groove' Holmes

Hey, jazz fans! Media chain Tsutaya has a message for you on their current bunko book covers!

[Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the Tsutaya Records]

Yes that sounds swinging daddy-o and not at all stilted especially the way you gave the full name of the specific organizational unit within Tsutaya! Let us meet there and purchase of the jazz at once.

The Japanese above that announces that Tsutaya is strengthening its jazz holdings, by the way. This is probably something to do with Japan's population, which as we all know is on the demographic express to opinionated-elderly-men-who-collect-things-that-remind-them-of-their-youth-town. Now that the age of oyaji who sing Nohtunes for fun is ended, the only music they like in that town more than jazz is folk-boom folk.


Thus, cat grit

HITOMI Hitsudai (人見必大) on cats, from his 1695 Honchō shokkan (『本朝食鑑』, literally "A mirror [held up] to the diet of this country"):

[Cats who decline to catch mice, preferring to hunt small birds and scavenge for scraps instead] are ravenous bandits (貪賊) with no value worth speaking of. Cats of this kind invariably seem foolish. They seize food and flee when people are not looking, then hide underneath something and refuse to come out.

(Doesn't sound so foolish to me -- maybe he meant "pretend to be foolish"? The only version I have is a modern-style Japanese edition which says "必ず愚かのようで". Continuing...)

For this reason, when someone has greed in their heart but keeps it hidden and does not express it publicly, the common people call this neko-konjō (猫根性, "cat-tenacity").

Konjō could also be translated "determination", "guts", "grit", etc.; the characters literally mean "root nature".

Note that neko-konjō is not to be confused with akaneko konjō (赤猫根性, "red cat konjō", which is apparently a phrase encapsulating the tendency of the good citizens of Ōita prefecture to be inconsiderate of others and generally uncooperative. You stay classy, Ōita. (In fairness, I understand that they spin it as individualism and independent-mindedness.)

Hey, here's a whole page of prefectural stereotypes! Poor old Saitama; their unique characteristic is "Not really having a unique characteristic". Having lived there for a few years I can confirm that this is the case.

Oh, and before anyone asks -- Hitomi makes a point of saying that he's only heard of people eating cat, and that for medicinal purposes. Its meat, he is given to understand, is "sweet".


Leave your hat on

Let us turn our eerie multifaceted gaze to matters of the lexicon, good friends. Exhibit 0: the January 2008 issue of Very.

[Cover of Very, 2007/01]

As far as I can ascertain, Very is a magazine for ex-flight attendants now married to staggeringly wealthy salarymen who mostly just throw sacks of yen in through the front door while their wives raise the kids and work part-time from home in creative fields.

(Further, more serious discussion in ISHIZAKI Yūko (石崎裕子)'s paper, 『女性雑誌「VERY」にみる幸福な専業主婦像』 (Google cache), Images of the happy homemaker in the women's magazine "Very". Abstract: What I said in the paragraph above, plus the unsurprising data point that many people find the idea of not working full-time quite attractive.)

Very's top headline this month is:


Wife, mother, yome, woman. Maximally versatile clothing for "actor me".

The gist is clear, but what's with that one word I left untranslated? That's the interesting part.*

The most common English translations of yome are "wife" and "bride". But it doesn't seem to mean that here. "Wife" is already listed, and it seems very unlikely that even the most ingenious winter coat could double as bridal wear. Clearly, we have to think laterally.

Give up? Try "daughter-in-law". And indeed, inside the magazine we find instructions on how to dress when visiting your husband's parents for new year's. (Summary: Conservatively.)

"Daughter-in-law" isn't a great translation of yome either. When little girls brainwashed by teh patriarchy draw a picture of themselves wearing a gigantic white gown and say they want to be an o-yome-san when they grow up, they ain't longing for a mother-in-law. (They mostly just want the dress.)

It would bring us cloesr to the truth to say that both words mean "wife", but tsuma (妻, the word I translated as "wife" above) means "wife as half of a married couple" while yome means "wife as entrant to a family", thus covering both the "daughter-in-law" and "bride at the ceremony" angles.

(Two asides for specificity:

  1. At one point yome did mean, specifically and apparently exclusively, "daughter wife of one's son", but usage has broadened in the centuries since then. While we're at it, let's note that tsuma used to be non-gender-specific, i.e. it meant "spouse".
  2. These evolving usage patterns ensure that you should be able to find exceptions to the general definitions above without too much difficulty and no warranty express or implied etc.)

I was talking about this with a friend of mine, and his comment was: "I'm more curious about who gets to see the 'woman' side, if not the same man who sees the 'wife'." Yah, good point. The official Very answer is "female friends". Very only grudgingly recognizes the existence of husbands, let alone other men. This is not an oddity of Very's, I think, as much as it is a reflection of the tendency towards (self-)segregation by gender which is still an important influence on social behavior in Japan.

Note also, by the way, that "daughter" is not a role that the women of Very play. Tactful acknowledgment of the fact that when Japanese women go visit their own parents they generally change into an old tracksuit and let it all hang out, or reinforcement of the old tradition in which women are no longer considered members of their birth family if they join a different one through marriage?

And on that note, merry Christmas and happy holidays.

* Other only slightly less interesting things: the word kimawashi, a compound verb translatable in pieces as as "wear-rotate" (i.e. wear in rotation in a variety of outfits); forcible conversion of the noun yakusha (役者, actor) into an adjectival noun ("na adjective"), using quotation marks to validate the irregularity. (Back)


No-sword-related link bonanza

A few links that might interest you:


Christmas Post #1

[Morning 2]

Nothing to do with the rest of the post -- I just wanted to commemorate the predictable Christmastime covering of NAKAMURA Hikaru's "Saint Young Men", a comic serial about Jesus and Buddha (a "最聖コンビ", living together as roommates.

Christmas in Japan is always painful because I have to listen to yet another round of dreary whining about "the Japanese" not understanding Christmas because they eat Christmas cake and go to love hotels instead of gathering in the family home for a traditional European-inspired feast.

And let's not forget the legendary Kentucky Fried Coup. I mean, it's simply inconceivable that mere media images could fool so many into believing that certain practices and consumable goods were connected with Christmas when, in fact, no such traditions existed.

Actually, I'm going to dwell on this topic a little. Consider: As a fast food company, Kentucky Fried Chicken never stop trying to associate their brand with things. What things? Anything. Biplanes. Sports. Summer. Even New Year's Day.

Those last two in particular make it quite clear that Kentucky Fried Chicken had no compunctions about annexing Japanese traditions, either, even going so far as to claim that their chicken is "sukkari Nihon no oishisa" ("completely [become] the taste of Japan").

So let's turn back to the Christmas thing (and note how impressionistic it is even by the mid-'80s). Clearly, it stuck not because Japanese consumers are unusually gullible -- otherwise we'd all be eating fried chicken all summer long, and whenever we ride a biplane too -- but rather, because they cared less about authenticity in re some foreign holiday than they did about fried chicken. And I'm sure there were not a few mothers who looked at the order form as a gift from Jesus Himself granting them freedom from the kitchen for that evening.

I will grant that getting people to actually line up for Kentucky Fried Chicken sounds impressive, but we must not forget that, as a nation, Japan's passion for queuing rivals even that of the British Empire at its height. People line up for ramen, for curry, for pachinko, for routine weekly sales at B-list boutiques. Getting them to line up for a bucket of fried chicken on the way home hardly requires an eerie feat of mesmerism.

(Don't miss Young MIYAZAWA Rie's kit kat spot while you're over at YouTube. I knew there was something that could make beefeaters break character.)


Learning to smile

Sony's new innovation: cameras that release the shutter automatically when they detect you smiling. Here's the commercial starring KASHII Yū and WATANABE Tetsu. You won't see many others this year that open with the talent looking bored.

We viewers are implicitly identified with the product itself. This is only fair, as the product is designed to do our viewing for us. No longer shall we shoulder the burden of pressing a button at the most appropriate time. This camera can do it for us. No doubt its algorithms, disembodied and deterministic, do a much better job of it than our jerry-rigged, super-split-second-timed tendon-and-nerve setup, too.

And even if they don't, it won't matter, because as this technology spreads we will get better at smiling the way it expects us to.

One day we will have cameras that can follow us everywhere, applying heuristic upon heuristic to determine if what we are doing is interesting enough to photograph, and, if so, when our smile is at its most delightful. Photography-as-record will be as ubiquitous and as invisible as air, and the age-old conflict with photography-as-art will fizzle into irrelevance.

The artists will be the ones whose hovercams are Lomo-3000s set to "Quirky".

Back to the commercial: Note also Sony's attempt to replace the smile-muscle-flexing cheese with their own name. This works in Japan because the /y/ is long, twice as long as the /o/, and no less stressed. I have my doubts that it will work in English, where we generally pronounce the /y/ in a much more perfunctory manner.


The ass of no-ass

"JAPANESE BEAUTY HOKURIKU: Become a zazen beauty in Toyama." (Zuiryūji, to be precise.)


"Even dieting won't tighten up what's in your head." Ah, is not one put in mind of the classic dialogue from the Blue Cliff Record?

A novice asked Unmon, "What then is the enlightened Buddha-self?"
"A red-headed barbarian," replied Unmon.
"And when it leaves, what then?"
"It has a fabulous ass."

Japanese Buddhism has never been shy about involvement in worldly affairs, of course, and "zen beauty" isn't exactly a Googlewhack, and indeed to mock another's practice merely highlights the deeper flaws in our own, but... uh... okay, I can't take that anywhere. I'm a decadent spiritual fop and the real reason I'm posting this is my inordinate fondness for scarves.



Kotohajime has begun!

Kotohajime (事始め, "the beginning of things") is a year-end tradition in which businessfolk go around visiting customers, teachers, and other useful acquaintances for their support during the year. It is an old Japanese tradition, which means that nowadays only those in self-consciously traditional Japanese occupations bother with it -- hence the maiko links above. Everyone else just sends a case of beer and calls it a year. (Actually, they call it seibo -- 歳暮, "year's end [gift]".)

Bonus question: why is kotohajime associated with December 13th? Wikipedia says that it's because the 13th of the 12th month would always fall on a Ghost day, which are, surprisingly, auspicious for everything but weddings. (The possibility that it's just convenient to start wrapping things up two weeks before the year ends, and the whole "Ghost" thing is an explanation added after the fact, should not be ignored.)


Κουμκουατ τι θελεις? Respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.

Kinkan (金柑) is Japanese for kumquat. To the best of my understanding, the kumquat is valued primarily for its goofy name in English-speaking territories (and in particular by English-speaking improvisational comedians), but in Japan they are believed to have throat-soothing powers.

But how to activate these powers? In our household, like this:

  1. Pull the stems off some kumquats and place them in a saucepan.
  2. Poke holes in them so that they don't burst.
  3. Cover with water and simmer over a low flame until they turn transparent.
  4. Add some sugar -- say, a little more than half as much sugar as there is kumquat in the saucepan (by weight).
  5. Keep simmering until the water turns into sugary goo as well.

We are aiming here not to candy the kumquats, but rather to create a syrupy amber hell through which they drift like bloated, awkward ghosts. This we will take into ourselves.

It is best when blended with kettle-hot water, so what you will usually want to do is tip a kumquat and a little syrup into a cup, tear the kumquat apart with a fork or similar, and then pour the water over the top. The same kumquat is usually good for a refill or two, although you may want to add more syrup.

I do not know if the kumquat is actually good for sore throats or if any hot, sugary drink would do as well, but I can confirm that a few cups of this can at least calm the virus down long enough for you to get to sleep.



So I learned that the word dekansho is pretty big in Hyōgo. They have a Dekansho Matsuri and everything. My immediate question: What does it mean?

To summarize, it comes from a song called the デカンショ節 ("Dekansho-bushi" or "Dekansho song"). According to Wikipedia, it's a modern (as in Taishō) variant of an old Sasayama folk song called "Mitsu-bushi", that became popular with students around Japan after some a swimming club from what would later be absorbed into Tokyo University heard some students from Sasayama singing it in Chiba. (Got that?)

It gets better: the refrain dekansho is believed to have come from the philosophers Descartes, Kant, and Schopenhauer. The key lines in one version I have handy are:


Dekansho, dekansho de hantosha kurasu
Ato no hantosha nete kurasu

Spend half the year on dekansho, dekansho,
Spend the rest of the year sleeping

Of course there are plenty of folks (MIDI) who will argue that dekansho is a corrupted version of dekasegi shiyou ("Go out and earn some money [somewhere far from home]"), or that it's just gibberish that sounds good when sung in chorus by a bunch of dancing Hyōgoites, noting especially that it appears in rhythm-keeper phrases like "Yo-oi, yo-oi, dekkansho!" (and note that the more common rhythm-keeper dokkoisho is not far away)... but we don't have to listen to them. Descarte, Kant, and Schopenhauer it is.

Here's a rendition of 篠山節 ("Sasayama-bushi") that includes the variant line Dekansho dekansho de hantosha kurasu/ Nokoru hantosha nete kurasu. You can also see what is alleged to be actual footage of the dance in this video of NISHIDA Sachiko (西田佐知子) singing an entirely different song (that would be "アカシアの雨がやむとき", "When the acacia rain stops falling").


Picking up girls 100 years ago

My latest Néojaponisme article, "Nanpa: A History", exploring the direct link between the word nanpa and the Meiji-period understanding of girl germs, is up.

Bonus information just for you, No-sword reader: The illustration is from TSUBOUCHI Shōyō's Tōsei shosei katagi (当世書生気質), chapter one.


Worst. Translations. Ever.

The Lord of the Rings: Critique of the Two Chinese Translations was "a thesis submitted to the Graduate Institute of Translation and Interpretation Studies, Fu Jen Catholic University" by one David van der Peet. And when he says "critique", he doesn't mean it in the wishy-washy European sense:

I was looking forward to the Chinese translations of The Lord of the Rings, and have to admit they both turned out to be a bitter disappointment, unable to bring the fascinating secondary world of Middle-earth closer to readers in Taiwan. I hope this critique will give the interested reader an idea of the sheer width of Tolkien’s imagination, and thus rekindle an interest in his works that may very well be smothered by the Chinese translations of his works so far.

The first third is scene-setting which will be of little interest to anyone already familiar with Tolkien, but the actual critique is a jungle of detail, so lush and anal that it could awaken the slumbering Comic Book Guy in anyone. There are glorious, unmistakable blooms of error, like translating the "league" of "40 leagues" as if it were the "league" of "Justice League of America"; but there are also places where I feel his case is insufficiently made, correct as it may be.

(For example, I have no reason to doubt that it is inelegant translationese to start a Taiwan-style Chinese sentence with 立即, but van der Peet's argument isn't really developed beyond "LOL 立即 AMIRITE".)

Also: Mark T. HOOKER's take on the thesis, and as a special bonus, here's self-proclaimed "sf fan, Tolkien fan, [and] dink" ITAKURA Mitsuhiro's take on the Japanese translation by SETA Teiji and TANAKA Akiko.

"Bree" is a Celtic word for "hill", but also means soup and gruel in Scottish. In the first edition of "Yubiwa Monogatari", Bree was translated as "Kayu Mura" (Gruel village), and later it was revised to katakana name "Burii Mura". There are quite a few die-hard first-editioners who refuse the revision and stick to "Kayu Mura".