Vision and simplicity

Hey, Hirato-lovers! There's another poem up at Néojaponisme! This one's called "Vision" and is entirely unlike "Fish".

Sound that echoes without end!
Light in torrents without end!
Bound with knots that have no end
A moving, driving heart – the beauty!

Entirely unrelated, but here's another poem I've been pondering recently. It's by YAGI Jūkichi (八木重吉) and is only four lines long.

Soboku na koto (素朴な琴)

Kono akarusa no naka e
Hitotsu no soboku na koto o okeba
Aki no utsukushisa ni taekane
Koto wa shizuka ni nariidasu darou

A simple koto

If into this light
You were to place a single, simple koto,
Unable to endure the autumn's beauty,
That koto would, no doubt, quietly ring out


Interview with the Centipede

A couple of years ago Hyōronsha published a new set of Roald DAHL translations. Their goal, clearly, was to issue the definitive statement on Dahl in Japanese: all of the Quentin Blake illustrations are in there, and most of the translations are by the superhuman YANASE "the (best, and only complete) Japanese translation of Finnegans Wake" Naoki.

I finally got around to reading his translation of James and the Giant Peach, which is probably my favorite Roald Dahl book. I love every part of it -- the magnificently nonchalant elimination of James' parents on the very first page; the intra-Peach character work; the eerie cloud sequence; and of course the decisive return to reality at the very end. Yanase's version is entitled Obake-momo ga yuku* and it did not disappoint.

Won't go into the details, but I particularly enjoyed the "imaginary interview" with the Centipede at the end. (Square brackets denote my insertions or edits.)

Centipede: [...] Anyway, here we are together, the actor (yakusha, 役者) and the translator (yakusha, 訳者) [...] What was it you wanted to ask me?

Translator: Er, first off, I understand that your surname in English is "Centipede" (センチピード). "Centi-" means "hundred", and "-pede" means "feet", so instead of writing ムカデ in katakana or むかで in hiragana [as would be usual in modern Japan], I wrote it in kanji: 百足 [standard, but not common nowadays due to growing prejudice against multi-character ateji based entirely on meaning rather than sound]. How does that strike you?

Centipede: The English pronunciation is actually more like "centapede" (センタピード), but I suppose that doesn't matter...

There's also a brief discussion of the approach Yanase took to the poetry in the book, plus an all-new limerickoid the Centipede recites to taunt Yanase's pride in his work. (Note the two-mora rhyming, which is about the minimum required to ensure that readers notice rhyme in Japanese.)

Oira no myōji wa zu-utto Yanase
Gogen wa "yanagi no yutaka na se"
Sore mo shinayaka nekoyanagi
Da kara yakugo ga tokujō unagi
Oira no yakugo wa itsumo inase!

Which, if you were to get into the spirit of the thing and not pay too close attention to the requirements of the limerick form or indeed to the rules of rhyme, because it's getting late and you want to get back to La Rochefoucauld&emdash;just hypothetically speaking, you understand&emdash;you might render into English as:

My surname is Yanase, if you please:
It means "a shore crowded with willow trees".
I'm lithe like a catkin,
You're sure to be rapt in
My iki translations to Japanese.

Or you might not. That's what comments are for.


Ten thousand-finger discount

The Japanese word for shoplifting is manbiki, usually written 万引き. That would mean something like "pulling ten thousand" (or "drawing a myriad" in early 20th-C. translatorese) -- if it represented the actual etymology, which of course it doesn't.

Instead, the word seems to have sprung from Edo-accented pronunciation of mabiki, a nominalized form of the verb mabiku (間引く), "pull out [something] in between". You might do this to still-growing vegetables, for example -- pull a few out of the row to make space for the others. (Or you might do it to children on the same principle.)

That's all satisfying and well and good, but then what about the contemporary Kansai counterpart to the word, mangai (万買い, "man purchase")? Did they borrow the Edo term and replace hiku with kau? If so, why would they do that? If not, does their man mean something different?

None of my books even venture a guess, but MAKIMURA Shiyō's Encyclopedia of Osakan language (大阪ことば事典) does record a word man meaning "opportune moment", "chance", "fortune" (probably related to the same ma 間 in 間引く, via its extremely broad semantic range: gap, pause, beat, space, period...). So that could be an easy source for mangai: "'buying' at a favorable moment".

(I should note that I can find sources who claim that this is the man to be found in manbiki, although modern scholarship seems to prefer the explanation two paragraphs above -- I just can't find anyone addressing mangai specifically.)

Bonus word: dejitaru manbiki, "digital shoplifting", a term invented by the Japanese Magazine Association (日本雑誌協会) and Telecommunications Carriers Association (電気通信事業者協会) in 2003 to denounce the practice of using your cellphone to take photos of magazine or guidebook articles in the store for later reference, instead of actually purchasing the entire product as would have been necessary in the olden days.

Self-promotional addendum: My translation of HIRATO Renkichi's poem "Fish" is up at Néojaponisme.



META no TAME, a subsection of Néojaponisme for links, self-promotion, and minor observations that don't justify the full illustration-and-footnote NJ treatment, is open. (So, I guess it's going to be kind of like Boing Boing -- except not quite as obsessively focused on Japan. Boom boom!)

I just made my first post there, Tsuttsugatsu! Tsuttsugatsu!, and if that title doesn't make you read it then nothing will.


O ke aloha ka i oi o keia mau mea

I understand that there is some controversy over the preferable English translation of αγαπη in I Corinthians 13. The King James Bible's "charity" has tradition on its side, but "love" is (apparently) a closer fit to what Paul actually meant. Being a non-religious language nerd I knew of the controversy but never had any personal preference -- before today.

Because today I stumbled upon the Hawaiian solution, in in Robert Nā-Wāhine's song "ʻEkolu Mea Nui" (Three Important Things):

ʻEkolu mea nui ma ka honua,
ʻO ka manaʻoʻiʻo, ka manaʻolana,
A me ka aloha, ke aloha ka i ʻoi aʻe,
Pōmakikaʻi nā mea apau,
Pōmakikaʻi nā mea apau.

Three important things in this world,
Faith, hope,
And aloha, aloha is the best,
And everything is blessed,
And everything is blessed.

Faith, hope, and aloha. How could any formulation improve on that?

Perhaps Robert Nā-Wāhine is just a self-exoticising Polyentalist? But no! Baibala Hemolele has an 1839 translation available for download in PDF format, and it says (in typical old-school macron/ʻokina-free orthography):

Ua mau loa keia mau mea ekolu, o ka manaoia, o ka manaolana, a me ke aloha aku. O ke aloha ka i oi o keia mau mea.

With the usual caveats about my wonky, never-actually-visited-Hawaiʻi Hawaiian, I believe this could be glossed as:

These three things have remained: faith, hope, and aloha aku. Aloha is the best of these things.

(I am not sure if aloha aku is supposed to mean "aloha directed away from oneself" or if it is a misprint for/variant version of aloha akua, "divine aloha"... or something else entirely. Anyone?)

The 1868 edition was, it seems, revised to:

Ke mau nei keia mau mea ekolu, o ka manaoia, o ka manaolana, a me ke aloha. O ke aloha nae ka i oi o keia mau mea.

"These three things remain here now: faith, hope, and aloha. Aloha is however the best of these things." ʻĀmene.

I found "ʻEkolu Mea Nui", by the way, in Nā Mele o Hawaiʻi Nei ("Songs of this [our] Hawaiʻi"), edited by Samuel H. Elbert and Noelani Mahoe. I can't recommend this book highly enough to idle dabblers in Hawaiian like myself -- it has the Hawaiian (in gloriously standardized orthography) side-by-side with a plain English trot and supplemented with a marvelous introduction and song-by-song notes that are often surprisingly entertaining in their own understated way, e.g.:

[Lele-iō-Hoku's "Ke Kaʻupu"] is about a sea bird, commonly known in English as an albatross; but how could a love song honor an albatross? (An alternate name is gooney.)

While I'm on the topic of Hawaiian, let me also plug a great, crotchety article I found online recently: R. Keao NeSmith's "Tūtū's Hawaiian and the Emergence of a Neo-Hawaiian Language" [PDF], which argues that Hawaiian speakers who learn the language at school/college rather than at home as a child "are changing the way Hawaiian language (and in extension, Hawaiian cultural values) is understood, expressed, and embodied". Intriguing topic, crunchy details, moving postscript.


Don't mess with Yamaguchi

The introduction to Tonio ANDRADE's How Taiwan Became Chinese mentions in passing that "in 1523 two rival daimyo ended up fighting each other in a Chinese harbor". Whoa, they did? Like... in person?

Nah, of course not. What did happen was called the "Níngbō disturbance" (寧波の乱), Níngbō being of course the Chinese harbor town in question, and it went down like this:

The Ming dynasty allowed Japan to send ships to certain of its ports, officially to bring tribute but with private trading allowed on the side. "Japan" in practice meant the Muromachi shōgunate, who were nominally in charge at the time. The shōgunate naturally sent skilled traders from harbor towns in the west, giving them half of a seal which was to be matched with the other half, held by China at the destination port.

Eventually, it came down to two great Japanese houses vying for the chance to trade with China: the Hosokawas (細川), from Sakai in Ōsaka, and the Ōuchis (大内) from Yamaguchi and Hakata.

In 1523, ŌUCHI Yoshioki (大内義興) sent out an official tribute mission of three ships, with KENDŌ Sōtetsu (謙道宗設) in charge. They had a seal dating from the Zhengde (正徳) Emperor's reign, which was apparently still usable even though the Jiajang (嘉靖) Emperor had ruled China since 1521. The Ōuchi ship arrived, showed its seal, and was welcomed as the "official Japanese delegation" in April.

A few days later, another "official Japanese delegation" arrived. This one had been sent by HOSOKAWA Takakuni (細川高国) with RANKŌ Zuisa (鸞岡端佐) in charge of its single ship. Its main disadvantage, apart from having showed up after the first official delegation, was that it only had an older seal from the Hongzhi (弘治) Emperor's reign -- which had ended with the Zhengde Emperor's accession to the throne almost two decades earlier. The seal was no longer valid.

However, the Hosokawa delegation had a secret weapon: master diplomat SŌ Sokei (宋素卿, Song Suqing), who had been born in Níngbō. His schmoozing and bribery got his delegation through customs first and generally treated much better by Níngbō officials than the Ōuchi suckers. (For example, the Hosokawa got official lodgings; the Ōuchi had to go sleep in a temple.)

You can no doubt imagine the throbbing forehead veins of the Ōuchi delegation at this point. Naturally, they lodged a formal complaint and waited for the appropriate authorities to resolve the matter opened up a multi-layered lacquer box set of whoop-ass, burning the Hosokawa ship to the waterline. Rankō Zuisa and many of his hundred-odd staff were killed.

But not Sō Sokei. He fled west towards Shàoxīng, pursued by enraged Ōuchi warrior-seamen carving a trail of arson and violence through the area. They didn't catch him, though; eventually they went back to the port, took a Chinese official hostage, and fled by ship. They turned up later in Shanghai and then on the Korean coast, where two of them were captured and sent back to the Ming dynasty. Sō, for his part, was sent to prison for aggravated troublemaking. He never got out.

Relations between China and Japan were tense for a while, as you might imagine. According to this page, arrangements were made to trade the Chinese official for Kendō Sōtetsu, who had been taken hostage; and even afterwards Japan continued to demand the return of Sō and the Hosokawa delegation's confiscated property.

After this, only the Ōuchi were allowed to send official Japanese delegations. A few decades later, even they got out of the tribute business, following the unfortunate death of ŌUCHI Yoshitaka (Yoshioki's son), who was forced to commit seppuku by his retainers after a string of diasters and unpopular decisions.


Simulacra in the nursery

Dakigokochi ("the feel of cradling"; via Mari) is a service offered by rice-giftery Yosimiya which involves them delivering to a list of recipients specified by you a rounded bag of rice bearing the face of and weighing precisely as much as your newborn baby.

The rice-infant is put in a box which is then wrapped in a furoshiki for delivery, necessitating a sort of reverse mini-funeral upon receipt. Once the effigy is extracted, though, those lucky far-off recipients can get an immediate feel for what it's like to hold their newest grandchild... or at least what it would be like if said grandchild had an unusual skin disease.

And when they finally tire of this changeling's gravid company -- as surely they must -- they can simply tear it apart and feast on its innards, thus completing the Circle of Life. Backwards.

Customers love it!

The design is very cute. Everyone we sent it to was so happy. When they can't come visit, they apparently just gaze at [the bag of rice] instead.



Uzai is in there too


The sixth edition of the Kōjien (広辞苑), the modern Japanese dictionary of choice for me and apparently most of Japan too, was released on the 11th of January. Iwanami's campaign slogan: "ことばには、意味がある" -- "Words have meanings". (Cough cough pillow words cough.) Here are some of the new words that made it in:

  • Ikemen (いけ面) -- Originally from gay subculture, this word literally means "[man with an] attractive face", "cool-looking guy". I think the -men part is also understood by some people to refer to, well, "men" -- it's usually written in katakana, permitting that ambiguity; the Kōjien has squelched it by using kanji.
  • Kangoshi (看護師) -- This word means "nurse", and is a non-gender-specific replacement for kangofu (看護婦, "[female] nurse") and kangoshi (看護士, "[male] nurse"). This change was officially approved by the government only five years ago.
  • Raburabu (ラブラブ) -- An ideophonic doubling of the English word "love", raburabu describes couples still deep in the honeymoon stage of their relationship.
  • Gengoronteki tenkai (言語論的転回) -- The "linguistic turn", which I didn't know the word for in English until just now.
  • Sei dōitsusei shōgai (性同一性障害) -- "Gender Identity Disorder", linguistically notable for its two distinct uses of sei, the first to mean "gender" and the second to mean "-ness" (attached to dōitsu, "identical").

Also exciting: more example sentences from post-Edo authors! At the bottom of this page you can see quotes from Roka, Sōseki, Ōgai, and Kōyō.

(It seems that etymological information has also been improved, but I would probably care more about this if I hadn't already gone out and bought a bunch of specialist etymology books.)


Global politics

Educational-goods giant Gakken is recalling their "Smart Globe". Why? Oh, because...

[the globe] calls Taiwan — which split from communist China amid civil war in 1949 — "Taiwan Island" and says it comes under the jurisdiction of Beijing, the company said in a statement Thursday.

An electronic voice also tells users pointing to Taiwan the island is part of the People's Republic of China, the official name of the Chinese communist regime, according to Gakken spokesman Satoru Aihara.

China Post elaborates

A Gakken spokesman said the company had initially planned simply to display "Taiwan," as is standard in Japanese school textbooks, but Beijing intervened.

"The place of production was China," he said. "The Chinese government's stance was that we could not export unless we changed the expression."

Picture of "Taiwan Island" (台湾島) here, in Japanese. (Note that this Japanese version backs up the China Post story, that it was the Chinese "government" rather than "manufacturer" that required the change. "工場が中国にあり、中国政府から表記を変更しないと輸出を認めないといわれた" is the direct quote.)

The apology and recall notice is up at Gakken's web site. In it, Gakken explain that it is indeed their policy to use Monkashō-approved textbooks as final reference for their content, which neatly allows them to conform to general public opinion and recall the globes without actually issuing an official company opinion on the status of Taiwan.

What really interested me was the other major "issue" listed in the recall notice: that "the southern half of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands was the same color as the Russian Federation" on the globe.

Sakhalin/Karafuto isn't as tense an issue as Taiwan, and its total absence from the AP story is an accurate reflection of its importance to those whose nations are not directly involved, but it is still fairly messy as these things go. As far as I am aware, the Japanese government still claims some of the Russian-administered Kurils (with EU support), but has given up on "Karafuto prefecture", as it were.

Notwithstanding the constitutionally protected opinions held by various private citizens and interest groups, this is probably a reasonable stance given that the only major argument remaining seems to be: "Sure, we agreed to give that territory up in the Treaty of San Francisco, but the Soviets never signed that treaty so technically those islands are still ours". (I would be interested in hearing what the Monkashō/school textbook position on the subject is, if anybody knows.)

Of course, the people who have the most logical right to the island, i.e the Sakhalin Ainu, will continue to get screwed, blued and tattooed no matter who's in charge. (And I don't mean according to their traditions.)


The mysterious saw

The Japanese word for saw is nokogiri. The -giri is transparently a nominalized and voiced form of the root /kir/, "cut". So what is the noko?

My first guess was that it was somehow related to /ki/, "tree/wood", which regularly appears as /ko/ in compound words like kogarashi*, as discussed here. There's even a word noki, meaning a tree standing in a field (no), and a homophone (homophonic status in OJ times uncertain) that means "eave". Any of these things, a saw can cut. The only remaining question is which it was originally. Case closed.

But no! A trip to the dictionary reveals that the word was originally nohogiri. Ki, wood, is irrelevant. What, then, is a noho?

Sadly, no-one knows for sure. Many have proposed some relation to the /nob/ in modern words like nobiru ("stretch") and nobasu ("extend [something]"), etc., but this theory is undermined by the fact that /nob/ isn't found as /noh/ anywhere else. To patch this leak, some insert a /ha/ ("edge", "tooth") in between the /nob/ and /kiri/ and implicitly invoke a poorly-understood Blender Principle to get the final word -- but you're asking for an awful lot of sound change at that point, finalized and traceless before writing began.

All this etymological opacity, plus the fact that the referent is non-obvious technology, obviously raises the possibility that the word's origins lie outside of the Yamatosphere altogether. If this were the case, the variant noko might be not an abbreviation but rather a descendent of the original word itself, with nokogiri just meaning "noko (or noho, nopo, etc.) cutter".

In from the western ports they rode, reins clutched in one fist and carpentry tools held high. O fierce ones, I ask you then: What is best in life? To build wooden dwellings, to plane them smooth -- to carpet the land in sawdust and hear the lamentation of the native construction industry. That is what is best!

* Kogarashi: "Tree (/ki/) witherer (/karas/)" → "Cold autumn/winter wind that blows leaves off trees". Also a woman's word for "pestle", maybe via phonemic play on the standard word surikogi, although Ōno Susumu claims (offering no sources) that it's because a pestle is smooth and bald like a post-kogarashi tree. Pfft. (Back)



Yesterday was the day when firefighters all over Japan dress up like firefighters from Edo times and dangle hazardously from ladders in order to remind people that fire is dangerous.

This is called the dezome-shiki (出初め式); "Ceremony of First Appearance", perhaps.

The ladder was an indispensable fire-fighting tool in the Edo Period. This was because the main method back then was to tear down the surrounding buildings to prevent fire from spreading, so there was a need to climb up onto roofs.

(This is also why the builders and the firefighters tended to be the same group of burly hard-drinking men, obviously.)

Shibata Ryūsei's Edo remains (残されたる江戸) on fire and dezome (in sloppy translation):

On the Musashino Terrace, the dry wind (karakkaze) that comes down from Mt Tsukuba blows and blows from the end of autumn right through the third month of winter, not stopping even when the flowers bloom; it isn't rare for it to ruin picnics all through spring.

[...] It was bad enough when the karakkaze made mischief by toying with a passing young lady's skirt or teasing her hair out from her okoso-zukin, but all too often you would hear the jaang! as its red tongues came out to lick the whole area, as if to devour Edo whole. Even the tough guys who called it the "flower of Edo" didn't have time to kid around when disaster struck their own homes -- no, you had to fight it then as if your life depended on it. And so when the karakkaze blew at night people would watch their hearths carefully; in Mukōjima they got protective charms [of Hi-no-Kagu-Tsuchi no Kami] from Akiba Shrine and put them in the kitchen altar next to Kōjin-sama; for as long as Edo had been a going concern, people had been growing more and more determined not to get caught out again, which meant covering all the angles.

"How do you like that, blowing like a bitch again. Let's just hope it doesn't go jang! tonight," they'd say, and on those nights everyone was on edge, jumping at the sound of cooking pots. [...]

The firebell's never a pleasant thing to hear, whatever the occasion; even when they ring it during the firefighters' dezome-shiki at New Year's, and you know that's all it is, it still makes you kind of edgy.


Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold

Uncounted thousands of thirty-one-syllable poems document Japan's age-old love of the new year's arrival on the wings of spring. By early modern times, the new year was encrusted solid with traditions and customs, some with origins lost to prehistory and others based on puns still horrendous today. When the mustachioed, flapper-dressed, top-hatted upper class of the period decided to switch to the western calendar, they relocated the entire cultural construct to January 1st without disturbing it in the slightest. A triumph -- but a bittersweet one.

There is danger, you see, in the Japanese new year. There always has been. Since ancient times its trappings have harbored an amorphous killer which erupts from the shadows in a hail of pine needles to claim its victims -- and there are always victims, every January, without fail. That killer's name? Mochi.

At least four deaths were recorded through Wednesday in Tokyo from eating a traditional Japanese New Year's treat, sticky rice cakes called mochi, a news report said. ... [A]nother 10 people ... were taken to hospital ...

The elderly are usually most at risk, and authorities advise them to eat mochi in small pieces with a lot of liquids.

I have heard reliable reports of a final 2008 nationwide mochi death toll of 5 -- and that's not all:

In another instance of rice cakes proving potentially dangerous, police in Sendai said 2-inch nails were discovered Sunday inside rice cakes sold at a supermarket.

In Tokyo, the Fire Department is responsible for the never-ending battle against this delicious menace. Here is their page on the topic. Read it well. Barring complete societal collapse due to Peak Oil, the chances are good that one day, you too will be seventy. And if you come near Japan in late December, the mochi will be waiting for you.


Snow White is alive and well and dancing a Sevillana in España


This emerged from the closet of a relative over New Year's. Yeah, you can consider this a holiday filler post.