Japanese braille, a.k.a. 点字 ("dot characters"), is a marvel of design. You have to hear this.

The basic Japanese CV moraic unit is covered by reserving the top left of the 6-dot block for vowels (5) and the bottom right for 7 of the consonants (/k/, /s/, /t/, /n/, /h/, /m/, /r/). These signs are invariant, so the "vowel" part is the same in /ka/, /sa/, etc., and the "consonant" part is the same in /ka/, /ki/, etc.:

 *- *- *-
 -* -- *-
 -* -* -*
 sa ka ki

/ya/, /yu/, /yo/, /wa/, and /(w)o/ form an inverse set in which the vowels are at the bottom right and the consonants at top left. (Since modern Japanese has only five vowels, that leaves 2 of the possible 7 top-left dot patterns free after vowels are assigned; these are the two that are used for /y/ and /w/.

/N/ is just the bottom-right consonant pattern for /m/, with the top-left vowel pattern left empty. Clever.

The consonant-geminating small /tu/ and the vowel-lengthening line have their own symbols, as do the dakuten (dots) and handakuten (circle).

The interesting part is that the latter two come before the character, not after (as they do in half-width katakana, for example). Similarly, yōon (where a mora has a /y/ in it, e.g. /kya/ vs /ka/) is also handled by a character before the affected syllable, rather than a special set of "small /ya/" (etc.) characters that come after the /ki/ (etc.)

Why use prefixes for this stuff, rather than just reproducing the standard Japanese writing system? I think I know: it's so that you never have to go back and revise your reading of character n based on what character n+1 happens to be. You never say "ki -- no, wait, there's a dakuten after it, so that's gi... no, hang on, there's a small /ya/, so it's actually gya..."

Looking at a page lets you take in a bunch of information at once, as a gestalt; presumably, running your finger across it is different. No matter how fast you get, the characters still come in one by one in linear order. So it makes sense to design your system so that you can always be 100% sure, at any given time, of all the information you have so far.


U better live now

This is one of the most famous entries in the Kangin shū (閑吟集, "Quiet recital collection"), a late Muromachi (16th C.) collection of "folk poems":

何せうぞ くすんで 一期は夢よ ただ狂へ
Nani shō zo/ kusunde/ ichigo wa yume yo/ tada kurue

Why you gotta act all serious?
Life's a dream -- just go crazy.

This is more or less the theme of the entire collection. It's live-for-the-moment stuff. The poem immediately before this one goes: "I can't even bear to look at serious folks/ with wide-awake faces/ here in this world/ of dreams, of dreams, of dreams!" (くすむ人は見られぬ、夢の/\/\世を現顔して). You get the idea.

This kind of thing was very popular in the Muromachi period, especially towards the end when Japan was engulfed in even more civil wars than usual. One wonders what explanation literary historians will find for the exhortations in modern American music to get retarded, hyphy, etc.

Incidentally, you know why it's called the "Quiet recital collection" rather than the "Cavalcade of boisterous revelry"? Because it was compiled by a self-described "lone śramaṇa (桑門)" by the light of the moon in his "quiet abode" (居) where he talks to the fireflies. It's all about backstory.


Higashikokubaru's Satsuma connection: threat or menace?

Remember when Miyazaki governor HIGASHIKOKUBARU "Sonomanma Higashi" Hideo rode his Miyazaki-dialect catchphrase [Miyazaki o] dogenka sen to ikan ("We have to do something [about Miyazaki]") all the way to electoral victory and it was subsequently voted one of the top 60 Japanese buzzwords of 2006?

He's now come under attack on the grounds that his Miyazaki-ben is not the right kind: in Miyazaki City, the claim goes, folks say donge, not dogen. Rioting in the streets is surely but hours away.

Here's what's really sad, though -- I've been following this story since last year, enjoying threads like these in which correspondents from all over Japan take the opportunity to promote their own dialects. Now it all comes to a head with a semi-official statement from somebody in Higashikokubaru's publicity department:

I live in Miyazaki City too, and you're right, donge is more common. But Miyazaki is a big prefecture and dialect varies by region. Dogen is common in the southern part of the prefecture (where Governor Higashikokubaru is from) and in Kobayashi, near Satsuma in Kagoshima prefecture. Anyway, since dogen is a dialect term used within the prefecture, [dogenka sen to ikan] is in no way "unsuitable as a phrase for representing the prefecture" (県を代表する言葉として不適切).

So, it's like this. Miyazaki prefecture corresponds to the old Hyūga province, and Hyūga province had been divided de facto for almost one thousand years before the Meiji restoration made it a prefecture. Hyūga's northern and central regions have a slightly complicated history, but the Shimazu clan's control over the southwestern part was stable, and it eventually ended up part of the Satsuma Domain, and stayed that way until the restoration.

That is the short explanation of why they sound like Kagoshimans in southern Miyazaki. You could conclude from this either that dogen is just alien Kagoshima-ben that stayed behind to fester in Miyazaki prefecture after the Meiji restoration cut it off from the homeland, or that dogen is proof that modern Miyazaki prefecture boasts colorful diversity and a rich history. Higashikokubaru's office has chosen option (B), and good for them. (European states have gone to war over less.)

Another interesting fact about the northern-Miyazaki dialect (also known as Hyūga-ben): their standard verb form derives from Old Japanese's rentai conjugation. So where standard Japanese says okiru (起きる), they say okuru (起くる); instead of shinu (死ぬ), they say shinuru (死ぬる). In English, this would be like using -eth and -est verb endings. I'm all for it.


Japan enters the typewriter race

My latest post at Néojaponisme is Japan Enters the Typewriter Race, about Yamashita Yoshitarō and his big plans for katakana.

But romanizers and modernizers were not the only ones who wanted to rebuild Japanese in the Imperial years. The Kanamojikai (カナモジカイ, “Kana Character Society”), founded in 1920 and still active, were inspired by the same issues — our children waste too much time learning kanji, our writing system doesn’t fit properly down linotype wires, etc. — but had, in a way, a more radical program than other group worrying about these issues.



So I was reading Kikko's rather amusing Liarville, a political reworking of an old rakugo story, when I came across a word I don't remember encountering before: peten, ペテン.

It's clear in context that it means a fraud or a con game, and there's an associated word petenshi (ペテン師) that means "con man" or "swindler". But where does peten come from and why is it in katakana?

None of my sources dare call it certain, but most cite the same likely source: a Chinese word bengzi also meaning "fraud" (繃子), borrowed into Japanese as pentsu (c.f. mianzi 面子 → mentsu, "face"). This then got flipped to peten -- not impossible; it happened to arataatara[shii], after all.

(As for why 繃子, which my dictionary defines as a hoop for embroidery, should mean "fraud", I do not know. Maybe it's just a homophone using the same hanzi because no-one ever bothered to assign different ones.)

My single rebel source is MAEDA Isamu's Edogo no jiten, which explains petenshi as follows:

In yashi [mountebank, snake-oil salesman] slang, a peten referred to a head, hat or umbrella. Possibly an inversion of tenpe(n) [天辺, older pronunciation of modern teppen meaning "top"]

... which is a much more colorful explanation, except that Maeda doesn't provide any examples of this usage, nor an account of why "head" would come to mean "fraud" anyway. And he also includes the 繃子 explanation, so he can't be that sure. Bah!


The Meiji invention of Standard Japanese

So I linked at Meta no Tame to the interview with FIJA Byron that Mark found (phew), and I have a little more to say here.

First, the videos that okinawaBBtv has put online are really surprisingly good -- given that they're free and all. But click on one and notice the heading of the window that opens: "Uchina-guchi, the dialect in Okinawa". Nope. And remember that Fija specifically criticizes the use of this term (or at least its Japanese equivalent, 方言). It says a lot that even folks promoting his ideas can't quite accept the main one: that the Ryukyuan languages are languages in their own right, not dialects of "standard Japanese" (標準語).

Secondly, and slight change of topic: Did you know that the Meiji period was more than two-thirds over and the 20th century had begun before the government's program of enforcing -- not just encouraging -- a nationwide "standard Japanese" nationwide really began?

Check this out: a 1906 modification to a 1903 law which stated that prefectural administrators had the right to choose "national language" (国語) textbooks only from those "the copyright to which is owned by the Ministry of Education, or which have passed inspection by the Minister of Education" (文部省ニ於テ著作権ヲ有スルモノ及文部大臣ノ検定ヲ経タルモノ). The previous system had left textbook inspection up to prefectural authorities, which had predictably resulted in the huge publisher-committee member bribery scandal known as the "Textbook Graft Incident" (教科書疑獄事件).

The immediate goal of the new national oversight system was to prevent this kind of thing. The fact that it also allowed the Ministry to define precisely what the nation's schools taught as the "national language" (coincidentally very similar to the upper-class Tokyo dialect that Ministry officials spoke!) was almost a side benefit.

The push to eliminate dialects (方言, and here I speak of actual dialects, on the mainland for example) came close behind. In Edogo - Tōkyōgo - Hyōjungo (江戸語・東京語・標準語), MIZUHARA Akito claims that the father of "標準語" as an idea in Japan was one OKAKURA Yoshisaburō, an influential man who said things like this:

When one national language (国語) be split into numerous regional languages (地方語), ideas cannot be shared properly [between regions] and the ability of that nation's people (国民) to unite is insufficient ... Japan's advancement depends on the success of the unification of its national language. For that purpose, we must first adopt some superior method for eliminating the various regional languages.

The national language could not coexist alongside or encompass regional dialects, Okakura argued. It was one or the other. Once this idea was firmly in place, the standard Japanese express was ready to go.


The pre-Modern Kawakami Mieko

Since KAWAKAMI Mieko's being promoted as the "modern HIGUCHI Ichiyō", I thought I might translate at a couple of Higuchi's waka.

mushi naraba/ oto ni arawarete/ mie mo sen/ nururu tamoto wa/ tada hitori no mi

Were I an insect/ this would come out as a cry/ and so be known/ Instead, I dampen my sleeve/ all alone.

Hard to believe that one wasn't done in some Heian anthology, really.

Here's another entitled "Old Woman" (老女).

Sarashina ya/ Ubasute-yama no/ tsuki fukete/ waga yo no aki ha/ miru hito mo nashi

Sarashina--/ over Mt Ubasute/ the moon; the night is deepening/ Nobody is here to see/ the autumn of my life

(If you didn't bother to click the link, "Uba-sute" means "old woman-abandoning". The idea of an uba-sute mountain is widespread across Japan; Sarashina/Nagano happens to have a mountain officially named Ubasute.)


Fantasy Island

[Valentine Island]This year, Enoshima is Valentine Island. (Also good for weddings, as long as all of your guests' right legs are significantly longer than their left ones.)

There is (as I have mentioned before) a long-standing tradition that couples who attract Benten's attention on Enoshima will break up shortly thereafter due to the far-reaching reverberations of Benten's supernatural jealousy. The Enoshima/Enoden tourism cabal must have decided to deal with this by ignoring it entirely. Probably the best idea, especially since -- as this site (warning: possibly NSFW religious iconography) points out -- the rumor was probably started by Edo men who didn't want any wives or girlfriends cramping their style on Party Island. You know the women there only wear six layers of clothing!

(Today, of course, Enoshima is more or less carpeted with semi-feral cats and much beloved of holidaying petit-bourgeoisie, making it the precise opposite of Party Island. Even the gyaru and their consorts who flood the place in summer, fake tans finally making sense in context, do most of their actual partying on the beach and in the love hotels that line the coastal highway.)

That site also mentions something I didn't know: that there's a similar rumor about Tokyo Disneyland's Cinderella castle. Hypothesis: also started by men, but for the opposite reason -- they didn't want to go to Cinderella's castle, with or without their girlfriends.


Great Gthulhu in Pronoun Trouble!

I knew that the Shūkan Bunshun would come up with something good for the "poison-flavored gyoza" story, and they didn't disappoint: 恐怖の餃子, "gyoza of terror". Terror! This certainly explains the middle-aged woman I found babbling and writhing on the linoleum before the supermarket freezer the other day -- not to mention the hideous croaking from underneath the carton of unpasteurized milk in her basket! Oh, God! From what black wells of inconceivable spice or flavoring, from what unplumbed gulfs of extra-culinary consciousness or obscure, long-latent cuisine were those half-articulate thunder-croakings drawn? What madman dared write the preparation instructions on that inhuman package of spaghetti, and in what blasphemous, bubbling tongue?! Oh, wait, that's just Italian.

(Interesting side-effect of the gyoza scare: through-the-roof sales of gyoza-making devices. Pace the fact that the only "device" you really need to make gyoza, given that you have the filling and the pastry prepared, is two opposable digits, the psychology behind this intrigues me. "All this talk of poison gyoza is making me hungry... for gyoza! But not the poisonous kind." Or maybe it's just far-sighted survivalists, equipping their bunkers for the coming Gyozacalpyse?)

So anyway, on an entirely different page in SB I came across this:


... even as the lenses of all the other [magazine-publishing] companies turned towards [sumo-wrestler] Asashōryū, we stayed faithful and continued our pursuit of MIYAZAKI Aoi-chan (22 [years old]).

Ignore the creepy stalkerisms, which are after all not unique to the Bunshun, and focus on the word 小誌, shōshi, bolded above. It literally means "small magazine", and it is a humble way for the magazine to refer to itself, which is why it corresponds to we in my translation.

You've probably heard that in Japanese you refer to the company you work for as 弊社 (heisha, "[my/our] wretched company") but other firms as 御社 (onsha, "[your] honorable company"). This is a similar concept, but for magazines.*

Now, whether you can call words like watashi and anata personal pronouns or not is an oft-discussed issue. It might seem from that thread that the discussion is settled, but, for example, the Kōjien is happy enough to mark such words "代", short for "代名詞", which means "pronoun".

I'm not going to get into the issue itself here. Instead, I'm going to pose this question:

If you are willing to call watashi a pronoun, is it possible to put together a logical position that excludes shōshi -- the "first-magazine singular", if you like -- from that class?

* The "small" (小) is figurative rather than literal; it turns up in similar words like 小生, shōsei ("small life"), which means "me" and is used only by men in certain formal written contexts. (Back)


"The Battered Old Bag", by ISHIKAWA Takuboku

A friend of mine opened a battered old bag
And into dim candle-light spilled on the floor
He pulled out an uneven pile of books.
All had been banned in this country, before.

He found an old photograph, in between pages,
And handed it to me: "Here, this is the one."
He walked to the window and started to whistle.
I looked down and saw her: not pretty, just young.


"Snow", by AKUTAGAWA Ryūnosuke

(We enjoyed our first real snowfall of the season here on Sunday.)

One cloudy winter afternoon I found myself on a Chuō-line train, gazing at the mountain range through the window. Naturally, the mountains were pure white. But rather than what you'd call a snow white, it was more like the color of the mountain's skin. As I looked out at the mountains, the memory of a certain incident came to me...

It had been four or five years ago, on another cloudy winter afternoon. I was in a certain friend's atelier, chatting before the cast-iron stove with my friend and his model. Apart from my friend's own oil paintings, the walls of the atelier were completely bare. The bob-haired model, who was smoking a cigar, had a certain kind of exotic beauty, like someone of partly mixed parentage. For reasons unknown to me, however, she had plucked out every one of her eyelashes.

The conversation eventually turned to the fiercely cold weather we were having. My friend told us about how the soil in a garden feels the seasons. Above all, he told us about how the soil in a garden feels the winter.

"So, you see," he finished, "You might say that the soil is alive, too." He packed his pipe with tobacco, looking back and forth between the bob-haired model's face and my own. I sipped my coffee and made no reply. He seemed to have made an impression of some sort on her, though. She blew a smoke ring and raised her red eyelids to stare through it intently. After it had dissolved, still gazing into the air, she spoke without directing her words at anyone in particular:

"Skin is the same way. Ever since I got into this business, I've had trouble with my skin, too..."

One cloudy winter afternoon I found myself on a Chuō-line train, gazing at the mountain range through the window. Naturally, the mountains were pure white. But rather than what you'd call a snow white, it was more like the color of someone's dry, neglected skin. As I looked out at the mountains, the memory of that model came to me. That exotic-looking Japanese girl who did not have a single eyelash.




Oni in

Setsubun is coming. Do you know what to say as you throw the beans?

"Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi" (oni out, fortune in) is traditional, although there is some disagreement about the execution. But it's not universal. There are plenty of temples and shrines with a more positive attitude towards oni -- such as Senzōji, which is...

... dedicated to Yakujin Kiō [厄神王; 鬼 is the character used for "oni" too], a fever-repelling god of Indian origin who is said to use a mallet and chisel to chip off the causes of disease and avert calamity. When throwing beans on Setsubun in February, it is their peculiar practice to say "fuku wa soto, oni wa uchi" ["fortune out, oni in"], invite bad oni into their darkened main hall, and then release these oni back into the world after converting them to the side of good.

The details of this "conversion" (改心) are not clear. I'm guessing it involves a sock full of quarters.