The emphatic quotation mark in Japan

Language Log reminded me to post this great example of "Quotation Mark" abuse in Japanese:


"Kasa no" o-machigai ni go-chūi kudasai, which means Please be careful of "umbrella" mistakes, i.e. Do not accidentally take an "umbrella" which is not yours. (Aside: If you were going to quotation-mark a word in that sentence, wouldn't it be "accidentally"?)

Note that the quotation marks enclose not just kasa (umbrella) but kasa no (of the umbrella). This is called a bunsetsu (文節) or phrase*; kasa on its own is just a tango (単語), "[single] word". Treating the bunsetsu rather than the tango as the atomic unit is common in literary contexts and was even more common in earlier times. (Many ad hoc prewar romanizations have spaces between bunsetsu rather than tango, for example.)

In other words, this is one strange, poetic sign. I approve.

* Though I would translate 文節 "word knuckle" if I thought I could get away with it.

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Don't get me started on these quotation marks. There seem to be no real rules on how they are used - they can be used to make a phrase into a sort of noun/jukugo, they can be used just to delineate what would be considered a proper noun in English, or they can just be used willy-nilly to emphasize.

And then when you have to *translate* writing that overuses quotation marks, what do you do? In English, putting "quotation marks" over "words" or "phrases" has altogether different implications. Sometimes merely capitalizing or italicizing the words can be enough, but more often than not the quotes are placed around "completely innocuous statements that do not need quotation marks in English." It's enough to drive you crazy.


There's something I've been wondering: does Japanese use quotation marks to imply sarcasm as english does?

for example:
Oh I just love american "freedom"


Adamu: "And then when you have to *translate* writing that overuses quotation marks, what do you do?"

You're supposed to translate meaning, not punctuation. 「These things」 aren't always "quotations marks," strictly speaking; if they're used otherwise, such as to set off a proper noun, I capitalize the proper noun in English and ignore the marks.

Paul D.:

One thing I've learned from getting my feet wet in translation is that you can't rely on Japanese pronunciation to function like its English counterparts. They're constantly using parentheses as well in places English never would (should).

I'm not sure why you would be surprised at the inclusion of の inside the quotation marks. A case particle is always considered a single unit with the noun, is it not? This is evidenced in vocal pitch as well as other things.


OK, you got me. The ol' kagikakko don't correspond exactly to English quotation marks, and the usage patterns are still changing (e.g. they get used for emphasis in places where kenten [圏点] would have been in the good old days, because entering kenten via computer is difficult-to-impossible for most folks).

But I maintain that this example does correspond to English quotation mark abuse fairly closely.

R: Yes, they can be used that way. I've seen it. (I would consider this a subset of using them to indicated quoted speech, in English as well as Japanese: '..."freedom", as some call it...')

Paul: There are contexts in which it makes more sense to focus on bunsetsu, and pronunciation is indeed one of them. But I think 『傘の』おまちがい is noticably weirder than 『傘』のおまちがい.

"『舞姫を』読む" vs "『舞姫』を読む",
"「健康センターに」行く" vs "「健康センター」に行く", etc...


Hey, that reminds me of a question I've been meaning to ask you. Have you ever seen kenten inside kanji? I was waiting to find an example to show you, but I haven't been able to find one.
A few years back, I saw a sutra scroll in the Tokyo National Museum, a particularly fine example of calligraphy. The writing was black ink on pale blue paper, some of the kanji had pale white dots over them. The dots were not in the same places over each character, nor did they seem to mark internal glyphs. They seemed to be in different quadrants of each kanji. Since the sutras were used in esoteric Shinto, and the marks seemed nonrandom and purposeful, I suspected they were used as some sort of ritual or meditational markers. But I am only guessing.
I'm looking around for an example but I haven't found one yet. Would you have any guesses on these marks? I have never seen anything like it.


I don't think I've ever seen anything like it either, but I think your guess is probably right. (They might also be something more mundane like pronunciation hints.) I'd be interested in seeing them if you ever do notice any online.

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