Mele Kalikimaka

Keep it real over the holidays. See you in the new year.


2008 No-Sword Kanji of the Year

The Tensor has explained it all again; it must be time for me to choose the No-sword Kanji of the Year (2007, 2005.)

The quasi-official kanji of the year is 変, "change". Tobias Harris's excellent review of the year in Japanese politics notwithstanding, Obama and his "CHANGE" drove this result.

But I believe that 変 is a mistranslation of this concept. What Obama promised, and what people in both the US and Japan want, is not 変, but...


What is the difference? Well, 変 just means "change"; it can be change for the better, but it can also be change for the worse, and the other common meaning "weird" derives from the latter concept.

But 改 implies revision, improvement, progress. Its Japanese reading is aratamu, later to split into aratameru and aratamaru — all deriving from arata, "new" (which also appears in rearranged form in atarashii).

You know who else urged his disciples not to be bound by the past and to aim at constant self-improvement? That's right: Confucius.

The master said: "To have faults and not 改 them, this I call a fault."

People are tired of 変. They want 改.

(But not quite 革.)


Winter nights with Ōkuma Kotomichi

Here's a poem by ŌKUMA Kotomichi (大隈言道), late Edo master of the waka form:

tada hitotsu/ nokoru tomoshibi/ hi nagara mo/ fuyu no yo fukete/ kage zo samukeki

Only one remaining lamp/ Flame though it be, in deepening winter night/ Its very light seems cold

(ŌNO Susumu says that samukeshi is an erroneous backformation from samukeku, the -ku form of samushi [cold], but it does seem to have been used with a separate meaning: to seem cold rather than to be cold.)

Here Ōkuma is riffing off a Heian waka by Fujiwara no Takasuke (藤原隆祐):

shimo kohoru/ yamakaze araki/ kumoma yori/ more-iduru tsuki no/ kage zo samukeki

Rough frost-freezing mountain wind/ In clouds through gaps in which the moon spills bright/ Its very light seems cold

Takasuke's poem is a grand and eerie drama that sweeps across the sky; Ōkuma's is a more serene route through the chill of the night, almost cozy but for that final refutation and echo of a lost age.

Not that Ōkuma was above drama:

nani to ka ya/ tsuki ni ha arade/ osoroshiki/ mono mo iduru beki/ fuyu no yo no kumo

Something, not the moon, some terrible thing/ Seems ready to come out/ Of the clouds this winter night

Special Ōkuma bonus: trash talk.

I have this word I like to use: "puppet poems" (木偶歌). It means poems that have no soul, that are of the past in form and meaning. Writing poems like this, even if you write ten million of them, is like trying to draw water with a basket. There aren't many poems being written by people today that don't drain out of the basket. The more I look at this bumpkin poetry, the more people I see living out their lives as puppets. The ancients are our teachers, not our selves. We are Tenpō folk, not the ancients. If all you do is revere the ancients, you're going to forget who you are.

(His actual phrasing in that last line is "吾身何八、何兵衛なる事を忘る"—"You're going to forget that you're Whatever-hachi or Whatsit-bei"—late Edo equivalents of "Joe Blow", I guess.)


Hi fu mu hachigaeshi

Daniel, leading up to a kanji lesson which sprouts a beer review:

無 negates anything it precedes, as do 非 and 不. I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember the difference between the three; whatever – just keep that in mind whenever you see one of those three, okay?

Not okay! Let's talk about it!

Admitting cheerfully in advance that no rule could possibly apply neatly to the entire multi-millenial history of these characters, I would put it this way:

  1. 無 = absence (of a quality or thing)
  2. 不 = failure (to achieve an implied goal)
  3. 非 = non-identity (often negative)

is found in negative words like 無知 ("no-wisdom") and 無礼 ("no-manners"), positive words like 無事 ("no-thing, no-incident" = safe) and 無垢 ("no-dirt" = pure), and neutral words like 無機 ("no-life" = inorganic) and 無糖 ("no-sugar").

is found mostly in negative words like 不利 ("no-benefit" = disadvantage), 不治 ("no-cure" = incurable). It's also associated with -zu, the classical auxiliary verb of negation; 不 modifying a verb in kanbun invariably ends up -zu or some conjugation of same.

Which is an important point, actually: generally speaking, 無 modifies nouns and 不 verbs, although owing to the way classical Chinese worked the distinction isn't always as clear-cut as it could be. In fact, some concepts appear both ways: 不二 and 無二 both mean "no-second" (i.e. peerless). Note also that the opposite of 無 is 有, meaning "presence (of a quality or thing)", but 不 doesn't really have an opposite because it is not an absolute... although there are apparent exceptions, of course, like 不利 ⇔ 有利.

appears in words like 非常 ("not-normal" = emergency, unusual), 非公開 ("not-publicly-open" = private). That is to say, if Y = 不X means only that Y is or does not X, Y = 非X means that Y is the opposite of X, and usually in a bad way: 常識 means "common sense", but 非常識 means "against common sense" rather than "uncommon sense" or even "lacking common sense". And just as 不 is associated with -zu, 非 is associated with ara.zu, the negative form of aru, "to be". (Which, yes, uses the same -zu.)

One great Sino-Japanese word that uses 非 is "人非人", ninpinin. This kanji palindrome means something like "(a) human inhuman", i.e. a brute in the form of a man, a person who does things no person should countenance. Here's an example from Fukuzawa:


Heaven and earth are wide; in this world in which some parents would sell their own daughter out of avarice, there are no doubt also those who would use their authority (威光) as parents to force their daughters into marriage. Like the idiot samurai of old who cut down commoners on the roadside for fun, such people will be rejected by the world as heartless 人非人; and so excepting these extreme cases, generally speaking the reality of the marriage law imposes no great unfairness on women.

This is the conclusion of a paragraph in which he posits that although parents may propose marriage partners to their children, they are unable to force the issue, and therefore any Westerners who opine that (Meiji) Japanese-style marriage is decided by parents alone are ignorant and ignorable: "父母は唯発案者にして決議者に非ず、之を本人に告げて可否を問い、仮初にも不同心とあらば決して強うるを得ず。直に前議を廃して第二者を探索するの例なれば、外国人などが日本流の婚姻を見て父母の意に成ると言うは、実際を知らざる者の言にして取るに足らず".)


I want reliable people, people that aren't gonna get carried away

So the big culture news is that 3 square millimeters of a wall painting inside the probably-Asuka-period Takamatsuzaka kofun (高松塚古墳) has been irreparably damaged.

According to the agency [of Cultural Affairs], the pigment of the mural, titled, "Toheki Joshi Gunzo," [東壁女子群像] — better known as "Asuka Bijin" [飛鳥美人] (Asuka beauties) — was damaged apparently by a machine during an analysis on the mural's pigment on Nov. 25. The damaged part measured about 3 millimeters in length and 1 millimeter in width.

"I believe in Japan. Japan has made my fortune. And I preserved this mural in the Japanese way. I gave archaeologists freedom to examine her, but—I told them never to dishonor her. They analysed her pigment, stayed up late. I didn't protest. Two weeks later, they used a machine, scraped her like an animal. Her paint was damaged, one millimeter by three. She couldn't weep, because, well, she is a painting. But I wept. She was the light of my life—an Asuka beauty. Now she will never be beautiful again.

"I—I went to my supervisor, like a good bureaucrat. The archaeologists were given a stern warning. A warning! That's when I said to my colleague, 'For justice, we must go to Don Buracocco.'"

"Yoshiya, Yoshiya... What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? Why didn't you come to me first? No, I understand. You found paradise in Nara prefecture, had a good trade, made a good living. The agency protected you, and there was paperwork. You didn't need a friend like me.

"But now you come to me and say, 'Don Buracocco, give me justice.' You don't ask with respect. You don't even think to call me Sempai..."

In other news, open (Japanese) book thread at Néojaponisme!

Updated! Thanks, Oidon. I have however left the Mainichi to stew in their suboptimal orthography.


Endō Minoru R.I.P.

ENDŌ Minoru (遠藤実) was an incredibly prolific postwar songwriter who passed away on Saturday in a Tokyo hospital at the age of 76. Let us enjoy two of my favorite E.M. songs via Youtube.

"Tsuite kuru kai" ("Will you come with me?"), sold by Kobayashi Akira and his pompadour. A narrator with nothing to his name but a shady past! An implicit lover with an unspecified health problem! The [+Masc +Showa] interrogative particle kai! Tis song has everything.

"Sensei", MORI Masako (森昌子)'s breakout hit from 1972 (although this performance is from a few years later, because I love her outfit in this video). My soft spot for "Tsuite kuru kai" is partly ironic, I will admit, but what I feel for "Sensei" is pure. The intro riff is both innocent and ominous—in the original, it's call-response between frothy upper-register orchestration and a killer guitar sound—and then in comes the Reed of Pathos... the head of steam built up by this point is more than enough to get me past the ridiculous hand gestures over the chorus—in any case, they, like the lyrics, speak the melancholy of a lost age.

Speaking of melancholy and things being lost, over at Néojaponisme I have apparently written an article so perfect in scope and argument that it defies comment entirely. That or it is so dull no-one makes it to the end. (No, no, this thing is impossible.)


You, me, and them

A few things:

The new issue of L and YOU is out. No torrid tower-flower missives this time, but the back cover does contain the intriguing claim that "恋を包むと愛になる", which is to say, "when you wrap up eros, it turns into agape", if you will grant me the oversimplification Koi:Ai::Eros:Agape. Luminous romance is simple desire, artfully disguised: the otaku love theorists hold similar views.

Neojaponisme will be publishing "year in review" pieces all through December. The first two are already up: David's "Ebi-chan graduates" and my own "Panasonic Panworld".

Koichi from Tofugu asked me to mention that eduFire are giving away free Japanese lessons right now. Never heard of eduFire before, but their webcam-based methods seem interesting and, well, free is free. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's given them a shot.


The road to Ti-po-lieh-li

Another acquisition, from the north edge of Victoria: Chinese in Echuca-Moama: A Chronicle 1850's to 1930 [sic] by one Carol Holsworth for the Echuca Historical Society. My copy is signed!

I'm up to 1882; my eyes keep glazing over at the lengthy reports on tariffs and market gardens, but I remain awake thanks to the ongoing adventures of Isabella Ah Kew, an alcoholic white woman who keeps getting arrested and sent to "gaol" for drunkenly abusing a series of Chinese husbands.

Holsworth also includes a copy of an April 1915 article in the Riverine Herald entitled "'Tipperary' in Chinese: 'It's a long, long way to Ti-Po-Lieh-Li'". The lyrics in hanzi (courtesy of "Mr. Ack Goon") and backtranslation are as follows:


This road is far from Ti-po-lieh-li [地波列里],
 We must walk for many days.
This road is far from Ti-po-lieh-li,
 I want to see my lovely girl.
To meet again Pi-ko-ti-li [必各地里],
To see again Lei-ssu Kwei-rh [壘司規兒].
This road is far from Ti-po-lieh-li,
But my heart is already in that place.

(I must confess that I am not confident about 個 there but I'm not sure what else the character as written could be. 回? 伺? The actual character is written like 何 with an extra line below the central square.)

Seems that this translation was doing the rounds in 1915. Even the NY Times has a (poorly) romanized version:

Shigh ko yuan lu tao Ti-po-lieh-li,
 Pi yao ti jih hsing tsou.
Shih ko yuan lu tao Ti-po-lieh-li,
 Yao chien we ngai tzu nu,
Tsai hui Pi-ko-ti-li,
Tsai chien Lei-ssu Kwei-rh,
Shih ko yuan lu tao Ti-po-lieh-li,
Tan wo hsin tsai na-rh.