Nenmatsu-nenshi greetings

No posts in a week and a half! And, frankly, no post worth writing home about today, either, and nothing more until January 4th, 2010. But in the meantime, why not read the second part of Ryan Morrison's dramatized literary history of Japan, and/or my article on "Santa Baby" vs "Koibito wa Santa Claus", over at Néojaponisme? Both in preparation, of course, for the having of a happy new year, and, for those who can shake the illusion of time's arrow, the having had of a mele Kalikimaka. G'night, everybody!


Doch an den Fensterscheiben/ Wer malte die Blätter da?

I write these words as the Kantō region writhes beneath the boot of a cruel dictator. This inhuman master is known only as the Winter Shōgun (fuyu shōgun 冬将軍).

Despite the term's distinct ring of medieval helmetry, Wikipedia claims that it's actually a localization of "General Frost," the English name for the anthropomorphized Russian winter that famously finished off Napoleon's Grande Armée in 1812 ("... but, to make the picture complete, we should add the name of General Typhus and General Napoleon"). John Ashton's English Caricature and Satire on Napoleon the First (found via Google Books) records use of the term as early as December of the same year:

'General Frost shaveing Little Boney' (December 1, 1812) is very grim in its humour. Bonaparte begs, but in vain, for pity: 'Pray Brother General, have Mercy. Don't overwhelm me with your hoary element. You have so nipped me, that my very teeth chatter. O dear—I am quite chop fallen.' But the unrelenting and unpitying Frost replies, 'Invade my Country, indeed! I'll shave, freeze, and bury you in snow, you little Monkey.'

Wikipedia's etymologies are often not to be trusted, but this one seems at least as plausible as any other explanation. I couldn't find any examples of the word appearing in Edo senryū, for example, as you would expect it to had it been around then. An origin as a borrowing from English would also explain otherwise peculiar furigana pronunciation instructions, like this one in KOJIMA Usui 小島烏水's Setchū Fuji tozan ki ("Record of Climbing Mount Fuji in the Snow", 雪中富士登山記), published in early 1911 (Meiji 44) in Chūgaku sekai, a magazine for middle school students (the one that had given TAKEHISA Yumeji 竹久夢二 his big break a few years earlier, as it happens):


The huts above [the Hōei crater] have their doors shut tightly and great chunks of igneous rock piled on their roofs to prevent them from being blown away by the fierce winds, in preparation for the coming of the dread "General Winter" (Zeneraru Uintaa)...

The shift from "Frost" to "Winter" is something neither I nor any of the books in the relatively warm parts of my apartment can explain.


Kekkyoku hitori

Chochotakamuneek is a YouTube account up to which its multitalented proprietor "Chocho" is loading self-translated Japanese-language covers of English pop songs and jazz standards. His versions of "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Alone Again, Naturally" are totally boss.

On the evolution of Chocho's style: If you look at a video from earlier in the year — say, "Thriller" — and compare it to a more recent effort like "Hotel California," the first obvious difference is that Chocho's translations are getting sleeker. Compare:

You try to scream/ But terror takes the sound before you make it

Omoikiri sakebu/ Dakedo oto wa sude ni yatsu ni nusumareteru

... where each line is crammed absolutely full and still at least four or five mora too long, with:

There she stood in the doorway/ I heard the mission bell/ And I was thinking to myself,/ "This could be Heaven or this could be Hell"

Kanojo ga tatsu doorway/ Hibiku mission bell/ Kono yukitsuku saki wa/ Tengoku, iya, jigoku na no ka

The lines in the latter still tend to end in what we might gesture terminologically at with a phrase like "feminine moraic rhythm," a sort of trailing-off that contrasts with the tendency in English to end the line hard — but the technique is more impressionistic and the overall effect less cramped.

Chocho's translations are often slightly skewed meaningwise (for example, in "Alone Again," Chocho either didn't notice or chose to ignore the subtle transition from planning to jump off a tower in the present to remembering being stood up at the altar in the past), but he applies a lot of creativity to metrical issues. Another example from "Thriller," which even rhymes:

You're fighting for your life inside a — killer — thriller — tonight!

Inochi o kakete tatakau yori — hoka nai — abunai — tunaito!

Or this assault on the Gordian knot of Germanic simplicity:

She loves you/ Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Kanojo wa/ Omae ga suki!

I also like the way he translates "dance floor" in to "dance floor of sin" (tsumi no dance floor) "Careless Whisper." This is a technique long—



Drink a cat

Here's an entry from MAEDA Isamu 前田勇's Edo dictionary that belongs to the ages:


Drink a cat. Meaning unknown. 1781, Yanagi-daru XVI: "Sudden well-cleaning/ The whole tenement/ Drinks cat."

"Meaning unknown." Gee, thanks a lot, Maeda. (Also, couldn't the cited usage example be interpreted as a story told in reverse about a well into which a cat fell, necessitating an immediate and thorough cleaning?)

Other great cat-related idioms (though not from Maeda's book):

  • "Cat" (neko) = "Geisha." Because geisha play shamisen, and the resonatey part of a shamisen is made by stretching catskin over a wooden frame.
  • "Cat poop" (nekobaba) = "Hidden [and usually ill-gotten] assets." Probably originally referred to literally burying stolen money and goods to keep them safe and hidden, but nowadays refers more often to white-collar theft: embezzling, tax avoidance, etc.

Note that Everything2's claim that baba actually means "old woman" here is unnecessary madness. Baba is baby talk for feces, cats bury feces, apply Occam's razor to taste.


You should buy my translation of Botchan for Kindle

As the title suggests, while I don't mean to intrude, I really think that you should buy the updated, improved edition of my translation of Natsume Sōseki's Botchan in e-book form. The Kindle version is out now, and others should follow soon. And there's a sample chapter up at the revamped Botchan page and everything.

In preparing this edition, I walked the line between sanding down the rougher, oh-yeah-I-did-this-in-a-hurry edges and retaining the profane, rollicking atmosphere which is the whole point of my translation in the first place. But don't worry: when in doubt, I came down on the side of profanity and slapstick.

Within this book — nay, this translation of this book — lies the entire story of imported teachers in Japan: a century of culture clashes condensed into eleven unsentimental, dry, and hilarious chapters. If you have a Kindle, you know what to do. Thanks!