Jinx, you owe me a head

Low-level situational speech taboos are still relatively active in Japan. For example, you aren't supposed to say "cut" (kiru) at a wedding — even ceremonial cake-cutting is referred to as "inserting the blade" (入刀) — and it's bad manners to say "fall" (ochiru) or "slip" (suberu) (i.e. "fail") to someone about to take an important exam. The number of people who don't really care about this stuff is growing, but they're still common wisdom, useful for driving comic book plots and the like.

According to Magic and astrology in the Sengoku period (呪術と占星の戦国史) by Owada Toshio 小和田哲男, similar taboos were in place back then too. Obviously, words like "death," "lose," and "defeat" were right out, as were homonyms like "four" (shi, same as "death"; actually, shi is still avoided today — my building has an apartment 103 and 105, but no 104). If you absolutely had to write the number 4, you might do it by writing two 2s together, either side-by-side (like ニニ) or squished closer and angled together, like × with the center missing.

Another forbidden word was hiku, as in "pull back," "retreat." Even gestures implying this word were frowned upon. For example, here's a passage Owada quotes from an Imagawa clan etiquette manual (the 今川大双紙, compiled by Imagawa Ryōshun 今川了俊):


When departing for battle, the ladler shall kneel on his left knee to serve the sake. Though he may adjust his knees, he shall not pull back his feet.

Normally, after serving the sake, you would knee-crawl backwards out of respect. This was not permitted. You had to knee-turn and face forward as you left.

"North" was yet another pre-battle taboo, because the kanji, 北, also means "flee" or "turn one's back." (The character was originally drawn as two people with their backs turned to each other, it seems. Note also that this is why the character for "back" [the body part] is 背: it's 北 + the "meat moon" body-part radical.) Not to mention the fact that corpses were placed with their heads facing north, and this was known as kitamakura (north-pillow), an undesirable way for the living to sleep. All in all, a bad bundle of imagery for superstitious soldiers, and so you were not to leave your armor facing north, face north while putting it on, or dismount a horse from the northern side. It is for this reason that the armies of Japan were never able to mount a successful campaign against Santa Claus.

However, north was good for one thing: disposing of enemy heads, once they had been displayed to the satisfaction of your superiors. You wanted them to flee, after all, not stick around haunting you.

(The post-battle display of trophy heads, by the way, was known as the kubi jikken 首実検. Meanwhile, in modern Japanese, jikken means "[scientific] experiment." The shared etymology is in the characters: "truth[fulness] inspection," and it's obvious when you think about it — did you really kill that general? do the rats really grow extra tails? — but it still gives me a little "Re-animator" thrill sometimes when I see it in print.)

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This post makes me want to write a haiku about the meat-moon.

What season is a big pizza pie hitting your eye?

Leonardo Boiko:

There are lots of little faux-passes in the tea ceremony that are not really taboos, but use colourful stories to describe the incorrect way of doing something, so that you have a strong impression of how not to do it. Such stories of course are not codified in tea manuals or anything, but thanks to oral retelling are shared by lots of teachers. For example, to carry a water jar (mizusashi) too low, with your arms too stretched, is often said to make you look like you’re carrying an enemy shogun’s head to present it. To allow your kimono fall back, showing the back of your neck, is to make yourself look like geisha.

My favourite of these taboo explanations is about not stepping in the tatami borders. I would think this is for the very mundane reason of not ruining the sewing (…which happens way too often), but my late teacher had a much more interesting explanation: she used to say that in old times the empty space below the tatamis might have NINJAS lurking in it, who could assassinate you by stabbing your
foot palm. So get these feet away from the tatami borders, where they’re visible and vulnerable.

This absurd story fits well with something Karl Friday wrote about the Kashima-Shinryū style of martial arts, whose students were taught not to sit in seiza to avoid exposing the palm of the left foot. According to old lore, that palm is called “spring of life” and being stabbed there would make you bleed to death.

There are more stories but memory is failing me. Someday I’ll make a compilation and post it in my blog, when I have a blog.

Carl: I would say autumn. Autumn has meigetsu “the famous moon” (aka “harvest moon” in English), a season-word about the big bright round full moon. It also has yashoku “night meal”, i.e. a pause to eat during night-work (yonabe), which is exactly what I use pizzas for.

Leonardo Boiko:

An amendment:

> but thanks to oral retelling are shared by lots of teachers

…so I hear. Limited experience, anecdotal evidence &c.


I was just speculating in a recent blogpost about how hoku fit into haiboku (敗北), a word I heard used to describe the Japanese experience in Manchuria in 1945.

The connections you mention between hoku and se make sense. (Apparently the same term can be found in classical Chinese texts, although not in the contemporary vernacular Chinese.)



Love of the canines:
Shining on the spaghetti
Light from the grand moon.


Leo: Great stories! I will be sure to tell my children the one about tatami and ninjas.

Carl: I am proud to have inspired this creation.

Joel: Ooh, nice one. I missed that post completely.


This is a crazy interesting post. I tip my hat to you sir!

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