"Because our nation uses Chinese characters for its nengō [era names], their pronunciation is not always clear, and there are times when even dedicated scholars cannot pronounce them correctly." With this grim précis does Yamada Yoshio 山田孝雄 open his Nengō yomikata kōshō kō 年號讀方考證稿 ("Draft of an investigation into the pronunciation of era names"), a painstaking nengō-by-nengō compilation of pronunciations recorded in historical documents of varying authenticity.

Nengō yomikata an elegant book from a more civilized age. Its very raison d'être is thrown into doubt by the internet: why hire people to amass information on index cards and compile these into reference works for painstaking page-by-page consultation when we can search for what we want and find about 2,000,000 results in 0.12 seconds? (Answer: Because Google doesn't index this sort of information very well yet, and probably never will, since (a) OCRing premodern Japanese handwriting is a bear, wrapped in a tiger, inside a gorilla, and (b) Google can just index books like this instead. Details, details.)

Plus, as Yamada also makes clear in his introduction, the whole exercise of gathering nengō pronunciations is more akin to fieldwork in the natural sciences than puzzle-solving. In the vast majority of cases where doubt exists, there is no single "correct" answer — just trends, tendencies, and historical observations, which are more interesting anyway. Even the scholars charged with thinking up new nengō would observe that "sometimes they get read with the Han pronunciations, and sometimes with the Wu pronunciations," as if it wain't no thang. (The example Yamada quotes was incidental to an argument over whether Tennin 天仁 was a good name for an era, since it was pronounced the same as Tennin 天人, in which Ōe no Masafusa 大江匡房 deemed the association unproblematic in any case because heaven implied longevity; "Even in the lower heavens (下天), a day and a night is fifty human years long." This is the "What's wrong with being sexy?" of nengō debate.)

Anyway, Yamada's sources include some contemporary folk writing in Roman characters, especially Kaempfer and Rodrigues — which is good! Unfortunately for Kaempfer, his work stands out as a sort of proto-Grauniad among the other sources.

The first Nengo was Fakutsij, and begun with the sixth year of the reign of this Emperor [Kōtoku], which was the year of Synmu 1310, of Christ 650.

That's an unusual way to spell Hakuchi 白雉, but Kaempfer was from lands Germanic, and the <f> matches what he would have actually heard, so, okay.

A few paragraphs later, though:

It was not without great trouble and difficultv this Emperor [Temmu] got himself possess'd of the Throne, which was disputed him by his younger Brother Oto Mo No Oosi, who resolv'd to maintain his claim to the crown by force of arms, and at the head of a numerous army. But this unhappy Pretender was entirely defeated in five month's time, when out of despair he ript open his own belly. His body was honourably interr'd in the Temple Okamotto, situate in the Province Jamatto, in the ninth month of his Brother's reign. In memory of this Victory Ten Mu instituted the Nengo Fakwo, which continued fourteen years, till the beginning of the third Nengo Siuwu.

"Fakwo" is presumably Hakuhō 白鳳. Hakuhō is what you call an itsunengō 逸年号. This means that while it's not an "official" nengō recognized by imperial histories, the documents that reference it do place it within that tradition. (I.e., it wasn't declared as a propaganda effort by anti-imperial rebels.)

But what about "Siuwu"? The next nengō is supposed to be Shuchō 朱鳥, which has a completely different second half. Yamada suggests in a note that Kaempfer's reading may come from misreading that 鳥 ("bird", Sino-Japanese pronunciation chō) as 烏 ("crow", Sino-Japanese pronunciation u). Makes sense. (Meanwhile, poor old Rodrigues has "Xiujacu" 朱雀 in this position.)

Kaempfer keeps digging:

Soon after his accession to the Throne he [Emperor Monmu] begun a new Nengo, call'd Gen, which continu'd four years, and was follow'd by the Nengos, Tenpo of three years, and Keewuun of four years, but little us'd.

Okay, time out. I allowed "Fakutsij." I showed tolerance and understanding for "Siuwu." But "Gen" is definitely not a nengō. Kaempfer has apparently gotten confused by the word gannen 元年, meaning "the first year under a new nengō", and written with the character 元 which is more commonly pronounced gen Beyond that, the nengō after Suchō is supposed to be Taihō, not Tenpo. /h/ vs /p/ is a non-issue (indeed, it's exactly the kind of expected variation Yamada's book aims to address), but tai vs ten is way off. Yamada thinks it might come from misreading 大 as 天. Sigh.

Kaempfer: the original Japan blogger.

Popularity factor: 8

language hat:

This is the sort of thing that makes me wish I hadn't dropped Japanese when I was four.

Leonardo Boiko:

Heh, I just enrolled in medieval Portuguese literature specifically to try to leverage my native language & study these Jesuit works (plus the Peregrinaçam). Unfortunately I’m not actually studying ancient Portuguese or Galician-Portuguese just yet, but I believe Xiujacu would be pronounced something like [ʃju.dʒa.ku]— “j” is now [ʒ] but used to be [dʒ], and “x” was (and is) our “sh”. So it’s pretty close to しゅじゃく。

ja.wikipedia says 朱雀 was probably an alternative era-name (逸年号) for 朱鳥? http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%9C%B1%E9%9B%80 If so, Rodrigues’ Xiujacu is 1) evidence for that theory and 2) evidence it was pronounced しゅじゃく and not すじゃく or すざく。

Mr. Hat, is the “Japanese at four” thing a running gag, or an actual piece of your biography?


Languagehat, you would love this book. Your four-year-old self really should have thought things through more carefully.

Leonardo: That sounds great! I only made my way up to "able to read Jesuit romaji" level, but it is a real trip seeing the old pronunciations in contemporary print like that. As for "shujaku", in fact Yamada's only other source for that one (年号読様) also gives "しゆじやく", so I think Rodrigues got it right as far as that goes.

language hat:

"Mr. Hat, is the 'Japanese at four' thing a running gag, or an actual piece of your biography?"

The latter. I was actually born in Japan (my father was in the Foreign Service), and I learned the language from my Japanese ayas (who probably spoke little English); I'm said to have been equally fluent in both languages when I was four. Unfortunately, at that point my father was called back to Washington for several years, and of course I lost Japanese pretty much instantly. It definitely turned on my "learning foreign languages relatively easily" mechanism, though!

L.N. Hammer:

I also wish I had not given up my Japanese studies at four. We spent a year in Sendai, where my father was a visiting professor, and I attended a Japanese kindergarten. Supposedly I also was equally fluent in both Japanese and English, but curiously could not translate between them: talk to me in one language and then switch, I couldn't convey what was being talked about in the first language. I can remember being illiterate in Japanese, and had to have my classmates' hiragana scrawls read to me to understand them. (I also couldn't read in English yet.)

I also wish I had not waited till I was 40 to take up Japanese again.



What made you decide to take it up again in the end? (Hadn't read enough poems about flowers? I understand that. It's never enough.)

L.N. Hammer:

One part that,* one part editing manga articles on Wikipedia and wanting to read references myself, and one part having always wanted to go back to it.

* In half seriousness there: I was writing a lot of tanka in English, and wanted to study how the original wakas worked as forms, and Carter's anthology and Cranston's big bricks, as helpful as they were, barely scratched that surface itch.


Grumbly Stu:

Amélie Nothomb did not give up at 4. I recommend to Nipponists her short Katsu! novel Stupeur et tremblements. You can't go wrong with a book about which an Amazon reviewer writes:

<i>I have given this book a four star rating for its literary quality. Were the rating to reflect how it made me feel - that is, uneasy and indeed repelled - it would be considerably lower.</i>

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