So I was reading Murakami Haruki's first novel Kaze no uta o kike (風の歌を聴け, "Hear the wind sing") this week, and I noticed something of linguistic interest:

"It's part of my upbringing. The word is children are supposed to polish their fathers' shoes."
"Why's that?"
"Beats me. Shoes must be symbolic of something. ..."
"Nice tradition."
"Think so?"
"Sure. I think it's right you should show your gratitude to your father."
(Translation: Alfred Birnbaum)

The highlighted words there, beshi and beki are actually fossilized variations on the same original morpheme, most often rendered /besi/ (although /ubesi/ might make more sense; I think I read that argument in Vovin). Back in the day, this was a derivational suffix (or "auxiliary verb" 助動詞 in the traditional classification) that, roughly speaking, added the meaning "must" or "should" or "will (surely)" to verbs:

/nomu/ → drink
/nomu besi/ → must drink/should drink/etc.

So that final /-si/ is just the standard conclusive ending for adjectives, and we should expect /besi/ to have become /bei/ in contemporary Japanese. As a matter of fact we do see that in the eastern dialects: that's what all those variants of /be/ (as in iku be, "Let's go"). But this isn't done in Standard Japanese, and instead it's fossilized into three separate forms, which derive from the old conjugations of /besi/ but aren't really perceived as such any more.

First, there's bekarazu. This is a negative form, and is used exclusively in prohibitions: hairu bekarazu, "no entry."

Second, there's beki. This is the premodern attributive form of /besi/, so originally it was used for modifying nouns (yomu beki hon, "must-read book") and not predicatively. But this distinction was lost throughout the language in the middle of the second millennium, and so /beki/_ both retained its original attributive use and became used conclusively, while the original conclusive form /besi/ vanished.

That can't be the whole story, though: if besi evolved just like other adjectives, we would expect it to have gone all the way and become /bei/ as noted above, same way that akaki ("red") became akai. Instead, beki appears to have turned into something rather irregular, sort of like onaji: can precede nouns as-is, but requires a copula at the end of the sentence.

For example, the woman in the dialogue above says beki yo, but that's because she's a woman; the standard way to say it would be beki da (yo). By comparison, you would also say onaji da, but you would never say akai da. (That's why some people object to using akai desu [for example] as a polite form for adjectives, but that's another story.)

Meanwhile, although forms like yomu beki no hon are still generally considered "incorrect," they're far from rare. It's possible that beki hasn't finished evolving yet, and will end up acting as a regular "no adjective."

The final fossilized form is beshi. That's the first one in the passage quoted above, and it is explicitly archaic. (It represents the survival of the dedicated conclusive form that vanished from living Japanese centuries ago, as noted above.) In the sentence in the passage above in which it appears, "'Kodomo wa subekaraku chichioya no kutsu o migaku beshi'tte sa", the speaker is using beshi in the sentence as one way of indicating that the "family tradition" of children polishing their father's shoes is old and formal. The language is not contemporary spoken Japanese, but rather premodern written Japanese, evoking weightiness and solemnity in a similar way to the language of the King James Bible when thrown into contemporary English. ("Thou shalt not...")

In theory language of this sort could include all the old conjugations of /besi/, but what distinguishes beshi is that it is simple enough to remember and use (mostly) appropriately as a non-inflecting unit. (Again, sort of like "Thou shalt not...")

I should probably also note that there are people who use beshi at the end of their sentences without meaning to be pompous — basically as a "conclusive" inflection of beki. But this usage is more mimicry or even pastiche than actual revival of the classical inflection system, as evidenced by the fact that you will often see it expanded to beshi da — such speakers know that the conclusive form goes at the end of the sentence, but they still treat it as a noun as noted above.

So, what was once a mostly unremarkable derivational suffix/auxiliary verb has broken down into a handful of non-inflecting descendants. In my opinion, this is probably due to a general tendency to reanalyze the morphologically unusual* /yom.ubeki/ (a la Vovin) as /yomu beki/, followed by confusion over what this newly isolated /beki/ actually is, and how to use it.

* IIRC, Vovin also believes that what is traditionally analyzed as the sentence-ending particle mo was also originally a suffix /umo/ which got reanalyzed along the same lines.



Today, a poem from the Wakan rōei shū, in the "Mountain temples" (山寺) section:

konomoto wo/ sumika to sureba/ onodukara/ hana miru hito to/ narinikeru kana
Having made my home beneath the trees, I find myself become a blossom viewer

Written by the retired Emperor Kazan/Hanayama, after his ordainment as a monk. According to a note in the Shika waka shū, he wrote this while resting under a flowering tree (cherry blossoms, of course) during his religious austerities.


Medoruma Shun

Just posted at Néojaponisme: "On Medoruma Shun", by Daryl Maude.

Always wearing a pair of sunglasses, refusing TV interviews, and insisting that the media use only his pen name, Medoruma cuts an odd figure. He plays the recluse but is also an angry writer, powerful and loquacious. His work is at times beautiful, and at others horrifying, often in quick succession...

Also: Great Buddha of Kamakura 1914.



So there's a famous bilingual notice at Kōtoku-in, home of the Great Buddha of Kamakura, which reads:


Stranger whosoever thou art and what soever be thy creed, when thou enterest this sanctuary remember thou treadest upon ground hallowed by the worship of ages.

This is the Temple of BHUDDA and the gate of the Eternal, and should therefore be entered with reverence.


當山ハ數百年來ノ勤行絶ザル 聖靈ノ佛疆ナリ茲ニ詣ントスル善男善女ハ何人ヲ問ス何ノ宗教ヲ奉スルニ論ナク須ク下示ノ意ヲ道守スベシ


I haven't been able to find a reliable source on when this sign was posted, but it can't have been later than 1895 because that's the year that Natalie B. Grinnell published A Japanese Journey, which quotes the English half of the notice in full. She also offers an explanation for its existence:

Having gazed at Great Buddha until his silent majesty was indelibly impressed upon our minds, and having photographed him from every point, we followed a white clad priest through a low door in the side of the pedestal, and looked up through clouds of incense to the top of the figure. At the height of the shoulders was a wooden platform crowded with gilded copies of the great original, and in front of us was an altar on which a light has been burning, and incense smoking, night and day for many, many years. And all around, on the green undersurface of the bronze, as high as hands could reach, were scrawled in chalk, or scratched with a knife, the names of many individuals whom the fool-killer has not yet had time to remove from the face of the earth! So badly had many of these iconoclasts behaved, that at the entrance to one temple in Kamakura a board was nailed, on which was printed the following dignified and much-needed reproof...

The slight mismatch between the English and Japanese halves of the sign is interesting, too. The Japanese starts by explaining the hallowedness of the ground, and then, with an implied "therefore," explicitly directs all visitors, whosoever they be and whatsoever their creed, to take the final line to heart. The English, however, starts with that attention-grabbing "Stranger," which has no equivalent at all in the Japanese. It makes me wonder where it did come from; it reminds me of the Epitaph of Simonides; perhaps the prior had some help from a Classically educated English gentleman in translating his sign.

Other linguistic points of interest.

  • Misspelling of "Buddha". Well, that's what you get when you filter it through not one, not two, but three languages that don't distinguish aspiration the necessary way. (Or did ancient Chinese distinguish it?)
  • Translation of 如来, usually a Japanese calque for Tathāgata, as "the Eternal."



Today, another haiku from Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介:

haitō rei/ idete hodo naki/ ki-katabira
The Sword Control Law still new/ yellow summer kimono

The haitō rei, literally "Order abolishing swords," was one of the edicts issued during the Meiji government's samurai-taming program of the 1870s. It came after the anti-top-knot law, the hereditary stipend-abolishing law, and the everyone-has-to-serve-in-the-army law, adding up to a calculated multi-stage attack on samurai privilege and power.

The full title of the edict was 大禮服竝ニ軍人警察官吏等制服著用ノ外帶刀禁止, or "Forbidding of the Wearing of Swords Outside of Court Dress and the Uniforms of Soldiers, Police Officers, Government Officials, Etc.", and you can read the whole thing at WikiSource. "Those in defiance shall have their swords taken away."

This was a controversial move, even within the Meiji government itself, and it's no coincidence that ex-samurai rebellions came to a head in the late 1870s too. "Sword Control" seemed to me a not impermissible recreation of the concept in terms of modern concerns about privately owned weaponry, although one might object on the grounds of whimsy.

As for what this haiku means, well... I read it as a simple heavy-and-light juxtaposition. Swords have been banned (using formal, Sinified language) and the ex-samurai are restless — but an author like Akutagawa is lazing around in the same simple, cheerful summer clothing as usual. But who knows what I'm missing.


La città dolente

Here is a tanka by philosopher Nishida Kitarō 西田幾多郎, entered in his diary towards the end of 1940 (according to Ueda Kaoru 上田薫's Nishida Kitarō kashū 西田幾多郎歌集, 2009):


furusato no/ ogawa ni asobu/ warabera no/ inakakotoba mo/ natsukashimi kiku

In my home town/ the children play in the stream/ and speak in local tones/ to which I listen fondly

And here he is expanding at length on the same topic in his introduction to Ogawa Suimei 小川水明's Ogawa Suimei kashū 小川水明歌集 (1918):

That people must not forget their roots is not a chill obligation, but rather a truth of human nature. My home town is not a pleasant place; it offers no scenery worth the visit; it is not lively or bright. The fields and mountains are trapped deep in the snow; the storm's wild roar is the only sound; lead-colored clouds hang heavy and dull not only through the long winter but even in the so-called "little spring" in autumn, and the light of the setting sun is dark and red on the horizon; it puts one in mind of the entrance to the city of the dead, with "Through me you pass into the city of woe" written over it; but I feel the strongest nostalgia imaginable for this home town of mine. The streams and mountains, pale blue in the weak light; the children playing there, speaking in the unsophisticated local dialect; into this are my childhood memories woven, and by this do I return to the cheerful dreams I had at that time.

When I die, I would be buried in the mountains of my home town/ there to dream of friends with whom I spoke so long ago

A visit home always brings the Inferno to my mind, too.