According to the Mainichi Shinbun, an object dug up in Hanyu, Saitama in 2012 and identified as some sort of equestrian equipment turns out to actually have been a jaw harp (and I use the past tense advisedly -- it ain't gonna be byonging out anytime soon).

Reading between the lines, it seems to have been initially misidentified because similar instruments that were found previously were (a) significantly smaller — the Asahi Shinbun says that it's 14.8 cm long — and (b) not found near a shrine, so the traditional explanation of ritual use looks a bit shakier than usual. (Not at all ruled out, of course.)

It's interesting to note that there is an Ainu mouth harp called a mukkuri, although I've never heard of a metal mukkuri and there's no reason to posit a direct relationship here. (Indirect relationship, shared NE Asian heritage of shamanism? Maybe.)

The instrument has been dated to the first half of the 10th century, which makes it the oldest ever dug up in Japan, and according to the Japan Jew's Harp Association (because of course there is one) press release, the oldest dug up anywhere in the world. This is surprising, but I see no real reason to doubt them.

Finally, the Asahi Shinbun article quoted above also mentions that the jaw harp was known by the name biyabon during the Edo period (and was popular for a brief while). The Nihon Kokugo Daijiten confirms; their first citation is from ca 1825, in one of the publications of the Toen-kai (a society apparently founded by Bakin devoted to sharing weird stories and objects they'd come across):


The biwabue, mispronounced biyabon by children, was an Edo-wide fad starting from the first third of the tenth month of Bunsei 7 [1824].

So they're arguing it was originally called the "biwa-flute" and biyabon is a mispronunciation of that? I don't believe that for a second. Biyabon might be the most onomatopoeic word I've ever seen. (And I have never wanted to romanize /N/ as <ng> so much.)

Other pronunciations/names listed by the NKD and its citations: biwabon, kiyakon, Tsugaru-bue.

Popularity factor: 3


> the Japan Jew's Harp Association (because of course there is one)

Sure, what's with Japan being the lost 13th tribe of Israel and the final resting place of Jesus and all. & I understand harps are associated with Jewish angelic spirits and so on. (sorry! can't resist...)


Speaking of romanizing /N/, it's funny how convinced the Japanese are, presumably because of how romaji works, that /N/=final "n". My surname ends with an /n/ and when I was in Japan, it would always cause me this problem:
The /N/ is just nasalization which I can't hear, especially over the phone, so I repeat emphatically: "[manʲinːːː]"
No one ever suggested "/maninu/".

How is it that final /n/ always gets transliterated as /N/ and other final nasals never do, even though [n] is literally the only vaguely nasal sound that /N/ pretty much never takes word-finally? I guess all transliteration is tradition, and it's no weirder than the Russian h -> g thing, but it sure is annoying.


Yeah, I think you are right that it is the influence of romanization. Old Yokohama words that presumably came across orally (oo-er) did use /N/ for other final nasals sometmes, e.g. アイスクリン /aisukuriN/ for "ice cream" (which has now been replaced by アイスクリーム  /aisukuriimu/, natch).

Meanwhile, the actual letter "N" is pronounced エヌ /enu/, just to keep everyone on their toes.

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

LU d'R
Mail d'E

All fields optional. E-mail address will never be displayed, resold, etc. -- it's just a quick way to give me your e-mail address along with your comment, if you should feel the need. URL will be published, though, so don't enter it if it's a secret. You can use <a href>, but most other tags will be filtered out. (I'll fix it in post-production for you if it seems necessary.)