His matchless discernment: Tomioka Tessai

Nice article [PDF] full of old-fashioned talking-in-paragraphs about Japanese painter Tomioka Tessai by “Bishop Kojo Sakamoto, Abbot of Kiyoshi Kojin Seicho Temple” (which today styles itself Kiyoshikôjin Seichô-ji Temple). I guess the exhibition it refers to was held in the 50s or 60s.

Once he said, “People are always coming to me boasting of their calligraphy. All of them write very well, but none so well as I do. If only Kobo Daishi were still alive, the two of us would have a real ‘meeting of minds’ about calligraphy!” I was struck with admiration for his matchless discernment.

I honestly don’t think it takes a whole lot of discernment to identify Kūkai as one of Japanese calligraphy’s all-time greats. It’s like saying “Now Michelangelo, there’s a guy who was on my level.” You really have to be Tessai to get away with it. (Katō Shūichi said that B. C. Binning put Tessai on the level of about Cézanne, as I recall.)

An opaque and diffuse system

New (I think) article on Ryukyuan from Thomas Pellard and Masahiro Yamada! “Verb morphology and conjugation classes in Dunan (Yonaguni)” (also redirected from academia.edu). Here’s the abstract, broken into two paragraphs by me for readability:

Most Japonic languages have a relatively simple and transparent morphology. Their verb morphology is usually characterized by a highly agglutinative structure that exhibits little morphophonology, with only a few conjugation classes and a handful of irregular verbs. In sharp contrast with its relatives, Dunan (Yonaguni), a highly endangered Japonic language of the Southern Ryukyuan branch, spoken by approximately 400 speakers located on Yonaguni Island (Okinawa prefecture, Japan), exhibits a unusually complex verb morphology for a Japonic language, mostly due to some drastic historical changes. The verb morphology of Dunan seems be the most complex one within the whole Japonic family, and a systematic description challenges in several interesting ways morpheme-based approaches.

The following presents an outline of the verb morphology of Dunan, limited to the basic synthetic forms of regular verbs. Focus is put on the partition of verbs into classes and its morphomic pattern. Three morphomic factors are identified as partitioning verbs into conjugation classes: stem alternation, suffix allomorphy, and metatony. The resulting system of paradigm classes is found to be opaque and to show little interpredictability between paradigm cells, i.e. few reliable inferences can be made from one inflected form about other forms. Morpheme-based approaches are not well-suited for the analysis of Dunan’s verb morphology, which rather calls for an abstractive Word and Paradigm approach.

To a hardened Indo-Europeanist, the morphology Pellard and Yamada describe is probably just barely sufficient to raise a single eyebrow, but (as they observe) in the highly agglutinative context of Japonic, it is quite off the chain:

[T]he number of distinct stem forms per verb does not exceed three. However, the distribution of stems within paradigms is not uniform for all verbs (Table 2.7). For instance, in the case of verbs with three stems, the shortest stem usually appears only in the perfect cell, but not in the case of sigmatic verbs, where the same stem is shared by the hortative, medial, and perfect cells. On the other hand, for sigmatic verbs, the shortest stem is used in the negative cell only, while for most other classes the negative shares the same stem as the present and imperative forms.

The number of stems needed to account for the whole pattern of stem alternations across the different classes amounts to seven, i.e. more than twice the number of distinct stem forms for any verb (Table 2.7). This leads to the unexpected conclusion that there are almost as many stems as basic forms.

(Seriously, check out table 2.7. It’s on page 37.)

Overall, a very satisfying read for a construction grammar zealot like me, although with a real gut-punch of a conclusion:

The most realistic hypothesis is that speakers memorize whole inflected forms (minimally, principal parts) as part of a network of interdependencies with an implicational structure. Unfortunately psycholinguistic tests are hardly feasible in the case of Dunan, a highly endangered language still spoken by elderly persons only. A more computational approach, based on entropy and complexity measures (Ackerman et al. 2009, Finkel & Stump 2009, Sagot & Walther 2011, Blevins 2013) is a more realistic goal for future research.

Yūsei 優性 → Kensei 顕性

A couple of weeks ago the Genetics Society of Japan announced some changes in their new official glossary of genetics terminology. The most striking are the changes to the words for “dominant” and “recessive,” which are changing from yūsei 優性 to kensei 顕性 and ressei 劣性 to sensei 潜性 respectively.

The reason for these changes in particular is simple: to stop people misunderstanding what they mean. Etymologically speaking, yūsei and ressei imply something closer to “superior” and “inferior” than “dominant” and “recessive.” This is obviously not great for a field that is prone to lay misinterpretation about inherent superiority and the like at the best of times. The etymological implications of the new words are more like “apparent” and “hidden,” which does seem far safer.

There are also other adjustments. Some are housekeeping, like changing the word for “mutation” from totsuzen hen’i to just hen’i because totsuzen means “sudden” and isn’t necessarily part of the concept. Some are more expansive, like a shift in terminology relating to color blindness: the Society now recommends shikikaku tayōsei 色覚多様性 (“color vision diversity”) over terms like shikikaku ijō 色覚異常 (“color vision abnormality”), itself apparently a euphemism for the blunter shikimō 色盲 (“color blindness”).

One thing that isn’t mentioned in the news stories about this I’ve seen so far (example, example) is that these terms aren’t necessarily neologisms. A simple Google Books search reveals kensei and sensei in use as far back as the 1960s, for example. The newsy part is that the Genetics Society of Japan, based on consultation with its members, has decided to throw its weight behind the “new” terminology and deprecate the old. This will reportedly include trying to persuade the Ministry of Education and Everything Else For Some Reason (MEXT) to get on board, so keep watching your kids’ textbooks, I suppose.

“… Perform gagaku and kick ass. And gagaku has a very limited repertoire by this point in history.”

X. Jie YANG 楊暁捷 has uploaded a YouTube playlist of himself (I assume?) reading selected parts of the story “Karaito” (named after its heroine) over images of the illustrated manuscript that contains it. Purists may be disappointed to learn that the text is pronounced as if it were contemporary Japanese—e.g. no attempt to reconstruct an Edo-period palatalized /e/—but you can’t always get what you want.

“But Matt, I’ve never heard of ‘Karaito’ before!” I hear you say. “I can’t watch a YouTube video without a solid grounding in the scholarly background it assumes.” Fortunately, Lora Slobodian’s Karaito sōshi: A Tale of Optimism and Good Fortune is available online, and includes a serviceable translation of the complete story.

Karaito, one of the female servants of the palace, was also present before the commander of Kamakura, Yoritomo, at the decisive moment [when the plan to kill Lord Kiso was revealed]. This woman was of Shinano province, and a subordinate of Lord Kiso. She was excessively skilled at playing the biwa and the koto, and so, in her eighteenth year, was summoned to Kamakura and placed in charge of the gagaku, but felt great pity as she was performing for the ones who would ultimately be responsible for the deaths of both Lord Kiso and her father. She felt that she must, by all means, inform Lord Kiso of this plot, and so secretly sent a highly detailed letter to the capital […]

In the letter she not only informs Lord Kiso of the plot, she also offers to assassinate the conspirators, and requests the use of a specific, named dagger to do so.

(Via Kasama Shoin.)

’Twas well we had your pencil and your tongue

Great article by De-Min Tao on “mutual understanding and misunderstanding among Japanese, Americans, and Chinese, and the status of Chinese as a negotiating language in the communications of two non-Chinese speaking nations”: “Negotiating Language in the Opening of Japan: Luo Sen’s Journal of Perry’s 1854 Expedition.”

When talking about the opening of Japan in 1853-54, many people simply assume that the negotiations were carried on with the assistance of English and Japanese interpreters, as bilateral talks between the two nations would be today. Few give any attention to the question of what languages were actually used. As a matter of fact, Chinese and Dutch were the principal languages employed.


[Samuel Wells] Williams was hired as the chief interpreter despite having told Perry clearly at their initial meeting in 1853 that “I had never learned much more Japanese than was necessary to speak with ignorant sailors who were unable to read even their own books, and that practice in even this imperfect medium had been suspended for nearly nine years.” He considered himself “ill prepared upon the duties of this position.”

Williams did speak Chinese, of course, but “still needed a Chinese assistant to help him polish his translations and copy them in elegant calligraphy that would impress the Japanese officials with whom Perry would be conducting diplomacy.” (This is basically why I started printing labels for the envelopes I use to send out invoices.) So he hired…

[…] his Chinese tutor, an old man named Sieh 薛. It would seem that the choice was not carefully made, for Sieh was actually an incurable opium addict. Smoking heavily during the voyage, he eventually died a month before the Kurihama meeting, when the fleet was still anchoring in Ryukyu.

Luo Sen was Sieh’s replacement.

Luo Sen (Xiangqiao 向喬, ca. 1821-ca. 1899) was from Nanhai 南海 county in Guangdong province. At the time Williams employed him, he was doing business in Hong Kong, and his occupation brought him into contact with Englishmen and Americans. Asked by a friendly Japanese official why he had accepted a position with Perry’s expedition, Luo frankly confessed that his dissatisfaction with Qing officialdom had entered into his decision:

During the war with the English [the Opium War], I led a body of braves, and put forth all my strength in the service of my country. Yet afterwards the officers of the government, bent on nothing but gain, made no account of my devotion and efforts. It was this neglect which set my mind on traveling abroad, and led me to my present position on board this steamer.

The whole article is full of this stuff—vivid detail, quotations from diaries. Absolutely fantastic reading.

JAH-Q 2 debut

Volume 2 of the Journal of Asian Humanities at Kyushu University (JAH-Q) (love the acronym) is now online in its entirety for your reading pleasure. (Also available as one big PDF at editor Cynthia Bogel’s faculty member page.) Bogel sez:

JAH-Q is an annual double-blind, peer-reviewed publication in English. We consider research articles, state-of-the-field essays, and short reports (conferences and other events) on Asian humanities subjects (broadly defined) for publication.

Issue 2 includes an article by Pawel Pachciarek on Kusama Yayoi (“[I also] explore potential Zen Buddhist influences in her unpublished play script ‘The Gorilla Lady’”); Elizabeth Tinsley’s consideration of Matsui Fuyuko and Itō Seiu in the context of kusōzu, a genre of painting depicting the female body in progressive stages of decay (don’t worry, it’s a Buddhist thing); and a review of Heather Blair’s Real and Imagined: The Peak of Gold in Heian Japan:

It achieves what all books should but few do: it is historically and philologically rigorous, determinedly interdisciplinary, theoretically sophisticated, and lucidly written. This brilliant book should go down as a classic, serving as a model for how place and pilgrimage should be studied both in Japanese religions and beyond.

Publisher Harvard University Press claims that the book draws on “archival sources, archaeological materials, noblemen’s journals, sutras, official histories, and vernacular narratives,” so philological rigor wouldn’t have been a trivial matter.


The coldest line in the Man’yōshū isn’t actually in a poem. It’s in the note about the author that comes afterwards. Here it is with the poem for context; this is MYS 8/1428, in a “Spring: Miscellaneous” section. Original orthography taken from Man’yōshū kensaku, the latest iteration of the venerable MYS search system from Yamaguchi University.


忍照 難波乎過而 打靡 草香乃山乎 暮晩尓 吾越来者 山毛世尓 咲有馬酔木乃 不悪 君乎何時 徃而早将見

(ositeru / nanipa wo sugwite / uti-nabiku / kusaka no yama wo / yupugure ni / wa ga kwoye-kureba / yama mo se ni / sakyeru asibi no / asikaranu / kimi wo itu si ka / yukite paya mimu)


The content is fairly unremarkable:

One poem about Mount Kusaka [part of Mount Ikoma]

Passing Oshiteru [Cranston suggests “[of the] Shining Waves”] Naniwa, Mount Kusaka I cross as evening falls; crowding the mountain in bloom, the ashibi (Japanese andromeda) are not bad; when shall I arrive and see not-bad you next?

The first two thirds of the poem are all leading up to asikaranu (not bad), which puns on asibi (modern ashibi or asebi, and functions as a pivot to get us from the vivid but objective description of the journey to the inner thoughts of the journeyer. Who indeed has not longed for their not-bad beloved after extended separation?

(Since the actual text of the source is just 不悪, i.e. not represented phonemically, some people use another reading of 悪 to render the relevant word nikukaranu [“not loathsome”], but this doesn’t really do it for me.)

Moving on, here’s the note about the author:

The author of the preceding poem being of low status, their name is omitted

Not “unknown,” but “omitted.” Intentionally. I guess this is what happens when your commitments to literary meritocracy and aristocracy conflict. I’m sure the poet was promised a lot of exposure, though.

(According to Satake Akihiro et al, who edited the Shin Nihon koten bungaku taikei 新日本古典文学大系 edition of the MYS, this is the only such note in the collection.

Tan-tan Tanzaku

Happy Tanabata! Here’s a poem by Noguchi Ujō 野口雨情 in honor of the occasion. According to Aozora Bunko, this was first published in the July 1933 edition of Shōgaku Ninensei (“Elementary school second-grader”) magazine.

Mainen shichigatsu
Nanoka ni wa

Tan-tan Tanabata
Hoshi matsuri

Tan-tan Tanabata
Kita naraba

Tan-tan tanzaku
Uta kaite

Tanzaku tsurushita
Take tatete

Tan-tan tanabata

And in quick and inelegant English translation:

Every year in the seventh month
On the seventh day

Tan-tan Tanabata
The star festival

Tan-tan Tanabata:
When it has arrived

Tan-tan tanzaku:
Write a poem

The tanzaku hung,
Raise the bamboo

Tan-tan Tanabata:
Let’s celebrate

Ujō is often praised for the mysterious and somewhat melancholy depth of his writing for children, but as this example shows he was not above straight-ahead soundplay.

“Raise [literally “stand up”] the bamboo”: Back in the Edo period, people really took this seriously. A picture like this (Hiroshige, 1857) shows clearly that the tanzaku-laden bamboo was raised well above the roofs. Now even the de facto official Tanabata song, “Tanabata-sama,” has the tanzaku swaying nokiba ni, “eaves-LOC,” which is at best “by the eaves” and more naturally “under (i.e. hanging from) the eaves.”

Beorht wæron burgræced   burnsele monige
heah horngestreon   heresweg micel
meodoheall monig   mondreama full
oþþæt þæt onwende   wyrd seo swiþe

See you in 2019, everyone!

The University of Tokyo’s East Asian Classical Studies department has posted some reading lists prepared by its faculty members. The level appears to be “serious introductory,” although of course for us non-native speakers there can be a bit of a disconnect between our level of interest and our ability to read books at that level. Still, if you’re sure you’re interested in how the Heian nobility read Chinese texts aloud, how better to familiarize yourself with the field and its terminology than by reading Heian jidai no kanbun kundokugo ni tsukite no kenkyū?

(Via Kasama Shoin)

Not the whole truth

The ultimate act of love? The truth behind Japan’s charaben culture” by Joshua Paul Dale is a pretty good popular intro to decorative food in Japan, but it contained one of my pet peeves:

Kawaii literally means “able to be loved” […]

Etymologically speaking, the direct ancestor of kawaii is kawayui, which can be traced back (with appropriate sound/morphology rewind: kahayusi, however you wanna pronounce that) to the end of the Heian period. This in turn is widely considered to derive from kahahayusi, roughly “flushed of face,” to do with embarrassment, pity, etc.

Dale is referring to the standard kanji spelling of kawaii, 可愛い, which can indeed be parsed “able to be loved.” But this spelling has nothing to do with the etymology and was applied long after the word came to be. To say that kawaii “literally means” this is oversimplified at best, misleading at worst. Oh well.

I have another objection to the article, actually: when it finally gets around to “the truth behind Japan’s charaben culture,” it doesn’t even touch on what we might call the “dark side” of charaben. I mean, consider this:

After all, these creations prove a mother’s dedication towards her child, not to mention her creative prowess.

I’m sure that for most mothers who make charaben, it is indeed a way to express maternal love. But given the whole “prove a mother’s dedication” thing, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine how, in some environments, peer pressure could transform charaben into a de facto public-facing obligation (falling entirely on the mother, natch). And indeed you do hear stories like this. I know it would have been a downer after the charaben Instagram success story talk, but I feel like it could at least have been mentioned.