Cool Tongue Twister – 坊主が屏風に上手に坊主の絵を描いた


I’m in the Japan Times Bilingual page this week: “Repetition and role-play are crucial for speaking success in Japanese.”

I was stunned to see that no one had previously written about 早口言葉 (はやくちことば, tongue twisters)…as long as the search engine on the JT can be trusted.

They seem silly at first, but they’re actually really good speaking practice. So is just randomly repeating Japanese phrases while you’re at home alone. Gotta keep those muscles trained, and it’s fine to sound like a clown when no one’s around.

I wasn’t able to include one of my favorite tongue twisters: 坊主が屏風に上手に坊主の絵を描いた (Bōzu ga byōbu ni jōzu ni bōzu no e o kaita, A monk draws a picture of a monk on a folding screen well).

And of course there’s an excellent Yahoo Chiebukuro post where someone asks for the correct phrasing: Is the monk drawing a picture of a monk or ジョーズ (Jaws) or B’s (a band I think?). Someone mentions that only a monk would have existed pre-war. Another guy mentions that it could be regional and that near Universal Studios Japan (Osaka) they used Jaws…which sounds about right. Osaka is known for its sense of humor, but it could also very easily be just an elementary school thing. Those kids love jokes like that.

At any rate, an image search for a 上手坊主 led me to this amazing blog post that takes this absurd phrase to its logical conclusion: 坊主が屏風に描いた坊主が屏風に描いた坊主が屏風に坊主の絵を描いた.

I’ve taken the liberty of borrowing the image from the post (the blog appears to be deceased and originally intended to help old people retain their memory and eyesight?) and reproducing it above, but it’s an interesting read. Go check it out.

TJ(Too Japanese);DR: because of the way Japanese modifiers work, the language itself is easier to read silently rather than out loud. Modifiers (修飾) get stacked up upon a subject, and if you’re reading out loud you must sail only forward through unknown seas, while you may look back and forth if you’re reading silently and you are not slave to the unceasing plodding of your vision? Seems legit?

Y’all have any favorite 早口言葉?

Digging Holes


I read Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World Chapter 30 “Hole” at least a month ago (perhaps even more…I can’t remember if I read it before or after I went to Japan in March) but didn’t write up a post about it, so I’m only now going through it again and trying to figure out my impressions.

Fortunately it’s a short End of the World chapter. Boku awakes in his room and the old men are shoveling outside, digging a hole purely to dig a hole, according to the Colonel. The Colonel tells Boku that his shadow is dying and that he should go visit, and Boku resolves to do so. It’s just a small chapter to move things along.

Birnbaum (or his editor) make a number of minor cuts here and there, compress a few passages, and rearrange small pieces of the text. I guess the biggest change is the treatment of the musical instrument. In the English translation, Birnbaum has Boku discover the name of the instrument:

The room is now warm. I sit at the table with the musical instrument in hand, slowly working the bellows. The leather folds are stiff, but not unmanageable; the keys are discolored. When was the last time anyone touched it? By what route had the heirloom traveled, through how many hands? It is a mystery to me.

I inspect the bellows box with care. It is a jewel. There is such precision in it. So very small, it compresses to fit into a pocket, yet seems to sacrifice no mechanical details.

The shellac on the wooden boards at either end has not flaked. They bear a filligreed decoration, the intricate green arabesques well preserved. I wipe the dust with my fingers and read the letters A-C-C-O-R-D-…

This is an accordion!

I work it, in and out, over and over again, learning the feel of it. The buttons vie for space on the miniature instrument. More suited to a child’s or woman’s hand, the accordion is exceedingly difficult for a grown man to finger. And then one is supposed to work the bellows in rhythm. (314-315)

Birnbaum did this in the previous chapter as well, but as you can see above it’s a bit more blatant. In the Japanese original, Murakami uses a complex kanji compound for accordion (手風琴) the entire time. He does switch to the katakana version of the word (アコーディオン) in this passage, but the effect is not the same. Here is the Japanese and my translation:



僕がアコーディオンを弾いたのはずいぶん昔のことだったし、それもキイボード式の新しい型のものだったから、その旧式の仕組とボタンの配列になれるにはかなりの手間がかかった。小型にまとめられているせいで、ボタンは小さく、おまけにひとつひとつがひどく接近していたから、子供や女性ならいざしらず手の大きな大人の男がそれを思うように弾きこなすのはかなり厄介な作業だった。そのうえにリズムをとりながら効果的に蛇腹を伸縮させなくてはならないのだ。 (456-457)

Once the room warms, I sit in a chair at the table, take the accordion in my hands, and slowly move the bellows in and out. Now that I’ve brought the instrument to my room and have a chance to look at it, I understand that that it is much more elaborately finished than I thought from my initial impression in the forest. The keys and bellows have colored with age, but the paint on the wood panels has not flaked at all, and the delicate arabesques painted in green remain unharmed. It could pass as a work of decorative art more than an instrument. The bellows have predictably stiffened somewhat and are awkward, but it isn’t enough to impede its usage. It must have been left untouched for quite a long time. However I don’t know what kind of people played it long ago nor how it made its way to that place. It’s wrapped in mysteries.

The instrument’s functionality, in addition to its decoration, is also quite refined. Most importantly, it’s small. Folded up, it could fit cleanly into a coat pocket. Which isn’t to say that that any functionality has been sacrificed; everything you would expect an accordion to have is there.

The sound of the old men digging the hole continues. The noise of four shovel tips biting into the earth turns into a ceaseless, irregular rhythm and echoes with a strange clarity throughout the room. The wind rattles the window every now and then. Outside the window I can see the slope of the hill, covered here and there with snow. I can’t tell whether the sound of the accordion reaches the old men. I imagine it doesn’t. The accordion is quiet, and the wind blows in the opposite direction.

It’s been a long time since I played the accordion, and it was one with a newer style of keyboard, so it takes some effort to get accustomed to the way the old style works and the layout of the buttons. The buttons are small because they’re fit into the compact form, and what’s more they’re extremely close together; I’m not sure about women and children, but it’s incredibly difficult work for a grown man with large hands to have a command of the instrument as he would like. And on top of that I have to make sure to move the bellows in rhythm.

As you can see, BOHE has compressed a good portion of the text, rearranged, and added his own creative touches. It covers most of the bases and the result is a very creative translation. He even treats the simplest sentences with total respect; I’m thinking in particular of “The buttons vie for space on the miniature instrument.” That strikes me as a very generous way to render Murakami in English without going over the line, as perhaps some of the other choices do.

Also notable in this chapter is the appearance of more lines from Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round! Here’s the passage in English:

“They dig holes from time to time,” the Colonel explains. “It is probably for them what chess is for me. It has no special meaning, does not transport them anywhere. All of us dig at our own pure holes. We have nothing to achieve by our activities, nowhere to get to. Is there not something marvelous about this? We hurt no one and no one gets hurt. No victory, no defeat.” (317)

And here is the Japanese followed by a rewritten version of Birnbaum’s translation with the deleted sections added in:


“They dig holes from time to time,” the Colonel explains. “It is probably for them what chess is for me, in principle. It has no special meaning, does not transport them anywhere. But that doesn’t matter. No one needs meaning, and no one wants to be transported anywhere. All of us dig at our own pure holes. We have nothing to achieve by our activities, no progress to accomplish with our effort, nowhere to get to. Is there not something marvelous about this? We hurt no one and no one gets hurt. We overtake no one, and no one is overtaken. No victory, no defeat.” (317)

Pretty interesting. Birnbaum cuts the one sentence that really links it with Dead Heat, and that is the “overtake, overtaken” line.

We should be approaching another Dead Heat reference in the Hard-boiled Wonderland section of the novel as well. I’m looking forward to making some progress on this relatively meaningless exercise. I hope you enjoy following along as I dig my hole.

Cool Word – 刀狩


It may be cliche to say it, but there’s nothing quite like your first trip to Japan. For me, it was not only exciting to visit somewhere so new and different, it was also liberating to be in a place with an almost total absence of fear of violence, notably of gun violence.

I grew up in New Orleans and was fortunate to never experience any violence directly, thanks in large part to extremely vigilant parents (whom I probably faulted at the time for being what is now termed “helicopter parents”). But I won’t ever forget when my mom was held up at gun point just as we were moving into a new house. I was a little too young to understand exactly how frightening it must have been for her. She broke down in tears and neither my dad nor my grandmother could do much to comfort her. As the years went by and I grew up through middle school and high school, I gradually took on the fear myself.

So it felt amazing to be free of it, wandering Okayama City in the summer of 2002. My last night in the city we drank at a bar, walked across the city, swam in the castle moat, and then stumbled back.

I wish I could share this feeling with everyone in the United States and then ask them how they felt about gun control laws. I’m sure not everyone would be convinced, but some would see how things could be different, and how appealing that could be.

I’m writing this during the Senate gun control filibuster because for the first time in a long time (perhaps ever), I feel like I have to do something, even if it’s just post on this blog about a cool Japanese phrase – 刀狩 (かたながり).

刀狩 translates easily as “sword hunt.” There were a number of sword hunts (good read in Japanese too) in Japanese history, the most famous of which was Hideyoshi’s in 1588. Obviously, they were initially used as a mechanism for those in power to secure that power and prevent the potential for uprisings, which is why gun rights advocates occasionally use it as an example of why the 2nd Amendment is an important check against tyranny, but I don’t think the sword hunts can be simplified for either side of the gun debate. However, I do think it did set a precedent for getting rid of weapons, which must have made it easy to enact strong gun laws once Japan modernized.

Australia’s equivalent “gun hunt” after the Port Arthur massacre has had success, even without a sword hunt precedent, showing that things can change. We just need to break the mythical, fictional barrier of “freedom” that’s been set up here and somehow entrenched in the past few decades.

So, please, if you’re American and you’ve ever enjoyed your time in Japan, please take a moment to write your elected representatives on all levels (federal, state, city), and tell them that you support the Senate filibuster and that you’d like to see them make as strong a stand.

We don’t need to outlaw guns, but we could do much better than where we are now.

Cool Phrase – 取れるところから取る

Belated notice, but I was in the Japan Times On Sunday this past week with an article about craft beer in Japan: “Beer Essentials: The craft beer boom in Japan shows no signs of running dry.”

This was a fun piece to research and write. I highly recommend checking out Jeffrey Alexander’s book “Brewed in Japan.” It’s an incredibly interesting read about the history of beer in Japan. I don’t recommend buying the Google Play version of the book, however. I was forced to read it in a very small font on my iPhone. I think I’ll probably get a physical copy of the book and give it another read at some point. There are so many interesting details, and I’d like to be able to enjoy it more leisurely without ruining my vision. Here’s a great passage from the book about Japan’s early encounters with American beer:

When the shogunate then agreed to sign the Convention of Kanagawa [in March 1854]…it held a celebratory reception to mark the occasion. At the event, the US delegation presented gifts to the Japanese officials of innovative American products, including a working telegraph, a one-quarter-scale steam locomotive, and three casks of beer. The beer was described by Japanese observers as being an earthen colour, with a large volume of bubbles on top, but review of its taste were mixed. Some called it “magic water,” while others labelled it “bitter horse-piss wine.”

Ha. Suffice it to say that they’ve warmed up to beer in the interval.

This was also a great excuse to catch up with a lot of old friends in Tokyo, which I was able to do thanks to the Japanese government. They flew me over to Japan the first week of March for a JET conference. I had a few days on the front half of my trip to myself, and I used it going around to bars I frequented when I lived in Tokyo. I got really lucky with the timing. The JT asked me to write the article just a couple weeks after I was invited to the conference. Special thanks to Aoki-san at Popeye in Ryogoku and Sato-san at Beer Brassiere Boulevard (formerly of Dry Dock).

One interesting phrase I heard from several sources in the beer industry was 取れるところから取る (“take [taxes] from where [taxes] can be taken”). A Google search shows that it gets used in reference to many different topics: 10,100 search results are pared down to 2,840 when the term ビール is added to the search. Still, that’s about 28%. A Japanese book I read titled ビールの教科書 suggests that it’s a combination of inertia and the fact that it’s a hard sell for the government to give money back to companies that make booze.

There’s been some small movement on an equalization (一本化) of the beer tax, which would set the tax for any type of alcoholic barley-based beverage at 55 yen/can, but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon, especially if the Japanese economy doesn’t pick up. It would be very interesting to see how that change would affect the beer market, since it would effectively eliminate any competitive advantage for happōshu. It would affect different companies in different ways since their portfolios are so varied. Asahi would likely benefit, since Super Dry is a true beer and already dominates the market. Suntory, on the other hand, sells a ton of Kinmugi, and it would be forced to raise prices.

Sadly the beer tax will likely be a semi-permanent impediment to the development of craft beer in Japan. As long as folks keep drinking, it will be an easy target for politicians.