learn kanji through noh?

Studying kanji while taking in a Japanese noh drama — what could more exciting? Heh.

A common problem for those new to Japanese traditional performing arts is that–even for native Japanese speakers–it is hard to understand the story and old-fashioned language used in noh recitation or gidayu, a form of narrative chanting that accompanies bunraku performances. With a view to solving this problem, there has been a marked increase in productions using Japanese subtitles at the National Theatre in Tokyo and National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka. The National Noh Theatre in Tokyo also plans to make greater use of subtitles on screens it will introduce in autumn.

The new computer-controlled system to be introduced at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo, where prior improvements to seats and other theater facilities are scheduled for completion in August and September, will allow Japanese subtitles to be displayed on flat-panel screens installed in seat backs.

“We will provide Japanese and English subtitles for the time being, although the system will allow us to use four channels in total,” said an official at the noh theater. Noh recitation will be displayed as it is in Japanese, while the plot of the play and a briefing on scenes will be provided in English along with a translation of the recitation….

Some bunraku performers at first questioned why Japanese subtitles were necessary since most audience members are Japanese.

“But they don’t voice such objections any more. Some even say the subtitles are useful in learning kanji…,” said Takemoto Sumitayu, a bunraku narrator and a living national treasure.

The National Bunraku Theatre hopes that the service “will help overcome the image of traditional performing arts as hard to understand.”

I suppose as long as the chairback is below the stage, the text would still be subtitling. But I can’t help but wonder if there’s a more precise term. It’s not likely to be real captioning. And what’s the word for texts that are presented on the sides of stages?

source: Does Japanese theater need Japanese subtitles?, Daily Yomiuri, July 8, 2006


No-sword’s post on this is already brief, so I won’t shorten it here other than to note that sentences like “The furigana undermine the kanji at the most fundamental level, but the overall meaning of the poster remains unchanged” are the sort of thing that really make my day.

Just go read the whole post, which discusses something at the intriguingly titled Moji no ura-d?ri (which Matt translates freely as “The Back Streets of Orthography”).

early Romaji texts

Matt of No-sword has two recent posts (<gue> to fabulas and I just can’t stop talking about old Portugo-Japanese texts online) on translations into Japanese of several books related to Aesop. These books are from the late sixteenth century and are the work of Portuguese Jesuits. And they’re in R?maji.

Here’s a link to the fable of the horse and the ass. For more links, see Matt’s posts.

W-use letter

Matt at No-sword talks about the uses of the letter W in Japan:

Many English initialisms are used in Japan, like CM for “commercial [movie]”, but W is a special letter: it can represent meaning all by itself. This is because it is generally pronounced “double” instead of “double-u”, so it’s handy for referring to things that are doubled.

Read the whole piece: Let the pretending to be injured begin.

Taiwan architecture and political statements

The main reason I haven’t been posting much lately is that for several weeks I’ve been extremely busy showing various groups of VIPs around Taipei. As the viewing floor near the top of Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building, is one of the standard stops along the tour, I usually take advantage of the bird’s-eye-view to point out some of the architectural features of the city. A few of these features are related to Chinese characters / Japanese kanji.

Japan controlled Taiwan from 1895 until 1945. The design of some significant buildings from this time reflects the desire of the Japanese authorities to put Japan’s stamp on Taiwan — in more ways than one. The buildings that now house Taiwan’s Presidential Office and the Executive Yuan (Cabinet) are from that era. Both are built in the shape of a Chinese character / kanji used in writing the name of Japan: ?. This is not a coincidence. (Before anyone asks: I haven’t seen any buildings, though, built in the shape of ?, the other character used in writing the name of Japan.)

Here are some screenshots from Google Earth, which gives satellite photos of much of the globe.

Below is Taiwan’s presidential building:
satellite photo of Taiwan's presidential building

And here is the Cabinet building, with north rotated 90 degrees clockwise:
satellite photo of Taiwan's Executive Yuan (Cabinet building)
The buildings on all but what is here the left side are additions that date from after the Japanese were forced out of Taiwan. (BTW, my old office in the Government Information Office is just below the bottom right corner of the ?.)

After the Japanese authorities were evicted from Taiwan and the island was controlled by the Chinese KMT, Taipei built a new city hall, and in so doing made an architectural statement of its own. Taipei City Hall, which is at the far end of a long road that leads to the Presidential Office, is built in the shape of two characters for the number 10, placed side by side: ??
satellite photo of Taipei City Hall
Thus, this is 10 10, which stands for October 10, which refers to the starting date of the revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1910, leading to the establishment of the Republic of China. (Officially speaking, Taiwan remains the Republic of China and October 10 remains its “National Day.”)

click to enlarge satellite photo of Taipei, showing the Presidential Office and Executive Yuan in the west and Taipei City Hall in the east
(click photo to enlarge)

If you’d like to use Google Earth to view these for yourself, enter the following coordinates:

  • Presidential Office: 25 02 24 N, 121 30 42 E
  • Executive Yuan: 25 02 47 N, 121 31 14 E
  • Taipei City Hall: 25 02 15 N, 121 33 52 E

Also, the pond behind the former Japanese Governor-General’s house, now the modestly named Taipei Guest House, is supposed to be, with a little help from some decorative rocks, in the shape of the character for “heart”:

But I haven’t found any photographs or maps that show this clearly.

Can anyone comment on the architecture of Japanese-era governmental buildings in Korea?

evolution of simplified Chinese characters: dissertation

Stockholm University’s Department of Oriental Languages has just released Long Story of Short Forms: The Evolution of Simplified Chinese Characters (10.4 MB PDF), a Ph.D. dissertation by Roar Bökset.

Here is the abstract:

A script reform was carried out in China between 1955 and 1964 by simplifying the shape of a number of characters. Most of the simplified forms adopted had already been in popular use for a long time before this reform, while a few were invented for the occasion.

One objective of this dissertation is to estimate the proportion of invented forms. To this end, use of simplified variants before 1955 was surveyed. Pre-reform writing turned out to be more heterogeneous than expected. In fact, already Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) handwriting differed considerably from the norms set up by contemporary dictionaries and model texts.

One aim of the script reform was to unify writing habits and make them conform better with established norms. To evaluate the Script Reform Committee’s success in this field, this dissertation surveys the use of different unofficial short forms even after the reform. Success turned out to be moderate. Many pre-1955 short variants survived, and, what was worse, new ones emerged after the reform. Particularly confusing was the use of different unofficial short forms in different parts of China. The existence of such local variants was confirmed by extensive reading of signs, advertisements, price tags and wall newspapers in twenty-one provinces, and by interviews with informants at four hundred localities. Results of that survey are displayed on twenty-four maps.

A few years earlier, even Japanese characters had gone through a reform which made many simplified forms official. Some of the new official Japanese forms differed from those which came to be official in China, creating a discrepancy which has at times been lamented. However, this dissertation compares the short forms used in pre-reform Japan with those of pre-reform China, and shows that most of the present discrepancies have roots in differences in Chinese and Japanese writing traditions, which bound the hands of reformers in both countries and enforced the decisions which were eventually made.

prohibited macrons?

Signs leading to a temple in Japan’s Nara Prefecture feature a variety of romanizations. Inconsistent romanization is hardly newsworthy in itself, this being common in East Asia. But things get a little more interesting as the article progresses.

Akihiko Yonekawa, a Japanese language professor at Baika Women’s University, says that “Muroji” is not a proper phonetic spelling, so if that is the goal it should be spelled “Murooji.” According to the direct transcription of kana characters, it would be “Murouji,” but that does not comply with Hepburn’s principles. The professor notes that prohibiting macrons made the whole process more difficult.

West Japan Railway Co. agrees. Forgoing the Hepburn system, the railway firm uses macrons for names with long vowel sounds, like Kyoto.

Macrons were used in romanization for decades after World War II, but in 1986 the transport ministry prohibited them.

“We don’t know the details as to the change,” says a transport ministry official.

“But we presume that Roman characters with macrons were not used for many of the road signs in the past, and those officials in charge of the changes might have thought it would be difficult for foreigners to understand the Roman alphabet with added macrons, since there are no macrons in English.”

As far as Yonekawa is concerned, the problem comes down to indifference. “Japanese people stick to how kanji are used appropriately, but they show little interest in other types of characters,” he says with a sigh.

Difficult for foreigners to understand the Roman alphabet with added macrons? Perhaps what the official means is that without macrons even the most ignorant foreigners can imagine that they know how to pronounce Japanese correctly. But with them they might have cause to doubt. Is that really such a bad thing?

source: Long vowels spell confusion for temple, International Herald Tribune & Asahi Shimbum, March 7,2006

a geisha by any other character

This has to do with Memoirs of a Geisha. But I don’t give a hoot about what is probably a profoundly silly movie that I have no intention of paying money to see. Nor do I care about Beijing’s profoundly silly objections to it. What I’m interested here is how Chinese characters were manipulated for the name.

In Mandarin, the word for “geisha” is yìjì, which is written ?? in traditional Chinese characters and ?? in “simplified” Chinese characters. The word for “memoirs” is huíyìlù, written ??? (??? in simplified characters).

Thus, Memoirs of a Geisha could be translated as Yìjì huíyìlù, which it has been up to a point. (This is something of a surprise in itself, because Western movies tend to be completely retitled in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China rather than have their titles translated into Mandarin. There’s a tedious sameness to most of these titles, which tend to imitate titles of other popular movies and throw in ? (ài, love) a lot.)

As written in Chinese characters, the title in Taiwan of the movie is ?????, not the expected ?????. Note the difference in the second character:

? vs. ?

The form in the movie title has the “person” radical ?, while the original form has the “woman” radical ?.

The one with the woman radical is strongly associated with prostitution. Here are a few of the many prostitution-related words that contain this character:

  • ?? ch?ngjì n. prostitute; streetwalker
  • ??? ch?ngjìgu?n p.w. brothel
  • ?? jìgu?n p.w. brothel
  • ?? jìn? n. prostitute
  • ?? jìyuàn p.w. brothel
  • ?? yíngjì n. prostitutes serving military units
  • ?? zh?ngjì n. zither-playing courtesan

Even a word for male prostitute takes this character: ?? (jìnán).

Here, by way of contrast, are some of the words containing the character with the “person” radical:

  • ?? (also ??) jìqi?o n. (1) technique; skill; craftsmanship; dexterity (2) acrobatic gymnastics
  • ???? cáijìzh?shì f.e. a person of outstanding ability in craftsmanship
  • ??? g?w?jì n. (1) (trad.) female dancer/singer (2) (Jp.) Kabuki
  • ???? gu?yùjìli?ng id. devilish stratagem; evil tactics
  • ??/? gùjì n. old trick/tactics
  • ???? gùjìchóngy?n f.e. play the same old tricks; be up to one’s old tricks again
  • ?? jiànjì n. inferior/lowly arts
  • ???? jì’érzh?c? f.e. One’s cleverness stops here.
  • ?/?? jìli?ng n. (1) trick; intrigue; maneuver (2) skill; dexterity; craft
  • ?? jìyì n. (1) mechanical arts (2) expert skill

So the switch from ? to ? was an attempt to soften the connotations of prostitution, changing Memoirs of a Geisha (i.e. prostitute, in common association, whether that’s just or not) to Memoirs of a Skilled Performer. It also brings to the fore the phonetic basis for Chinese characters as it is no coincidence that ? and ? are pronounced the same. This same phonetic basis, however, is why the revised name isn’t really different; it just looks different. All this is the written equivalent of fancy footwork. It doesn’t really change a thing. Yìjì is the word for geisha, so that’s what is going to come to mind, not “skillful performer” — not unless the movie-title’s usage somehow becomes widely used and longlasting. But I doubt it.

After all, the translators could have adopted another word for geisha, g?jì, which takes both forms: ?? and ??. So why not use ?? and get rid of that troublesome ? character without bending any usage? Because the main word for geisha is still yìjì, and geji is also used for prostitutes (there’s that word again) who sang and danced. And maybe some people would have been expecting a musical because of ? (g?, song).

Although it might sound sophisticated for the translators to have played with Chinese characters this way, it’s not really all that different from naming a band Wyld Stallyns instead of Wild Stallions.

Memoirs of a Wyld Stallyn? Hmm. Now that might have potential.

source: ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Lost in Political Din, IPS, February 7