The Nanbanjin Nikki


Otaku and otaku

Once again I face the end of Sunday night having written nothing, and with an exam due tomorrow. If I try to work on one thing, I’ll feel guilty about the other. Then I figured: why not post about the exam contents? 一石二鳥!


Kanjigen updates

In lieu of an essay, today I’ve made several long-overdue updates to my comparative “character etymology” tool, Kanjigen. Changes include:


MS-DOS manga

Jeg kan ikke norsk! Jeg kan ikke snakke litt norsk, even. And that’s quite worrying since Norwegian exams are coming, er, in 2 dager. Being unable to write much about Japanske at the moment, I bring as an offering this manga I found last week for R$1:


Japanese word boundaries: inflected nouns?

The other day there was a discussion on No-Sword that turned to the topic of word separation, and I’d like to salvage my comments and throw together a post, even if it’s redundant—there are a couple of interesting papers that I believe are deserving of more exposure.

Japanese, like the scriptio continua of Classical Greek and Latin, is written without spaces; but romanized Japanese needs spacing, and, lacking a well-established tradition, we are often at a loss on whether to space a compound or not (akishigure, aki-shigure, aki shigure?). Investigating this opens a whole can of worms. Valéry once said that words are like fragile planks over the abyss; we cross words to reach meaning everyday without any difficulty, but if you stop on top of a word to examine it—say, “time” or “being”—the word promptly breaks and you find yourself falling. And this applies to the word “word” itself. The way I see it, there are at least three major usages of “word”:


The upward slant in Eastern and Western calligraphy

Having exams tomorrow, I’ll leave you with a quick observation on comparative handwriting. (more…)

English translated lyrics for Ningen Isu, Rashômon

Back in my youth, I thought that One Day I’d know enough Japanese to translate the songs of rock bands I like, and I’d become famous and loved as an Internet lyrics translator. This memory popped out of the blue, and I thought: I wonder if I could do it already? I’ve read the original for Rashômon, after all, and this isn’t Onmyô-za; how hard it could be?

Well… quite hard. :)


Lurie on Lafcadio Hearn and insects

Pardonne-moi, readers, for again I find myself too exhausted to blog. I’ll take the easy way out by merely pointing you to a totally rad paper I found some days ago: Orientomology: The Insect Literature of Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904). Kudos to David B. Lurie for not only writing it, but also making it freely available outside paywalls—he has some more stuff on his site, so I hope he won’t mind if I make this non-rotated version available here, for the benefit of those without a rotating browser plugin.


Japanese words for clouds

I’m tired of the social barriers that a foreigner faces when trying to study Japanese culture (beyond anime). I’ve decided to change fields once again, and move into ethnometeorology. To start with, let’s see a few poetical Japanese words for clouds and… Shimatta! Forget it, I suck at this. I can’t do April Fools—I wouldn’t be able to keep a poker face for my life.


Literature as possession

For today’s filler post, just a passage that I liked from Daidôji Shinsuke: The Early Years (a short story from Akutagawa’s semi-autobiographical period):



Despite his taste for folklore and bestiaries (which Kappa satirizes, along with lots of other things), and despite his more accessible stories, Akutagawa Ryûnosuke certainly wasn’t a fantasy or sci-fi author. I feel a little bit dirty by doing this to serious capital-L Literary Literature. But (to paraphrase Zhuang-zi) how could someone of my persuasion, already being of my persuasion, decide otherwise? So, here’s everything we know of Kappanese:


It’s OK to use double-storey “a” in pīnyīn

A curious typographic custom seems to have developed in Chinese pīnyīn usage: the idea that the letter “a” should be of the round, handwritten-like sort.

example of video using single-storey ‘a’ for pīnyīn


Modern reconstructions of Old Japanese: Miyake and Frellesvig

After writing all those posts summarizing some of Miyake and Frellesvig’s research, I figured I was missing their actual reconstructions! Without further ado, Old Japanese reconstructed phonetics:


How to bewitch foxes and curse people

As you certainly know, foxes (kitsune) are magical creatures. They can create illusions and take the form of humans; they can become invisible and ethereal, and in this form possess humans, causing illness and madness. But did you know that you, too, can get your very own fox-familiar to obey your every depraved wish?


Beyond man’yôgana: characters as art in the Man’yôshû

There’s a widespread but simplistic notion of the evolution of writing in Japan that goes like this:

This narrative misconstrues or obscure several facts:

This is not an scholarly essay; I just want to cite some illustrations of the last bullet-point, because I find them as perplexing as they’re fun. Readers who need more are pointed to the references.


Phonogram transcriptions of Old Japanese: Miyake’s five systems

“Writing” in Japan up until the Nara period (8c) often meant writing in Classical Chinese, but there are a number of extant texts in Japanese that make up our earliest records of the language—notoriously the songs collected in the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki and the Man’yôshû. Because the Chinese writing system is designed to represent Chinese-specific morphemes and syllables, adapting it to represent Japanese was a complex task (since neither morphemes nor sounds coincide between the languages). Writers in the past came up with a number of different techniques, some of them quite complicated, to represent Japanese using Chinese characters (in fact, the Man’yôshû actually took delight in scriptural-level complexity and indirectness). However, for modern readers interested in the Old Japanese (OJ) language itself, the most important technique was also the simplest: a notation that used Chinese characters phonetically to represent OJ syllables. In this the Japanese followed earlier Chinese and Korean transcription practices, which they learned together with the writing system from their Paekche instructors.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for the modern reader to decipher even this “simple” phonological notation based on Chinese characters (hereafter “phonograms”). Not only has the phonology of Japanese changed since then, but the Chinese family of languages also kept changing (often radically), and in any given case it’s not obvious from which variety of Chinese—or Sino-Korean—the Japanese based their choice of phonograms. The textual evidence makes it clear that at different epochs they have used several different, conflicting sources for phonetics. Marc Hideo Miyake identifies five such “systems of sinographic reading” that were used to try to write down Japanese. To put it another way, written Chinese was a moving target; every so often the Japanese would come in contact with a new cultural influx that would teach new “correct readings” for the characters, which meant they had to change which phonograms should be used to represent Japanese (which of course was also a moving target).