The Nanbanjin Nikki


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).


A couple items of 2ch slang

I was watching Hokuto no Ken and suddenly Sunday’s already over. Why are vacations always like this?

I said I’d write something once a week, not matter how trivial, so here are two 2ch vocabulary items I enjoy in a “painful groan” kind of way:


Portuguese as decoration

I started a longish post but couldn’t find the mojo to finish it this weekend, so instead here’s a funny picture:


Linguistic ghosts of Sino-Japanese: go-on, kan-on, tôsô-on and other misnomers

Sometimes people ask from what variety of Chinese did each of the traditional kanji “readings” came. Short answer, according to Miyake:

Long answer: it’s complicated.


Alphabetic transcriptions of Old Japanese

(This is about modern transcriptions using the Latin alphabet; if you’re looking for historical Old Japanese transcription techniques, might I interest you in this other post?)

Because I’m quoting material from different works in this blog, I can end up citing various transcriptions and romanizations, which can be confusing. In fact I am confused. This post is to attempt to set things straight about how people represent Old Japanese (OJ) words in modern texts.


The Old Japanese binary numeral system

In discussions of Japanese, the secondary number system (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu &c.) is often described as “remnants of an older, native system” without further explanation. Kudos to Miller 1967 for actually describing the older, native system—at least as far as the limited written records allow us. I often want to refer to it so I’m copying it here.