A bowl of ramen is a self contained eating experience that goes beyond and differs from that provided by its soup counterparts around the world. For the most part, a bowl of soup is either blended or at least uniform in look and in taste-no matter where you put your spoon you will be met with a mouthful of taste and texture that will be repeated till you reach the bottom of the bowl. Ramen is much more than that of even a typical noodle soup in that it ever so majestically props up 2, 3 or even up to 9 or 10 ‘toppings’, spanning from ‘Cha-shu-‘ (slices of fatty, roasted pork), a boiled, raw or marinated egg, moyashi (bean sprouts), and/or several other ‘toppings’ that I will cover later.
To begin your anticipated eating adventure it is fairly standard to dip the Renge (Chinese ceramic spoon) into the soup upon which you will then slurp the hot broth into your mouth to get your first taste of what is to come. This slurping of the soup, and of course of the noodles as well, serves to both cool the temperature of the soup a bit as well as to increase the the taste and texture of the overall experience.
From here you are ready to selectively enjoy toppings one at a time, focus on a bunch of noodles that you have expertly gathered with your chopsticks, entwine the noodles together with a single topping, or float around taking a sampling approach targeting 1, 2 or a few toppings at a time.
You will notice that not too much talking is going on with your Japanese friends as the Japanese tend to be quiet and reserved at the best of times and when the TPO (I have heard that this is a uniquely Japanese term meaning ‘Time, Place and Occasion’) calls for it. As we all know eating ramen is definitely one of those times that calls for quiet and speed. Fast, focused and quiet is the way to eat ramen, no ifs, ands or buts when it comes to ramen.
How did ramen originate in, or come to Japan, and in what manner did this come about? Debate on to what degree ramen is uniquely a Japanese dish and to what degree is it an import from China.
The origin of the name ‘Ramen’:
Hypothesis #1:’Ramen’ ＜ラーメン、らーめん, 老麺, 老麺＞is said mostly likely to come from a type of noodle that has been in existence in China since way back in time. This noodle type is called, lā miàn, lamian,<拉麺>, and is made by repeatedly stretching out a flour based dough until it results in long elastic noodles. ‘Lamian’ literally means ‘pulled noodles in Chinese. As you can probably already surmise, it is theorized that the name ramen came from a Japanization of the Chinese pronunciation of ”Lamian’ and while this seems to be the most obvious explanation, there are others.
Hypothesis #2: This proposal is that ‘Ramen’ is a derivation of a type of noodle in China that makes use of a fermentation process when making the flour based dough which is referred to using the Kanji of ,’老‘ <meaning ‘to age’ and read as ‘Rou’>, and ‘麺‘ <meaning noodles>. So this hypothesis proposes that ‘Ramen’ comes from, ‘老麺‘, or Roumen, meaning ‘aged noodles’.
Hypothesis #3: This one proposes that the word ‘Ramen’ comes from a restaurant named, ‘Takeya’ <竹屋> that opened in Hokkaido’s Sapporo city in 1922. Apparently the wife of the owner of the shop really enjoyed the way the Chinese cook would yell out, ‘Haora-!’- meaning, ‘It’s ready!’ when he would declare the soup was ready to be served. The pronunciation then went on to morph into ‘Ramen’ amongst the customers of this shop. This one sounds a bit far fetched to me personally, but it is kind of fun to consider anyway.
Hypothesis #4:The name of a certain Chuuka Soba restaurant in Asakusa called ‘柳麺‘ <Ryuumen> went on to the derivated name of ‘ramen’.
A brief history of the birth of Ramen:
It is speculated that the first person to eat ramen in Japan was none other than the famous Ibaraki Daimyou, Tokugawa Mitsukuni who was fictionalized as the ridiculously popular character of ‘Mito Koumon’. This take on things proposes that a Chinese adviser to the Daimyou had prepared and served to Mitsukuni a Chinese soup later called ‘Shiru Soba’. But it would be stretching things a bit to equate ‘Shiru Soba’ with ramen and it was most likely nothing more than the aforementioned ‘Lamian’ noodles served in a light broth of some kind. That said, once again, it is fun to ponder on such an occurrence.
From some time around the second half of the Meiji period (ran from 1868 to 1912) small outdoor stands began to appear in the China town area of Yokohama that sold a noodle soup called, ‘Nanking soba’. This soup however was still quite far from what could honestly be called equivalent what we consider to be ramen today. It was, apparently lacking in any of the toppings like cha-shu-, menma or dried seaweed that are so common now and only featured chopped green onion placed on top of a salt flavored, clear soup with simple ramen noodles and was not called ramen regardless. It can, however, be considered to be the authentic roots of present day ramen. Most people who study ramen in Japan consider the birth of ramen to be toward the end of the Meiji period, in 1910 when a shop in Asakusa, ‘Rairaiken’ ＜来々軒＞began selling a soy sauce flavored, pork and chicken broth soup that was called ‘Chuuka Soba’ <Chinese noodles> and yet which could not be mistaken for anything other than ramen. The owner of ‘Rairaiken’, Ozaki Kanichi, opened up the shop with a staff of 12 Chinese cooks that he lured away from Yokohama’s China town to help him in his endeavor. Ozaki’s courageous and risky move of selling a pork/chicken bone based noodle soup amidst an environment in Japan where there was not a single shop doing so, as most restaurants in Japan up until then were Katsuo <Bonito> and/or Konbu <kelp> based soups, paid off. ‘Rairaiken’ proved to be a huge hit with its simple menu of Chuuka Soba, Wan tan and Shumai and a catch copy that doesn’t sound out of place even today – ‘Chuuka Soba is cheap, delicious and will fill you up’. Unfortunately, this historic shop closed its doors in 1976.
The further development of the popularity and standardization of ramen took its next step with a noodle shop in Sapporo around 1922 with the opening of this shop, ‘Takeya’. A Chinese cook working at the shop added genuine Chinese recipes to Takeya’s menu which resulted in an explosion of popularity that prompted one of its regular customers, university professor, to request that they change the name to ‘Shina Ryouri-Takeya’ <Ramen cuisine- Takeya>. This Chinese cook, Ou Bunzai, went on to adjust the taste of his soups to more suit the taste of the shop’s Japanese customers by making the, until then, oily soup to a more miso based one topped with Cha-shu-, menma, and green onions resulting in the ever popular, Sapporo ramen. This development as added great impetus to the growth in the popularity of ramen all across Japan and can perhaps also lay claim to being the first ‘real’ ramen of Japan.
Another rather unknown factor behind the booming popularity of ramen in its early years was non other than that of General MacArthur. In an effort to spur on political unrest, leftists in Japan were playing up on the food shortages at the time for their own benefit were cleverly bypassed with MacArthur’s diverting of extra American wheat supplies to ramen shops and ramen carts. He even ordered the distribution of fliers saying things like, ‘America is spending $250 million for your food’, and ‘Learn to appreciate it properly’. These efforts resulted in a further boom in the popularity of this wheat based noodle soup.
Not to go overboard (too late?) in looking at the spread of ramen it would be negligent of me to not mention the iconic ‘sound’ of ramen. This is the sound of the ‘Charumera’ that vendors would (and in some places still do) play to announce the arrival of their ramen carts (or trucks). The Charumera is also used as part of the musical accompaniment section of Kabuki plays.
It is said that even the great writer, ‘Edogawa Ranpo’ <江戸川乱歩>, (and yes that is a play on Edgar Allen Poe – but I won’t go into that any more here because, well…..) used to pull one of these ramen carts around to make money before he became a best selling author.
Mentioning one more piece of trivia about the popularization of ramen, or instant ramen, was surprisingly the ‘Asama-Sansou incident’.
In 1972 members of the United Red Army took a Nagano inn keeper’s wife hostage in the Asama Sansou (inn) which resulted in a 10 day siege on the inn by the Japanese police. Over the 10 days of which much was covered on Japanese TV, the police as well as the hostage takers were seen to be subsisting on Cup Ramen in styrofoam cups. This precious free advertising in a particuarly high tension event helped to make Cup ramen perhaps the most long running and popular comfort food in all of Japan.
From one year to the next for as long as I have lived in Japan ramen is always ranked in the top 3 favorite foods usually following in 2nd or 3rd place behind sushi which is always #1. What explains this, and what exactly IS ramen?
It is commonly known amongst ramen aficionados that ramen is composed of the following 5 elements:
Chuuka soba noodles
Tare <たれ、垂れ> (a liquid blend of various elements)
An oil blend
Chuukamen <Chinese noodles>
Ramen noodles are made using wheat flour, salt and the ingredient that really separates ramen noodles from other types, ‘Kansui’ water which is an alkaline water that contains sodium and potassium carbonate. This ‘Kansui’ water was first employed when it was discovered that the water taken from salty lakes in China (Mongolia) would add firmness <Koshi> and a shimmering look to the noodles. It also apparently gives ramen noodles their unique, slightly yellowish look. Up until the end of World War 2 in 1945 most of the Kansui water used was imported from China. Following the war it was discovered that alkali carbonate produced in domestic Japan was perfectly acceptable. In recent years it has further been discovered that if the wheat flour is of a high enough quality it is easy to create ramen noodles made using salt that are indistinguishable from ‘Kansui’ water ones.
The noodles vary greatly in thickness depending on the type of soup they are to be used with. Generally speaking, the ‘heavier’ and richer the soup is the thinner the noodle. They also can be shaped in the wavy style that you often see with instant ramen noodles, or in a straight style that is often the preferred type amongst ‘ramen maniacs’.
Types of soup/ramen
This is a ramen made centered around a light pork and/or chicken broth that is flavored with soy sauce and a light Japanese ‘Dashi’ of dried seafoods and seaweeds and is quite often often taken to be ‘Tokyo ramen’, or kind of the standard image of ramen and is even a ‘Space food’ as this type of ramen has been consumed on space shuttle flights.
This ramen is based around a pork bone broth that is blended in with miso and originated in Sapporo, Hokkaidou. On the scale of thickness the noodles used in Miso ramen tend to be a bit thicker than than norm and the soup itself often features such toppings as corn, various vegetables and even a slab of Hokkaidou butter.
Tonkotsu (pork bones) ramen
Tonkotsu is made based on a rich, milky broth that is created by boiling pork bones over high heat for an extended period of time creating a thick broth full of collagen. In addition to this, the inosinic acid, fat and gelatin also play a part in producing a soup rich in umami that has a deep satisfying taste (can you guess what type I like the best?). The only drawback is that it can on occasion give off a slightly gamey smell which calls for a greater use of garlic, ginger and other spices. Tonkotsu ramen is most strongly associated with the Hakata ramen ＜博多ラーメン＞ of Kyuushuu.
Significance of the designs in Ramen bowls
Dragon mark <龍、Ryuu, Tatsu＞
This design is a symbol of a fictitious dragon that had the power to rain down sweet nectar and to make crops grow. As a general rule, only the Emperor could make use of this mark, but in the event that it was to be used by his vassals the dragon had to have only 4 claws distinguishing it from the Emperor’s design that had 5.
Phoenix mark <鳳凰, Ho Ou>
This mark is also a fictitious phoenix-like bird that in China was thought to be the greatest symbol of good luck.
The ‘鳳‘ represents the Emperor while the ‘凰‘, the Empress.
Lightning mark <雷文, Raimon, Kaminarimon>
This mark, ‘Raimon,Kaminarimon’ is the most orthodox ramen bowl design made up of repeating squarish whirlpools. It symbolizes the awesome power of nature in the form of lightning.
Happiness, Joy mark <双喜文, Soukimon>
This design is literally the Kanji ‘喜ぶ‘ doubled up. ‘Yorokobu’ means happiness or joy and so this obviously means tons of happiness and since 1 can represent the groom and 1, the bride, this mark is also often used for wedding ceremonies.
Have you heard of this social phenomena known as ‘Noodle Harassment’?
Briefly stated it is another in a long line of real, or subjectively real, or purported to be real, but is in actuality a mode of simply complaining about any and everything that supposedly ‘hurts’ one. This very recent, and luckily rare complaint by non-Japanese that the act of someone sitting next to, or near you who is slurping their ramen, soba or udon noodles bothers you to the extent that you suffer a mild to beyond mild form of trauma. Yes, this is apparently true. There are even shops in Tokyo (and perhaps elsewhere) that now offer partitioned seats so these ever so tender hearts do not have to be exposed to the, gasp, horrendous act of a Japanese person happily slurping away at their noodles in their vicinity.
Why is this such a silly claim (as if you needed to be educated about it)?
First, slurping cools the noodles and the broth and makes it more easy to eat. Sure, this factor does not apply to cold noodles, but the other ones do. Read on.
Second, slurping aerates the noodles and more importantly the broth which makes the tastes mellow out and expand in flavor on your taste buds before you swallow. Scientifically speaking it actually makes the soup and noodles taste better. I have seen this explained in detail on TV before (the Japanese love these kinds of shows) and I for one was totally convinced. Wine tasters frequently do this ‘slurping’ effect when tasting wine. You will also notice that after a liquid is in your mouth, giving it a chew will release extra aromatics for you.
A quote found on line about this:
“‘Deliciousness” is conveyed by the sound of slurping, and further, slurping does in fact make the noodle taste better. In a graphic, the expert showed how wine connoisseurs gurgle wine, sucking air through their mouths to force air into the nasal passage, allowing the flavors to spread. The concept is the same with slurping noodles. The flavors of the noodles and soup are multiplied when slurping. The gaijin panel as well as the Japanese host and observers had their “aha” moment and the gaijins decided they would practice slurping.”
Thirdly, to some degree eating ramen is a battle with speed. If you take too long to eat your ramen, the noodles will get mushy (or as the Japanese say, ‘Nobiru’) and that is never a good thing.
Fourthly, and I don’t want to just say, ‘Hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans’, but it just looks bad; I mean really bad when someone (I never seen a Japanese person over the age of 5 do this) gently places noodles in their mouth and politely chews on them. It honestly ruins one’s appetite, I mean it ruins it for the one witnessing such a freakish act.
Following are a few quotes from Japanese upon hearing about Nu-hara ＜ヌーハラ＞：
I saw an announcer on TV who was so proud of herself for taking care not to slurp her noodles in front of a foreigner in a ramen shop. How crazy is that? So much for ‘Nu-hara’, it is the foreigners who blasphemize Japanese culture that are in the wrong. That’s it, ‘culture harassment’….abbreviated as, ‘Karuhara’.
‘Noodle harassment?! This is Japan! Noodles taste good precisely because you slurp them!’
‘It is totally out of place for foreigners to tell the Japanese how they are to eat noodles.’
‘So what is next? Are Indians going to come here and tell us to eat rice with our right hand?’
I am sure that there will continue to be foreigners who are put off and apparently even mildly traumatized by the sound of Japanese who make a slurping sound when they (we) eat noodles, but I personally can see no compelling reason to not do so.
It would not be fair to write a bit about ramen and not mention the great movie, ‘Tampopo’. If you haven’t seen it and you love Japan and Japanese food and culture, you must put it at the top of your list of movies to watch. It is a comedy, but through this kind of Japanese ‘Shane’ as Japanese ramen master, you will learn a great deal about Japan and ramen.
I sat down wanting to simply write about the elusive and ever charming Japanese smile from both an explanatory and a linguistic point of view. You understand, I believe, what I mean by the Japanese smile. For those of you who do not, there is a subtle, almost unreadable, subtle feeling about the nuanced Japanese smile that is understandable but yet not understandable about how the Japanese can smile without just saying ‘I am happy’, or ‘ I am smiling, but my smile is communicating something else’. I want to expound upon this and perhaps much more in this post. I knew that I could just overwhelm the reader with examples both visually and linguistically but I realized I need to talk about so much that happens behind the scenes to make it understandable.
First of all we have to look at the concept that is so embedded in the Japanese mind of Honne and Tatemae.
Honne, <本音>, or literally stated as ‘the real sound’, or in understandable terms, ‘one’s true thinking, feeling, or opinion’
Tatemae, <建て前 >, or literally stated as ‘a structure build in front’, or in understandable terms, ‘thinking, feeling, or opinions expressed to not cause friction with those you are dealing with’.
In other words, Honne means one’s held to the chest, authentic thoughts, feelings or words. In the West these would be held above all others as authentic and those thoughts and feelings that we should honor and express beyond all else. I mean, of course, to do otherwise would be to be inauthentic and bordering upon or actually entering into the realm of dishonesty and lying.
So, Honne, one’s true feelings. When would it NOT be a good thing to express these thoughts? Even in the West, one would not say, ‘Hey, you are fat!’ upon seeing a friend who has grown in stature over the years. OK, so how about Japan? That would be the same in Japan. You would not draw attention to something unflattering to one in Japan either. But, yet it is different.
One the most imprinted on my memory experiences, and one that I wish beyond all things had never happened. What did happen was when two newlyweds (and I will leave their names out of this blog) died in a car crash when they were on their way to my house in the countryside town of Ujiie. I do not actually want to talk about this as it is too personal and yet I will will use it as an example of the way the Japanese deal with that most defining emotional state of life and that is Death. My friend M-san was on her way to to my house with her newlywed husband, T-san, when they were hit by a truck as they attempted a U-turn. I heard, along with my friend, K-san, a crash on the main road outside of my house. Upon going to the crash site we saw that they had both died upon impact. I went to the hospital and I gave my final words to the two of them.
It was the next day or two days later, that I experienced Honne/Tatemae upon going to the wake preceding the funeral. 25 or so friends were gathered in my friend’s coffee shop. Everyone was dressed in black, formal wear and yet everyone ‘seemed’ to be having a great time- having fun and talking about everything other than M and T’s lives. I couldn’t take in the brevity and the fun, almost off hand nature of what was happening. I lost it. I blew up and threw a wall mounted clock on the floor and yelled at everyone, ‘What are you doing?! This is supposed to be a time to honor our friends. How can you be so cheerful and insensitive to act like nothing has happened?’. This, it goes without saying did not go over so well.
It was only years later when I realized that I had experienced a full bore example of Honne and Tatemae.
In the country I come from, the United States of America, I was taught from the earliest age to express directly what I actually felt. You know, ‘if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you’re angry and you know it, stomp your feet’. To express your true thinking at all times was a sign of being an honest and strong individual. To not do so was to be two-faced. How does this go over in the unique society of Japan? Well, not so well.
Let’s take a look at the differences between Japan and the West, and even between Japan and its neighbors in Asia. To facilitate things I will give examples of differences between Japan and America knowing that these examples can be extrapolated out to the differences between Japan and other countries as well.
The degree of homogeneity
The percentage of Japanese living in Japan at the present time is around 98.7% The 1.3% who are Non-Japanese are comprised in order by Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians, Filipinos and, followed by Americans in 5th place making up a shocking total of 0.0003% of the total number of human beings living in Japan.
The percentage of Americans living in America if you consider the Native American Indians as being the true inhabitants of America the percentage would be from 1 to 2 percent.
You may be saying that that is an unfair calculation but considered from the scope of historical time I would say at least to express the degree of homogeneity that this is perfectly fair.
Japan as a Nation has the longest unbroken history in the world, by far.
Japan began with Emperor Jinmu in BCE 660 making Japan over 2,600 years old with an unbroken lineage of 126 Emperors.
Historical Emperors of Japan
America by contrast could be considered as having started with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, or the inauguration of Washington as the first president in 1789. Either way, its history is still less than 1/10th that of Japan. For longer than the period of time that United States of America has been a country, Japan was an isolated country (and isolated by deliberate choice) where only the very, very few were allowed either in or out of the country. This period is what we know as the Edo period, the period of Sakoku (isolated country), or the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This was a period in World history that historians agree was one of the most amazing periods of peace, a flourishing of the arts, manners and sophistication as well as a deepening of highly refined culture that ever took place on the world stage. Anyway, my point is, is that the Japanese over hundreds and hundreds of years developed a society and culture wherein every Japanese knew to a deep degree what another Japanese was thinking and feeling with just a brief glance. This ability developed to the degree where in Japan they can it, ‘Ishin Denshin’ ＜以心伝心＞, meaning the ability to convey one’s thoughts or feelings without relying on words – something that comes close to telepathy without relying on a supernatural explanation. The Japanese also talk now and in the past about the importance of ‘reading the air’ – ‘Kuuki wo yomu’, ＜空気を読む＞. This refers to reading the atmosphere of the situation and knowing how to act so as not to cause friction or to dispel the harmony of what is taking place amongst the people you find yourself with in a given situation. The comedian Dave Barry in his book ‘Dave Barry does Japan’ talks about this saying that to him it felt like the Japanese could communicate to one another in the way two comedians who had memorized a joke book. In the joke book all the jokes were numbered. And as each comedian had perfectly memorized all the jokes in the book, they could merely say to the other, ‘Hey, what about number 273?’ to send the other comedian into stitches. It is much in this manner that the Japanese are able to communicate a huge amount of subtle meaning with a short, pithy word or even a slight physical expression. And it is here that I feel I can finally dig into the idea I had for this blog, which is the subtle nuances both physical and linguistic of the Japanese smile.
OK, here we go.
In Japan, or rather in Japanese, almost going against what I have proposed in that there is a deeper level in sublimity, in Japanese there is only one base word for smile/laugh and that is Warau ＜笑う＞、(わらう). Warau can be used for smile and warau plus voice for laugh. I did at least one time ‘laugh out loud’ when someone would ask me to ‘waratte’ when taking a picture when they were asking me to just smile.
Japanese is funny. It is based on a long, long period of time of Yamato kotoba or purely vocalized language up until around 500 CE when the Chinese Kanji entered into the way the Japanese communicated.
Apparently the roots of the word ‘Warau’ came from a variation of the word, ‘Waru’ ＜割る＞, meaning to break or split. This referred to the mouth opening or splitting and it is not a far stretch to go from ‘waru’ to ‘warau’. And this refers to the kind of smile where you emit a voice as well, or what in the West we would call a laugh.
When one ‘splits’ the mouth without vocal emission the word ‘Emu’, ＜笑む＞, (えむ), was used for smile.
Imai Miki singing ‘Hitomi ga Hohoemu Kara’
There is also the word, ‘Hohoemu’, ＜微笑む/頬えむ＞、which means the cheeks、＜頬＞、’Hoho’ relax in a slight splitting mannerwhich refers to what we in the West would call a smile but is in a way in modern Japan a more refined or subtle word for smile than how we would use the word. In fact, for daily life and for things like taking pictures and so on, the Japanized version of smile, ＜スマイル＞, is used.
And now on to the Kanji that is used for ‘Warau’ – that is to say if you are still with me on this, and believe I would not blame you if you are not. Even the Japanese do not usually delve into things this deeply.
The Kanji used for ‘Warau’ is ＜笑う＞.
According to some, this represents two hands (the upper characters) held out in an expression of ecstasy with the bottom part being a variation on the Kanji for the human body. So what kind of ecstasy is this talking about? Well, it is said to be a representation of a Miko (Shintou maiden) raising her hands
and dancing wildly in the ecstasy of a magic spell.
The bottom part of the Kanji is a derivative Kanji representing the human body. This makes for quite a exorbitant and wild depiction of someone laughing.
The ‘ON’ or Chinese reading for ‘Warau’ is ‘Shou’ and this is how it is read and pronounced in word combinations.
So, at long last, lets dig into the some of the variations of words and expressions for the Japanese smile.
Words using ‘Warau/Shou’
The laughter of a group of people that erupts all at once in unison.
*Also, the name of a famous comedy duo, ‘Bakushou Mondai’
A faint, kind smile.
A sneer. A mocking smile.
Literally means a cold smile.
Literally means to make fun of someone by laughing at them.
A sardonic or disdainful smile.
A seductive, enticing, alluring smile.
A laugh or a smile used to dismiss or disregard something.
A forced, feigned or fake smile or laugh.
Literally means a ‘created smile/laugh’.
A laugh that bursts out when one is unable to hold back a laugh in a situation where it is most inappropriate to laugh or smile.
A wry smile.
Literally, a bitter smile.
This is when one laughs softly or smiles in an embarrassed way having made a mistake or having done something awkward.
にやりと笑う ＜Niyari to Warau＞
ニヤニヤと笑う ＜NiyaNiya to Warau＞
ゲラゲラと笑う ＜GeraGera to Warau＞
To laugh in a loud voice without concern for others.
げらげら笑いのどん腹立て ＜GeraGera Warai no Donbaratate＞
Someone who suddenly goes from laughing joyfully to being angry all in a split second, or someone who emotionally unstable and filled with a wide variety of uncontrolled emotions.
笑う顔に矢立たず ＜Warau Kao ni Ya Tatazu ＞
Meaning if someone meets you with a smiling face your feeling of
animosity and hatred will nature drop away.
Literally means an arrow can not stay standing up on a laughing face.
笑う門には福来る ＜Warau Kado ni ha Fuku Kitaru＞
Happiness comes to those who are happy and cheerful.
I had never considered the need to write about ‘Setsubun’ in my blog as apparently I had forgotten that it might not be very well known outside of Japan. It has only been in the last few years when I have casually talked with Japanese people about ‘Setsubun’, or, ‘Setsubun no hi’ that I realized that many, if not most, Japanese don’t understand it very well themselves.
First of all, spoken concisely, what is ‘Setsubun no Hi’?
It is a date falling on February 3rd where people all over Japan gather at temples or shrines, as well at their own house or school, and throw roasted soy beans while chanting, ‘Oni ha soto, Fuku ha uchi’ <Happiness in, Demons out >.
So, why do the Japanese do this? It seems to be such a strange custom.
The main meaning behind Setsubun is to celebrate the coming of Spring. Yes, that is right, Spring begins astronomically speaking on February 3rd or 4th. That does not mean it starts on this date in Japan, it means for the Northern Hemisphere winter ends on this date and thus Spring begins. It is easy to calculate this for yourself if you don’t believe me.
The shortest day of sunlight is December 21 to 23 making it the middle of winter, while June 21 to 23 is the longest day of the year, or the middle of summer. If you calculate out from these days you will come to the fact that Spring starts around the 3rd of February and Fall begins around the 7th or 8th of August.
Anyway, now that we know astronomically speaking that the 3rd of February is the end of Winter and the start of Spring we can look at why it is called Setsubun in Japanese.
Setsu, or 節, referring to the Fushime, 節目, or connecting part of the stem of a plant like a bamboo shoot. People studying Japanese may also see the connection into ‘Kisetsu’, ＜季節＞ meaning season (s). So, now that we know Setsubun means the turning or connecting point leading into Spring we can ask why is it that Japanese throw roasted soy beans while asking the demons to go away.
The common understanding is that around the time of the changing of the seasons it is easy to catch a cold and so one needs to pay attention to one’s health and ‘throw out’ harmful germs, bacteria, viruses, etc in the name of demons. And that is not by any means a bad concept to have as it does seem that it is easier to catch a cold around the changing of the seasons probably more to due with not adapting properly to the change in temperature in regards to how one dresses, heats the home and on and on. But the roots of why Japanese throw roasted soy beans at demons actually goes way back to the first written history (mythology) of Japan, the Kojiki.
In the Kojiki, the creators of the islands of Japan were Izanami and Izanaki.
As the two gods went about the arduous task of creating the islands and the gods needed to manage the lands the wife, Izanami, died giving birth to the final god of the lands – a fire goddess.
After losing his wife to the underworld <Yomi no sekai>, Izanaki ventured into the underworld to attempt to lure his beloved wife back to the land of the living. His attempts to do so eventually only infuriated his wife when he looked upon her decaying, worm-eaten body injuring her pride and breaking his promise of not trying to look at her.
Izanami mounted a full-fledged attack upon him along with her army of little ugly women demons. To flee from her Izanaki threw off the decorative vines he had in his hair to stave off their pursuit. Doing so, the vines turned into grapes which the little ugly women demons stopped to eat. Gaining a bit of time he next threw the bamboo kushi he had used as a decoration in his hair which turned into bamboo sprouts further gaining him some time as the little ugly women demons stopped to devour them.
Safely gaining access to the world of the living he only now had to repel his once beloved wife, Izanami and seal the entrance to the underworld. To do so, he threw peaches, known to have anti-demonic powers at his dead wife and her army and then sealed the entrance with a giant rock.
So, in fact, the most effective way to celebrate ‘Setsubun no hi’ is to throw peaches beseeching the demons to go away. That however, is not so readily possible in modern Japan, so we settle with roasted soy beans.
I hope this has shed a bit of light on this rather arcane tradition.
I want this time to talk about the name of Japan. Sounds like a simple task, but lets remember that Japan is recognized as the country with the longest running, uninterrupted status as a country in the world. Sure India and China were around before Japan as Nation states but they have repeatedly fallen over the course of their histories. Once Japan was established in 660 BCE with its Imperial lineage that has spanned one after the other through 126 Emperors it has not once been overtaken from the outside. If that does not impress you I do not know what will.
So, before we start talking about the names Japan has been known by in the past it is best to state its current, official name which is `日本国｀<Nihon Koku>, the `country of Japan`, or more commonly as simply Japan.
Japan has a land mass of spanning over a length of about 3,000 kilometers. This is stretched across in an arrow-like, or rather more similar to a bow shooting an arrow kind of posture that spans from Okinawa to Hokkaidou. Japan is an island country as are Britain or the Phillipines and is surrounded by 4 seas and those are for your knowledge the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea. While Japan is seen as a small island country let us remember that the oceanic regions measured out to 22 kilometers from the coastline are considered to be in possession of said country. And if you consider that certain rights are granted up to around 370 kilometers on top of this regarding the basic concerns of fishing, resource acquisition, etc you can begin to see that Japan is not such a small country in actuality when all of its remote islands are calculated in and comes out to be the 6th largest country when these sea territories are included.
The most northern lands possessed by Japan are the Hoppouryouchi or Northern territories.
The most eastern islands of Japan are the `Minamitorishima`, or the Marcus Islands.
The most western islands are those of Okinawa. The most southern island of Japan is `Okinotorijima`.
And then if you have been reading/watching the news of recent times you will know of all the disputes and troubles regarding the island located to the west of Japan `Takeshima`, as well as with the hot topic of the Senkaku islands located between Japan and China.
Now to get into the names assigned to Japan we first need to look at Japanese mythology as it is written in the `Kojiki` where the first name of Japan appears. You may all be familiar with this image depicting the creation of the Japanese islands by Izamami, the wife and Izanagi, the husband.
This is something I will start writing about soon, but for now it is enough to know that these two gods created the first island of Japan by stirring a spear in the primeval sea and when Izanagi, the male god, pulled the spear out the droplets that fell off formed into the first island of Japan. It was of course not called Japan at the time but rather `Onogorojima` <淤能碁呂島> which roughly translates as `an island that is formed from itself`. So I guess we could say that the first name of Japan is `Onogorojima`. The complete creation story in the Kojiki is much, much more complicated than this and it involves all kinds of fascinating and wild stories including deformed fetuses that are thrown away only to change into some of the smaller islands of Japan but we will suffice with this for now.
Let us look at the geographical form of Japan.
As you will no doubt know it runs greatly from South to North and thus experiences the 4 seasons in their greatest degree, a lovely fact about living in Japan. Further, being an island country without access to oil it is dependent upon imports to a degree that is not known amongst other developed, or even non-developed countries. The other major feature (and there are so, so many to discuss other than these) is the volcanic and earthquake prone nature of the country.
Japan is situated on the Ring of Fire
and is perhaps the most volcanically active country in the world. And apparently in a close but not well understood relationship along with volcanoes goes earthquakes as well as the sea sourced tsunamis. In fact I started writing this blog on the 28th of June and as I was researching about volcanoes the news came in of the eruption of a volcano on the small, remote island of `Kuchinoerabujima`
The eruption was/is so severe that the entire population of 137 people had to be evacuated.
It is hard to establish exactly what the next name of Japan would be thinking chronologically as Japan did not have a written form of language until the 4th or 5th century and so it is difficult to tell when and where these names first appeared so we will look at them simply as being `ancient`.
`Ooyamatotoyoakitsushima` < 大倭豊秋津島>
The name `Ooyamatotoyoakitsushima` < 大倭豊秋津島> appears in the Kojiki and refers to the initial birth of the main island of Japan, `Honshuu`. `Akitsu` is the ancient name for dragonflies and thus the name creates the image of a land so plentiful in crops and vegetation that the air is filled with flying dragonflies. A lovely image indeed.
Also appearing in the Kojiki and it seems to refer to a time a bit later on in the story of the mythical history of Japan is the most beautiful name of Japan you will come across- Toyoashiharano Chiioakino Mizuhonokuni <豊葦原千五百秋瑞穂国>. `Toyoashihara` means fields plentiful in `Ashi` (a plant with the bland name of `common reed`) obviously meaning fields bountiful in crops. `Chiinoaki` means a very long time or an eternity. And `Mizuhonokuni` means a country that grows luscious saplings which flower into crops, like rice. This name was granted from the gods residing in the heavens, `Takamanohara`<高天原>somewhere around the time the Japanese were beginning to come together as a somewhat unified country and so it appears to be a kind of message or request to the people of the land to ensure a country resplendent in delicious crops for the future descendants into the distant future.
`Kotodama no sakiwaukuni` <言霊の幸はふ国>
This name blew me away as I had never heard until starting to write this. It comes from the book of poetry `Manyoushuu` written in the 8th century and it is written as `Kotodama no sakiwaukuni` <言霊の幸はふ国>. This refers to the idea of spirits or energy latent in words themselves, Kotodama, and literally means a `country that brings happiness through the latent power of words`. Amazing that back even in this time way in the past that the Japanese put such incredible emphasis on the importance of the spoken word.
From sometime before the dawn of the Common Era to around the 6th century CE the Chinese referred to the Japan of the day using the Kanji `倭` which can be read as `Wa` or later `Yamato` in Japanese. Thus Japan was called `Wakoku` and the Japanese people `Wajin`. This Kanji `倭` is not a complimentary word and is kind of like calling someone a little runt. When the Japanese used the pronunciation of `倭` when referring to themselves or to Japan as a country they replaced it with `和` or `Harmony` and also wrote it as `大和` <big harmony>
but read it as `Yamato` which is one the most important and long lasting names of Japan even though it was originally used referring to the extremely powerful clan of the `Yamato` in the Nara area of Japan.
You have probably heard of the expression `Yamato Nadeshiko` if not for any other reason than that that is the nickname of the Japanese women`s soccer team who won the World cup in 2011. Yamato Nadeshiko <大和撫子> refers to the pure, innocent yet strong beauty of a traditional Japanese woman. Yamato -`great harmony`- is combined with Nadeshiko meaning a child that is so cute and charming that you want to stroke their head with affection <Naderu means to pet, stroke or rub with affection>. Nadeshiko is also the name of a flower
and thus adding to the depth of the concept of `Yamato Nadeshiko`. I would say if you want to compliment a Japanese woman to the highest level you could find no better thing to say than that they are a prime example of `Yamato Nadeshiko`.
The Kanji that we use now for Japan `日本` which can be read as `Nihon`, `Nippon`, or even `Hinomoto`. Up until the middle of the 7th century the Japanese used `倭`<Wa> as the name of Japan in diplomatic dealings and as said earlier `和` <Wa> for internal matters.Early in the 7th century the famous Prince Shoutoku、the man (or some say he was actually a woman) who could reportedly carry on 7 conversations at a time without missing a beat,
took letters of an official nature to China and in these letters was written the name of the Emperor of Japan as`Hiitzurutokoronotenji` <日出処天子>, or `The Emperor of the country in the East from which the sun rises`. Somewhere in the temporal vicinity of Emperor Tenmu and Emperor Jitou (673 to 697) this new name for Japan came into general use. Meaning-wise it translates as `the country from where the sun rises`. Surely this has to do with Japan being further to the East of China but it also has to do with the mythology of the Sun goddess, Amaterasu as the lineage of all the Emperors of Japan, including the current one, trace their unbroken ancestry back to this central goddess. After looking at this for quite some time I would say that it is this connection to the lineage of Amaterasu that is the dominant if not the only reason for Japan being called the land of the rising sun.
Apparently in ancient days the `Ho` <ほ> of `Nihon` was read as `Po` <ぽ> and even today one (at least I do) gets a more `Japanese` feel when pronouncing the name of Japan or Japanese things as `Nippon` rather than `Nihon`. By the way there is a great song by `Radwimps` called `Nipponpon` which I highly recommend which goes into the feeling of being Japanese in a very light hearted yet skillful way.
In 701 the name `Nihon` became the official name of Japan and yet was most likely still read as `Yamato` or `Hinomoto` for quite some time after that.
`Dainippon Teikoku` <大日本帝国>
In 1889 the `Dainippon Teikoku KenpouHou`, or the `Constitution of the Empire of Japan` also known as the Meiji constitution was formally created and announced. `Dainippon Teikoku` means the `Great Japanese empire` and with the creation of this constitution and reformation of the government the world saw Japan begin its surge to expand out into East Asia. This name of Japan continued roughly until the end of the second World War in 1945. And ever since Japan has been known as simply `Japan` or `The country of Japan`.
Names given by other countries
The pre-Edo period Portuguese sailors, missionaries and traders devised their own word for Japan where they changed the initial sounds of `Nippon` into `Jippon`.
This also apparently comes from a Portuguese derivation of the Mandarin Chinese of Japan which is already a derivation coming out to `Riben` to `Cipan` meaning `sun origin` to which is added, `Guo` which means kingdom and was thus spoken as `Cipan-guo`. This is first noted in Marco Polo`s accounts were `Cipan-guo` goes back and forth between English, Japanese and Chinese and comes out as `Jipangu`.
Why Japanese people?
I have often wondered in closing, why the Japanese call America `Beikoku` <米国> `the country of rice`, in certain map making of old and in some arcane writings. I mean if any country should be called `the country of rice` it should be Japan and certainly not America which along those lines of thinking should be called, `Poteto furai kuni` <ポテトフライ国>, or `the country of french fries`. Apparently America was written in Kanji long ago as, `亜米利加` `A Me Ri Ka`and since the second Kanji there is the one for `Kome` or rice this was taken out to indicate America or `Beikoku` <米国>.
When people living outside of Japan hear the word Japan one of the first things that comes to mind is Sushi. It is to that degree that this way of preparing, serving and eating vinegar rice with various toppings has become a representative icon of Japan. Knowing more about its roots, development and flowering enhances the experience of eating this incredible cuisine even more.
It is widely accepted that Sushi has its roots in a way of preserving fish using rice that was common in Southeast Asia as far back as the 4th century BCE. After the fish was gutted it would be heavily salted and then placed into cooked rice where it was allowed to ferment over several weeks. The rice would be thrown away and only the fish eaten and is know as `Narezushi`(熟れ鮨), or `aged fish`.
After making its way through China this `Narezushi` came to be eaten in Japan in the middle of the 8th century where we see the Japan once again adding their own twist to an already accepted tradition. The Japanese veered away from throwing away the rice and began eating the fish and rice together. It was this new way of consuming `Narezushi` that converted this practice from one of simply preserving the fish into the early form of a whole new cuisine.
So already an ancient form of preserving fish has begun to transform into a eating style all its own. We will see in a minute just how drastically this `Narezushi` then branches off into the modern form of Sushi we know today several centuries later. For now let`s look at the word `Narezushi` itself. You will notice the `Sushi` part (熟れ鮨) or second Kanji can be written as:
｀鮨｀(Sushi in the top example) is composed of Fish (魚) and Delicious (旨) meaning, obviously, delicious fish.
｀鮓｀(Sushi in the bottom example) is composed of Fish (魚) and Sour (Part of the Kanji 酢) meaning, of course, Sour Fish.
The thing to remember here is that the early roots of Sushi was a food preservation method that was concerned with the Fish and not the rice. We will see later that this changed gigantically and is reflected in the way Sushi is written now.
In the lactic acid fermentation process the starch and sugars in the rice are broken down and become rather gooey. The lactobacillus create acetic acid adding vitamins and a tart vinegary taste to the rice and fish. It was this delicious taste that brought together rice and fish and propelled the later flowering modern day Sushi.
Sometime in the early Edo period around the late 16 hundreds the Japanese began to enjoy the taste of rice that had not been fermented but rather made with the addition of vinegar. This would be mixed in with not only fish, but also vegetables or dried seafoods popular in the region. Since this was made without the fermenting process it was known as `Hayazushi` as the `Haya` of the word means fast or quick (早い). If it was left overnight it was called, `Hitobanzushi` (一晩すし).
Along with this non-fermented form of `Narezushi` there also came into being a variety Sushi which usesmarinated, seasoned, or not, fish or vegetables called `Oshizushi` or directly translated as `Pressed Sushi`.
This was a form of vinegar rice that had placed on top of it sliced fish and then further topped with a weight such as a rock and then left for a few days. This box of Sushi was much bigger than one serving of Sushi that we see today and in fact when it was cut up into about 9 pieces it became the shape of `Nigirizushi` that we know today.
Nigirizushi and Edomaezushi
Edo, or current day Tokyo, in the 1820`s was populated with single men trying to cut out a life for themselves in this bustling capital city. Edo was filled with all kinds of food stalls selling Soba, Tempura and other foods catering to the demand for quick and easy to eat foods. And though there were of course shops selling Oshizushi the demand of the day was for something that required even less time to prepare. And what developed was the idea of simply slapping fish or shellfish freshly taken from the Tokyo bay or rivers onto Vinegar rice, slightly squeezing the toppings and rice into bite sized rectangles and hence the word, `Nigirizushi` is what came to be called. `Nigiru` means to grip or squeeze. Since the fish and shellfish were taken abundantly from the Tokyo bay and rivers this style of Sushi is also called `Edomaezushi`, (江戸前寿司-in front of the Edo bay). However, at this time refrigeration had not been properly developed yet and so the early stages of `Edomaezushi` were usually lightly seared with fire, marinated or soaked briefly in vinegar. While this type of what we consider modern day Sushi or `Nigirizushi` quickly became the standard in Edo, the custom of eating `Oshizushi` continued to be favored in places like the land locked cities of Kyoto or Oosaka where it was not so easy to get your hands on fresh fish.
With the gradual ease in the ability to transport fish using ice and early forms of refrigeration in the early 1900`s, this Edomae style of Sushi began to become more and more popular throughout Japan. But it was the Great Kantou earthquake of 1923 that really gave the final boost to the spread of Edomaezushi.
With the vast destruction of Tokyo countless cooks fled Tokyo back to their ancestral homes taking with them this Tokyo/Edo style of preparing Sushi.
So I find it so interesting that what began as a way to preserve fish using rice and fermentation without actually eating the rice over the course of more than 2 millennia changed into almost its opposite. For with the advent of Edomaezushi, Sushi now refers to an unfermented rice, flavored with a fermented ingredient, Vinegar solely for taste that is of course eaten topped with completely fresh (basically) fish and other items.
This is reflected of course in how Sushi is now written as well.
While no one knows exactly why the present day name of Sushi is written as it is, the best hypothesis I have heard is as follows.
Current day Sushi is almost always written in Kanji as:
寿 (Kotobuki/Ju) is a word meaning literally to celebrate (especially weddings) with words and is also used for long life. In other words a feeling of gratitude and joy.
司 (Tsukasadoru) means many things but one meaning is to perform the role you are assigned or to control.
So perhaps due to the fact that one of the most welcomed foods served to celebrate, especially weddings, is Sushi we can perhaps see it meaning to `perform the role of helping to celebrate a joyous event`.
Maguro (Tuna) which is now considered to be one of if not the most favorite Neta was looked down upon and very rarely eaten as Sashimi or Sushi until quite recently-somewhere around the end of the Edo period in fact. The Japanese of the Heian period (roughly the 8th to 11th century) are not reported to have eaten Maguro preferring white fleshed fish. Even as the fishing routes became more developed in the Kamakura era (1185 to 1333) the power structure of Japan moved increasingly from the aristocrats to the Bushi or warrior class. Maguro at that time was known as `宍魚` read as `Shibi` with the `Shi` meaning `the meat of beasts` since the Maguro meat resembled that of animal flesh. Now, this is what is interesting, you would think the warriors, the Samurai of the day would have no trouble eating `the meat of beasts` but since the word was written and read as `Shibi` it could also take on the reading of `死日` or `Day of death`. Now since this was considered to be obviously a bad luck word for those going out to fight this superstitious meaning of the word for Maguro prevented them from enjoying it.Instead of Maguro, or `Shibi` they preferred the similar fish, the Bonito, or `Katsuo` because it could be read as `勝つ魚` meaning `the winning fish`.
On top of all this, Maguro was always documented as being a foul tasting fish regardless of all the superstitious stuff surrounding it. This stuff just amazes me.
In the early stages of the Edo period it is not to say that Maguro wasn`t eaten, it was but it was eaten by the lower classes, by the poorer people and was sold at a very low price. In fact, in times when there was a over abundance in the market place the excess would be sold as a source of manure. Not only were the white fish more expensive but they were even forbidden to be eaten by the average Japanese citizen and so the consumption of Maguro spread even wider. It came to be eaten as a Neta for `Nigirizushi` in the mid 1800`s but since there was no reliable and widespread method of refrigeration and since Maguro spoils rapidly it was first marinated in Soy Sauce before being served.
Maguro did not take its place as the King of Sushi Neta until after WW2. For 7 years following the war the Americans occupied Japan and being Americans they preferred to eat red meat. Seeing the popularity of meat amongst their temporary captors the Japanese not only began to long for beef but they also saw Maguro almost literally in a new light. The red color of Maguro along with its almost steak like texture and shape helped to elevate the status and approval of Maguro to the level of popularity and price that it now occupies.
Almost every year Ootoro or the fatty, underside meat of the Tuna is ranked as the favorite Sushi Neta amongst men in Japan and near the top for women as well. California Roll is almost always ranked last by the way.
The most expensive fish ever sold was a 222 Kilogram Blue Fin Tuna sold at Tsukiji Market (Tokyo) in 2013 for 1.8 million dollars. That is about 8,000 dollars per Kilogram. And that is a long way to have come from being called `the meat of beasts`.
That is about all I can write for the day. Looks like this will have to go on to a part 2 (or 3).
The writer Karlfried Graf Durckheim goes deeply into this essential concept that has been polished and refined over literally centuries down through Japanese History. It is a concept that is so embedded in the Japanese tradition that often Japanese when questioned about it will be taken aback as to them it is so obvious that they may not have ever thought about it.
The importance of developing a strong and unmoving Hara, or literally belly is reflected in the Japanese language and culture.
Hara ga suwatte iru.
Meaning one has a strong, unflappable mind.
Hara wo kimeru.
To make a decision firmly.
Hara wo watte hanasu.
To open up one`s mind and to speak frankly.
Hara wo saguru.
To probe or try to fathom another`s thinking.
Hara ga tatsu.
To become angry. To `loose` it.
Having a scheming or hidden, wicked intent.
To cut one`s own lower abdomen as a suicidal act.
In the school of Aikido that I practice, Shinshin Toitsu Aikido, this development of Hara, or as Touhei-sensei calls it, `Seika no Itten` (臍下の一点）or the the one point in the lower abdomen is of prime importance. In fact, I really appreciate the way Touhei-sensei has taken the concept of developing the Hara to a deeper level by saying it is not enough to stabilize your mind in the lower abdomen but that it must be calmed into an infinitely small point (I guess that at a certain point, point loses any real meaning) very low in the abdomen. It is a revolutionary way of considering the art of Hara and is too deep to write about here but if you are ever interested you can make your way to an Akido doujou and they will be glad to teach you about it.
Anyway, I have made 2 short Youtubes with readings from this remarkable book. So, without further ado, here they are. I hope you will enjoy them.
Nihongo (日本語) Japanese language and the wiring of the Japanese mind (Part 1)
Compared with most other countries or races the Japanese were quite late in coming to use a written form of their language. During the hundreds of years that the Greeks, the Indians and the Chinese were busy writing histories, sacred texts and so on the Japanese were communicating only through an oral form of the language. It is not known in precise detail when the Japanese began to make use of the Chinese characters known in Japan as Kanji (漢字, or literally Han letters or letters of mainland China）came to Japan but it seems to have been in the 1st century and came in the form of letters or gold seals printed with Chinese characters. In the early years of the usage of Kanji they were probably used basically by a very few bilingual Chinese or Koreans. It was not until sometime prior to the Heian period in the 8th century that the Japanese began to do what they are so good at, namely, that is to take something from the world outside Japan, study it, change it and reform into something even better than the original.
Not too get off-track too much but we see this time and time again with the Japanese. Apparently after firearms first arrived in Japan in the later part of the Sengoku era it did not take the Japanese very long to reverse engineer the arquebuses and start producing their own form of rifle, or Teppou （鉄砲）It is said that these were even better than the Portuguese originals and that within a few decades there were apparently more rifles in Japan than in any other single country in the world.
We see this again with the automobile. This certainly does not need to be spelled out as anyone who has owned both Japanese-made and American-made cars can attest to what the Japanese have done with automobiles in terms of reliability, comfort and efficiency is truly amazing.
And it would not be my blog if I didn`t make one more point before returning to the main topic. And that is what we saw happen in the last few years. That is right, that is the incorporation of Heavy Metal obviously coming from Europe and America and combining it with the uniquely original Idol genre of Japan to create the most amazing band in History, Babymetal!
Anyway, back to the story. So along with the Japanese using Chinese for writing in much the way it was used in China but with some added Japanese readings added on there also started to develop a system of writing known as Man’yōgana. This made use of some of the Kanji but using them strictly as phonetic characters devoid of their original meaning. While official and state documents were written in Kanbun, or Chinese writing, and done by men, this other form of writing, Man’yōgana was used by women and thus was also called Onnade (女手、lit. woman`s hand) and evolved into what is no known as Hiragana. The world`s first novel, `The Tale of Genji` was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, and entirely in this style of writing.
The `Tale of Genji`
Kabun-Chinese writing used in Japan
Onnade (女手）or Hiragana
A couple of brief examples of how the Chinese characters evolved or changed into Hiragana are as follows.
(Ka meaning `to add` changes to the Hiragana Ka)
(Ten meaning `heaven` changes to the Hiragana Te)
(Me, or Onna, meaning `woman` changes to Me)
Kanji adapted to Hiragana
It was in this way that Hiragana came into being. And remember that the Hiragana do not retain any of the meanings associated with the Kanji from which they evolved.
Next to come along to the family of Japanese writing is Katakana. It was created probably alongside Man’yōgana and Hiragana and was originally a sort of shorthand for the Man’yōgana characters and thus is called `Kata`kana since `Kata`（片） means partial or fragmented. Originally used as kind of a shorthand it soon came to have its own significance as the writing style used to indicate words for things or concepts that have come from outside of Japan. Things like,
Coffee ー＞ コーヒー （Ko-hi-)
T.V. ー＞ テレビ (Terebi)
Shampooー＞ シャンプー (Shanpu-)
The Katakana characters themselves in some cases look very much like their counterpart Hiragana characters as with:
や （Hiragana `Ya`) and ヤ (Katakana `Ya`) as they both were adapted from the Kanji `也`.
Yet sometimes they look very different as they come from differing Kanji as with:
あ （Hiragana `A`) coming from the Kanji `安｀、
ア (Katakana `A`) coming from the Kanji `阿`.
Kanji adapted to Katakana
So, are you still with me? Up to this point we have covered most of the difficult parts of the development of the written side of the Japanese language. So at this point we have 3 forms of writing, Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. The next aspect we have to look at is the way the Kanji are read. A single Kanji will usually have 1 or more `On` readings and 1 or more `Kun` readings. The `On` reading is the Chinese way of reading a Kanji and the `Kun` reading is the Japanese way of reading it.
I will give a simple example of this that my Aikido teacher, Touhei Kouichi would often use when explaining a deep aspect of Aikido but which will serve fine here as well.
The Kanji for mirror is 鏡.
The Chinese, or `On` reading for this is Kyou. But a Japanese person would never look at a mirror and say, `Hand me the Kyou`. This reading would be used in combination with other Kanji as in:
万華鏡 （Mangekyou) Kaleidoscope
三面鏡 （Sanmenkyou) 3-sided mirror
To a Japanese person a mirror is called using the `Kun` reading of `Kagami`. Now, this is interesting in that long before the arrival of Kanji on the shores of Japan the Japanese had a word for looking at their reflection in say a still body of water. And that is this word Kagami which broken down reveals an interesting make-up.
`Ka` relates to `Kari` (仮）which means virtual.
`Ga` means `me` or the `self` (我).
`Mi` is short for `to see` (みる／見る).
So put together the original Japanese Kagami means something like, `Looking at a virtual me`.
Are you beginning to catch a glimpse of the depth of the Japanese language?
So in a big nutshell that is the skeleton and backdrop of the Japanese language at least in its written form.
So now let`s look a bit at just how amazing it is especially when we consider that 99 percent of the Japanese population can read, write and speak this incredibly complex language.
By the time the average Japanese national reaches the 3rd year of Jr. High school they are able to read and to some degree write the 2,100 or so JouyouKanji (常用漢字).
Keep in mind that these are just the Kanji themselves and that contained with each of them will be multiple `On` and `Kun` readings.
Let`s just pull a random Kanji out of the sky…sky…yes, how about the Japanese word/Kanji for sky-Sora／空.
`On` readings for Sora are: Kou, Ku, Kuu
`Kun` readings for Sora are: Sora, Aku, Akeru, Sora, Kara, Munashii, Ana.
Sora means everything from `The sky`, `Nothing inside`, `Empty`, `Wide and expansive`, `Big`, `Void`, `Gap`, `Missing`, `Hole`, and `an emptiness of feeling`.
Some words formed with this single Kanji are as follows:
空間ー Kuukan- empty space
空気ー Kuuki- air
空軍ー Kuugun- air force
空想ー Kuusou- creative imagination
空けるー Akeru- to make a hole, to make space, to vacate, to be in a blur, etc
空しいー Munashii (There is a more standard way of writing this 虚しい but Sora is also used) – a feeling of emptiness, of being in vain.
And there is nothing better than hearing Su-metal sing `Yozora` (夜空）or night sky in `Akatsuki` (紅月）
So let`s move on into the next level of Japanese that is the most difficult for those outside of the culture to understand. That is the levels of politeness or correctness regarding what could be called respect or correctness in the Japanese society. In Japan, one must always adjust one`s way of speaking according to whom one is dealing with. This is called Keigo (敬語）and the various aspects of it are called first of all, Sonkeigo (尊敬語), Kenjougo (謙譲語）and Teineigo (丁寧語). At first glance they are the same animal but upon close examination they are different and both are quite different from what can be found or not found at all in other societies.
Sonkeigo- To elevate the behavior or existence of the subject to an elevated level showing respect.
Kenjougo- To lower one`s behavior or existence to show respect to the other.
Teineigo- To show respect to the other`s behavior or existence in a polished or well mannered way.
And please don`t ask me to distinguish these in detail as not even most Japanese can do so.
Let us take a simple word and see how it works in these 3 frameworks.
Let us look at the simple word, eat. 食べる （Taberu-to eat)
In Sonkeigo that would change to [召し上がる] (Meshiagaru).
This means of course `to eat` but it says it in a way that shows that you feel the act of eating by the other party is a refined and elegant, respectful act.
In Kenjougo it would be [頂く] (Itadaku) indicating a respect to the other and indeed all acts involved in the preparation, loss of life (the sacrifice of the animals, plants involved), delivery and presentation of the food. In other words, showing oneself as being a small and thankful part of the whole process of partaking in the food.
In Teineigo it would be (食べます）(Tabemasu) or just a polite way of saying `to eat`. And even this Teineigo is a refined way of speaking. In casual or even coarse ways of speaking this would change further to [食べる）(Taberu) or (Kuu). These later two ways of speaking are not wrong in any sense of the words, but are considered very run of the mill or even rude in many situations in Japanese daily life.
Like I say, even Japanese living their whole lives in Japan often make mistakes in these usages and remember this is just one very simple verb `to eat` and yet the incorrect usage of it can often result in making you look very barbarian or conversely make you seem to be refined.
I really do not want to go deeply into this concept of polite usage of Japanese as whole books and volumes could easily be written and have been written about it. I merely want to acquaint you will the complexity of the Japanese language and culture. Without beating this point to absurdity I will add one more brief example.
When I was dating my wife, Eriko (a true saint and real human being if ever there was one), I went to visit her parents for the first time some 20 years ago.
I was of course nervous and wanting to make a good impression. So, when I approached the house and met her parents I said in my best Japanese `Ohayou Gozaimasu!`. Well you could feel the relief of my wife and her parents at seeing such a well mannered Gaijin speaking good Japanese. Anyway, we had lunch and had a great time together. I have no idea upon remembrance whether I spoke with them in Sonkeigo/Kenjougo or whether I used the casual form of Japanese that I was already skilled at or not. The next day or next week, we went to their house again and I bellowed out, `Ohayou!` to Eriko`s mother. I was met with an elbow to my ribs (and Eriko being about as small and slight as a human can be and yet still move around on the planet) that caused me to double over. `Thomas what the crap are you saying?` (In Japanese of course). She whispered strongly to me, `You can not, nor will you ever until the day you die talk to my mother in such vulgar Japanese`. It was at this point that I understood no matter how close you come to an elder person or someone above you in the vertical society of Japan you may not use casual Japanese. This of course goes against all I had learned in America where we try to get on first name terms and nicknames and casual speaking as quickly as possible. In Japan this simply does not float.
Years later I remember going to have Sushi with Eriko`s father. When we sat down and the first serving of Maguro was placed in front of me I said, to him, [いただかせていただきます] （Itadakimaseteitadakimasu) or, (Thank you for allowing me to be allowed to partake of this food). And he smiled at me and said, `You have truly become Japanese. I am so proud to consider you part of our family`. I felt I had come full circle in understanding the importance of the proper usage of words in Japan.
Now, I have only touched upon the basics and background of the Japanese language and will label this as part 1 of a continuing series.
I know that if you have read this far that at least you have an interest in understanding Japanese. This post may have been from one point of view way too long and from another painfully short and almost insulting in its shortness. Anyway, if you have enjoyed this please leave a comment or send me an email to let me know what you think.
This will cause you to well up with tears if you are Japanese (or even if you are not)
Japan is a great country.
This is based loosely on a Japanese piece of writing that gets copied and pasted all over the Net that originally was posted on a site where the following topic had come up. Namely, `There is a country that has fought the Soviet Union, Europe and America`.
The Japanese Imperial line is more than 2,000 years longer than any other lineage in the world.It goes back to 660 BCE and stretches unbroken until the present day. That is a succession of 126 Emperors.
The succession of Emperors (and Empresses) is based not on a religion but rather on the possession of 3 items found in Japanese mythology based on the Kojiki.
Those items are the Sword found by Susanuo in the gut of a 8 headed snake,
the mirror used to draw the Sun Goddess Amaterasu out of her cave and the hair ornaments she used to fight off her brother,
Susanuo, known as Magatama.
Nowhere in the Kojiki, or record of ancient affairs, does one find anything similar to the Bible, or the Koran or really any other book used as the basis of a religion. In other words, one of its most amazing aspects is that it never demands its readers or followers to do or not do anything. If there is a thing that you must obey to be considered as being a follower of the Kojiki or what is presently rather mistakenly known as Shintou, it would merely be the request that you stay clean in all aspects of that word. That is it. The current top of the Shintou `faith`, the Emperor Akihito or Heiwa Emperor
makes an annual appearance on the first day of the year. At that brief ceremony he does not ask the Japanese to do anything. He merely waves and greets them on the beginning of the new year. At this time you get the overwhelming feeling that he trusts the Japanese to do what is best.
If you have even a small amount of knowledge about your home country you will know that foreigners look upon Japan a bit differently than they do other countries.
First of all, it is remarkable that Japan has almost no natural resources.
This is a handicap that is like having your arms and legs snipped off.
Further, Japan has a population that is one third that of the United States living together
on a land mass that is 1/25th that of the US. On top of that this extremely small land area is 70% mountains, mountains, mountains-very difficult to deal with, mountains.
Thus it is not even possible to grow an excess of agricultural products to export overseas.
Based on these conditions it would not be illogical to write Japan off as a likely candidate for the poorest country on Earth.
This country that could easily have developed into the poorest of them all just around 100 years ago defeated the most powerful countries of the day, Russia and China. In the usual course of affairs this non-caucasian nation would come under the governance of the caucasian sphere of control but conversely Japan went to war with the U.S. and went on to be the only country in modern times to attack American soil, make mincemeat of the invincible British navy, overthrow Holland and become the only country to be bombed with an atomic bomb-not once but twice. All events that can scarce be imagined. And while Japan is considered to have been a defeated country in World War 2 it was because of Japan that the colonial rule of Asia by the caucasians was eliminated.
Moreover, what is most hard to fathom is that this country that was defeated in the war and which from the outset had no remarkable natural resources had had its infrastructure totally wiped out, was saddled with monstrous compensatory demands left this weakened and tiny country without hope revitalizing itself. Indeed the world thought they had relieved themselves of seeing the cheeky, yellow monkey`s face reveal itself for a few centuries to come. However, almost immediately over the short span of a couple of decades Japan joined full force into the economic battles of the caucasian society and in almost no time at all rushed past the United States to become the world`s number 1 economic power. The world was left with its jaw on the floor as Japan became a super economic power that resulted in the land value of Tokyo alone being of level of more value than that of the entire United States. Following this for quite some time Japan maintained its economic ranking of number 2 in the world. Moreover this economy was based on 80% coming from its own domestic market. And this happened in the financial markets before Japan make huge strides in exporting cars, household electronics and other manufactured items. We are in the realm of the outrageous. Japan`s successes in the 60 years following the conclusion of World War 2 all came without firing a shot or invading another country.
Japan almost never has electric blackouts. If it happens it is on a scale of `once in a few years` at most. Wherever you go, `water and kindness are available free of charge` and there are areas of Japan so free from thieves that they don`t bother to lock their doors. 99% of the population can read and write Japanese and moreover can read and write Kanji.
The ratio of greenery in Japanese land is 2nd only to Finland. Further, with a population that is only 2% of the world`s total and in possession of a mere 0.25% of the world`s land area and natural resources Japan produces 17% of the world`s total GDP. Japan has also quietly become home to the world`s longest lived people. Then there are the incredible art forms of Manga, anime and games. Before anyone has noticed Japan has approached the scale of Hollywood. The number one term used in American search engines is Japanese anime. The most popular movies around the globe are Japanese anime.
When the March 11th, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated the North-east region of Japan the high moralistic and ethical standards in the Japanese character prevented the occurrence of rioting, looting and even much of a degree of displays of panic. The world was also amazed at the speed and efficiency, indicating a high level of technological and managerial skill, in which the roads and infrastructure were largely restored.
For 21 years straight, in 2010 Japan was once again rated as having the highest amount of net assets of any country in the world with around 2.5 trillion dollars. In other words it would be fair to say that Japan is the wealthiest country in the world.
Looking at Japan in terms of transportation we see that the extremely sophisticated and speedy Shinkansen (bullet train) has never had an accident resulting in death.
The train system in Japan is always regarded as being the most precise and well run one in the world as anyone who has spent anytime in Tokyo can attest to.
The cities in Japan are usually referred to by overseas visitors as being, clean, safe, convenient and filled with kind, helpful and just generally pleasant people.
If Japan was like any other country in the world all of these together would make it a terrifying country that no one would want to have anything to do with. But yet we see millions around the world yearning to come to Japan and soak up its wisdom and if that is not possible they absorb the movies, anime, games, history and culture that make this truly I feel the greatest country on this planet.
A lot of people say, “It must be tough to strengthen your abdominal muscles”. As for myself, Utada Hikaru, I am not thinking anything when I sing! And I certainly do not put tension in my abdomen (laughs). To the contrary, I release all the tension from every part of my body and sing with every part of my body from the top of my head to my mouth, throat, lungs, wind pipe, stomach, intestines to the tips of my toes as one single connected musical instrument.
I feel that concentrating, and digging in by filling your body with tension are TOTALLY different animals.
So, when I sing I don’t get tired at all. I could sing all day without my voice giving out. In fact talking and laughing tire me out way more than singing.
-Obviously I feel that this reflects exactly how Su-metal approaches and achieves her incredible performances as well. But for now we can only wait until the day when speaks more about this in her own words.