Thursday 04 September 2003

So euphonious to me

Apart from the foreign movies and documentaries that SBS broadcasts, there’s hardly anything worth watching on free-to-air television in Australia, now that the current season of The Sopranos has finished. And I’m not willing to shell out $78 (US$50/€46) per month for cable (which is what I’d have to pay for a package that includes classic and contemporary movies). So most of my time in front of the TV is spent watching movies on DVD or those I’ve taped from SBS.

I’ve seen a lot of Chinese movies lately: Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle, Hsiao-hsien Hou’s City of Sadness, Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less and The Road Home, and—most recently—He Ping’s Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker.

All these movies, despite their disparate stories and styles, have one thing in common: the characters speak Mandarin. And, even though I don’t understand a word of Mandarin, I adore the sound of that lovely musical language.

Last night SBS broadcast From the Queen to the Chief Executive, Herman Lau’s movie about a young man held in gaol in Hong Kong, “at Her Majesty’s pleasure”; in other words, detained for an indefinite period without any expectation of release. The film was well-written and directed with good acting and engaging characters, yet within ten minutes I was ready to turn off the TV. I persevered, and I’m glad I did, but it was tough going because the Cantonese dialog made it difficult for me to enjoy the film. I’ve never been interested in Hong Kong action movies either, partly because I find their mixture of humor and violence crass and predictable, mainly because I dislike the sound of Cantonese. (Even Amy at the Chinese restaurant, who was born in Hong Kong, once admitted to me that Cantonese doesn’t sound particularly pleasant.)

Last week, in the train, I was sitting in front of a two men who were speaking in (what I guessed was) a South-Asian language and I caught myself thinking, “What an unattractive-sounding language.” Immediately I started to wonder about what makes one language sound more pleasing than another to an individual ear.

Not surprisingly, Google searches on “beautiful sounding language” and “language sounds beautiful” yield conflicting opinions—though Tolkien appears near the top of each list of results: Quenya is described as “the most beautiful sounding model language, spoken by one of the most compelling fictional races ever portrayed” while Tolkien’s love of Welsh is frequently cited.

The languages I find most beautiful are Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, German, and Vietnamese (of course Japanese is far-and-away my favorite, though I admit that Mandarin is more euphonious).

No doubt it’s politically incorrect to suggest that one language sounds better than another—such a preference is admittedly subjective. Perhaps every language sounds beautiful to its native speakers (Amy excepted). Yet the very existence of a word like “euphonious” suggests that some languages do sound better than others.

euphonious adjective (of sound, especially speech) pleasing to the ear

euphonious pleasant-sounding, sweet-sounding, mellow, mellifluous, dulcet, sweet, honeyed, lyrical, silvery, silver-toned, golden, bell-like, rhythmical, lilting, pleasant, agreeable, soothing; harmonious, melodious, melodic, tuneful, musical, symphonious; informal easy on the ear; rare mellifluent, canorous.
-opposite(s): cacophonous.

In the absence of objective criteria, I’ll continue to regard Mandarin as euphonious and Cantonese as cacophonous (as I await the barrage of complaints from Cantonese speakers).

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Tuesday 09 September 2003

Ishiyama moon

If anyone were to ask me, “Who is your favorite artist?”, I’d be hard pressed to choose between Tsukioka Yoshitoshi and Joseph Cornell. So I was delighted to see (albeit briefly) over the weekend a link in the side bar at wood s lot to an online catalog of Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, presented by the Stuart Jackson Gallery, a Canadian specialist in ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints).

One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (Tsuki hyakushi), Yoshitoshi’s last major work, was published between 1885 and 1892. It comprises a set of one hundred individual woodblock prints illustrating important events in Japanese history, mythology, and everyday life—unified by the presence of the moon in each design.

The Stuart Jackson catalog includes only twenty-four prints, so most of the best (and best-loved) images are missing. But a Google search on yoshitoshi “aspects of the moon” yields lots of pages illustrating other prints in the series (this page, for example, shows 54 thumbnails, each linked to a larger image).

Alternatively, John Stevenson’s marvellous Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon provides a large reproduction of each print with an accompanying explanation of its subject together with a wealth of information on the series as well as Yoshitoshi’s life and work.

Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is sufficiently important to warrant two prints out of Yoshitoshi’s hundred: one illustrating the Yūgao chapter from Genji monogatari, the other showing Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyamadera, the temple on Lake Biwa (near Kyoto) where she is said to have written some of her novel.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: The  Yugao chapter from "The Tale of Genji"
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: 100 Aspects of the Moon
#29, The Yūgao Chapter from “The Tale of Genji”
(Click for larger version)

In the Yūgao chapter, the fourth of fifty-four, Genji (the Shining Prince) accidentally stumbles on a dilapidated house and garden on his way to visit the old nurse who cared for him as a child. He notices that the house is covered with beautiful white flowers—yūgao, literally “evening face,” the “floral opposite” of asagao, morning-glory—and sends his servant to ask the lady of the house if he might have a few of the flowers. Her servant brings the flowers on a fan, together with a poem written with graceful calligraphy. In the Heian period (the story takes place some time in the tenth century), this exchange was sufficient to initiate a love affair between Genji and the mistress of the house.

John Stevenson explains:

Wraith-like, not conforming to the normal standard of Heian beauty, which in the Chinese Tang tradition was distinctly chubby, the lady fascinated Genji. She refused to tell him her history or her name, so he called her Yūgao after the flowers. Eventually she accepted his invitation to visit one of his lavish villas, where they consummated their delicate passions. She died within a few hours, fading as quickly as a yūgao flower, killed by the jealous spirit of one of Genji’s former mistresses. Genji mourned her more deeply than he did most of his lost loves.

[In Yoshitoshi’s print, number 29 in the series] Yūgao’s ghost wafts wistfully through her garden on a night of the full moon: yūgao is known also as “moonflower.” Flowers and vines show through the ghost’s transparent body. Her figure seems to have no volume, as if projected onto a surface, like a screen. The shade of blue used for Yūgao’s eye and lips is subtly different from that used for the background wash, making them stand out without over-emphasising them; blue lips were a convention to indicate a person who was dead or dying. Also highlighted are the yellow centers of the flowers; in the original print the white petals are embossed. The gourd is shaded on one side to give an impression of roundness. The colors have been beautifully printed to shade into nothingness at the bottom of the picture.

Yoshitoshi’s second Genji print shows Murasaki Shikibu seated in the moonlight at her writing table, on a balcony at Ishiyamadera (Ishiyama Temple).

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: Ishiyama Moon
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: 100 Aspects of the Moon
#71, Ishiyama Moon
(Click for larger version)

The Tale of Genji is thought to have been commenced around the beginning of the eleventh century and completed by 1021. According to John Stevenson:

There is a tradition that Lady Murasaki retired to the temple at Ishiyama, overlooking Lake Biwa, to begin writing. She arrived on the fifteenth evening of the eighth month, when the moon was full, and prayed through the night for divine help in the project. Inspired by the beauty of the moonlight reflected on the lake, she used the nearest paper at hand to write down several long trains of thought before she forgot them. The paper happened to be a scroll of the Daihannya, a Buddhist sutra; later she copied out a new scroll, to atone for using the scripture profanely. This scroll is still shown to visitors to the temple, as is the room in which tradition says she worked.

A lady in Heian costume leans on a writing-desk on a balcony in the temple, deep in thought, and with a scroll unrolled in front of her. Most illustrations of Murasaki show her looking over Lake Biwa under a full moon, but Yoshitoshi has chosen to show her gazing out over a moonlit mountain—the name Ishiyama means “stone mountain.” A light purple wash deepens the shadows in the valley.

When Yoshitoshi was considering the coloration of this design, the choice for Lady Murasaki’s robe was simple; murasaki means violet… Lady Murasaki in her violet robes was such a well-known figure that Yoshitoshi did not include her name in the title-cartouche.

Exterior of Tsukinoya Ryokan with welcome Joanason-sama signIn 1994 I spent a night at the Tsukinoya Inn at Otsu, not far from Ishiyamadera. When I arrived late one evening, I was surprised to see my name on the guest board: Joanason-sama (the right honorable Joanason). I was too late for dinner—the kitchen staff had gone home—so it looked as though I’d have to take the train back to Otsu if I wanted something to eat.

But when I explained that I’d come to see where Murasaki Shikibu had written part of The Tale of Genji, the innkeeper took a shine to me, telling me that she would personally cook me dinner, which would be ready once I’d finished my bath.

She served the meal and stayed to chat about Japanese literature while I ate. She bade me goodnight, I slept soundly, and the next morning—after a delicious breakfast—headed off to the temple.

As is the case with many Japanese temples, one approaches Ishiyamadera via a huge carpark full of tourist buses and an avenue of stalls selling souvenirs (which in this case comprised mostly tacky Muraski Shikibu dolls and figurines as well as sweets, cakes, and postcards). The room in which Lady Murasaki is said to have written the Ishiyama chapters contains a tableaux of the author at her desk.

Ishiyama-dera: Murasaki Shikibu tableaux

I was surprised when I looked through the photographs from that trip that I’d taken only the one above, perhaps because I bought a set of postcards, which included a much better view of Lady Murasaki at work:

Postcard of Murasaki Shikibu tableaux at Ishiyama-dera

The caption on the back of this postcard reads “Murasaki shikibu no genji no ma”, similar to the large Chinese characters to the right of the doorway in my photograph. This probably means “The room where Murasaki Shikibu wrote Genji”.

Although I’m glad I visited Ishiyamadera and saw the Murasaki Shikibu room, Yoshitoshi’s ukiyo-e print is infinitely more truthful and evocative (as I’m sure Lady Murasaki would agree).

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Wednesday 10 September 2003

A Kanji learning tool, er, toy…

Dave Rogers just bought himself Another New Toy, er, Tool… a Sony Clié PDA. And though Dave insists that he “didn’t acquit [himself] too spectacularly as a bargain hunter”, I vehemently disagree. The Clié 665C that he picked up at a discount for US$199.97 has a list price in Australia of AU$749—that’s about US$493/€440 (at today’s exchange rate AU$100 = US$66.07 or €58.73).

Dave bought his Clié 665C to replace a Handspring Visor that he clearly used regularly, whereas I recently bought a Clié to replace a Palm III I hadn’t used for years. Dave’s post prompted me to think about the convolutions we go through to justify certain purchases.

Animation of KingKanji screen showing a kanji being drawn and the correct stroke order being illustratedWhy was I in the market for a new PDA? Because somehow I’d stumbled across KingKanji, “an award-winning Japanese/kanji flashcard program [for Palm OS and Pocket PC] that emphasizes writing as well as reading”. I installed KingKanji on the Palm III and was immediately impressed. In addition to the flashcard lessons that test your knowledge of kanji and vocabulary, the program allows you to practice writing kanji with the stylus and includes stroke animations for over 1200 characters including the grades one through six Jōyō kanji (that Japanese children study in elementary school). This animation succinctly demonstrates the program’s intrinsic coolness. (I emailed Gakusoft, the developers, asking for permission to use it but haven’t heard back from them. If they object to my illustrating how great their product is, I’ll remove the animated GIF.) Gakusoft also offer a Chinese study program called KingHanzi but I don’t intend trying to learn Chinese in this lifetime.

Though KingKanji ran acceptably in the Palm III’s 2Mb of RAM, I couldn’t even load a couple of other applications:

  • CJKOS (which allows users of the English version of Palm OS to read and enter Chinese, Japanese and Korean); and
  • Dokusha (a freeware “integrated Japanese text reader, Japanese-English dictionary, Kanji dictionary and study system for Palm OS).

Dave Rogers legitimately justified his Clié purchase because he found last year’s model at a bargain price. I researched the available Palm and Clié models and went hunting for discounts. At the local OfficeWorks (the Australian equivalent of Office Depot), they had the grayscale Palm 125M on special for AU$300. While I was playing with a Palm Zire 71 (AU$599), a woman approached me and said, “Do you know much about these? I’m just not sure which one I should buy.”

I asked her what she wanted to use it for. “Organizing my appointments and addresses and taking notes,” she replied.

“Buy the cheapest model that has the features you need,” I advised her. A look of relief passed over her face, she plucked a Palm 125M box off the shelf, and walked straight to the checkout. I’d solved her problem though I didn’t realize I was on the way to solving my own.

Sony Clie PEG-SJ22OfficeWorks didn’t have any Clié’s so the following day I went to a Sony store to check them out. I’d already decided that AU$600 (US$394/€352) was my absolute limit. The PEGSJ33G—which Dave Rogers originally had his sights on—had a list price of AU$549 (US$360/€322) but I didn’t need MP3 playback. The PEGSJ22G—with a 33MHz processor instead of the PEGSJ33G’s 66MHz chip—was AU$449 (US$295/€264). Better still, the PEGSJ22G has a user-replaceable battery, accessed by unscrewing the backplate.

Unfortunately no one was offering discounts on the Clie so I was going to have to pay full price. My justification process ran like this:

  1. I was obeying the essential rule of computer purchasing—don’t buy the hardware for its own sake but because it runs a piece of software you need.
  2. I’d already tested the KingKanji on my old Palm III so I knew it was worth having.
  3. KingKanji looked miles better on a 320x320 pixel color screen.
  4. 16Mb of RAM was essential to run CJKOS and Dokusha (although, to be honest, I didn’t yet know how useful these programs would be).
  5. The SJ22 was the cheapest model I’d been able to find with all the features I needed.

Justification enough, one might assume. But one sticking point remained: How could I be sure I’d use a $449 Sony Clié to learn kanji when my $25 (cardboard) Tuttle Kanji Cards were gathering dust in a drawer?

I had no answer to that question. It would require a leap of faith. I remembered a woman who told me she’d finally given up smoking after attending a $300 Stop Smoking course. It must have been a really good course, I said. No, she replied, I kept thinking about all the money I’d wasted on cigarettes and couldn’t bear the thought of wasting the $300 course fee too.

I pulled out my credit card.

I already had a couple of spare 16Mb Memory Sticks (and relatively modest storage requirements) so, unlike Dave, I didn’t buy a 128Mb Memory Stick. But I couldn’t resist the AU$100 external battery holder that uses four AA batteries to either directly power the Clié or recharge its internal battery. I love accessories. As Dave says, “it’s a character flaw”.

I’m delighted with my Clié, which I use constantly—even though I haven’t stored a single appointment or address. I bought it to learn kanji and vocabulary and I have no interest in using it for anything else. Traveling by bus or train, waiting in line for tickets, for friends to arrive at a restaurant, or for a movie to start, I’m steadily improving my Japanese vocabulary.

A tiny voice occasionally nags me that the cardboard kanji cards would have been just as effective, that despite all my protestations I’m just as materialistic as anyone else—I simply put myself through more hoops than someone for whom shopping is an unalloyed (and guiltless) pleasure. But maybe I’m just typical of a generation for whom applying computing power is the natural response to any conceivable problem.

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Tuesday 16 September 2003

Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Sadness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence

I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will.

Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, written by Horton Foote

The exhibition catalog for Seasons: The Beauty of Transience in Japanese Art has as its epigraph an excerpt from Ki no Tsurayuki’s preface to the Kokinshū, the first imperially-sponsored collection of Japanese poetry, published around 905 AD:

Japanese poetry has the human heart at seed and myriads of words as leaves… the song of the warbler among the blossoms, the voice of the frog dwelling in the water—these teach us that every living creature sings.

It is song that moves heaven and earth without effort, stirs emotions in the invisible spirits and gods, brings harmony to the relations between men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors.

As soon as I read the phrase “human heart at seed”, I realized why Donald Keene had chosen Seeds in the Heart as the title of the first book in his series on the History of Japanese Literature.

Of the 1100 poems in the Kokinshū—actually Kokin Waka Shū (Collection of Waka, Old and New)—all but ten of them are waka, the thirty-one syllable form that was written mainly in the native Japanese kana script (with some Chinese characters) rather than entirely in Chinese as was the case with poems in earlier collections such as the Manyōshū.

This use of Japanese script not only made waka easier to write but opened up the practice of writing poetry to women, who were largely excluded from the study of Chinese. As a result, the exchange of waka became an integral part of the love relationship between men and women, a typical example being this poem by the female poet Onono Komachi, cited in the first volume of Katō Shūichi’s A History of Japanese Literature:

Yearning for him I slept in sadness
And saw him in a dream.
Had I known it was a dream
I never would have woken with the dawn.

Kokinshū, Poem 552

There were two prefaces to the Kokinshū, one written in Chinese by Ki no Yoshimochi, the other in Japanese by Ki no Tsurayuki. I prefer Donald Keene’s translation of Tsurayuki’s introduction:

Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart and burgeons into many different kinds of leaves of words. We who live in this world are constantly affected by different experiences, and we express our thoughts in words, in terms of what we have seen and heard. When we hear the warbler that sings among the blossoms or the voice of the frog that lives in the water, we may ask ourselves, “Which of all the creatures of this world does not sing?” Poetry moves without effort heaven and earth, stirs the invisible gods and demons to pity, makes sweet the ties between men and women, and brings comfort to the fierce heart of the warrior.

Keene points out that Yoshimochi, in his Chinese preface, “expressed similar views, and these sentiments, like much else in both prefaces, have been traced back to China.” Both Tsurayuki and Yoshimochi believed, as did the Chinese, “that human feelings were the ultimate source of all poetry”.

The word that Tsurayuki used both for poetry and for song was uta, and he seems not to have made a clear distinction between the two. Whether the song was melodious like that of the springtime warbler amid the blossoms or as harsh as the croaking of an autumnal frog, it proved that every living creature has its song. Birds and beasts, and human beings, too, sing in response to stimulation, whether external—things seen and heard—or internal, like the pangs of love. The stimulus tends to be short-lived, and for this reason may be more easily turned into a brief lyric that distills the poet’s experience than developed into an extended poem.

Although Tsurayuki says in his preface that poetry can stir the gods, in the West it was more common for the poet to think of himself as the instrument of the gods, whose aid he might invoke in making his song. In Japan divine help was not necessary; the poet, unaided, could move the spheres and make even supernatural creatures feel the poignancy of aware, the touching things of this world. Poetry was also important in the relations between men and women; as we have seen, the necessity of writing love poetry in Japanese to women who could not read Chinese may have saved the Japanese language as a medium of literary expression. And, as we know from The Tale of Genji and other works of the Heian period, poetry was an indispensable element of courtship, at least among the nobility.

King Kanji screen showing uta, songFrequently, when I’m revising kanji on my Clié, I’ll switch from KingKanji to Dokusha to explore the words associated with a particular character.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was revising some elementary kanji, the character for song/sing—pronounced uta or ka—came up so I copied it to the clipboard, switched applications, and used Dokusha’s “Kanji Explorer” feature to access a range of compound words in which the character for song appears.

Dokusha screenshots: uta (song), aika (lament), aware  (pathos)

The list comprised:

  • 哀歌, aika, lament/elegy— (grief/sorrow) plus (song)
  • 詠歌, eika, poem/song— (recitation) plus (song)
  • 演歌, enka, modern Japanese ballad— (performance) plus (song)
  • 歌会, utakai, poetry party/competition— (song) plus (meeting)
  • 歌格, kakaku, poetry style/rules— (song) plus (status/law)
  • 歌学, kagaku, poetry/versification— (song) plus (study/learning)

Of the six compounds, two interested me in particular. The word aika—lament, elegy, dirge, sad song—contains the character (aware: pathetic, grief, sorrow, pathos, pity, sympathize), which lies at the heart of Japanese aesthetics.

And I’ve loved enka music ever since first hearing it in a tiny yakitori-ya where I ate regularly when I lived in Japan ten years ago. I’ve always seen it as the Japanese equivalent of country-and-western music but Barbara’s Enka Site provides a far better explanation:

Team up a songwriter who writes old-fashioned Gypsy music with a romantic lyricist of an American blues or country music background. Then translate the lyrics into poetic but old-fashioned Japanese and arrange the music for a band made of half Japanese musicians and half European classical musicians, plus a harmonica and electric guitar. Then find a Japanese woman to sing the song in full kimono, but choreograph her performance as if it were an operatic aria. That would give you something close to Enka music…

(Barbara provides sample MP3s from a variety of popular enka singers—this song by Sakamoto Fuyumi perfectly conveys enka’s essence.)

Barbara points out that in enka, “songs of love, separation, death and suicide abound. The subject matter of the typical lyrics involve tragic love and sweet resignation to the comfort of cherished memories of better times”. In other words, there’s an absolutely direct connection across a thousand years to the poems of the Kokinshū and The Tale of Genji, in which aware figures so largely.

Again, Onono Komachi:

My soul will go as often as I like
To my lover in a dream
Because no one will blame me there.

Kokinshū, Poem 552

The cherry flowers have faded
Here in the reign of mortality
Here in the weary rain.

Kokinshū, Poem 113

If Onono Komachi were alive today, she might augment the royalties from her published poems by moonlighting as an enka lyricist.

Dokusha screenshots: uta (song), aika (lament), aware  (pathos)

As Dokusha’s Kanji Explorer suggests, there are only two degrees of separation between uta and aware, from “song” to “pathos”.

Donald Keene points out that, in his preface to the Kokinshū, Tsurayuki “went on to describe the circumstances under which people of the past had turned to composing poetry”:

When they saw blossoms fall on a spring morning, or heard the leaves fall on an autumn evening; when they grieved over the new snow and ripples reflected with each passing year by their looking glasses; when they were startled, seeing dew on the grass or foam on the water, by the brevity of life; when they lost their positions, though yesterday they had prospered; or when, because they had fallen in the world, even those who had been most intimate treated them like strangers.

“These springs of poetry”, writes Keene, “can be resumed under a single general heading, regret over the changes brought about by the passage of time.” It’s this “aesthetic empathy of things and feelings” connected with time’s passing that the eighteenth century literary scholar, Motoori Norinaga, defined as mono no aware, which I’ve seen variously described as

  • deep impressions produced by small things
  • sympathetic sadness
  • an intense, nostalgic sadness, connected with autumn and the vanishing away of the world
  • a serene acceptance of a transient world
  • a gentle pleasure found in mundane pursuits soon to vanish.

In his popular novel, Musashi, the story of Japan’s best-known swordsman, Yoshikawa Eiji writes describes mono no aware from the warrior’s perspective:

In the case of the samurai there is such a thing as an appreciation of the poignancy of things… a real samurai, a genuine swordsman has a compassionate heart, he understands the poignancy of life.

One of the reasons for my strong interest in Japanese literature and aesthetics is this acceptance of sadness as an essential ingredient of life. And (perhaps mistakenly) I’ve always regarded Jefferson’s assertion that the pursuit of Happiness is an unalienable Right as a kind of denial of the rightful place of sadness in human experience—that in pursuing happiness we are simultaneously fleeing sadness.

Accepting sadness is not, however, the same as mistrusting happiness. One one level it is tragic that Mac Sledge, who appears to have overcome his alcoholism and learned to love a woman and her child at the end of Tender Mercies, can say “I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will.” That he cannot trust the happiness which is the direct fruit of his reawakened faith in God, in his wife’s love, and in his own courage and dignity.

I can’t help thinking that this mistrust of happiness springs—at least in part—from his inability to properly relate to sadness. In the movie, the Mac Sledge character has “written” unbearably poignant country-and-western songs, including the beautiful Over You (which was actually written by Austin Roberts and Bobby Hart) but he struggles to accept and to reveal the sadness that lies much deeper than is suggested by that song about unrequited love. His feelings seem to remain on the surface and it’s the genius of Robert Duvall’s portrayal that makes us aware of how far he has traveled since waking up in an alcoholic stupor at the beginning of the story and how far he—and we—have yet to go. So, in another sense, his admission that he doesn’t trust happiness indicates his willingness to be truly honest to the woman who has done so much to bring him happiness.

For Motoori Norinaga,

If one examines the depths of the true human heart there is much that is feminine and unstable; the masculine and clever things are added, when we have become conscious of ourselves, in order to keep up appearances. When we are doing such things as talk[ing] to other people we act more and more so as to show a surface which is arranged to impress rather than bringing out what is really there.

If one can forget for a moment the implied sexism of linking the feminine with the unstable—an entirely natural association for an eighteenth-century Japanese man—it’s clear that Norinaga is equally critical of the superficial cleverness of the “masculine heart”. Katō Shūichi correctly points out that this is “the first writing to point clearly to the connections between the Japanese ‘surface’ and ‘depths’, the expressed and the true feelings, conscious values and unconscious psychological tendencies…”

Yet the reluctance or inability to express one’s true feelings is not only a Japanese problem, although it was a Japanese—Ki no Tsurayuki—who 1100 years ago elegantly and succinctly portrayed this aspect of human frailty:

To the distant observer
They are chatting of the blossoms
Yet in spite of appearances
Deep in their hearts
They are thinking very different thoughts.

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Tuesday 30 September 2003

Mojikyo fixes a bug (in me)

Reading the opening chapters of Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s a couple of weeks ago prompted me to start work on an entry about George W. Bush’s aircraft carrier stunt and why it so greatly vexed me. But the writing hasn’t gone smoothly and, in dire need of distraction, I hit the jackpot: xiaolongnu, a Chinese language specialist who regularly comments at Languagehat (and occasionally here) had alerted Languagehat to the existence of the Mojikyō Institute, a Japanese organization that produces the Konjaku-Mojikyo, a dictionary of mainly Chinese Characters, with a free font set of about 110,000 characters plus an input program.

The Konjaku-Mojikyo includes about 20,000 Chinese characters defined by Unicode (ISO 10646), and about 50,000 Chinese characters collected in the Professor Morohashi’s 13-volume Daikanwajiten (Great Kanji Japanese Dictionary), “the most comprehensive and authoritative reference work on the subject of Chinese characters”. The Mojikyo contains a wealth of other characters including Oracle Bone inscriptions, Siddham (Sanskrit) characters, Japanese Kana , Chu Nom (the original characters used in medieval Vietnam) , Shui Script (characters used by that Chinese ethnic minority) , and Tangut (Xixia) Script.

The Mojikyō Character Map, to which xiaolongnu originally referred, is a freeware application developed from the profits of the commercial Konjaku-Mojikyo software published on CD-ROM by the Kinokuniya Bookstore (the commercial version allows more convenient searching and finding information about the characters).

Languagehat set the bait, confident that several of his readers would be interested “in all this great stuff”. As he later admitted, I was at the top of his list. Happily, I didn’t disappoint him—as I explained in my comment on his post, I could put the Mojikyo Character Map to immediate use:

Something that’s bugged me for ages is that Nagai Kafū’s Bokutō kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River) uses an obsolete kanji for the boku character. Amazon lists the book as “墨東綺譚” but the first character is a much simplified version of the original that appears on the cover and title page of Kafū’s novel. Now it looks like I might be able to find the correct boku character.

Late last night, needing a break from Bush’s aviation exploits, I convinced myself that I should download the 34 files (totalling 52MB) needed for the installation. We’ll call that the thin edge of the wedge. This morning I decided it wouldn’t hurt to install the Mojikyo Character Map and quickly see if I could find Kafū’s boku character.

Although extracting the 34 files was a little tedious, Jack Wiedrick’s instructions made the actual installation a snap. I use Extensis Suitcase to manage my Japanese fonts so I simply activated the Mojikyo fonts with Suitcase and double-clicked on the Mojikyo Character Map application. I was in business:

Mojikyo Character Map application

These days, on the rare occasion that someone asks me why I continue to study Japanese, I answer: “So I can read Nagai Kafū’s A Strange Tale from East of the River in the original Japanese, rather than a translation.”

Cover of Nagai Kafū's Bokuto Kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River)Kafū’s Strange Tale is, in the words of his English translator Edward Seidensticker, “in many ways scarcely a novel at all”. Its nominal subject is an aging writer (Oe Tadasu) who, while researching a novel he is writing, wanders “east of the (Sumida) river” from Asakusa to the lower-class Tamanoi district.

Trapped by a sudden storm, he meets a prostitute, Oyuki, who invites herself under his umbrella and then him into her house. Oe embarks on an affair with Oyuki, spending the hot summer evenings with her in Tamanoi; when the cold weather returns he ends the affair.

The Strange Tale contains another story—the one Oe is struggling to write—about a retired teacher (Taneda Jumpei) who elopes with Osumi, a bar-girl who was once his maidservant. Part of the novella’s appeal lies in the skill with which Kafū plays one story off against the other—in Keiko I. McDonald’s words, “expand[ing] his ‘discourse time’ by telling two stories that interact and complement each other”.

I also admire Strange Tale because, as Seidensticker explains, “it belongs to the uniquely Japanese genre to which [Kafū’s] Quiet Rain also belongs, the leisurely, discursive ‘essay-novel’, its forebears the discursive essay and ‘poem story’ (utamonogatari) of the Heian Period, and the linked verse of the Muromachi Period and after”.

Japanese characters for Bokuto kidan (correct kanji  for boku)Put it down to my anal-retentive temperament, but it’s always irritated me that I couldn’t write Bokutō kidan correctly in Japanese because the Microsoft Japanese IME doesn’t support the first (boku) character. Worse still, I have three kanji dictionaries— Halpern’s New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, Spahn & Hadamitzky’s The Kanji Dictionary, and Haig & Nelson’s New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary—and Kafū’s boku isn’t in any of them.

Why did Kafū use such an “obscure” character? Well, for one thing, such kanji were more commonly used in the first half of the 20th century, when Kafū was writing. Also because of his upbringing: his father and maternal-grandfather were trained in the Chinese classics and Kafū himself entered the Chinese department of the School of Foreign Studies in 1897 though, as Seidensticker explains, “he scarcely went near the place and failed to graduate”. That particular character may have evoked a specific feeling or impression in his readers or he may even have used it because in Kafū’s time the use of uncommon Chinese characters in one’s writing was a sign of erudition (an attitude that persists amongst some contemporary Japanese).

Japanese characters for Bokuto kidan (simplified kanji  for boku)Not being able to represent the character correctly is not just a problem for me—as I explained before, Amazon in Japan uses a simplified version in its listing for the book.

[The primary meanings of the four characters in the Amazon title are, in order, “india ink”, “east”, “figured cloth; beautiful”, and “talk”. In his entry for the boku character that Amazon uses, Halpern includes a Chinese variant (mò), which looks like Kafū’s character minus the three-stroke radical on the left.]

But I found the correct character with the Mojikyo Character Map on my second attempt. Although Halpern’s dictionary uses a different method (SKIP, based on geometrical patterns), most kanji dictionaries require you to identify the radical (the primitive by which it is indexed), count the total number of strokes in the character (or the number of strokes less those in the radical), and finally locate the particular character within a list of characters with that radical and stroke count. It sounds more difficult than it actually is. Unless the dictionary doesn’t contain the character you’re looking for.

Kafū’s boku character has the three-stroke radical sanzui (#85) on the left—and a total of 18 strokes. My first match (Mojikyo 050021; below, left) was close but, as I realized almost immediately, not quite correct. And it only contains 17 strokes. Interestingly, this one is kind of “half-way” between the correct character and the simplified version that Amazon uses and that (not surprisingly) the Microsoft IME supports. I scanned through the grid of characters until I reached the 18-stroke section and there it was (Mojikyo 079131; below, right). Success!

Mojikyo characters 050021 (left) and 079131 (right)

But my elation rapidly turned to disappointment when I realized that I couldn’t represent the correct character (Mojikyo 079131) via Unicode.

Mojikyo contextual Copy menuThe Mojikyo Character Map provides a contextual menu that allows you to copy a character in a number of formats for pasting into other applications. Copying the Unicode tag for Mojikyo 079131 produces the Unicode (Decimal) tag 濹, which is also the Unicode tag for my first (incorrect) match, Mojikyo 050021. And 濹 yields .

At first I thought that this might be because Kafū’s boku character (Mojikyo 079131) is included in Morohashi’s Daikanwajiten but is not part of the current Unicode standard. But Jack Wiedrick’s documentation indicates that:

  • Gold characters are included in the JIS standard;
  • Cyan characters are included in the ISO10646 (=Unicode) specification; and
  • White characters are not included in either standard.

And Kafū’s boku character—perhaps xiaolongnu can suggest an alternative name—is rendered in cyan, which means it is part of the Unicode standard. So perhaps, on my first use of the Mojikyo Character Map, I’ve discovered a bug. I’ve emailed the Mojikyo Institute and am waiting on their reply. But at least, in finding the character Kafū used, I’ve fixed what was bugging me.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour