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.
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
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
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
important events in Japanese history, mythology, and everyday life—unified
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
Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is sufficiently important to warrant two prints out of Yoshitoshi’s hundred:
illustrating the Yūgao chapter from Genji monogatari, the other showing Murasaki
Ishiyamadera, the temple on Lake Biwa (near Kyoto) where she is said to have
written some of her novel.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: 100 Aspects
of the Moon
#29, The Yūgao Chapter from “The Tale
(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
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
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: 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.
In 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
looked as though I’d have to take the train back to Otsu if I wanted something
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
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
As is the case with many Japanese temples, one approaches
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.
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:
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
Although I’m glad I visited Ishiyamadera and saw the Murasaki Shikibu
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…
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.
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.
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
- 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.
- I’d already tested the KingKanji on
my old Palm III so I knew it was worth having.
- KingKanji looked miles better
on a 320x320 pixel color screen.
- 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).
- 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
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.
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
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
of the love relationship between men and women, a typical example being this
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
clipboard, switched applications, and used Dokusha’s “Kanji Explorer” feature
to access a range
compound words in which the character for song appears.
The list comprised:
- 哀歌, aika,
lament/elegy—哀 (grief/sorrow) plus 歌 (song)
- 詠歌, eika, poem/song—詠 (recitation) plus 歌 (song)
- 演歌, enka, modern Japanese ballad—演 (performance) plus 歌 (song)
- 歌会, utakai, poetry party/competition—歌 (song) plus 会 (meeting)
- 歌格, kakaku, poetry style/rules—歌 (song) plus 格 (status/law)
- 歌学, kagaku, poetry/versification—歌 (song) plus 学 (study/learning)
Of the six compounds, two interested me in particular. The word aika—lament,
elegy, dirge, sad song—contains the character 哀 (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.
The cherry flowers have faded
Here in the reign of mortality
Here in the weary rain.
If Onono Komachi were alive today, she
might augment the royalties from her published poems by moonlighting as an enka lyricist.
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
had turned to composing poetry”:
When they saw blossoms fall on a spring morning, or heard the leaves
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
“These springs of poetry”, writes Keene, “can be resumed under a single
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
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
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
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
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”
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
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.
Character Map, to which xiaolongnu originally referred, is a freeware application developed from the profits of
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).
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
Character Map application. I was in business:
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.”
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
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”.
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).
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—氵 (#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!
But my elation rapidly turned to disappointment when I realized that I
couldn’t represent the correct character (Mojikyo 079131) via Unicode.
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
Mojikyo 079131 produces the Unicode (Decimal) tag
濹, which is also the
Unicode tag for my first (incorrect) match, Mojikyo 050021. And
濹 yields 濹.
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
- 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