Odori Park, by Chris Watkins Odori Park - A webcomic comedy of culture shock in love, life, and family, by Chris Watkins


:: Posts Tagged ‘Japanese of the Week’ ::

(Note: This may not actually turn out to be a weekly feature, but if it does, as far as the title goes, I’m covered.)

Monday’s strip calls to attention the ancient Japanese literary craft of haiku, practiced for generations by high school English classes around the world. As part of this strip, Arisa mentions the words moji and kigo. I think context clues provide sufficient understanding for the gag (specifically, that you don’t need to understand them), but for the curious:

A kigo is a word that evokes the image of a particular season. Cherry blossom (sakura), for example, is evocative of Spring. The moon (tsuki) is often considered representative of Autumn. Images of winter might be summoned by the sounds of a man whose car just slid into a ditch (kuso!).

Moji means “syllable.” I don’t have any jokes for that.

Anyone who watches anime is deeply familiar with the word baka, and all its delightfully insulting connotations. Sometimes translated as the overly eloquent “fool,” baka, to me, is more appropriately interpreted as “idiot,” or, my personal fave, “dumba$$.” Why bring this up today? Let me explain via example:

Japanese: Jikko de dehtabehsu no pahsuwahdo wo kawatte, jibun no saito wo kawaru hito ha kitto baka da.

English: Any person who breaks his own site by accidentally changing the database password is clearly a dumba$$.

Since Wednesday’s comic involves sales (or lack thereof), and I just opened up a Project Wonderful ad slot, I’m in a money mood, so allow me to introduce one of the most ubiquitous of Japanese expressions: Irasshaimase!!! (I’m assuming exclamation marks are a legal requirement when writing irasshaimase!, but the multiples are a bonus.) Enter any store, restaurant, or shopping center, and you’ll hear this hail of “Welcome!” ring out like a capitalistic battle cry, or, maybe more appropriately, like the mating call of the domestic sales clerk desperate to attract a willing wad of cash (brought to you by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom).

Irasshaimase can come in variations, depending on the region and the speaker. My favorite, The machine-gun welcome: ‘rasshai-’rasshai-’rasshai!! Often heard in more down to earth establishments, like busy fish markets, I think. There’s something very… car salesman-ish about this approach.

In contrast, consider a common American store greeting: “Whaddaya want? (sneer optional).

I’ve found a sample at David in Japan, but nothing yet of my favorite version. Holler if you find a link!

Munya munya is the term used in Japanese to describe the sound and sensation of mumbling. It’s a great word. I love the way it rolls… or, sort of, clumps… off the tongue. As an example:

Zen zen David Duchovny no munya munya wo wakaranai.

(Is it still funny to joke about how David Duchovny talks?)

Munya munya is part of a whole class (no, not that kind of class) of Japanese onomatopoeia words (hardest task today: figuring out how to spell onomatopoeia), including both words that represent the sound of something, like munya munya, and words that represent the feeling of something, like peko peko (the feeling of being really hungry).

To date, Japanese is the only language I’ve encountered that actually has a “sound of silence.”


In Wednesday’s comic, Lyle espoused the belief that a person or situation only has control over someone who allows that control. It was part of the set-up for a gag, but this was also a case of me speaking through one of my characters. I do think it can be hard to figure out how to pull yourself away from another’s control, especially if the consequences make hits on other things you want–like a steady paycheck and benefits, in Colin’s case–but that there always tends to be some way around, if you can find it, or if you’re willing to sacrifice.

Don’t mean to get all preacherific here. Re-reading that strip just made me think about how Colin’s point of view runs into conflict with an oft-repeated Japanese expression: “Shou ga nai” (sometimes shikata ga nai), which means: “It can’t be helped, there’s no other way.”

I’ve heard that this was a phrase often used in the days after World War II, when Japan, and many of its people’s lives, were in shambles. Rather than wallow in self-pity, folks would shrug and say, “shou ga nai,” and continue on pushing through as best they could. So that’s the positive way to look at the expression, and to use the sentiment.

It’s awfully easy, though, for me–and I imagine lots of other folks–to slide into the negative side of that platitude: “You can’t do anything about it, so don’t even try. Resign yourself to the way things are.” I don’t necessarily think that’s the way the expression was really meant.

So maybe this post is just me reminding myself: There almost always is another way, if you can just find it. Shou ga aru.

In honor of the horrid season of Halloween, I thought I’d give you a peek into the world of Japanese monsters. Or, rather, I’ll give you a link to one of my favorite sites, the Obakemono Project, where you can study up on these occult secrets. Barring ill fate, I’ll aim to post one of these monster links every week this month.

Today, I’d like you to meet the most common of Japanese creeps: the kappa. Kappa figure so much in Japanese folklore that you continue to see them in popular culture today, and anyone who loves sushi has undoubtedly had kappa-maki, a non-fish sushi roll made from the kappa’s favorite snack food: cucumbers. (Beware to those who click, even I was surprised to learn that kappa also love to eat something far more repulsive than cucumbers, so be cautious if you’re squeamish.)

Now, go study up, and watch your step at the river bank.

Continuing the October obake-a-week theme, I present the fearsome umi-bouzu. Before reading about the umi-bouzu at the Obakemono Project, I confess I’d never heard of it, but given the significance of the sea in Japanese culture, a hulking faceless ocean beast seems inevitable. According to said site, the umi-bouzu “is most commonly conceived as something huge and pitch black with ambiguously human features and a common lack of eyes or hair.” So, sort of a deep sea blob with a wicked attitude (maybe a relative of the great C’thulu?). Study up at the Obakemono Project, and beware the dark shapes of the briny deep.

Kuwana - The Sailor Tokuso and the Sea Monster

I’d be remiss this week, in light of my Halloween Ring parody, if I didn’t give you a peek at the onryou, usually depicted in stories as the vengeful spirit of a wronged woman. The onryou is one of several classes of ghost (not entirely unlike a class 5 full roaming vapor) found in Japanese folklore. One of the most famous onryou, and the partial basis for Ring, is the spirit of Okiku, a young servant girl murdered in a romantic embroilment and thrown down a well.

You can get the nutshells of three variations of Okiku’s story at Wikipedia, among other places. And do be careful around any open wells or unmarked video tapes.

In the vein of strange and fearsome female spectres, allow me to introduce you to the rokurokubi. Typically depicted as a normal, if mysterious, young woman during the day, the rokurokubi is actually a youkai with the ability to stretch its neck to supernatural lengths after nightfall. Depending on the story, the rokurokubi may be a largely harmless or even unknowingly cursed maiden, or a sinister blood-sucking fiend. Most are tricksters, and delight in scaring the pants off mortals.

Read more about the rokurokubi when you can, and in the meantime: Guys, beware of strange women, and ladies, don’t go sticking your necks out…

Rokurokubi, by Hokusai

To round out this month’s obakemono menagerie, I thought I’d present a horror of urban legend: kuchisake-onna, or literally: “split-mouth woman.”

I first learned about kuchisake-onna from a friend, when I lived in Japan, who told me the mysterious tale of a seemingly beautiful woman you might meet while alone, at night, on a dark city street. The woman–apparently suffering a cold, given the surgical mask she’s wearing–will ask you: “Do you think I’m pretty?” Upon hearing your reply, she’ll rip off her mask to reveal a hideously extended mouth that would put a Glasgow smile to shame, after which she’ll chase you down with something sharp. In short, she’s the Japanese Hook Man.

I was inspired to post about this ghoul by seeing a link (at Pink Tentacle) earlier this week to Matthew Meyer’s “A Yokai-a-Day” series of art blog posts, in which was included a wonderfully creepy painting of the aforementioned specter, and loads of other yokai. I had no idea the kuchisake-onna had a history before her resurgence as an urban legend, but Mr. Meyer’s write-up revealed both the split-mouth woman’s past and the gorier details of how an encounter with her can play out.

So, check out the Yokai-a-Day post, and be careful who you run into this Halloween night!

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