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


:: Posts Tagged ‘Japanese’ ::

(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$$.

Bad Japanese words were among the first things I learned in that language (primarily a vulgar phrase which shall go unrepeated here). There’s some sort of fascination folks seem to have with foul language in foreign tongues–like knowing it gives you the secret key to getting away with something naughty. I, for example, can say “poop” in languages for which I know precious little useful vocabulary. (Granted, cursing in foreignese may be exceedingly useful if you’re a street-brawling sailor, or Yosemite Sam). My wife has, at times, exhibited an unhealthy interest in proper pronunciation and usage of English curses. (Could be she’s saving up for a future fall-down drag-out marital spat.) My friends (yes, I’m looking at you, Mark) have not helped matters much.

But the real kicker is that, to my experience, bad words in Japanese aren’t really all that bad. I would regularly hear phrases from my elementary school students (back when I was teaching English) that, if translated, would curl the hair of folks back home to hear from a mouth still attached to short pants, but my Japanese co-instructors wouldn’t bat an eye. And the kids learned a lot of it from pre-teen anime. In Japanese, it seems, it’s far worse to address someone using the incorrect politeness level than to discuss with them what comes out of a bull’s rear end.

Which, all in all, left me feeling cheated. I mean, I studied hard to learn that kuso!

Speaking of words good and bad, Odori Park got a few very nice words from the Digital Strips blog this week. Thanks for the kind mention!

Being among the last geeks in America to see the Star Trek movie, I hope you’ll indulge the following, as it’s currently top of mind. <Claven>It’s a little known fact</Claven> that (at least, according to my wife, whom I have no reason to doubt), in Japan, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu is not Mr. Sulu, but, in fact, Mr. Kato.

This makes sense when you realize that Sulu is not, by any means, a standard Japanese name. (At least, not as far as my experience goes.) That isn’t to say it doesn’t translate. It does, in fact, mean something in Japanese. It means “do.”

By process of logic, then, this means that–had the Japanese not changed Mr. Sulu’s name when importing Star Trek many stardates ago–Mr. Sulu would effectively be Mr. Do.

Also, rumor has it the Klingons were wholesale replaced by koopa troopas.

So, the axiom offered up in Monday’s strip was a theory I heard countless times while my wife and I were dating. At the risk of eliciting a “methinks the cartoonist doth protest too much,” let me just note that I knew a guy who had lived for somewhere around sixteen years in Japan, was married to a Japanese woman, had kids with her, and spoke no more than a handful of Japanese phrases. The will is really the way.

There were people in my past, though, who genuinely thought I was either just dating my wife-to-be as part of some twisted Berlitz course, or because Japanese women are “so subservient and eager to please,” and I must like that sort of thing. (It is to laugh, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Having a native-speaking significant other just increases practice opportunities. Depending on the nature of your relationship, however, you may wind up primarily learning phrases you can’t repeat in polite society. (This goes both ways; pity the non-native English speaker who dates someone from Coxsackie, NY.)

My theory of Japanese learning is that the best way to learn a language is to live there, make some friends who speak the language, and find hooks in the language and culture that keep you engaged. This, of course, would be superceded by Dave Barry’s suggestion that the truly best way to learn Japanese is to be born in Japan, as a Japanese person.

All of the above only applies to the spoken language. Written Japanese is a bear, and were I not happily married, I might be actively searching dating sites for a Japanese calligraphy expert.


Although I’ve learned many Japanese children’s songs, I’ve only heard a relative few komori uta (lullabies, or, literally, “nursemaid songs”). My favorite by far is the subject of Monday’s strip. I’ve taken a pass at translating it, but it definitely should be heard sung. (There’s a nice CD, Oyasumi, by Aiko Shimada and Elizabeth Falconer, that has a pretty, though stylized, version of the song; you can find it at Amazon and iTunes if you want to listen to the track sample.)

My wife used to sing the Ocean Lullaby (Umi, in Japanese) to our son when he was still in the womb. She taught me the words, and I’ve found it still has a calming effect on him nearly four years post-utero. (For some strange reason, so does Seventy-Six Trombones…)

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.

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