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The Hammering Heart

Still beating.

Month

November 2009

The Name Dilemma

Here’s a conundrum for all you conundrobuffs. My assistant and pal at work confronted me with the question: When writing in English, what is the correct spelling for the name ゆうた (yuuta): “Yuuta” or “Yuta”?

The former is the Romaji, the official system used for creating a literal phonetic transliteration of Japanese using English (Roman) characters. It allows for perfect preservation of the original word’s sound, assuming you know how the system works. In other words, it’s just a code that was created so English-speakers could pronounce Japanese.

The latter is a common example of a Japanese word being corrupted to make it easier to read for a “layman” non-Japanese person. The original Japanese name ゆうた is composed of the three characters “yu”, “u”, and “ta”, and thus the Romaji is the more accurate spelling to use. The problem is that it’s not entirely practical when you consider that the readers are more likely than not people who haven’t studied Japanese. There’s no such thing as a “double u” in English (unless it’s a “w”), so when your average American reader sees something like “Yuuta”, they may or may not figure out what that’s supposed to express. In this sense, “Yuta” is the better spelling to use. But is it correct? Technically, no.

My colleague seemed to be arguing in favor of “Yuta”. “‘Yuuta,'” she argued, “is Japanese (the language). ‘Yuta’ is English.” She’s got a point. It’s the same reason Yoko’s name is written “Yoko” instead of the more accurate “Youko”. Japanese speakers will get it, but everyone else is likely to think “Yuko”, since in English, “you” is pronounced “yu”.

But if I haven’t lost you at this point, consider this: If we are allowed to arbitrarily slap together spellings for Japanese names to suit English-speakers’ reading tendencies, how far do we have to go? Take the Japanese name “あかね” (Romaji: Akane). Some people may look at that and get it right immediately. Others will think “Huh, some weird word with a silent e. Must be ‘a-CAIN’.” Should we therefore resort to bizarre creations like “Ockonnay”? It’s the most accurate representation of the original name that still applies to English rules of phonics. But then everything is randomized. Perhaps there is no perfect solution. Even native speakers often fumble over the names of other native speakers. I can think of four pronunciations for the name Andrea and just as many spellings for the name Kristen. Even as native speakers, all we can do is tell each person we meet how our name is pronounced and hope they remember it. As such, would it not be more practical to use a streamlined system when transliterating Japanese names? That way, the more Japanese people one meets, the more likely one is of figuring out how the names work. Plus we can avoid generating monstrous eyesores like “Ockonnay”.

Then again, didn’t they used to “Americanize” everybody’s names back in the Ellis Island days, either by changing the spelling, removing syllables, or just changing their names entirely? My great-grandfather from Greece (or Macedonia, not clear) came to the States with the name Evangelou Evangelopolis, only to change it to Pete Johnson. Maybe Yuuta ought to just change his name to something hip like Hayden, or Zach Morris.

Ultimately, my answer to my colleague was, “Yuuta is correct. But he should use Yuta.” As an American, is this something to be ashamed of?

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English Atrocities: Arbitrary Word Fraying

If it sounds unreasonable to equate cooks and cocks (see last English Atrocities post), especially when there’s an option not to, consider the opposite problem–namely, creating multiple, context-based Japanese spellings for what is in reality one English word.

Joke: When is a cup not a cup?
Answer: When it’s a cup.

If you’re scratching your head or have spewed Jell-O pudding from your craw in disgust, you’re neither alone nor deserving of criticism, for to the seasoned English-speaker, a cup is a cup when and only when it is a cup, and at no other time can it be, nor would it aspire to be, a cup.

But they got a whole different world view in Japan. Here, you will find that a cup is sometimes a koppu, sometimes a kappu, and sometimes some other thing entirely, like a dish or a fork. A cup that is round and handle-less and not made of glass (which would make it a gurasu (glass), not to be confused with garasu, which is the material glass and which is written with kanji rather than the katakana typically used for borrowed words) is a koppu. A cup on a brazierre is a kappu, as is a cup that holds ramen, even if it has no handle and is not a gurasu made of garasu, and especially if your ramen has a boob in it. The Stanley Cup is unknown here, but if they ever found out about it, it would be a kappu as well. A mug is known–strictly–as a maggu kappu (mug cup), unless it’s a beer mug, in which case it’s neither a mug nor a cup, but a “jockey” (jokkii).

Likewise is the problem presented by “gum”. If it’s minty or bubbly and you chew it, it’s gamu. This is a standard transliteration of an English word, where the shot “u” sound transfers to the Japanese vowel あ (a). Meanwhile, the material rubber is known as gomu, an irregular transliteration where the English short “u” becomes a Japanese お (o). Not only is this confusing because of the irregularity, but also because this irregularity exists where it isn’t necessary as demonstrated by the fact that Bubblicious gum et al is transliterated according to the goddamn standard. Not to mention the fact that no one else has called rubber “gum” since like the 1920s. Know what they call rubber bands in Japan? Wa-gomu. It’s like saying “loop gums”. Can you imagine trying to use that?

“Hey Harold, I gotta bind these old radical underground free papers, so huck me a coupla them dang old loop gums already.”
“Huck your own darn loop gums, Barry. I’ve got my own things to bind.”

That’s how that would go.

If all of this gum pandemonium hasn’t already dissuaded you from ever owning a Japanese product again, allow the plot–along with your own throbbing disdain–to thicken. You know that transparent sucrose goo you use to sweeten ice coffee? Well, that too is known as gum (gamu), or gum syrup, with the spelling indicating that it shares more in common with a slat of Trident than with rubber. I guess that’s easy enough to imagine. Both gum and sugar syrup are sweet, they both have calories, they go in your mouth. My problem is with the word “gummy”, which they’ve got here now, except that they only use it as a noun. Gummy candies are known as “gummies”, but transliterated, inexplicably, as gumi, (sounds likes “GOO-mee”) indicating no relation to gum or rubber, both of which it resembles a whole fuck of a lot more than sucrose syrup does. Let alone the fact that “gummy” actually comes from the same root word “gum”, unlike rubber. I don’t know who I’m referring to when I ask this, but what the hell were they thinking?

To summarize:

Koppu – A drinking cup with no handle and not made of glass.
Gurasu – A glass.
Garasu – Glass.
Maggu kappu – A mug that isn’t a beer mug.
Jockey – A beer mug. Also, WTF.
Kappu – A cup that holds ramen, breasts, or the glory of victory in sports.
Gamu – Chewing gum.
Gamu Syrup – Sucrose
Gomu – Rubber
Gumi – “A” gummy.

The anguish goes on eternally, but to go into any further detail would surely send me into an enraged frenzy and also require additional thought. ‘Til next time:

X-Day: Post Two

Okay okay, so X-Day is just the “day” (week) at work where all the teachers swap classes and horrify the students with the element of surprise. The first twenty minutes of every class consist of making the kids stop crying, start talking, or stop punching you. After that things usually go pretty smoothly, except for the damned commute. X-Day is fundamentally flawed in that all the teachers have to go to schools not meant to be gone to by them. Why should Joe Kakamigahara have to take over Hank Tajimi’s schools? They’re way the hell out in Tajimi!

Consequently I was forced to traverse the hellish valley of death known locally as, KANI. I despise the town of Kani. I used to go there every Monday and Tuesday for my second job, and could not have been happier to leave it behind when I quit. A visit to Kani station will mean, without fail, a confrontation with a) a crazy old person, b) snotty teenager, or c) both. As a white man, I’m an attention magnet out there in the countryside. This is a recipe for trouble. The instant I step off that Kani-bound train, my muscles clench. Don’t let them seep into your pores, Greggie. Not these Kani-folk. Be teflon-coated. If they start veering this way, you just ping ’em right off like you’re a born pingin’ machine. And remember, the first cardinal sin is EYE CONTACT.

X-DAY!!!

Memoirs of a Diarrhetic

Caution: Contains Memoirs of a Diarrhetic

X-Day: Post One

X-Day. Far less ominous than originally suggested.

To start out, I’ll ask you: What is X-Day? Your imagination is probably more interesting than the real thing.

English Atrocities: The “Family Restaurant”

They’ve, like most countries and people with money, committed numerous atrocities, but if you don’t count murder, rape, torture, or all-encompassing oppression, then the worst one would have to be their rampant abuse of English. English is to Japan something like what curse words are to children. They’re trigger words people use either to sound funny or sound cool, but rarely understood by those who use them. Certainly there are Japanese people who speak English quite well; it’s just that they’re not the ones in charge of deciding what English will enter the collective psyche of the Japanese. This is why most people will scratch their heads and furrow their brows if you say “Good afternoon” but they can go to a Japanese Denny’s, pick up a bottle from the table reading “Restaurant Sauce,” and give a convinced nod, saying “Oh. That’s what kind of sauce this is.”

And speaking of Denny’s, Denny’s in Japan is just one of a small handful of restaurants in Japan to earn the prestigious distinction of “family restaurant” (or famiresu if you’re feeling particularly blasphemous). As far as I can tell, a “family restaurant” in Japan is not just a restaurant which caters to families, as there are many of those here that apparently don’t qualify. It evidently has a much more specific meaning in Japanese English than it does in real English, where a family restaurant is simply any place that serves food and where the manager comes out and says “Sir, this is a family restaurant” when you start singing songs about your ding-a-ling. I think to be a family restaurant in Japan means having poster-sized menus and at least three varieties of Western favorites “gratin” and “doria”. The major players in this industry are Denny’s, a place called Gusto, a vaguely Italian-themed (in that you can get squid-ink spaghetti) place called Saizeriya, and an inexplicably expensive place called Royal Host. All of them besides Saizeriya seem to be slowly, painfully dying. Maybe is because they’re probably the last kind of place people would ever think to take their families.

There are also other, lesser-known family restaurants peppered here and there, including one I saw whose name actually appeared to be “Family Restaurant”. More shocking, however, was that below the words “Family Restaurant” on the sign was a boldly printed subname, if you will: “Cock-Boy”. Yes, Cock-Boy, as in Penis, and then, Male Child. And I know, you’re thinking “Those Japanese with their small serving sizes,” but that’s not even the point. The explanation here, if you can even call it an explanation, is that they use the English word “cook” in Japanese sometimes, which comes out sounding like “kokku”, which is the same way they say the English word “cock,” which they also occasionally use. Thus the two words become interchangeable, not unlike how an American may be prone to calling bonsai trees Banzai!! trees. The difference here is that while the image of a “banzai tree” is merely something laughable, that of a “child cock” is pretty much the most financially devastating thing one could ever hope to post on the thirty-foot sign of a chain restaurant. Why they would be advertising the presence of child laborers to begin with is beyond me, but they could’ve at least done it right. Large businesses frequently plaster English all over everything without bothering to have it checked for accuracy or, more importantly, atrocity. Another large family restaurant chain has the name “Joyfull”, spelled with an extra l on the end. The Japanese Wiki claims the name is an amalgam of the words “joy” and “full” which could arguably be some kind of attempt at a clever hook, like, “After coming here, our customers will experience the two emotions joy and full.” But that’s both lame and too subtle for anybody to notice around here. I’m pretty sure a guy just decided to make that the name “Joyful” and mucked it up, then made up a crappy alibi.

Guess you can’t let those Arigato Sushis back home off the hook either. But that’s a post for another time.

What is a Day For?

Every day is a gift
And you’re the one I open it with
Wrapped up with a bow
The sun shines, a cloud snows

We don’t have to fear conditions
Or ending prepositional phrases with prepositions
That’s not what life’s about.
So throw your worries out.

Bowing and the Mystical Art of Misunderstanding Every Goddamn Thing

If you missed my Facebook post and Aman’s Facebook post, then perhaps you also missed the news, so allow me to recreate the headline in my own words:

Republicans Embarass Selves, American Onlookers

Though it hardly is news.

Here’s the article. If you’re too lazy to read it but not too lazy to read this post for some reason, basically the gist is that Obama met the Japanese emperor and bowed to him, and a bunch of Fox News people were outraged by this. To quote William Kristol, “It’s not appropriate for an American president to bow to a foreign one.”

Indeed. He’s already compromised most of America’s dignity by bowing in Saudi Arabia, and now this? Next thing you know he’ll be bowing in Korea and China and before you know it every Kim, Chang, and Chung will be raping our liberty for all it’s worth. This unadulterated bowmongering must be stopped before our nation becomes the world’s designated call-girl.

If the president can’t bow to a foreign president, who the hell can he bow to? Not that the emperor is a president, nor any kind of political figure anymore. The emperor is a cultural figurehead. Bowing to him is like bowing at a tea ceremony. You just do it out of respect. It’s like when a foreigner is forced to endure the national anthem at a ball game and actually stands for the whole thing. You can bring an American overseas, but America itself stays put. Of course, all this criticism comes from the same damn people who voted for a guy who threw up in the Japanese PM’s lap, and then they voted for his son. Twice. Speaking of appropriate.

Come on, righties. Are you that low on ammunition?

Respect for the Aged Day (Memo to myself and others)

Sometime a long time ago in September when I meant to write this, it was Respect for the Aged Day in Japan. The trouble with writing with the aim of making a Thing is that it has to follow the rules set by the voices in your head, and usually people with head voices don’t have the most stability, so those rules are always changing and taking lunch breaks and reading pornographic periodicals and such. But no more of that; today is the day that the Thing takes shape, so help me God. So help me.

Asking children and teenagers what they did for Respect for the Aged Day, I received the answer “nothing” every time with two exceptions. The first exception was “My sister gave our grandparents flowers.”

“What about you?” I delved.
“Nothing.”

The second exception was “I told my grandpa ‘Thank you for various things.'”

This was no surprise to me, for in Japan, as in America, the reality is that everyday is Ignore the Aged Day, especially when you’re age six through forty-five.

One of the few arguably positive side effects of my recent obsession with death (which by the way I have) is that it’s given me a lot of sympathy for the elderly. What I irrationally fear every single day and stay up late pondering every single night is, for them, a very real possibility and threat. Every time you’re on the road and an old person cuts you off or won’t let you pass, every time you find yourself stuck behind one in a corridor or on a narrow footpath or standing on the wrong side of an escalator or moving walkway and you feel your blood start boiling and you start thinking “What’s the holdup, grampa?!” or “Wheres your head, Grannie May?!” don’t forget that the answer to both these inquiries is that they’re most likely pondering their own death and wondering if it’ll come in the next five minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months, confident that it’s sure to be at least one of the above. Either that, or they’re filling the blanks in what, for you, is the daily mental mantra of who’s who: when you’ll see Barbara next, how Jane and Langdon’s open relationship is getting on, when and how friend Benjamin is ever going to find a girlfriend, who’s gonna show up at the pub tonight; filling the blanks with lengthy threads of death. I’ll never see Barbara again, after sixty confounded years of wonderful girl talk. Jane’s long dead, too, and Langdon’s on a respirator. Billy outlived the one girl who ever loved him and then died himself. That, and all the best pubs are pet stores, Korean ice cream parlors, and lousy pubs now.

The fact is that the elderly are the most down-trodden of all demographics. A KKK guy, a thirty-year-old black man, and an eighty-eight-year-old white man are called upon to participate in a three-legged race. Assuming two legs will ultimately be bound together to act as one and that all those summoned have two legs each, that still leaves two legs too many. As the most outspoken, the KKK guy is made captain. Who do you think he’s going to select as his teammate? The guy he hates, or a regular–though old–guy who very well may even share his skewed ideology? Well, depending on the intensity of his hatred and standing within the Klan, he may very well choose the old man based on sheer principle alone, but there’s just as likely a chance that he’ll go with the black guy anyway; a three-legged race is a three-legged race. In a related sense, life is a three-legged race. And it’s most people’s instinct to keep old folks as far over on the sidelines as possible.

The Japanese are as famous for upholding strict hierarchies all over the place as Americans are for being fat and arrogant, and while both of these are often the truth, abuse of the elderly and child abuse are just about neck-and-neck statistically in Japan, while in most other places child abuse’s reign is absolute and unchallenged. Furyôs, or “not good” people (which is what they call punk kids) and “Yankees” (which is also what they call punk kids) have developed a reputation over the last two decades for seeking out old men, many of them homeless, and beating them to death for fun. Granted this may be because old men are frail and most Japanese bad boys are spineless pussies, but it certainly betrays the Japanese reputation for constantly kowtowing to their social superiors (elders). On the contrary, it points to the notion that modern Japanese youth are lashing back at the traditional ways of Japan, where seniority alone–not one’s personal merits–dictates authority. As an American, I can certainly see their point. But they don’t have to be such assholes about it. The elderly have enough problems as it is. Irritated prostates and so forth. Does it mean they should get to boss us around? Maybe not. But it probably does mean we ought to respect them a little more than we do. Especially if there’s already a day designated for it.

Next third Monday of September, do something nice for some old people! Better yet, don’t wait. They might not have that long.

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