No matter where I go these days, I hear young people shouting to their friends, "I'm playing Pokémon Go", which they pronounce "pokey-mon go". It would be an understatement to say that, for the past few weeks, Pokémon Go has been a veritable craze. Yet most people who play the game probably do not realize that the name "Pokémon" is a Japanese portmanteau based on two English words: poketto ポケット ("pocket") + monsutā モンスター ("monster").
"What's in a name — Pikachu, Beikaciu, Pikaqiu?" (5/31/16)
Poketto ("pocket") + noun is a productive means for forming terms that indicate something smaller than its original size (i.e., pocket size; fits in the pocket), e.g., poketto jisho ("dictionary"), poketto tisshu ("tissue paper you can carry in your pocket"), poketto monkii ("tiny monkey", e.g., marmoset). Usually "poketto" is not reduced to "poke-" as it is in Pokémon, but we also have words like "pokeberu" ("pocket bell") where it is.
In this post, I will introduce a new Japanese portmanteau word that I learned today (they keep popping up all over the place, and many of them make their way into English, with some of them finding a lasting place in our vocabulary. After familiarizing ourselves with today's new Japanese portmanteau, I'll provide examples of several others to give a sense of the wide range of cultural areas in which they are current, then return to a more detailed look at our portmanteau of the day.
The new word I learned this morning is kyaraben キャラベン, which is an abbreviated form of kyarakutā bentō キャラクター弁当. Kyarakutā is the Japanese transcription of the English word "character", in the sense of a person portrayed in an artistic work, such as a novel or a play, but not in the sense of a mark or symbol used in a writing system. The origins of bentō are much more complicated, inasmuch as it is a Sino-Japanese round-trip word.
For the concept of "round-trip word", see:
"'And the greatest Japanese export to China is…'" (8/21/12)
"Too many recent Japanese loanwords in English?" (7/17/13)
From the Wikipedia article:
"Bento" originates from the Southern Song Dynasty slang term 便當 (pinyin: biàndāng), meaning "convenient" or "convenience." When imported to Japan, it was written with the ateji 便道, 辨道, and 辨當. In shinjitai, 辨 當 is written as 弁当.
In the 20th century, the term was imported to modern Mandarin, rendered as 便當 (pinyin: biàndāng), where it retains its older meaning of "convenient" and also refers to bento in mainland China and generic boxed lunches in Taiwan.
So what are these "kyaraben", or, as they are sometimes called in English, "charaben"? Japanese mothers have traditionally prepared very elaborate lunch box meals for their children. In recent years they have been competing with other mothers in making faces of manga, anime, and movie characters with pieces of food that they place on the rice they pack in the bento box: Mickey Mouse, Pokémon, even Abe Shinzo, the Prime Minister.
Since there are three parallel sets of symbols in written Japanese (katakana, hiragana, and kanji), Japanese "play" with them when they write. Kyaraben can be written as キャラ弁・キャラべん・キャラベン (katakana + kanji, katakana plus hiragana, and all katakana), but キャラ弁 is probably most common. When Japanese create portmanteau words of this type, they tend to use kanji wherever available, at least while they are new, because it helps them catch the meaning at first. Once users of a new term become accustomed to it, however, the kanji are apt to be replaced fairly quickly by kana.
Before "Pokémon" and "kyaraben", the most famous of all Japanese portmanteau words was "karaoke", which is derived from a Japanese morpheme meaning "empty" and the first part of the English word "orchestra". For a more detailed explanation, see the third paragraph in this comment.
There are many, many other words of this sort. I'll just run through a few that reveal the productivity and flexibility of portmanteau formation in Japanese.
I'll start with my favorite, which is wāpuro ワープロ, short for wādopurosessa ワードプロセッサ ("word processor"). I just love that!
Similar is pasocon パソ コン (contracted from pāsonaru パーソナル ("personal") + conpyutā コンピューター ("computer"), i.e., PC.
Here's another really fascinating one: furītā フリーター. That's a portmanteau of the first part of English "freelance" and the last syllable of the German word "arbeiter" ("worker"). I should mention that German "arbeit" (which may be defined by the Japanized English word "wākingu" ["working"]) is deeply embedded in modern Japanese as arubaito アルバイト ("part-time job", not "work").
Jolyon Thomas thinks:
…it’s perfectly natural for this sort of portmanteau to develop. My personal favorite is “skinship” スキンシップ, which is not a boat made of flesh but rather physical affection (skin + [friend]ship). Contemporary Japanese is filled with these sorts of things. They usually develop because speakers try to find the most expedient way to phrase things. In bilingual groups this tends to happen anyway. My bilingual friends and I code-switch mid-sentence for expediency, and I think that the same thing happens with particular words.
Japanese is fond of all sorts of abbreviations, including those that are based on transcriptions of foreign words as well as those that are based on native Japanese words. See "ALT-DAIGO" (3/26/16).
But such words come and go.
Here are some that are nearing obsolescence:
akeome あけおめ — from akemashite omedetō (gozaimasu) ("Happy New Year!)
kotoyoro ことよろ — the follow up to the previous expression, shortened from kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu, roughly equivalent to "Best wishes this year, too!"
akeome mēru あけおめメール (the last word means "mail") was quite a phenomenon a decade or more ago now
Let's return to kyaraben キャラーベン ("character lunchbox") to discuss some general issues pertaining to the phenomenon of elaborate lunch box meals. One of my colleagues suggested that it is the result of the nature of Japan's middle-class society and shōshika 少子化 ("falling birthrate"). If you don't have money or you have five kids, you can't do it. Another factor may be that most Japanese women, once they choose to get married and start their families, devote their time almost 100% to taking care of their (husbands and) children. Marriage is still a career for many Japanese women.
I asked several friends and colleagues whether this were not fundamentally the same as the old kyōiku mama 教育ママ ("education mom") complex. I was told, though, that a kyōiku mama is not necessarily a kyaraben mama, and vice versa. Also, there are different degrees of kyōiku mamaness. In general, I was surprised by how negative the view of kyōiku mama tended to be:
"I don't know too many of them. I guess the worst of them are pretty murderous".
"I can't say anything positive about kyoiku mama. They can't see beyond their own small society. Their value is completely distorted. Instead of finding their own lives, they try to control their children's lives in order to live in them. However, it is in a way a reflection of Japanese society as a whole. The success of the Japanese economy in the 80s was definitely brought about by this kind of mentality. There are people who say that individualism will never be fully understood (and rooted) in Japan, and I happen to agree with them."
[VHM: Both of the above comments were made by Japanese women. The next two comments were made by an American man who is married to a Japanese woman and an American professor of contemporary Japanese culture]
"The negativity of the Wikipedia article captures quite well my understanding of the stereotype. It's typical of stereotypes of women in misogynist cultures like Japan or the US (and to some extent of minorities in racist cultures): damned if you do, damned if you don't. If women are driven to achieve (in whatever role), they are hated for being uppity, 'hard' and unfeminine 'bitches,' etc. If they fall into whatever 'feminine' role apportioned for them, that's hardly better. They confirm the stereotypes, 'hurt' other women, etc."
"Like 'millennials' and 'otaku,' the 'kyōiku mama' is a fiction created by journalists to sell copy. In my opinion scholars of Japan should avoid treating these stereotypes as if they are real. It is true that some Japanese mothers are in an arms race over who can make the best bentō. But this isn’t at all new. See Anne Allison’s chapter on the lunchbox as ideological state apparatus in Permitted and Prohibited Desires. That research was done in the 1990s, I believe.
Some closing observations on kyaraben, karaoke, Pokémon, and related topics by Nathan Hopson:
The preferred orthography for kyaraben is キャラ弁. Retaining the 弁 character distinguishes it from, say, karaoke (カラオケ). This may have something to do with the entertainment (non-domestic, global consumerist, etc.) meaning of karaoke versus the domestic (mom's homemade cooking) aspect of the bentō. In Japanese, the strong preference is still to katakana-ize the masculine, the global, the consumerist, the "yang," and to use more "native" (either Yamato kotoba / wago or at least Sinitic) constructions, locutions, and orthographies for the feminine, the domestic, the "yin."
The difference now is the emphasis on キャラ in the bentō. Since at least the 1980s, there has been pressure from aspirational consumerist magazines, then television, and now the internet to produce more and more complex and kawaii food creations for children. Anne Allison wrote a great article on this back in 1991. What's new is the rise of the specific, recognizable, branded キャラ as fetishized mark of distinction. No longer will any adorable mound of rice shaped like some adorable (common noun) animal or another suffice! Give your four-year-old a dozen more Disney characters all stacked up like her favorite game for her iPad!
The acceleration and intensification of competition between consumers / producers / mothers, the obsession with novelty, the rereading of food into overtly global capitalist symbolic networks….
I was reminded of a French documentary I saw recently, which described the marketing of food to children around the world. Even in France, where regulation is quite stringent and things are not so bad, multinationals like Nestle bypass controls on TV advertising by creating free kids games for mobile devices featuring their most addictive products (Oreos, McDonald's fries, etc.) as the heroes.
Perhaps the most famous portmanteau in Japanese is karaoke, though. It's a testament to the brilliantly flexible syncretism of the language, and also to the ways in which language becomes globalized in thickly tangled webs of exchange.
カラオケ, from 空 (kara; empty) and オーケストラ (ōkesutora; orchestra), takes a nativized Japanese (of course, Sinitic) word for emptiness and combines it with an absolutely unrecognizable shortened form of the Anglo-European "orchestra", writes it all out in katakana, and then feeds that back into English and other languages, which nativize it again. Thus, "karry-o-key" in English, etc., which carries (audio pun intended) no hint of any of its linguistic origins. It has become colorless, odorless, global.
The most interesting things about "Pokémon" from my perspective, then, are the following:
1. The Japanese pronunciation of "Pokémon" is proscribed by the katakana (ポケモン). An attempt was made in the Anglification to preserve some of that pronunciation, or at least avoid "poke mon" butcherings, with the accent grave. Nice try. It's "Pokey-mon" here. I've heard so many Anglophone English teachers in Japan complain about how "the Japanese" screw everything up with their weird, phonically limited transliteration system that precludes them hearing English pronunciation. Apparently, two can play at this game. It's "pokey" in Pokėmon and "okey" in karaoke is precisely the limitations of English phonics: no "eh" where you can have a schwa or an "ee," especially word final as in karaoke, kamikaze, etc.
2. It's like karaoke on steroids! Two English words, katakana-ized, chopped in half, glued together, and then shipped back out to take over the world. Amazing!
*That's my own definition; dictionaries usually give the following: "unusual; rare; curious". In truth, when I say this word, I always think of it as conveying wonder and admiration, as it did in the mid-700s.
[Thanks to Frank Chance, Cecilia Seigle, and Hiroko Sherry]