Cool slave / guy / tofu / whatever

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Nathan Hopson spotted this "Cool Guy" t-shirt on Facebook:

When I see those characters, I'd read them in Chinese as lěngnú 冷奴 ("cold slave").

It's much trickier in Japanese.  Nathan notes the second character in hiya yakko 冷奴 is usually read as yatsu ("guy") in Japanese.  Nihon kokugo daijiten 日本国語大辞典 ( Shogakukan's Japanese Dictionary [the largest published Japanese dictionary]) speculates that the unusual pronunciation may be influenced by the other character:  tsumetai 冷たい ("cold; cold-hearted") is also hiyayaka 冷ややか ("cold; cold-hearted; indifferent"), and in some regions of Japan (including Iwate, where Nathan lived for eight years) hyakkoi ひゃっこい. So at some point, according to the dictionary, there was probably a form like hiyayaka tōfu ひややか豆腐, which was shortened to hiyayakko 冷奴 ("cold tofu").

I [VHM] personally do not fully understand how one gets from hiyayaka tōfu ひややか豆腐 ("cold tofu") to hiyayakko 冷奴 (lit., "cold guy" –> "cold tofu").

As explained in Wikipedia, it gets even more complicated:

Hiyayakko is also known as hiyakko or yakko-dōfuHiya means cold, and yakko refers to the servants of samurai during the Edo period in Japan. They wore a vest on which the "nail-puller crest" was attached, on the shoulders, therefore cutting something (e.g. tofu) into cubes was called "cutting into yakko" (奴に切る yakko ni kiru). "Hiyakkoi" or "hyakkoi", the Tokyo dialectal term equivalent to the standard Japanese "hiyayaka" (冷ややか), is also a possible etymology.

"nail-puller crest" (釘抜紋 Kuginuki mon)

In the Tofu Hyakuchin (豆腐百珍) [VHM:  "Tofu:  a hundred rarities"], it is said that hiyayakko is so well-known that it needs no introduction.  [VHM: oh, yeah]

In haiku, hiyayakko is a season word for summer. [VHM:  I have no problem with that, and think that it is just wonderful.]

It is things like this (and there are countless more expressions that are maddeningly obscure) that make me agree with those who say that the Japanese writing system is even more difficult than the Chinese writing system.  Japanese has all the difficulties of Chinese, which it has incorporated in toto, plus so many more that are uniquely its own.


  1. SO said,

    May 12, 2018 @ 10:54 pm

    >>> It is things like this … that make me agree with those who say that the Japanese writing system is even more difficult than the Chinese writing system.

    For some reason everybody trying to illustrate the alleged or real difficulty of the Japanese writing system does so on a character-by-character basis. Such an approach is however rarely appropriate, regardless of the type of writing system involved (just try to explain how the Latin alphabet works for English, French, German etc. on a strict letter-by-letter basis).

    Also such attempts tend to be made exclusively from a beginning learner's perspective. For somebody actually knowing the language and how it is written, matters are however rather simple: For a proficient reader, 冷(や) 奴 writes / is read hiyayakko. Period. There's no other possibility in normal usage. No knowledge of the word's etymology (which hardly any native speaker will have) is needed for any of this. You don't even have to know _why_ (only _that_) the word is written as it is. (The majority of people won't care at all anyways, and that's perfectly OK. Interesting maybe, but unnecessary in the end.)

    What makes the shirt funny then is the fact that it deliberately ignores normal reading behavior and the two characters' usual en bloc value. Tsumetai yatsu wouldn't normally be written 冷奴 in standard usage, but the link between this (and thus also "cool guy") and hiyayakko is nevertheless obvious to every proficient reader. It's a graphical link, not necessarily an etymological one.

  2. Aniekan said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 2:40 am

    It's just language differences between Chinese and Japanese for the same word. It is analogous to saying "belle" in French and "Bellissima" in Italian for the word "beautiful". I think the essence of the message should be looked at, rather than the language differences. Cool guy in this sense connotes self-appraisal.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 5:52 am

    Video explaining the whole complexity of the Japanese writing system in two parts. (The third part is almost wholly shared with Chinese… almost.)

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 8:01 am

    From Cecilia Segawa Seigle:

    To me, hiya-yakko is just a simple cold tofu served uncooked, just with some shaving of Katsuobushi (for giving it flavor), minced green onion, and soy sauce. In sommer when people have not much appetite, hiya-yakko with just cooked (hot) rice is appealing. Men will enjoy hiya-yakko with sake. I don't know why and who started to call cold tofu "hiyayakko." Maybe the resemblance of the square cut and the yakko-mon (you reproduced the picture).

    Anyway, thank you for the interesting discussion. By the way, in Japan YAKKO was never considered a slave.

  5. SO said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 8:52 am

    @David Thanks for linking to these videos! They are actually quite entertaining, but still misleading in several ways. Then again, however, they are not any more misleading or erroneous than the various accounts of the Japanese writing system found in books treating upon writing systems in a more general fashion.

    On a side note: I'm so sick of seeing 行 and 生 as the prime examples of polyvalency… Sigh. But the way they're presented is a good example of what I had in mind when writing the previous post. Polyvalency is mostly a problem when looking at isolated characters; it vanishes for the most part if we look at the writing system from the perspective of a proficient reader who simply doesn't read in a character-by-character fashion. With word-sized or even larger chunks, polyvalency is not so much of an issue in modern written Japanese.

    On a side note to the side note: How many learners of Japanese will ever learn a word in which the correspondence of 生 with "san" is actually relevant? Maybe on a regular basis if they specialize in Zen Buddhism… but otherwise? And even if they encounter a word such as somosan 怎麼生, it's perfectly sufficient to know that this is how this specific word is written. Nobody will think of the reading "san" as a plausible possibility in any other context.

    The same goes for 行 = "gō". Does anyone reading this know of a common word + its spelling involving this correspondence? Not everything you can find in a character dictionary is worth committing to memory.

    By the way: neither "san" nor "gō" is included in the jōyō kanji list. For very good reasons if you ask me.

  6. SO said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 9:32 am

    Forgot to mention 弓, another example in the 2nd video. Come on, for about 99% of all learners of Japanese "readings" such as ku, kū and tarashi are never going to be of any relevance whatsoever. But of course they come in handy when trying to exaggerate the difficulty of the writing systems.

  7. WSM said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 10:00 am

    I don't know very much Japanese, but my impression is that (Japanese) kanji are much more difficult to learn (and use) in JP than CN because they have been simplified in ways that destroy internal structure (e.g. re-used components) that help remembering (Chinese) hanzi, and their (native Japanese, non-Sinitic) readings seem completely arbitrary: for example 青 is read "ao" as in 青山 / "aoyama", but "碧", a completely distinct character both in structure and meaning, is also somehow read as "ao", presumably because it also means "blue" (sort of). So, without consistently repeated structural components and reliable phonic clues, learning kanji ends up requiring much more brute force memorization.

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 11:38 am

    N̶̶̶o̶̶̶t̶̶̶ ̶̶̶e̶̶̶v̶̶̶e̶̶̶r̶̶̶y̶̶̶t̶̶̶h̶̶̶i̶̶̶n̶̶̶g̶̶̶ ̶̶̶ Basically nothing you can find in a character dictionary is worth committing to memory. Agree with SO's points but had to FTFY because a "character dictionary" is a devilish instrument meant to bedazzle and confound the would-be language learner by creating the impression that 冷奴 (ad infinitum) is a combination of two "characters" and thus virtually impossible to learn to "read" rather than a conventional means of representing a perfectly normal Japanese word (the real brick-and-mortar of linguistic knowledge.) Unfortunately, native speakers, having learned language and writing in the proper order without having consciously reflected on this fact and on its cognitive significance, are very often not helpful in dispelling this confusion and in fact often serve as the devil's unwitting henchmen… my 2 cents.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 12:34 pm

    @Jonathan Smith


    BTW, for those who do not know what "FTFY" stands for, it is "Fixed That For You".

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 2:37 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    Definitely some good comments, esp. the last one by Jonathan Smith. And what "SO said" said about a fluent reader is also definitely true, and important; it's the beginner who has such formidable difficulty dealing with the writing system, and that's especially so when he/she tries to decipher written strings character by character. Japanese is not impossibly difficult to read–after all, the Japanese are among the most literate people on earth. (But see some of Jim Unger's writings on what is and used to be true about Japanese literacy!) For that reason, the first thing I always tell my students is that if they want to be able to read Japanese, they have to first to learn to speak it well!

    And yet, the basic, oft-repeated truism about Japanese writing being the world's most complex writing system on earth still holds true. The sheer number of such odd character combinations and strings as 冷奴 is truly large! They're fun to learn (and Japanese have fun tossing them at us non-natives in the form of word games, too). But the fact remains that even for natives the system is complex, way more so even than the famously complicated and arbitrary spellings of English!

    Oh, and on the other hand, just for fun, I'll note that that old Korean chestnut about Korean writing being so simple you can learn it in a couple of hours is laughably NOT true. It is true that writing in Hangul can be READ easily by any (minimally trained) native speaker, but Koreans definitely have trouble writing it correctly–at least according to the rules dictated by the Seoul authorities. Korean writing, I'm told, is thus a lot like French writing in that respect…

  11. Jose Pedro said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 2:51 pm

    The difficulty of Japanese language is exemplified by the country's own name, 日本.

    How do you read that?

    Nihon (にほん) OR Nippon (にっぽん).

    The country's own bloody name has TWO readings!

    You may ask: which is the official one?

    Trick question! BOTH can be used and are correct. Japan has no law dictating the use of one over another.

    Now, ask those questions to a Japanese acquaintance and you will also be surprised at how many don't know you can use both and assumed one form or the other was the official one.

    I learned of this in a Japanese TV show, it was presented as a trivia question, the Nihongo expert brought in asked the tarento (talent, actors, celebrities, etc.) taking part of the show which one was official, each tarento picked one or another and gave some reason why, then the expert dropped the "actually, it is both!" on them. Both the tarento and the audience were surprised.

    I guess Japanese learners (native or not) don't even think about this because they are so used to words having multiple readings that the Nihon/Nippon fuzziness doesn't seem remarkable.

    Also hiyayakko is not ateji, yakko is a type of tofu, hiya is simply cold/cool prefix (also used in hiyazake, for example), it is not even onyomi, both are kunyomi. Those readings (hiya for 冷 and yakko for 奴), are not that rare.

    For 冷 you definitely have to learn hiya, rei, tsumetai. hieru, at least 4 readings (probably more IMO). A native reading, a "Chinese" reading, an adjective reading and a verb reading.

    Compounding the difficulty, many kanji readings actually need kana for being properly written, and people make a lot of mistakes with those kana.

    For example, 冷奴 is not the only way to write hiyayakko, 冷や奴 can be used too. In this case the dictionary accepts both, but with many words there is one reading but people make mistakes, forgetting some kana that should be there or adding some that shouldn't.

    奴 still has connotations of the Chinese "slave" origin, it is definitely derogatory (or self-depreciating).

    行 has like 14+ readings, shooting down 4 or 5 of those doesn't exactly make it "easy". Same for 生.

  12. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 13, 2018 @ 7:07 pm

    @ Jose Pedro, turn that kaleidoscope around, at least for students' sake. "Readings" are fake, i.e., an artifact of analysis. What is real are "spellings". Thus: there are two different ways to say "Japan" in Japanese (with, surprise, context pertinent to which is used), but they are spelled the same way. Time saver!

  13. SO said,

    May 14, 2018 @ 1:15 am

    <<< 行 has like 14+ readings, shooting down 4 or 5 of those doesn't exactly make it "easy". Same for 生.

    For most learners the 6 or so given in the jōyō kanji list should be more than enough; and these 6 already include "an" which is confined to an exceedingly small number of words in current use. But anyways: Whether it has 14 or "just" 9-10 or maybe 6 "readings" was never the point. On the word level 行 is almost never ambiguous; the problem is simply that you look at all this from the perspective of an isolated character.

    Admittedly, e.g. 行った can still be either itta or okonatta, but even that ambiguity is almost always easily resolved on the phrase or sentence level. This is in essence no different from homographic words in other pairs of lg. + writing system.

    The case of 日本 = Nihon is incidentally a perfect example of why we should be looking at words as a whole, not on characters deprived of their context "because they all carry a meaning on their own".

  14. SO said,

    May 14, 2018 @ 1:40 am

    @Jonathan Smith: Thanks for "fixing" my earlier wording, yours is indeed closer to the truth I guess. It depends on the dictionary and the learner in the end, but for the average learner character dictionaries often contain heaps of useless and/or misleading pieces of information, no doubt about that.

    And you're definitely right about the unwitting hench(wo)men, esp. native speakers teaching Japanese to foreigners. A proficient reader is unfortunately not necessarily conscious of how the writing system or the reading process actually works. (Of course this phenomenon is not limited to Japanese… The Latin alphabet as used for English for instance is no less misunderstood by a substantial portion of its users.)

  15. David Marjanović said,

    May 14, 2018 @ 5:00 pm

    Koreans definitely have trouble writing it correctly–at least according to the rules dictated by the Seoul authorities. Korean writing, I'm told, is thus a lot like French writing in that respect…

    The trick there is that the orthography is very strictly morphophonemic – there's a lot of unwritten assimilation across morpheme boundaries going on. Also, different kinds of Korean have different vowel mergers that haven't made it into the official spelling.

    French is similar in that, except for proper names and a bunch of common short words, the standard pronunciation (and several others) is fully predictable from the spelling. It's the other way around that there are multiple ways to write the same sound and – quite unlike in Korean – multiple ways to add silent letters at the end.

  16. dainichi said,

    May 15, 2018 @ 7:21 pm

    > yakko is a type of tofu,

    No… it's possible that it is in some dialects, but in common standard language "yakko" by itself means an Edo-period servant. It needs the hiya- to be understood as "tofu".

    It's often discussed whether Chinese characters in Japanese are ideographs, logographs, phonographs, semantographs or whatever. I think the answer is that they're a little bit of all of those. Whether the overall strain on memory of Japanese orthography is more or less than, say, Chinese, I don't know, but I cannot but agree that as a _system_, it's highly complicated.

    One of the things I hate the most about the system is how it obscures native morphemes. 計る, 測る, and 量る are all read "hakaru" and all mean "measure", but you have to use a different character depending on whether you are measuring time, length or weight/volume etc, merely because different words were used in the Chinese they were borrowed from. This obscures the fact that they are the same… frankly… word.

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