Roman letter shapes in Japanese

« previous post | next post »

[A guest post by Nathan Hopson]

Recently, I encountered two examples of the intriguing use of roman letters in Japanese to describe various shapes and parts of the nether regions of human anatomy.

The first was in a Japan Times article on military terminology and slang in Japanese, which was an interesting read in its own right. The passage that caught my eye, though, was at the opening (emphasis added):

One of my first encounters with Japan’s 兵語 (heigo, military terminology) came about when Kato-san, an older co-worker, jokingly made a reference to the term M検 (emu-ken, an “M inspection”), which in the old days doctors performed at military induction physicals to look for visible symptoms of sexually transmitted disease.

Ken, I supposed, was short for 検査 (kensa, test or examination). But what did the M stand for? Then Kato-san drew a letter M on a sheet of paper, and I immediately understood it to be a crude depiction of the anatomical shape of the, er, object being examined.

This is a different anatomical usage of M than the one we are subjected to in the media. The more common usage is M脚 (emu-kyaku), which describes female legs spread with raised knees.

Google Image search provides predictable results.

This got me to thinking about the other alphabetical descriptions of legs in Japanese: O脚 and X脚 (and the elusive XO脚), which again are best illustrated by, well, an illustration.

The various ~脚 usages are, unlike M検 fully integrated into the common lexicon. Their visual appeal and similarity to older Japanese phraseology probably made them all easily acceptable. For example, コの字型 (コ-shaped, ko no ji gata; one furniture and many corpus examples here) describes a rectangle open on one side, or a more rounded C-shape — though I believe this usage is obsolete. As the first corpus sample above shows, this would now generally be C字型. In fact, the use of of E字型, etc., signifies how widespread acceptance of romanized shape descriptions has become.

The other item I encountered, though, returns to the anatomical uses of romanization, and with the same combination of mild obfuscation and bold visual illustration. This visual (from this ad campaign for depilation) revealed to me the intricately romanized anatomy of waxing, from the V-line to the O-line, which is described as "Hard to do yourself" (自分ではむずかしい).

Clockwise from the top left, the waxable parts of the "delicate zone" (デリケートゾーン) are described and captioned as:

Vライン上部 (V-rain jōbu) Upper V-line: "Get a fresh, clean upper area"
VラインS・両サイド (V-rain S, ryō saido) V-line S, both sides ("S" = "side line"): "Reduce your side lines"
Oライン: "Hard to do yourself"
Iライン: "Peace of mind even with daring underwear"
Tトライアングル (T-toraianguru) T-triangle: "In your own design"

I found it fascinating that in all cases, the anatomical use of romanization was for the lower body. This is probably coincidence at some level — necks and shoulders, for example, don't lend themselves to alphabetical visualization.  While this campaign is for three depilation companies: épiler, TBC, and Men's TBC, the image above is titled:

txt-female11.png (emphasis added)

So particularly with the VOI and T, this is probably a gendered vocabulary that describes matters in in-group only (≈ women) terms that could obscure them from men.

The female body and its inner workings have often been discussed in veiled and euphemistic terminology away from the ears of men, and it's interesting that this reticence continues even in a context including bold visual representation intended for a mixed audience.

[A nod to Robert Hegwood, who shared both the military article and depilation ads on Facebook.]


  1. Max said,

    August 1, 2015 @ 9:31 pm

    German also uses the term X-Beine (X legs); see for example (in particular the three images under the heading Achsenfehlstellung der Beine). The Wikipedia article says this is called "genu valgum" in Latin, but in English usage that (and "knock knees") seems to be reserved for a much more extreme deformation than is given that diagnosis in German (indeed I was surprised to have German doctors diagnose a problem with my knees that other doctors never thought to comment on)

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 6:37 am

    I wonder how you would say "pigeon-toed" in Japanese, or German, for that matter.

  3. chris said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

    We have s-shaped, z-shaped etc in English expressions. The author is wowed and amazed. But I fail to see anything Japanese in this.

    Surely the surprising thing is that they're making expressions like this out of *someone else's* writing system?

    The closest thing I can think of in English is the idea of a river delta, which is shaped like the (capital) Greek letter delta. But it's very rare for a communication between native English speakers to describe anything by its shape resemblance to a specific Chinese or Japanese character (or Sanskrit for that matter, or Hebrew, or Arabic, or Cyrillic, etc.) in the way that we do for A-frames, I-beams, T intersections, D-rings, U-turns, V formations (I suppose the Greeks might call those lambda formations but English speakers don't), etc.

    Widespread bilinguality, or at least instruction in and familiarity with the other language, is probably a necessity for such formulations to be used and understood.

  4. Brendan said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 6:19 pm

    Chinese, at least, handles pigeon-toes and their opposite with reference to the character for "eight" 八: “(內/外)八脚." No idea whether or not Japanese uses the same term, but presumably the option would be there.

  5. Jim Breen said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

    Not quite sure why I'm being asked to confirm the alphabetization of Asian languages. My knowledge of them is limited to Japanese, and as those who know my work and prejudices will attest, I am NOT a fan of romanized Japanese, and have resisted all calls to add ローマ字 transliterations to my dictionaries.

  6. Matt said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 8:16 pm

    Alas, the standard term for "pigeon-toed" in Japanese is "uchimata (no)", literally "inside-crotch." The word also refers to the inside part of the legs, from crotch to say knees. The part especially prone to chafing, say. So it is I suppose a case of metonymy.

    (According to the NKD, which I just checked, "yatsuashi" 八脚 only refers to eight legs, eight-leggedness, a kind of eight-legged table, or [in thieve's cant] the entire lower half of the body.)

  7. J. Goard said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 7:36 am

    "The word also refers to the inside part of the legs, from crotch to say knees. The part especially prone to chafing, say."

    I think that would be "inner thigh" in English, no?

    Korean for bow-legged/pigeon-toed is 안짱다리, which I think is something like 'inside-bulge-legs'. 짱구 (jjanggu), like the famous cartoon character, means 'bulging head', for example.

    Even though Korean use plenty of Roman letters for body shape, I've never seen it for legs. Maybe that has something to do with such letters overwhelmingly being used for ideal features rather than negative ones.

  8. Tom said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 10:20 pm

    Reminds me, tangentially, of the term "S门" in a LuXun story (if I recall about 12 years since I saw it). Never worked out what it referred to…anybody know?

RSS feed for comments on this post