Chiba City in fiction and fact

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I've been telling friends that I'm in Tokyo for InterSpeech 2010, but that's wrong. In fact, I'm in Chiba City, which seems to be roughly to Tokyo what Jersey City is to New York. And I'm sorry to say that the weather changed this afternoon from sunny to overcast to rainy without ever going through the state described in the memorable opening sentence of Neuromancer, describing Chiba City:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

This was surely one of the great first lines in literature, right up there with "Call me Ishmael", ""Aujourd'hui, maman est morte", and "Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo". But from the time I first read the book, in the mid 1980s, the anachronism of the opening image bothered me. The world of Neuromancer is still some decades in the imaginary future — cryogenic stasis and space colonization have a ways to go yet — but already, in my hotel in Chiba City, the dead channels on the digital television are a uniform black, with briefly-visible digital legends explaining what if anything might sometimes be found there. I imagine that most schoolchildren in places like the U.S. and Japan have never experienced the visual static of a traditional cathode ray tube displaying the output of an analog tuner with no input, and therefore will need a footnote to explain Gibson's image when they come of age to read his book.

The sky isn't the only thing here that doesn't match the Chiba City of Gibson's novel. No doubt there are some seedy parts of the port, but the newly redeveloped Makuhari waterfront district, site of the conference center, is nothing like the dystopian underworld inhabited by Case and his friends. In fact, the former Carrefour in Makuhari has recently re-opened as The Aeon under the (English) slogan "R.O.U. — Rock Our Utopia". Maybe this is only part of the hypermarket, I'm not sure — but anyhow, Case, "the artiste of the slightly funny deal", would certainly not have felt at home here.

So far on this trip, I've seen hardly any of the quirky English slogans and instructions that you used to see everywhere in Japan, on signs, sweatshirts, backpacks, and so on. To be more precise, I haven't seen any of these so far. I'm not sure whether this represents greater attention to translation quality, a change in fashions, or just my particular trajectory.

I did see one interesting sign — a big one, outside an Italian restaurant, reading "We are waiting for you to serve".

Without being able to provide much evidence, I have the impression that there is an increase in signage that mixes katakana and romaji for borrowed words. [Here a mistaken analysis of a restaurant sign has been removed. It did involve a mixture of katakana and romaji, but not as I remembered it — see comments below for details.]

The procrustean pleasures of Japanese borowing from English (and other languages with richer syllabic inventories) remain as enjoyable as ever. Quick, how many syllables in "springs"? Would you believe five (plus another "mora" for the syllable-final /n/): スプリングス "su pu ri n gu su"? As in ホテルスプリングス "ho te ru su pu ri n gu su" = "Hotel Springs", where I'm staying. I visit Japan rarely enough that decoding foreign borrowings in katakana remains fun for me. (Yes, I know that high vowels are deleted between voiceless consonants, after voiceless consonants in final position, and sometimes elsewhere. But still.)

[Update — I've concluded that steady light rain against sky-glow at dusk, with streetlights sparkling off of the drops as they fall, is pretty close to the traditional "color of television, tuned to a dead channel".]


  1. Thomas Thurman said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    Neil Gaiman paid homage to Neuromancer's opening in Neverwhere, by which time the nature of an untuned television had already changed:

    "The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel."

  2. Christopher Armour said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    I think Gibson got it from Jim Morrison: "gazing on a city under television skies"

  3. Phil said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    Can you or someone else elaborate on the rules of katakanafication you mentioned? ("high vowels are deleted between voiceless consonants, after voiceless consonants in final position, and sometimes elsewhere.") I can't see how this would work.

    [(myl) It's not really a rule of kanafication, but of Japanese pronunciation. And the vowels in question are nominally not (always) deleted, but rather devoiced, and then sometimes assimilated to the adjacent consonant, which may become a bit longer than it would otherwise have been. Thus the first two syllables of "sukiyaki" are pronounced something like [sski]; the last two syllables of "arigato gozaimasu" are pronounced [mass]; etc. Japanese native speakers continue to hear these vowels as being present, or at least they tell me that they do.

    See e.g. here, here or here for more facts and discussion.

    I believe that something similar happens in Quebec French, but without the contextual requirement, so that "université" maybe pronounced /nverste/.]

  4. Outis said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    I wonder if チケン really is chicken. The standard transliteration for chicken is チキン. Not that I can think of what else it may be.

    [(myl) It's quite possible that I mis-remembered it — I should have taken a picture or written it down while the sign was in view. My knowledge of kana is entirely based on reading signs during a six or eight visits over 20-odd years. I'll check and fix the mistake, if it is one.
    ……..time passes………
    OK, I went back and checked the sign. And boy, is my face red. I misunderstood two of the three kana in the sign, and then mis-remembered both of them. The sign actually read
    ジュン & BEER
    which combines the digraph ジュ "ju" with the final nasal ン. It's a Yakiniku (barbeque) restaurant, and should be transliterated as "Jun & Beer" or maybe "Jung & Beer" — online description here. I apparently missed the voicing diacritic on ジ, missed the digraph, and sounded the whole thing out to myself as if it were some way of approximating "chicken" (maybe シコン "shi ko n"? who knows…). Then having read it the kana sequence wrong to start with, I amended it in my memory to something a bit more plausible (though still not right) as a transliteration for "chicken". Like I said, a) my command of kana is marginal, and b) my face is red.

  5. Janne said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    I assure you nonsensical foreign slogans are alive and well here. And not just English; I've actually encountered Swedish a fair number of times – don't ask me why. At a Konan home improvement store a couple of years ago I spotted trashcans (makers homepage: with the text

    "Detta färg är mycket vackert. Jag tycker om det. Borta bra men hemma bäst?"

    Which means (after correcting the grammar a bit) "This color is very beautiful. I like it. Away is good but home is best?".

    The "チケン & Beer" thing is mystifying. As Outis says, neither word is normally written that way. Could the owner be a foreigner – Korean or Chinese perhaps – that doesn't know Japanese very well?

    [(myl) As I wrote under Outis's comment, I may well have mis-remembered the kana rendering of chicken. But I'm quite sure that the sign (which was big one, looking to me like the name of the restaurant) definitely was half kana and half romaji; the romaji was definitely "beer:; and the kana was definitely a sequence that I recognized as "chicken".

    (Added later — except that I was completely mistaken — see above…)]

  6. Nanani said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    How odd to see Makuhari come up on Language Log – I was there for a rock festival just a month ago.

    Enjoy as much as you can.

  7. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

    I could live without the comma…

  8. Corey said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    Gibson mentions, I think in a documentary about him called "No Maps for These Territories," that the "dead channel" color is actually not intended to reference static, but to the uniform grey of early channels with no broadcast signal. If we care about his original intent, it's even more anachronistic than the color of static.

  9. Dan T. said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    I've had some combinations of TVs, cable boxes, and other devices for which an empty signal shows up as solidly blue.

  10. language hat said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    Dan T.: See the first comment in the thread, by Thomas Thurman.

  11. sep332 said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    I already assumed, on first reading, that he meant that peculiar flat unnatural shade of blue, which you might see through the polluted haze of a large city on a clear afternoon. I didn't even think that he might have meant grayish. I'm 24, in case you're wondering :-)

  12. Flatline said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    I wouldn't be surprised if it took quite a while for a footnote to be necessary in order to enlighten readers of less advanced age about the color of static. Certain signs of substantive emptiness seem to become emblematic, and last beyond the period of their practical obsolescence. For example, I recognize the Indian Head Test Card, even though I've never seen it broadcast on a television. And I know young people who never had the chance to hear the music of a 56k modem dialing up, but know exactly what it sounds like.

  13. z said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    Does "beer" count as romaji? I was under the impression that "romaji" just referred to transliterated Japanese, not to English words used in a Japanese context, so that "biiru" would be romaji but "beer" would just be English.

  14. Max Pinton said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

    Romaji is just "Roman characters," so "beer" counts.

    I went to the MacWorld Expo at the Makuhari Messe years ago. Steve unveiled the Flower Power and Dalmation iMacs, which must have been the least exciting product announcement in the history of Apple.

  15. Spectre-7 said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    I had to look up procrustian and was initially disappointed that I couldn't find it. Seems the accepted spelling is procrustean, and I'm now quite pleased to have another weird word in my vocabulary. :)

    [(myl) It's usually Geoff Pullum who corrects my spelling errors — I'm sure he's grateful to you for taking up the slack. But really, procrustean (however spelled) isn't all that weird. It occurs 28 times in COCA, for example.]

  16. Sili said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    Thanks for the note about pronunciation. I sorta noticed this with the recent launch of the Akatsuki spacecraft. I'm sure I heard it as /akatski/.

  17. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

    Corey, that adds another whole layer to it that I had no idea about. So the imagined sky can be flat grey, static-y, intense blue, or black, depending on the age (and television ownership history) of the person reading it. How fun.

    And yes, Sili, it would be something like that.

  18. Phil said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    @ myl

    Thanks for the references. I had never consciously noticed the high vowel devoicing, though I do it myself as an non-native speaker. The wild -u ending variations are something that any learner of Japanese will have to confront from the start, though.

    A word about the variations of standards in katakana transliteration, though. A lot of old foreign borrowings use a transliteration that would have been different had the word been imported today (since the katakana alphabet has since been expanded for foreign sounds, as I imagine the Japanese sound inventory).

    I can think of coffee, ko-hi, which could be (and is, on some fancy coffeehouse menus) ko-fi, thanks to the introduction of fa, fi, fe, fo, syllables not native to Japanese (they are spelled using the syllable fu, whose consonant is a Japanese-native bilabial fricative). An interesting (and isolated) third transliteration of fi is seen in the trademark Fujifilm, where you get Fujifuirumu. (where fu is actually pronounced as such)

    I have once heard the anecdote that one's grandparents could not properly pronounce the katakana for Disney, dizuni-, and would instead say jizuni-. Di is not native to Japanese, and is spelled using the character for de.

    Kyamera and kamera are both common transliterations for camera. (kyamera being the fanciest and most recent version) As far as I can tell, the use of the palatalized k makes the following /a/ sound closer to an æ than it otherwise would (and this is the only way to achieve this effect in Japanese).

    Virus is another interesting one. The standard way to transliterate /v/ to this day is to use /b/ (and often make the following vowel longer), even though provisions for a katakana /v/ exist. (it's done by adding the voicing diacritic to a "u"; nobody uses this) Well for some reason a couple of old borrowings have something like virus instead: "Uirusu".

    Vowel length in borrowed words is also interesting (and pretty random). I can't think of an example, but I remember that there are at least a bunch of words borrowed from English that are only differentiated by vowel length. Sometimes the difference will come from the orthography/pronunciation of the English word itself, but sometimes it will be a single word in English that's split into two different ones in Japanese. (probably the result of two distinct borrowings, corresponding to two different meanings in English, e.g. first as a technical term, then as another)

    Fast food becomes both Fa-suto fu-do and fasuto fu-do. "Fa-suto" definitely means 'first' in Japanese (/r/'s become vowel lenghtening), so it's possible that this was done in ignorance of the meaning of 'fast' or 'fast food' as a whole.

    Microsoft with Windows Vista decided for the first time to add vowel lengthening to a bunch of terms, like browser and printer. Purinta- and burouza-; before that it was purinta and burouza.

    Names are a mess. For example Kevin Costner will get written as both Kebin Kosuna- and Kebin Kosutona-.

    Like I said earlier, nothing stops coffee chains to market a coffee drink that uses Ko-fi in its name instead of the usual ko-hi. I've seen beer as bia- too, mostly in the context of dorafutobia-. I guess this would be the borrowing from English, while it is known that the common word bi-ru is from German.

    Sorry for the poor organization– I just wrote down whatever came to me.

  19. SeanH said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    Jonathan Lundell says: I could live without the comma…

    I like the comma. It leaves the excellent phrase "the colour of television" whole, and then adds the qualifier "tuned to a dead channel" – first setting up a potential expectation of something bright, superficial, materialistic, and then clarifying that the mass-media device is more than usually content-free.

    Without the comma, my reading goes "the colour of (television tuned to a dead channel)", which feels clunkier.

  20. pm215 said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    The ウイルス article says that "Uirusu" is directly from the Latin (and supposedly only dates back to the fifties); "loan word not actually from English" is one common explanation for weird katakana words :-) (ko-hi- is apparently from the Dutch koffie, incidentally, although I'd guess there's still an f->h change in there.)

    Makino & Tsutsui's _Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar_ has a ten-page appendix on katakanaization; among other points it mentions that the choice is sometimes influenced by the English word's spelling as well as its pronunciation, especially where the English uses a schwa.

  21. McLemore said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    "remains one fun for me"? I hope that means you're enjoying many more funs. :)

    [(myl) Jeez, you guys are relentless. And they say blogs are unedited!]

  22. Faldone said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    Quick, how many syllables in "springs"? Would you believe five: スプリングス "su pu ri n gu su"?

    I wouldn't believe five, but I might believe six.

    [(myl) Would you believe I was too jet-lagged to count on my fingers? But as Kevin Iga points out below, though there are six moras, one of them is ン, which shouldn't count as a separate syllable.]/font>

  23. Kevin Iga said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

    @Faldone: Six morae, anyway. But it's not clear to me that anything in Japanese depends on syllables rather than morae.

    [(myl) In the Tokyo dialect (and I think many but not all the others), syllables rather than moras are the locus of accent. So a word with three syllables has four possible accent patterns: one for each syllable, plus the "accentless" pattern. And a word with three syllables but four (or five or six) moras still has the same four possible accent patterns.

    (For those who don't know what we're talking about, "mora" was defined by Jim McCawley as "Something of which a long syllable consists of two and a short syllable consists of one." Specifically in Japanese, a two-mora syllable may be constituted by a syllable with a long vowel, one with a syllable-final nasal (as in the example under discussion), or one followed by a geminate consonant.

    The generalization about the role of syllables in Tokyo-dialect accentology is also due to Jim.]

  24. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    RE: Quebec French, the contextual requirement is in fact mostly the same (more stringent in fact, as they are not automatically deleted word-finally to the best of my knowledge).

  25. Mr Punch said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    I'm just about Gibson's age, and I've always understood the television color just as he meant it.

  26. iching said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:51 am

    Thanks for the great post. Almost makes me want to learn Japanese. Nah. Not really, lifes's too short. But I love learning snippets about other languages that I will never get around to studying myself.

  27. Phil said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 8:48 am

    Virus being a latin loan totally explains it!

    More: English wh* words were translated from a dialect with voiceless w's. So you get white -> howaito. New translations don't have to be consistent with this.

    Whether /a/ gets translated as a pure vowel or its modern English realization is of course dependent on the context, i.e. the source language, but cases arise where two pronunciations come into common use. For example, IKEA has two spellings associated with it: AIKIA and IKEA.

  28. Summary for Sept 27 | Linguistics 201G, Discussions 3 & 4 said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    […] How many syllables are in "Hotel Springs" (in Japanese)? (Relevant part is in the last paragraph.) This entry was posted in IPA, discussion summary, phonetics, phonology, syllables. Bookmark the permalink. ← Summary for Sept 20 […]

  29. Sili said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    (changing emails – not sure why the browser used the wrong one – not a sockpuppet – promise!)

    I should have admitted sooner, but I might as well now: none of those opening lines meant anything to me. Googling them, I do recognise the titles of the other two books, but I can only be ashamed at how poorly read I am.

    The only opening line I know is

    It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

  30. Arjan said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

    Speaking of opening lines, I liked

    The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

  31. Lugubert said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 6:18 am

    The dead telly screen makes me think of my first set: white noise displayed as a black (to be honest, greyish) background to random white specks. It was referred to as "War of the Ants". It conjured up images of a snowstorm.

  32. kip said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    I remember wondering why he says "the color of television" rather than "the color of a television."

  33. Nathan Myers said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 2:04 am

    It took me years to figure out "After golf, bath a mustard". It's embarrassing, but I had to absorb a lot of context first.

  34. Leonardo Boiko said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    I've never had a television that doesn't display the random static of the Big Bang's residual background radiation. And I like them that way.

    Our current set does have an option to mask the randomness with the uniform blue, which I find sad. I leave it turned off. I'm 26 and Brazilian.

  35. Leonardo Boiko said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 10:26 am

    What is it with "Call me Ishmael"? I agree it's one of the best and most memorable opening lines ever, but I can't quite put my finger on why.

  36. Vic Blue said,

    October 30, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

    Mark hit it out of the park with his reference to Chiba City being to Tokyo what Jersey City is to New York. I grew up in Jersey City in the Orwellian Cold War era gray urban dump 50s and 60s which is how Chiba City struck me in Neuromancer.

    My favorite opening line in a novel is 'A screaming comes across the sky.' but Gibson's opener is quite fine. As soon as I think of it I am in an atmosphere that fits Jersey-Chiba City. The tv sky is perfect for the unsettling grayness of '1984' as well.

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