Giant Panda Xiang Xiang or Japanese diplomat Sugiyama?

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A couple of weeks ago, a strange language misunderstanding occurred during the Regular Press Conference of the PRC foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, on December 19, 2017.

During the press conference, a Japanese journalist raised a question in English. He asked:  "Giant panda Xiang Xiang who has traveled to Japan made its formal debut in a Tokyo zoo today. What is your comment  on this?  What influence will this have on China-Japan relations?"

Maybe it was because of his strong Japanese accent or the noise at the time, Hua Chunying was not able to follow him, especially at the beginning of the question.  She misunderstood to whom he was referring and thought it was "Shan Shan" (杉山 — pronouncing that name à la chinoise), a Japanese official. Therefore, she answered with standard diplomatic language. Not until a Chinese journalist pointed out her misinterpretation did Hua manage to move on and make it right.

The underlying factors that caused this episode are linguistic. To imitate the Chinese pronunciation of the panda’s name “Xiang Xiang” 香香 ("Fragrant Fragrant"), Japanese adopt kana and try their best to mark its phonetic features. They end up pronouncing “Xiang Xiang” 香香 as “シャンシャン“ (written as “Shanshan” in Roman alphabetic transcription).  So far as I know, 香 is not pronounced as "shan" シャン in Japanese, neither as on'yomi 音読み / ondoku 音読 (lit., "sound reading", i.e., Sino-Japanese reading) nor as kun'yomi 訓読み / kundoku 訓読 (lit., "instructional / exegetical reading", i.e., Japanese or native reading).  It sounds very similar to the Chinese pronunciation of the characters “杉山” (written as “Shānshān” in Pinyin).

When English becomes the language of communication, the English accent added to their original pronunciations makes it even harder to tell “Shanshan” (シャンシャン 香香 — Xiāng xiāng à la japonaise) from “Shānshān 杉山” (Sugiyama à la chinoise).  I have no doubt whatsoever that the Japanese journalist tried his best to pronounce “Xiang Xiang” 香香 as Chinese, within the phonemic inventory at his disposal.  On the other hand, Chinese almost invariably pronounce Japanese surnames à la chinoise, as if they were Chinese, even if they are diplomats or Sinologists who you'd think should know the Japanese pronunciations. Therefore, following Chinese habit, this explains why Hua Chunying perceived “Shanshan” (シャンシャン)  as “Shānshān” (杉山, i.e., Sugiyama — but in her mind, he is "Shānshān"; "Sugiyama" doesn't register). Even the involvement of English language did not deter her connection of “Shanshan” with “杉山”.

During the early stages of my Sinological training, when I encountered this Chinese practice of pronouncing Japanese names as if they were Mandarin, e.g., Iriya Yoshitaka 入矢義高 read as Rùshǐ Yìgāo, Yoshikawa Kōjirō 吉川幸次郎 as Jíchuān Xìngcìláng, Mishima Yukio 三島由紀夫 as Sāndǎo Yóujìfū, Aoki Masaru 青木 正児 as Qīngmù Zhèng'ér, and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介 as Jièchuān Lóngzhījiè, to name just a few of the scores of Japanese scholars whose works I studied and whose names I made a point of learning how to pronounce properly.  You can imagine how frustrating it was to discuss their views with Chinese scholars who always pronounced their names the Chinese way, which didn't mean anything to me.  The same was true when I attended lectures in Chinese and all Japanese (and Korean) proper nouns were spoken in Chinese.  Even when I had quiet conversations with my learned wife about Chinese literature, I would soon get lost when she referred to Japanese scholars and places with their Japanese pronunciation.  After many years, I developed the uncanny ability to think of Iriya Yoshitaka, whom I revered, and Rùshǐ Yìgāo as one and the same person.

One of the hardest parts of being a Sinologist (there are many others, for which see " Sinological suffering" [3/31/17] for a sampling) is learning how to pronounce Japanese terms correctly.  Because it is such a bane, I compiled the ABC Dictionary of Sino-Japanese Readings (University of Hawaii Press, 2016) as a contribution to the field.

Lastly, here are two related videos. One records the scene at the press conference, and the other elaborates the different nuances between “シャンシャン / 香香" (Shanshan, i.e., Xiang Xiang) and “杉山” (Shanshan, i.e., Sugiyama).

So who is this Sugiyama that Hua Chunying had in mind?

The reference is probably to Sugiyama Shunsuke 杉山晋輔, Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  You can consult the Japanese Wikipedia page here.

He has met with high officials in China recently as well as in other countries.  Sugiyama is considered the top career diplomat in the Foreign Ministry at present.

No one in Japan would ever call him Shan-shan.

From a Japanese friend:

Sugiyama is a relatively common family name in Japan.  (It also means  a hill or mountain where cedar trees are commercially grown.) The video says that  Ms. Hua 華  thought the question was about Sugiyama Jimujikan 杉山事務次官 ("Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Sugiyama [Shinsuke]") whom she probably met recently, and that might be the reason of her confusion (besides the reporter's pronunciation, perhaps).  "Xiang Xiang" and "Shan Shan" are so difficult to distinguish for me, too.

From a Chinese friend:

Actually Sugiyama did nothing important at this moment. Hua Chunying also found nothing special about him. Therefore she answered with very general diplomatic formalities.

On the other hand, as Nathan Hopson explains:

Sugiyama Shinsuke, former head of the foreign ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau (AOAB), a very important post, was recently appointed to be the Japanese ambassador to the US.

"Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama to succeed Kenichiro Sasae as ambassador to United States", The japan times (12/23/17)12/23/17

Perhaps Ms. Hua was aware of this in advance…? In any case, he's been the top bureaucrat at the foreign ministry for a while, I think, and in his capacity as AOAB chief was involved in lots of wrangling with China, etc., if memory serves.

In her capacity as spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, Ms. Hua almost certainly would have been well aware of who 杉山晋輔 is, but not as Sugiyama Shinsuke, rather as Shānshān Jìnfǔ or as Shānshān Shìwù Cìguān 杉山事務次官 ("Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Sugiyama [Shinsuke]").

[Thanks to Dai Yaoying, Nathan Hopson, and Frank Chance]


  1. John Swindle said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 10:33 am

    This somehow calls to mind Mr. Nakayama, although he was Chinese and there was no panda or homonym involved.

  2. John Rohsenow said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

    One thing I also had a problem with was learning to identify Japanese place names in Chinese, i.e. Dongjing for Tokyo, etc. Once again these
    Chinese readings are an result of their being "read" via the (originally
    Chinese) characters, rather than through romanization, as we do in English.

  3. John Rohsenow said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 12:49 pm

    But how do (ordinary) Japanese read 北京 and 中国 aloud?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 4:10 pm

    From Jim Breen:

    北京 and 中国 are read "Pekin" and "Chuugoku" in Japanese. Chinese named-entities are usually given a Chinese-derived reading, but 中国 is treated as a regular Japanese word.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 2, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    That is a most interesting post, Victor. After the Japanese Occupation (when Japanese was officially the language of the peninsula), and until recent decades, Koreans also used Chinese (that is, Sino-Korean) readings of the characters used for Japanese names. Many older Korean scholars still do. I noticed that the names of many Japanese famous (and infamous) in Korean were only referred that way. Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉 was (and still is in some circles) always, and only, called Pungsin Sugil. The famous linguist and dialectologist Ogura Shinpei 小倉新平 (who was a great authority on Korean dialects) was known as Sochang Jinpyeong. In other words, the impression I had was that the use of SK for Japanese names leant a feeling of familiarity to the name.

  6. ~flow said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 4:24 pm

    This Wikipedia article on modern Chinese loanwords in Japanese:日語中的現代漢語借詞#種類及特點 has a culinary example for the 'modern' reading of 香: 五香粉 ウーシャンフン. My Tokyo, 1942 大字典 (Ueda et al. ed.) calls these 現代支那音 "modern Chinese readings". Any mention of this kind of readings is pretty hard to find; most of the time, and this includes Wikipedia, only the 'classical' readings are mentioned. Some readings that appear to be quite modern are in fact Tō-on 唐音 (also called Tōsō-on 唐宋音); this would paradoxically also include 明 min for the Ming dynasty (ex. 明朝体 みんちょう・たい) and 清 shin for the Qing dynasty (ex. 日清食品 にっしん・しょくひん; if the latter was modern, one should expect チン I think).

  7. Filter Fodder said,

    January 5, 2018 @ 1:44 am

    > Chinese named-entities are usually given a Chinese-derived reading

    That might be true for a few cases that are common enough for Japanese people to know some concurrent-Sinitic-derived reading, like /pekin/,/nankin/,/shanhai/. As ~flow hints, a lot of Chinese dishes (麻婆/ma:bo:/, 油淋鶏 /yu:rinchi:/) also use 'modern' readings. But that is not the general rule.

    For example, 福建Fujian (the province) is usually /fukken/ in Japan, and e.g. 习近平 Xí Jìnpíng, the General Secretary, is usually /shu:kinpe:/. I was recently in Taiwan, and the Japanese speaking tour-guides would introduce themselves as the Japanese (on-)reading of the character for their last name.

  8. Michael Watts said,

    January 6, 2018 @ 5:26 pm

    Filter Fodder – fukken for 福建 looks like a Sinitic reading to me. Why do you say it isn't one?

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 6, 2018 @ 10:00 pm

    Filter Fodder means not concurrent-Sinitic, i.e. not Putonghua-derived. So I guess there is one possible future in which on top of Too-on, Kan-on and Go-on there is a "Kin-on" 京音 (?) layer of On'yomi in Japanese…

  10. Michael Watts said,

    January 8, 2018 @ 5:06 am

    That can't be right; pekin for 北京 beijing and nankin for 南京 nanjing are also not putonghua-derived, but Filter Fodder explicitly lists them as "concurrent-Sinitic-derived". As far as I can see (not far), those readings differ in no way at all from fukken for 福建.

  11. Filter Fodder said,

    January 8, 2018 @ 7:34 pm

    @Michael Watts

    Of course /fukken/ is a Sinitic reading. So is 中国 /chu:goku/, the Japonic reading would be /nakaguni/ or some such. Jim Breen is not distinguishing between Sinitic and non-Sinitic readings, but classical readings (Kan-on, Go-on) and more recently borrowed readings (like Too-on), which are usually learned on a lexeme-by-lexeme basis.

    Sure, /pekin/ isn't the closest Japanese equivalent to the modern Putonghua pronunciation, that would be /beijin/ (or possibly /peijin/ if you insist getting the voicing right is more important than getting the aspiration right). I don't know when /pekin/ was borrowed or whether it is a borrowing from a western version or directly from Chinese. It would probably be relevant to know when the ki>ji change happened, maybe somebody can shed light on that.

    My point was that for a Japanese person to see 北京 and read /pekin/, they have to know the word. One can immediately read /fukken/, however, even if one has never seen 福建 before.

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