Amazing things you can do with the Japanese writing system

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Hanasaki, a curious term, depending on how you read and interpret it:  "flower blooming" > "scab"

A Japanese correspondent asked me the following set of questions (below, after the page break) about the name of a Yosakoi-Sōran dance group.  I'm not sure what the meaning of "Yosakoi" is, other than that it is the designation of a festival in Kochi Prefecture where this type of dancing originated in the early 90s.  I've watched a few videos of Yosakoi-Sōran dance and find it fascinating and stimulating because it is extremely energetic and combines traditional Japanese dance moves with contemporary Western-influenced street dance routines.  It is accompanied with rhythmic beating of naruko 鳴子 ("clappers") and repeated shouts of "sōran そうらん" (with a long "o", i.e., "ō").  I'm not certain what that means either, since there are many homophonous expressions with quite different meanings; one that might be applicable here is 騒乱, meaning "disturbance; riot; mayhem" for the uninhibited, sweeping gestures characteristic of the dance.  More likely, though, it is derived from the chant of fishermen to encourage themselves as they went about their work of hauling nets, pulling ropes, and so forth, in which case it would perhaps mean roughly "that's right" or "like that".

N.B.:  When the Japanese correspondent says "Chinese symbols", he seems to mean just "Chinese characters", i.e., kanji.

In addition to their dancing, attires, banners, etc. I am quite interested in and intrigued by their team names. In many instances, they use Chinese symbols, but their reading is unorthodox and innovative. I have an impression that their usage of Chinese symbols in coining YOSAKOI team names is similar to the process in which ancient Japanese adopted Chinese symbols in their writing.

I know of a team named 華咲舞楽 (I am not sure if these four symbols come out properly on your PC). When this team name is pronounced, it means "scab." I wonder if you can figure out how this combination of Chinese symbols could be pronounced in that way. You'd have to know (1) what the Japanese equivalent of "scab" is, (2) multiple readings of each of these Chinese symbols in Japanese, and (3) which reading is picked up for each in this case.

Notes:

  1. I'm doubtful that this name could be pronounced in such a way as to mean "scab".  That really flummoxed me.  The "normal" pronunciation of 華咲舞楽 is "hanasaki bugaku", meaning "Hanasaki dance music".  舞楽 is pronounced "bugaku" and traditionally means "court dance and music".
  2. I only know 華咲 with the pronunciation hanasaki (which means "flower blossoming", I think).
  3. The character 咲 doesn't even exist in Chinese with the meaning "blossom".  In Chinese, it is said to be a variant of xiào 笑 ("laugh").
  4. There was a strange little Japanese railway station named Hanasaki in the far north of Hokkaido that closed in March, 2015.
  5. Or maybe there's a hidden reference to hanasakigani はなさきがに 花咲蟹 ("blue king crab" — why it has a Japanese name that seems to mean "flower blossoming crab" is beyond me — maybe that's what it looks like to some people).

In any event, when it comes to reading Japanese names and texts, there's practically nothing that could be done in the way they're read that would surprise me.  Kanji (as well as hiragana, katakana, and rōmaji (the other three components of the Japanese writing system) can be used in all sorts of interesting and unexpected ways.

There is an American poet with a PhD from The Ohio State University named Jeffrey Angles who won one of Japan's major literary prizes (Yomiuri).  He wrote an amazing poem in which he mentioned many of the rivers of central and southern Ohio right where my family went walking last week to celebrate brother Dave's 80th birthday:  the Scioto, the Olentangy, Muskingum, etc.  Angles wrote their names in kanji to describe what they mean in Native American languages and he used furigana (ruby katakana) to phonetically annotate their sounds.  The effect of separately, but simultaneously, conveying sound and meaning was stunning.

I've seen 車 annotated not as kuruma, but as カー ("car"), and there are many other such games one can play with kanji and kana.  But I still didn't know what my Japanese correspondent meant when he said that 華咲舞楽 could be read as meaning "scab".  So I asked Frank Chance if he could figure it out, and this is what Frank wrote back to me (to understand what he's saying, you have to know that on-yomi are Chinese-style readings, that kun-yomi are Japanese-style readings, that ateji are kanji used phonetically to represent native or borrowed words without regard to their meaning, and that manga are Japanese comics or graphic novels [I suspect that most Language Log readers were already familiar with the last item]):

You seem to miss the other homonym of "hanasaki" i.e., 鼻先, the tip of the nose, though that may not be relevant.

Another link is hanasakujiisan 花咲く祖父さん, a folk tale about an old man with the power to make flowers bloom out of season.

華咲舞楽  is fairly easily read 華 ka (on-yomi) 咲 sa  (kun-yomi sa from saku, to bloom) 舞 bu (on-yomi) as in Kabuki, and 楽 ta (kun-yomi, ta from tanoshii, pleasant, enjoyable)  which gives us かさぶた(瘡蓋) kasabuta, scab, i.e. lid on a wound.

The mix of on and kun readings is common in this sort of ateji 当て字 readings.  It is in a sense a kind of Japanese play with kanji and is frequently seen in manga graphic novels.  By a similar process my name, for example, can be scurrilous (不卵期 千杏) or serious (仏蘭久 茶庵主), among many other possibilities.

[Challenge to readers:  figure out how to transcribe Frank's scurrilous and serious names in romaji and then translate them into English.]

I was very impressed that Frank was able to explain so clearly how hanasaki bugaku 華咲舞楽 "Hanasaki / flower-blooming dance music" could also be read as kasabuta ("scab")!  Fair enough.  BUT, I asked Frank, why would a dance troop want to call itself "scab"?

Explaining some additional word play not mentioned in his first reply, Frank answered:

There may be a couple of puns at work here.  One is kasa 傘 umbrella (or kasa 笠 rain hat), a frequently used prop among Japanese dancers. Another may be buta 豚 pig — and an umbrella / hat pig or a pig with an umbrella (like a pig with lipstick) is a funny image.  There may be a hidden link to Kabuki (written as 歌舞伎 in standard Japanese but with many ateji variants) and of course the combination bugaku 舞楽 used for Tang dynasty court music / dance drama.  Finally kasabuta could thus be a pun on hanagasa odori 花笠踊り a festival dance performed with umbrellas or hats decorated with flowers.  The links are clearly many.

As for calling themselves "scabs" I have no explanation, though I similarly have no explanations for why a hip-hop band would call itself "Beastie Boys" or a rock star would take the name "Gackt" (which sounds like barfing in Japanese as well as English).

Which writing system is harder to master, Chinese or Japanese?  You pays your money and you takes your choice.

For me, they're both excruciatingly difficult, but for those who cherish them, each has its compensations, such as the intricacies of engaging in the sort of word play described in this post — if that's your cup of ocha.

 

Selected readings

"Cantonese and Mandarin interwoven" (8/20/14)

"Cool slave / guy / tofu / whatever" (5/12/18)

"Sino-Japanese" (7/2/16)

"Japan: crazy over portmanteaux" (7/26/16)

"Great taste" (5/20/14)

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer and Cecilia Seigle]



9 Comments

  1. Bathrobe said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 7:08 pm

    Well, you could achieve similar effects in English. For example, if you were a British rowing team (not American, mostly wouldn't work there) you could call yourself "The Oarsomes".

  2. Seong of Baekje said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 8:19 pm

    According to Japanese Wikipedia, "yosakoi" is a shortened form of 夜さり来い (come at night), which is from an earlier stage of the Japanese language.

  3. John Swindle said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 9:25 pm

    Compare Sōran Bushi.

  4. Josh Reyer said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 9:50 pm

    This is similar to Japanese phone number mnemonics, wherein a combination of on-yomi, kun-yomi, and even English for numbers is used to create a word or phrase in place of the numbers.

    The one that readily comes to mind is an English school whose last four phone number digits was 8639 with ruby katakana rendering it as "Hello, Thank you" (haroo sankyuu). In this case, ha is from "hachi" eight, ro is from "roku" six, "san" being three, and "kyuu" being nine.

    Alternatively, the word "yoroshiku" being joking rendered in text mails as "4649".

  5. David Morris said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 1:45 am

    @Bathrobe: Australia's coxless fours rowing team is known as the Oarsome Foursome.

  6. Keith said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 2:12 am

    Challenge accepted!

    I found it amusing and very instructive to see how Kanji can have so many different readings and interpretations.

    With the help of Wikipedia, I managed to get:

    Frank Chance

    scurrilous (不卵期 千杏)
    不 fu (not, no, negation)
    卵 ran (egg)
    期 ko,ki (term, period of time, season)

    千 chi (thousand)
    杏 anzu (apricot)

    "no eggs this season, but a thousand apricots"

    serious (仏蘭久 茶庵主)
    仏 fu (futsu, butsu) (Buddha, enlightened being)
    蘭 ran (orchid, aromatic, fragrant, "fujibakama" plant)
    久 kyu, ku (long time)

    茶 cha (tea)
    庵 an (small house made of reeds)
    主 su, shu (head of family, proprietor, landlord)

    "long-lived fragrant Buddha, owner of a tea-shack"

  7. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 11:25 am

    According to Professor Google (https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1CHBF_enUS850US850&ei=hYIbXf-sOsuQggeZgIJg&q=%22%E4%B8%8D%E5%8D%B5%E6%9C%9F%22&oq=%22%E4%B8%8D%E5%8D%B5%E6%9C%9F%22&gs_l=psy-ab.3…3180.3370..3762…0.0..0.72.140.2……0….1..gws-wiz.weH9904Eoy4), the penultimate and final kanji of "不卵期" (i.e. "Frank") is most often used to refer to ovulation! Wikipedia confirms that it is used this way: (https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%8E%92%E5%8D%B5).

    "杏" is the mononym for the Japanese fashion model, Anne Watanabe (https://jisho.org/word/51868fc9d5dda7b2c6012ee6). So, I would translate the "scurrilous" name to: "One Thousand Anne Watanabes Do Not Ovulate". That is a memorable name: If _one_ Anne Watanabe doesn't ovulate, than perhaps she's post-menopausal, or should perhaps think about changing her diet. But if _one thousand_ Anne Watanabes do not ovulate, then I would seriously consider sending the entire family for genetic testing.

  8. Frank L Chance said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 3:14 pm

    Thank you for the interpretations, both of which are pretty much on point.
    My own sense of the "scurrilous" name is like Benjamin E. Orsatti's, but taken perhaps one step further. The "period of non-ovulation" equates roughly with "sterile, infertile" sp I think of it as "one thousand sterile apricots." Meanwhile the "serious" name translates roughly as "Master of the Teahouse of the Eternal Buddha Flower." The latter seems at least like a more auspicious aspiration than a large grove of nonproductive fruit trees.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 11:10 am

    From David B. Lurie:

    I wrote a review of Jeffery Angles's translation of Orikuchi Shinobu's classic novel The Book of the Dead (死者の書), and was later on the jury that awarded it the Miyoshi Prize, but I didn't realize until quite recently that he wrote Japanese-language poetry as well as being a gifted translator into English.

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