Japanese postcard puzzle

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In "Postcard language puzzle", Mark Liberman enlisted the aid of Language Log readers in deciphering the writing on two old postcards mailed from Mallorca in 1912-1913. The result was a swift and stunning success, an amazing demonstration of spontaneous online collaboration of linguists spread across the globe.

Now, Bruce Balden has sent in an even older postcard with a most intriguing illustration inspired by the Jamestown Exhibition of 1907:

In this case, we know the language and script, viz., Japanese, but the handwriting is so calligraphic and "grassy" that it cannot be fully understood even by most highly literate Japanese.

The writer was apparently well-educated, which explains why he / she wrote mostly in traditional kanji. Moreover, he / she writes from RIGHT to LEFT and vertically in short columns, which does not work well in the elongated horizontal space provided for the message.

With the help of some friends, here's what I've been able to figure out so far (some parts remain unreadable or only partially readable):

に来て見る (I'm especially uncertain about the first graph in this line)
十日XXほど (maybe that is 十 日間程)
其からXXXXXX (maybe that is 其から紐育)
欧州へ 行って

This may mean:

"Fortunately when I came to the exhibition, it's pretty interesting, so while doing research I intend to stay for about 10 days. Then I will go back to XXXXX [New York?] and now I feel like trying to go to Europe as soon as possible (even one day sooner)."

Mind you, both the transcription and the translation are very rough, but they should at least give an idea of the contents and provide a foundation for others who might wish to work on the message. Admittedly, the pool of those able to take us further must be very small and specialized, so I'm not necessarily expecting that we'll be able to arrive at a definitive reading of the entire message. Meanwhile, other Language Log readers might find the intriguing design and wording in the picture above to be worthy of comment.

[Thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle and Pan Da'an]


  1. Andy Averill said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

    Either postcards worked differently in those days or he didn't realize the message goes on the back?

  2. Adam B said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

    I think it was more standard to have writing on the front before postcards were routinely glossy.

  3. Jon Weinberg said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

    I'm way out of my depth here, but unless I'm missing something, the first character in that XXXXX block looks pretty much like 田.So could the missing text be something in the "countryside" (inaka, tahata, etc.) grouping?

  4. Krogerfoot said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

    I was thinking along the same lines as Jon Weinberg. I read line 10 as 其れから田舎 (then, [back] home). However, that's hard to parse with the remainder of the message – "After my return home, I'd like to take a look around Europe as soon as I can"?

  5. Krogerfoot said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

    Oh, I didn't know about 紐育 as "New York." It looks more like that than 田舎, I suppose. My English comment made no sense either. Sorry to intrude – I'll leave you folks to it.

  6. TR said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

    I've never heard handwriting described as "grassy" before. What is this metaphor intended to mean?

  7. Antariksh Bothale said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

    @TR, it's a reference to Grass Style Chinese Calligraphy. The Wiki page has info about how the name came about.

  8. Michael Harrison said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

    Responding to Andy Averill's comment above, postcards did work differently in those days, but they were changing. The rule against writing on the address side of postcards was only lifted by the U.S. Post Office Department in March 1907, a month and some before the Jamestown Exposition opened. The writer of this postcard could certainly have written his or her message on the back, but he or she would not have been in the habit of doing so. Furthermore, as you can see from the scan, this postcard was designed, as most were, with the message space on the front.

  9. Matt said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

    For what it's worth, I basically agree with your transcription. To my eyes, the first graph in line 3 is indeed に (the hentaigana form from 爾/尓) and line 7 is surely 十日間程. However, there are a couple of places where the text has been converted to contemporary orthography, so let me put (my reading of) the actual text on the record:


    (I think the た might actually be missing from the second-last line, but た is still one of my weak spots. Anyway, "mitaku" is surely intended.)

    Points of linguistic interest (all perfectly normal in early 20th-C Japanese)
    – No punctuation!
    – Minimal okurigana (e.g. 帰て instead of 帰って or 帰りて)
    – Use of kanji for the auxiliary verb "miru"; in contemporary Japanese the standard would be to write it in kana, and save kanji for when it is used as an actual verb (e.g. "見てみる").
    – "Saiwai" spelled 幸ひ but "omoshiroi" spelled 面白い — current pronunciation showing through the cracks of classical orthography.

    As for the translation, I think the second sentence can be interpreted as a single unit: 

    "Fortunately, having come to the exhibition I find it quite interesting, and so I intend to fit about 10 days here into my research [schedule]. After that, I am newly resolved, I shall return to New York and [then] go to Europe as soon as possible."

  10. chris kern said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

    Matt: I have a feeling that the 見たく is 見多久 but squashed together.

  11. Patrick said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

    As an addition to the response by Michael Harrison: Possibly this postcard's address side also still explicitly stated that it's forbidden to write a message on this side – although I'm not familiar with U.S. postcards, I have seen this on many old Swiss postcards.

  12. Matt said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

    Chris: Yes, that must be it if it's there. The chances are high that I'm just not up to the task of deciphering the relevant minute jot in the text, even when given a lone 久 for comparison (the one after 早).

  13. dainichi said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 8:47 pm

    So classically, would it be 面白しので or 面白きので? Being a novice on classical Japanese, I'm not sure whether the attributive or the predicative would be used before conjunctions.

  14. Bobbie said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 9:43 pm

    A lot of old postcards had writing on BOTH sides. The sender often started on the "back" and then wrote more under the picture or around the edges of the picture on the "front."

  15. Bobbie said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 9:46 pm

    The artist took a lot of liberties with our local geography (Norfolk Virginia). The Jamestown Exposition of 1907 took place on what later became a large U. S Navy base. In fact, some of the exposition buildings are still in use 100+ years later.

  16. Matt said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    Dainichi: I suppose you would expect 面白きので (consider the analogy with なので), but ので is itself such an anachronism in the context of the classical system that I'm not sure any usage would be "acceptable" really.

  17. Sjiveru said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 11:31 pm

    AFAIK 面白い and 幸ひ coexisting isn't that odd – spellings were updated for loss of -k- (omoshiroi comes from omoshiroki) quite a long time before they were updated for loss of -w- (saiwai comes from saifafi /saip\ap\i/>saiwawi>saiwai).

    @dainichi: In my understanding ので is idiomatically a conjunction but etymologically (and grammatically) nominalisation + copula-て, so you would use the rentaikei (>面白きので). In modern Japanese you still use the rentaikei there (なので, instead of *だので with the shuushikei.
    (Though -really- classically you'd just say 面白ければ.)

  18. Bruce said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 4:21 am

    The other side of the postcard is shown here:

    In principle it's much easier to read since it's also in English already (name and address), but I don't see 京(Kyoto) there. In any case the Japanese version seems far more detailed than just "Kyoto, Japan".

  19. kktkkr said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 5:48 am

    My knowledge of Chinese compels me to read line 10 as ending in 用者 and line 7 as having the character 号. I have no idea how those kanji might fit into the text though.

  20. chris kern said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 5:58 am

    It might look like 号 but it's a cursive version of 日 plus a cursive version of 間; both are common characters so they can have very abbreviated forms.

  21. Matt said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 7:35 am

    The reverse, he say:


    Fuya-cho ni-jo
    Takubun [?] Inn
    SAWADA Banji, Esq.

    Linguistic points of interest:
    – As Bruce says, the English half just has "Japan" and a name. This is presumably because the writer knew that nobody in the US postal service gives a crap where in Japan a postcard; as long as they know to throw it in the "JAPAN" container, that's enough
    – Japan is written "大日本" — the "大" ("great") featured in the Meiji-through-WWII country name, 大日本帝國 (literally "Empire of Great Japan")
    – キテへ is presumably 羈亭 ("inn"), because 澤文 was the name of a hotel. Would YOU write 羈 if you could get away with キ?
    – 麩屋 is also written in kana (ふや). Notice that neither of these two kanafications renders the text incomprehensible.
    – The name is tough. I read the English as "B. Sawada" so the first name should start with B; 萬治 and 萬次 are both pronounced "Banji" and would fit the bill. But I am less confident about the given name than anything else.

  22. Matt said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 7:38 am

    Sjiveru: Thank you for the detailed followup! You are quite right, ひ and い coexisting is not at all odd for the time, but it is interesting nonetheless (well, to me…). The premature death of き led to all sorts of interesting workarounds during the Edo period — some people wrote 面白い like this, others wrote 面白ひ in a sort of overcorrection…

  23. Matt Anderson said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    This is a fascinating postcard & discussion.

    In addition to the other old features mentioned above, like sawai written 幸ひ and ni に written with 尔/尓, I find it interesting that the -i ending of omoshiroi 面白以 is actually written 以 instead of い (or perhaps this cursive form of 以 is a hentaigana for い? I'm not too up on my hentaigana).

    I am also amazed that the address (which a commenter linked to an image of) is written in the same style of script. I don't find it at all surprising that there was a time when educated people wrote to each other in such "grassy" script, but I am somewhat surprised that it was acceptable in the context of a modern postal system.

  24. Jason Yonce said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 11:36 am

    I want to thank you all for your work in translating this postcard. I am the postcard's owner. I'd like to thank Bruce for forwarding it to you all. I came across this in a rural antiques store in my hometown about four weeks ago. I was stationed in Norfolk, VA from 2010-2011 and found this postcard's travels very interesting. The translations here basically agree with a Japanese instructor's translation I received Sunday night from Western Carolina University. There is still some disagreement over whether or not the writer is traveling back home or to New York. I wish there was less mystery surrounding the writer and maybe in time I'll know more. I've had more fun with this than I could have hoped for. Thanks again.

  25. Akito said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    Isn't it ホテル rather than キテへ ?

  26. Matt said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

    Akito: D'oh!! Yes, it is…

  27. minus273 said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

    But please Matt, there's nothing inconsistent in writing a 口語 adjective ending い as い. The historicism in pre-war orthography concerns only the regular cases (mostly ハ行転呼), other lenitions are written as pronounced (死んで is not 死にて either).

  28. minus273 said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

    Ah sorry, I misunderstood.

  29. Bruce said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

    Since there is no stamp on this postcard, does anyone know how the postage was paid? Maybe it was free postage from the Exposition site?

  30. a George said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 8:58 pm

    — the stamp was there, allright. You can still see traces of the perforation and some gum residue at the bottom of the field for the stamp. Probably some stamp collector thought it worthwhile to remove the stamp, or the card was moistened at some stage

  31. elessorn said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 12:12 am


    羈亭: May we all make such glorious mistakes!

  32. dainichi said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 3:58 am


    Yes, that makes sense. Historically it was common to zero-nominalize with the predicative form, and I'm not sure when and how the no-nominalization became common.

    I could be completely wrong, but I don't think I've ever seen 面白きので. I'm curious whether this construction has ever been common, either in speech or writing. My point is that maybe if the author wanted to use the conjunction ので, he had no choice but to use the modern attributive form 面白い.

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