November 29, 2005

Read and Survive!


Fans of Read or Die can rest assured that Jinbo-cho, "the highest concentration of bookstores in the world," has survived being attacked by those nasty, conspiratorial thugs from the British Library (leave it to manga writers Shutaro Yamada and Hideyuki Kurata to invent world's most unlikeliest villains):

[Jinbo-cho] in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward hosts 45 bookstores for new books and 120 offering rare and secondhand books, with estimated combined holdings of 3 million titles and 10 million books.

And now they're going online, with a database of one million used books. That should keep Yomiko Readman busy for a while.

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November 27, 2005

Chapter 16 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)


The climactic scene in the chanbara eiga (samurai action movie) Ronin Gai depicts a "drawing and quartering" almost exactly as described here. (Of course, the good guys arrive just in time.)

During the Tokugawa Era, sumptuary laws were promulgated in the name of moral values, public decorum and respect for the government. But it largely came down to enforcement of the feudal order and was a handy way to check the influence of the growing merchant class. The lowest of the four feudal classes (samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants), the merchants were often the most powerful, due to the profligate borrowing and spending habits of high government officials, who were not above using sumptuary laws as an excuse to default on their debts.

In Japan, an Attempt at Interpretation, written in the late Meiji period, Lafcadio Hearn notes how it is

difficult for the Western mind to understand how human beings could patiently submit to laws that regulated not only the size of one's dwelling and the cost of its furniture, but even the substance and character of clothing[;] not only the expense of a wedding outfit, but the quality of the marriage-feast, and the quality of the vessels in which the food was to be served[;] not only the kind of ornaments to be worn in a woman's hair, but the material of the thongs of her sandals[;] not only the price of presents to be made to friends, but the character and the cost of the cheapest toy to be given to a child.

Sumptuary laws were also an excuse to scrimp on the stipends paid to samurai, who were supposed to lead "austere" lives. As depicted in the movie Twilight Samurai, by the 19th century, the samurai system had become economically unviable. Crippling taxes were required to sustain the samurai class, yet most lower-echelon samurai, forbidden to engage in trade or manual labor, lived in poverty. Along the way, many illegally sold their swords and turned to farming or commerce, or, as in The Seven Samurai, kept their swords and became mercenaries or enforcers for the yakuza.

Ironically, at the same time, merchants often used their wealth to acquire samurai status. Sakamoto Ryouma, one of the founders of modern Japan, came from a family of sake brewers who purchased the rank of "merchant samurai." Not surprisingly, Sakamoto recognized early on the need to end the feudal system of inherited class.

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November 23, 2005

Better odd than even


It's one of those curious bits of sociolinguistics that I'd never really thought about before and now becomes perfectly obvious. It started with a passage from A Thousand Leagues of Wind, in which Gobo is once again taking Shoukei to task. "You should be working three or four times as hard as everybody else," she scolds her.

What she actually says is "sanbai mo gobai mo" (三倍も五倍も), or "three or five times." This sounds quite awkward when translated literally. So, I inquired, what's wrong with four? My correspondent pointed out that odd numbers are considered lucky in Japan. Such colloquial expressions avoid even numbers the way hotels avoid the thirteenth floor.

This is not unique to the Orient. Plutarch denigrated even numbers as "defective, imperfect, and indefinite" and odd numbers as "finite, complete, and absolute." God created the world in seven days, though He did the work in six (even) and took the seventh (odd) off. Nowadays, we take days one and seven off. Hey, twice as odd!

But, still, the Japanese take their odds a bit more seriously than apparently we take Plutarch. Or Shakespeare. While Shakespeare did write in the iambic pentameter, the 5-7-5 syllabic structure of Japanese poetry has a much deeper provenance. And the Shakespearean sonnet is pretty even (fourteen lines, ending in a couplet).

Said Christ in Matthew 18:20, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." But Japanese speak of people in "threes and fives" (三三五五). The three children's holidays are called shichi-go-san, celebrating the seventh, fifth and third birthdays, and traditionally fall on March 3, May 5 and July 7.

Oddness applies to more mundane matters as well. When handing out money as gifts, make it 100 (1万円) dollars or 300 dollars (3万円), not 200 dollars (2万円). Similarly, according to my correspondent, better that a fruit basket contain five apples, not four. And dinnerware is typically sold in sets of five plates, not four or six.

Especially not four! The Chinese reading (on-yomi) for "four" is /shi/ (四), which is the same pronunciation as "death" (死). It's spooky enough that many Japanese favor the kun-yomi for the number four, yon. Well, in this context, tetraphobia does make more sense than triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13).

I'm still looking for a good explanation of why the baseline for counting large numbers starts with one man, or 10,000 (万), rather than 1000. A million is 100 man (100万) and a billion is 100 oku (100億). The Occidental brain ends up a factor of 10 off. That is easily the most confusing aspect of the numbering system, and luck's got nothing to do with it so far as I can tell.

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November 20, 2005

Chapter 14 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)


The Japanese terms for nobility that Ono uses are derived from medieval Chinese peerage. However, their English equivalents do have historical precedence. In the early Meiji period, Japanese nobility below that of emperor was officially designated as follows: prince, marquis, count, viscount, and baron. It was also during this time that the design of the revised constitutional system was being drawn heavily from the Prussian model, so the adoption of these European terms is hardly surprising.

王 [おう] king/emperor/empress
公爵 [こうしゃく] duke (the Taiho)
公 [こう] kou, prince of the realm (the same kou as in Sankou: the ministers of right, left, and privy seal)
侯 [こう] kou, province lord (marquis)
伯 [はく] haku, count (same as British earl) or minister
 卿伯 [けいはく] keihaku, undersecretary or vice minister
卿 [けい] kei, province minister (viscount)
大夫 [だいぶ] daibu, baron
 上中下 three subdivisions of baron: upper, middle, lower
士 [し] knight (samurai) or gentleman
 上中下 three subdivisions of knight: upper, middle, lower

飛仙 [ひせん] hisen, lit. "flying wizard" or wizard of the air.
地仙 [ちせん] chisen, lit. "earth wizard" or wizard of the earth.

才国 [さいこく] Kingdom of Sai
王采 [さいおう] Royal Sai
中瑾 [ちゅうきん] Chuu Kin, lit. "middle jewel," family name and given name of the Royal Sai
黄姑 [こうこ] Kouko, lit. "golden mother-in-law," ruling name of the Royal Sai

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Chapter 13 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)


The kanji 妖 (you) shows up in words like 妖精 (fairy, elf) and 妖怪 (goblin, monster). Ono uses 妖 as a prefix to refer to the supernatural creatures that inhabit the 12 Kingdoms, commonly referred to as youma (妖魔) or youjuu (妖獣). Youma is an actual word (you + "demon"). Youjuu is you + "beast."

采王 [さいおう] Royal Sai
揖寧 [ゆうねい] Yuunei, capital of Sai
長閑宮 [ちょうかんきゅう] Choukan Palace (lit. "long tranquility")

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November 15, 2005

Snow Country


"The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky."

So begins the novel Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. This 2004 satellite photograph vividly illustrates its location. At this latitude, Japan's "snow country" experiences the world's heaviest snowfall (as illustrated here). Where the Japan Alps cross central Honshu island, you can even make out the ridgelines separating the southern slopes facing the Kanto Plain and the warm Pacific from the northern slopes facing Siberia across the Japan Sea.

The scattered black dots are lakes. The big gray splotch at center right is Tokyo. West of Tokyo is Nagoya, and a short hop further west from Nagoya is Osaka. At the very top right is the island of Hokkaido. Halfway between Tokyo and Hokkaido is the city of Sendai.

To provide some geographical context, Tokyo is a tad south of Greensboro, North Carolina. Sendai is the same latitude as Washington, D.C. and Hokkaido shares the same latitudes as Minnesota. The mountains in northern Honshu are not as high as in central Honshu, so what is known as the Tohoku ("northeast") reigion is more directly exposed to those cold Siberian winds.

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November 13, 2005

12-layered kimono


From the 13 November 2005 Japan Times:

In a traditional rite before her wedding Tuesday, Princess Nori paid respects Saturday morning at sanctuaries in the Imperial Palace grounds where legendary gods and the spirits of late emperors are enshrined. Princess Nori, wearing a 12-layered kimono called a juuni hitoe, walks through the Imperial Palace on Saturday.

See also the notes for chapter 7 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind.

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Chapter 12 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)


The word translated in this chapter as "cot" or "bed" is nedoko (寝床). However, Ono uses the nonstandard kanji compound 臥牀 (lit. lying down + bench/couch") and glosses it as nedoko using furigana. This bit of poetic license is often employed by Japanese writers to lend nuance to otherwise common words, a way of sneaking two meanings into one usage.

It is also a way to introduce foreign words into the narrative. Masamune Shirow does this (perhaps to excess) in Ghost in the Shell, for example, glossing 確認 (confirmation) as "information" (infuomeeshon) and 素子 (device) as "device" (debaisu). He also invents new words like 脳潜入 (lit. brain infiltration), which he glosses as "brain diving" (burein daibingu).

"Setsuko" is a popular girl's name. The kanji Ono uses are 赤虎or "red tiger," which she uses both as a name as a descriptive noun.

甘蕈 [かんきん] kankin, lit. "sweet + mushroom"
海客 [かいきゃく] kaikyaku, lit. "sea visitor" (visitor from across the sea)

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Chapter 11 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)


The Privy Council is a group of advisors that counsels the sovereign in matters of state. Essentially the same as the Cabinet. The Naiden would thus be equivalent to the Oval Office, or more generally the White House, while the Gaiden could be analogized to the Capitol.

The ritual boundaries described in this chapter are not foreign to modern politics. For example, the President of the United States cannot enter the House or Senate without being formally invited (typically for the State of the Union). Similar rules dictate when the King or Queen of Great Britain can enter Parliament.

See the notes for chapter 2 for a further discussion of the Rikkan.

外殿 [がいでん] Gaiden, lit. "outer palace"
内殿 [ないでん] Naiden, lit. "inner palace"
冢宰 [ちょうさい] Chousai (title), Minister-in-Chief of the Rikkan
靖共 [せいきょう] Seikyou
太宰 [だざい] Tasai (title), head minister of the Ministry of Heaven
瑛州 [えいしゅう] Ei Province

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November 11, 2005

Godzilla, Gamera, and now Jellyfish!!!


This photo is not a special effect:

Huge Echizen jellyfish, which can weigh up to 200 kilograms [440 lbs.] and have an umbrella measuring two meters across, have been causing serious damage to the fishing industry off Japan's east coast.

Hmm, so maybe Godzilla and Gamera are really documentaries, after all! Giant jellyfish . . . giant, fire-breathing lizard, giant, fire-breathing, rocket-powered sea turtle . . . hey, makes sense to me! I mean, "they have poisonous tentacles."

Tentacles! Of course it would show up in Japan!!

I mean, Mothra's a lousy moth, for crying out loud. What's so terrifying about that? It's obviously part of the same giant-sea-creature-enabling, nuclear-powered ecosystem. Yet another government conspiracy has been exposed.

The SDF will mobilize shortly, followed by the massive wreckage of a large Japanese city to be named later.

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November 09, 2005

As long as my eyes are black


Here in the English-speaking Occident (the very occidental state of Utah), even what is considered pretty much an unoffendable ethnic/racial identity (Anglo-Saxon) is not phenotypically generic enough to yield aphorisms or expressions that weren't originally coined with a fundamentally derogatory or self-deprecating intent in mind.

There are, to be sure, a wide range of fairly innocuous "observations." I don't mind saying that white men can't jump because I can't. Jeff Foxworthy has made a career out insulting his own particular ethnic tribe. And while I'm sure that the more fair-headed among us do take umbrage at "dumb blonde" jokes, I'm also sure that they equally enjoy telling them.

The "dumb blonde" joke doesn't resonate the same way in Japan, where, as Rebecca McGregor points out, what we would call "brunette" is generally classified as "blonde." Granted, we do the same thing with skin color, assigning the pseudo-racial phenotype "white" equally to a pasty, burn-don't-tan guy like me and to the bronzed George Hamilton.

Contrariwise, what most Japanese describe as "black" when it comes to eye color includes a number of umber-ish qualities that describe pretty much the entire population. Thus a phenotype that is generic enough to yield aphorisms or expressions that weren't in fact originally coined with a fundamentally derogatory or self-deprecating intent in mind.

Hence the following:
目の黒いうちに (me no kuroi uchi ni)
lit. "as long as (uchi ni) my eyes (me) are black (kuroi)" = "in my lifetime"

私の目の黒いうちは絶対にそんなことはさせない (watashi no me no kuroi uchi wa zettai ni sonna koto wa sasenai)
lit. "As long as my eyes are black, you'll never get me to do something like that." = "Not over my dead body."

Completely neutral in usage and tone. Does the English language really offer nothing comparable? At least I can't come up with any examples off the top of my head.

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November 06, 2005

Chapter 10 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)


On the subject of winter . . . although it straddles the 37th parallel, the same latitude as the state of Virginia, Japan's Hokuriku region has some of the heaviest snowfall on earth. Known as the "snow country," arctic winds blowing south out of Siberia pick up moisture crossing the Japan Sea and release their precipitation on the western slopes of the Japan Alps. Snowpacks in some areas can reach a dozen meters or more, leading to ingenious technologies in snow removal.

新道 [しんどう] Shindou
朱旗 [しゅせい] Red Banner

From Chapter 9

芥沾洞 [かいせんどう] Kaisen Grotto
臥山 [がざん] Mt. Ga

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November 01, 2005

Me and my mechanical girlfriend


I Dream of Mimi belongs to that genre of anime that involves the nice geek next door getting hold of an anatomically correct, tremendously cute and willing female android, and then not having the slightest idea what to do with her. Well, beyond the obvious. Unlike anime "fan service" that is mostly nudity drenched with directionless innuendo, this is a sex comedy with actual sex.

Believe me, in this particular genre, despite appearances, that's actually rare.

Mimi just barely skirts the hentai label by not getting that up close and personal. In fact, I found the sex scenes (sex with what, you may fairly ask) in Mimi to be less annoying than the intimations of robotic sexual detail in the PG-13 rated Chobits. Though the distributor still felt the need to fib about the protagonist's age in the subtitles. (An often unintentionally comical consequence of federal anti-porn laws.)

To be sure, Mimi does not plumb the existential depths of Video Girl Ai (in which virtual girl meets Pinocchio). It never gets as Freudian as Mahoromatic (is she his lover or his mother?). It's not as smart about human relationships as My Dear Marie (in which android girl meets Shaw's Pygmalion), though it does sneak in some clever metaphors about fidelity.

You will never think about "write-protect" in quite the same way again.

Undoubtedly, though, I Dream of Mimi is the ubergeekiest of them all. It's basically a story about competing PC platforms, and, sorry Mac fanatics, but Apple is the ugly American. Well, not "ugly," more like ridiculously well-endowed. A trio of gaijin "Nacintosh" avatars (surrounded by apples, lest you not get the point), are trying (with hilariously bad Japanese) to take over the Japanese market.

This cinematic aberration deserves clarification. Macs users are always the good guys, right? As in the rest of the world, 90 plus percent of PCs in Japan run Windows. Indeed, most PC components everywhere ultimately come from OEM manufacturers in Japan, Korea and China. These OEMs also sell PCs under their own labels. So Apple alone remains an identifiably American brand.

Consider electronics giant NEC. The computer Akira sets out to buy originally, the 9821, is an NEC model (Intel 486). Its predecessor, the 9801, was a high-performance 8086 clone of the first IBM PC, running a Japanese port of Microsoft DOS. Its proprietary bus "locked in" the user base and made it the dominant PC platform in Japan. (What IBM tried to do with Microchannel and failed.)

So the battle comes down to an American proprietary platform (Mac) versus a Japanese proprietary platform (NEC). It's done knowingly enough and with enough wit that you can't help wishing they'd taken a higher, even nerdier road. Less T&A and more tech. Throw in XP and OSX and you can imagine the alliterative possibilities. Not to mention "Longhorn."

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