Tuesday, January 26, 2010

More on Impure Japanese Syllables

In my last blog “Avatar Part II,” I received many interesting comments on Japanese impure or murky syllables, so I decided to write further. First I must say that in this global world, we can’t possibly be most accommodating to all the intricate cultural differences. If we are too serious about it, probably we have to live uncomfortably. So, I think the only thing we can do is to find out and understand the differences. I cherish unique cultures and oppose prejudices, but these two often come to all kinds of conflict. It seems to me, the only thing I can do is to promote understanding even a little bit about language and culture. Besides I love it, and I can’t help writing it. So here goes.

Some people are more sensitive than others. But Japanese would recognize so-called impure or murky Japanese syllables starting with b, g, and z, d. The Japanese syllables are different from English syllables (please see my past blogs about this). And fa and fu in Japanese are different sounds from English, and by itself, there is usually no meaning. Even “he,” we won’t make judgment of the meaning without context. Because Japanese language do not have a big range of syllables with many consonants like English, the effect of ba, bi, bu, be, bo, ga, gi…and so on stand out to our ears. This matter is probably unimportant to non-Japanese speakers, but it is significant in our arts and language. I hope I can explain a bit.

Yesterday, I was reading “Chikumagawa no Ryojo” by Shimazaki Toson and its critics by Miyoshi Tatsuji. They are both well-known Japanese poets of the last century, and the poem is very popular among Japanese. The poem depicts a scene in early spring at the foot of where an old castle used to stand and a traveler there. I read it a few times, and I was there. Needless to say, I found great comfort to the language and sounds. In the book, Miyoshi Tatsuji talked about the way vowels play in the poem. I agreed.

Then I looked at impure syllables sitting with their legs folded underneath. They bowed. I bowed back. I knew it, but still I felt they played significant roles in our language and arts. I checked them a syllable by syllable. There are three sections to this poem. The first section has 6 impure syllables, the second section, 7, and the third, 12. There is a clear progression. And the first two lines of the first section contain zero according to the original intention by the poet. (Today, people pronounce one word with one impure syllable. I think the author gave in to the opinion of other poets like Miyoshi Tatuji. I wish he left it the way it was.) And the first two sentences in the second section have one each. In the third section, the first sentence has two, and the second sentence has one. So I think this progression of impure syllables creates simple delightful music to our ears. So I thought about this.

In ancient Japanese language like Genji Monogatar , I don’t know if they actually spoke like that, but I see the same tendency. The tendency is to be extremely sensitive to the usage of impure syllables. Murasaki Shikibu knew that it was up to its usage that created beautiful contrasts and rhythms. So she used them so sparingly. As years went by, we used more and more. And today, we use them indiscriminately. I’m afraid that many of us are losing the ears to listen.

So I guess we call yin and yang of syllables as pure and impure. And the word impure makes us feel dirty. I don’t know who created those words, pure and impure sounds in our grammar and writing books. Maybe Shinto religion has something to do with it. The Shinto priests and followers seem always cleaning. I think purifications play the major role in Shinto. This is another subject I’m interested in.

In one of Suzuki Takao’s book, he wrote something like this. A group of Japanese women were watching a television program, and a cosmetic commercial came on. An actress began putting some lotion on her face. The voice pitched for the product and used the word “Bihada (beautiful skin)” rather than “utukusii hada.” I don’t remember exact conversation, but one woman said, “It sounds like putting dirt on our face.” They all laughed.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Avatar Part II

It took me a while, but I finally finished reading “Miracle of the Japanese Language” by Yamaguchi Yoji. It was a thin book, but made me think a lot. I didn’t want to finish it. I’m fascinated to find out how ancient Japanese learned and digested foreign words. My imagination goes back and forth, traveling in time. Yes, I see avatars in my head.

One of them is Kûkai (774-835). He was a priest who went to China to study Buddhism. What fascinated me was that, according to the book, he studied Sanskrit without any access to Sanskrit speaking persons or documents. He must have gone through waves of culture shocks. At the time, Japan had only Chinese documents, but the quantity seemed equal to that of early Tang Dynasty. Kûkai probably transported on his back a heavy load of scrolls like a day laborer. At the time, Japanese writing system was not yet invented. Japanese elites then only knew Chinese characters.

Back in Japan, Kûkai must have felt doubts sitting before many great Chinese scrolls. He searched Sanskrit words reading Chinese sutras. After all, Chinese Buddhist sutras were originally translated from Sanskrit. The more he studied, the more he wanted to get to the source language. So he read the Chinese characters on and on and on, and backward and forward using numerous possibilities in sound and meaning. There were no television sets or computers. He didn’t go shopping or go to the kitchen to cook. He read and read and read. In the afternoon, he strolled away from his temple thinking, “What is the most important thing?” He didn’t have an answer. So he returned to the temple and read aloud on and on and on again.

As an ordinary person, Kûkai believed in the soul of words as well as every living thing including rocks and stones. This strong native belief eventually became connected with a Sanskrit word, dhaaran (陀羅尼). He probably recited a long sutra over and over again in order to get near the truth. Those documents contained no syntax or spaces, but showed characters after characters. Each character and combination of characters shows multiple meanings, and each sentence could be interpreted also in multiple ways. This is still true today. And I hear in “dhaaran,” Japanese mimic words daradara or daaradara. Daradara or daaradara means “on and on seemingly without purpose.” Dhaaran is opposite of Shingon. SHINGON 真言 means true words. Posterity calls his teaching Shingon.

Reizei-in library housed many Chinese documents. It was burned down to ashes 40 years after Kûkai died. I don’t know if it was an accident or a politically motivated incident. 20 years after the incident, in 894, Japanese court cancelled the Tang exchange students program. Tang Dynasty and their Buddhism had been in decline.

I wonder if some Sanskrit documents were in that library. If Sanskrit documents were there, what Kûkai refused to show to another priest, Saicho, could be Sanskrit documents.
I wrote this before in Red Room before, but 1200 years ago, Kûkai refused to show his document to Saicho. Both sects weren’t officially recomciled, so on June 15, 2009, each leader of the two sects met and shook each other’s hands. Isn’t that something? Anyway, Kûkai must have ordered his students to make many copies.

Those two priests competed for good. They both wanted to save people from misery with their words. “No matter how many books we import and read, if we cannot digest, communicate, and apply on our daily life, what good does it do?” I think they thought like that.

The journey of creating the Japanese language is fascinating. I’m sure I’ll learn more about it. By the way, I connected Avatar to Sanskrit in other way beside the fact nobody seemed to know. Abataあばたmeans pockmarks. I looked it up and sure enough it is a Sanskrit word again. But this time, it says abata came from “arbuda.” The Sanskrit word,“Arbuda” means pockmarks also. “Ava” of avatar means “descent.” Pockmarks are depressed, so I think maybe those two words were connected long before the ancient time.

Anyway, the sound of some words hits my central nervous system and makes foreign music. And we don’t have v sound. Instead of v, we use b. Also, we call Abata’s ba impure sound. When I quiet my mind and listen to words, I feel a bit odd hearing ba sound. This seems discriminating, but we call it impure sound. Impure is relative though. And foreign words have been exceptions to the rule. I’m talking about real down-to-earth yamato words like Anglo-Saxon words to English.

So Japanese have named dirty things with impure sounds starting b, g, d, and z. For instance, gomi means trash, and gomi is a yamato word. I do not hear any girl names starting with those sounds. Some women have that sound in the middle of their first name like Nagako. Nagako was the name of Empress Michiko’s mother in law. So there are exceptions. But I cannot deny thinking that why anyone named her that name. “Ga” sounds abrasive. Gaagaagaa means a mimic word for a loud motor sound. I felt sorry for the former empress.

This similar phenomenon was confirmed when I read Suzuki Takao’s books. He talked about the impure sounds of Japanese language. Maybe later on, I can write more about it. It is probably hilarious and puzzling to non-Japanese. I’ve taken for granted, but it is very interesting because I can’t even explain why. I just feel it, and it comes from the root of our language.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Avatar Part I

I took photos of San Dimas downtown, the oldest hardware store and the railroad station converted to a museum.

I used to access Yahoo Japan Auction site. It was probably in 2002. Every time,
I hit enter, the word “Avatar” in Japanese katakana appeared under a manga character. Characters seemed to change, and the word showed up in other sites. I still didn’t quite know what it meant, and I didn’t know how to spell it in English then.

To me, Avatarアバター sounded similar to “Albeiter” to which we write as
アルバイター. They are both in katakana because they are foreign words. And “Albeiter” means working persons in German. Today, Japanese use this word as part-time employees. It seems we have psychological habit of differentiating classes of words. Fulltime sounds formal, but part-time, less formal. Formality plays a major role in our culture and language. I’ll talk about that some other time, but anyhow, “albeiter” ended up “part-time employees” in Japanese. And I won’t be surprised if “tar” of avatar and “ter” of albeiter are connected in the ancient time.

So Avatar sounded to me definitely casual. After all, the word appeared under a manga character. Some of readers probably already know because of new movie, “Avatar.” But our memoir workshop members appeared unsure about it. In our last meeting, the leader asked us if we had seen the movie. I’m usually the last to know the meaning of English words. So it clicked in my mind. I bet Avatar is Sanskrit!
I unzipped my red backpack and searched for my digital dictionary.

The leader began talking about “Star War” movies and comparing with “Avatar.”

“It’s a Sanskrit word,” I said to the leader and turned to an Indian woman on my left and said, “You know Sanskrit!”

The Indian woman said nothing.

“What? What is it?” a member next to the leader said.

“She said Sanskrit,” the leader replied.

“It’s avatare in Sanskrit,” I said looking at my dictionary. “Ava means ‘descent’ and tare means ‘to cross over.’”

The Indian writer folded her hands on the table.

“Well, what does it mean?” the leader said looking into her eyes.

“Well?” I said.

The Indian writer stared at the wall across her. Her long black eyelashes batted.

“Well,” the leader said and wrinkled her nose.

“What does it really mean in Hindu?” I said.

“Incarnation,” the Indian woman said after a few more seconds, “Incarnation!” She raised her hand up.

“How wonderful ! We have a Sanskrit expert here!” I said.

Only a week ago, I saw the Indian writer in a book club. I thought her opinion interesting. Later, I met her at the entrance of a drug store. We began talking, and I asked her if she knew Sanskrit. She said she learned the ancient language for four years. I shook her hands. Gee, how lucky I am! Then, she invited me to her memoir workshop. There, we had an enlightening conversation as above.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Palindrome of Sorts

A climbing Queen Elizabeth grew into the Meiwa kumquat bush, and it’s about to bloom. Long ago, I used to work on my garden every day, but since I started to write about twelve years ago, I let my gardener take care of it. So, some parts of my yards look like a jungle. But it’s okay the way it is. The jungle sends me surprises sometimes.

About surprises, I received an email from a writer. Have you seen the below video? If not, check it out! It lasts less than 2 minutes. Please read each sentence as it appears.
Here's a video
This video was created for the AARP U@50 video contest and placed second.

And the video was created based on the Argentinean Political Advertisement "The Truth" by RECREAR.
Here's a video

That’s all folks!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Literary Lab

To all the story tellers,

Check this out! http://literarylab.blogspot.com/

Davin Malasarn is a friend of mine. We used to belong to the same workshop. I enjoyed reading his literary and colorful stories. But I didn't know him well then. In one meeting, I was complaining about long novels and said to him,

"Have you read Anna Karenina?”

He nodded.

"Did you like it?" I said.

"I read it three times," he said.

"Three times! Wow!"

Little I knew him. One day at a party, I saw his paintings. "Wow!" I said looking at the first painting. It was beautiful and very colorful. I said many "Wow!" that evening.

But I see even more about his talent in The Literacy Lab. You’ll be the judge.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tiger and Towels

When I’m in Japan, I go to my local Super Sento a few blocks away. Super Sento is a popular entertainment center with hot springs, a restaurant, and massage shops. And I carry with me a blue and light brown tenugui, Japanese towels. Tenugui is about 35 by 90 centimeters. Yes, it’s narrower and longer than most western hand towels. And they are thin and made of cotton with Japanese designs. My blue tenugui has a print of small white birds, and my light brown tenugui, sumo-wrestlers.

Last month while bathing there, I spotted a baby in one of their hot-spring tubs. The color of the hot spring is dark brown. A young woman held the baby in her arms. I watched the baby’s chin and tiny hands. The floor with running water was wide open, so I went to lie down on it. Warm water ran to my head and passed to my toes. I watched the stars and thought about the word, “star.” “Star” in English was my first spoken word, my mother told me. She didn’t speak English, but she knew a few English words. She said she pointed to the stars and said, “arewa ‘star’ yo (That’s star),” to me on her back. She was on her way to a local bath house.

In a Jacuzzi, I saw the baby again. Their Jacuzzi contains clear water. I looked for him while I washed my body along the rows of many faucets, shower heads, and the bottles of shampoo and conditioner.

I was drying my back with the light brown tenugui, moving my arms back and forth over my shoulders when I heard a bubbly sound. A changing table is attached to the end of the lockers. I stepped over and peeked. The same baby boy was sitting there with a dark blue tenugui draped on his back. The tenugui showed the same white birds print as mine. The middle-aged woman continued to dress him. She wore a sweat suit and covered her hair with a towel. The young naked woman who held the baby in the tub was drying herself nearby. She must be about my daughter’s age.

“He is so cute. How old is he?” I said to the young woman.

“He is a year old,” she said.

“That blue tenugui is the same as mine,” I said. “It’s my favorite tenugui.”

“It’s ours,” she said with a smile.

“I bought mine at Kabukiza,” I said, “I used to collect all kinds of tenugui.”

“You probably received it from us. It isn’t for sale,” she said.

“Oh?” I said and stepped over to my locker.

“Mom,” she called.

I picked up my wet wrung blue tenugui and straightened it.

“That’s from our shop,” the woman dressed in a sweat suit said, “We are a hyogu-ya. My husband designed the tenugui.”

Hyogu-ya are traditional shops that create and fix Japanese traditional scrolls and screens. Good hyogu-ya operators are artists.

“Oh, it probably belonged to my mother,” I said, “I mixed mine with my mother’s tenugui.”

I told her how I love the design and how good quality the tenugui is. The color hasn’t faded much, and the edges and corners haven’t deteriorated. Most gift tenugui wear out fast.

“My mother was your customer, I see. This is such a coincidence,” I said.

“My husband had been to your house. He passed away,” she said.

“I’m sorry. It must be hard to operate Hyogu-ya without your husband,” I said.

She talked about the history of her shop. I thought it interesting because she branched out from her parent’s traditional shop which is still owned by her eldest brother. I thought she must be a strong woman because most Japanese women of our age tend to give up their right, and most eldest sons demand it. She started her own shop with her husband near my home while I was studying in the U.S.

“I also have a year old grandson,” I said to the woman.

“Then they are both cows,” she said. “Next year is my year.”

“Ah, I’m tiger, too,” I said.

We looked at each other’s eye and made a broad smile.