Classical Japanese

Resource: Electronic Kuzushiji Dictionary Database

Translating historical Japanese manuscripts can be challenging for a variety of reasons. One is that, despite the thousands of characters Japanese has to start with, historical writers weren’t content to just write them clearly. Japanese cursive uses “kuzushiji” (崩し字), or broken characters, hiragana or kanji that have been heavily stylized in any number of different ways. Since strokes blend together and shapes get simplified, it can be difficult to figure out the original character from the stylized form.

I just found a very useful resource for piecing apart these texts: the Electronic Kuzushiji Dictionary Database (page in Japanese). It lets you put in a character and see historical cursive versions of that character, with dated citations going back at least as far as the 16th century. While this isn’t super-useful if you’re totally uncertain, it can really help confirm guesses and narrow down possibilities for characters in manuscripts, and electronic dictionaries are nice and quick to search.

Hat tip: Naruhodo なるほど‘s “Introduction to kuzushiji 崩し字”, which is also a good overview of Japanese cursive characters in general.

On Kissing

Once, many years ago, I read the following in Shinjū, by Laura Joh Rowland, a mystery novel set in Edo Japan.

But he’d never tried seppun, the exotic practice of touching mouths that had been introduced to Japan by the banished foreign barbarians. (p. 123)

Being naturally a trusting sort, I took this at face value and assumed the Japanese hadn’t kissed before the Portuguese arrived in 1542. But more recently, I read an interesting passage in the Tosa Journal, written around 935 by a courtier.(CJP:77)

People simply kissed the lips of pressed salted trout. (I.e., nibbled at their heads.) Do you suppose the trout found it romantic?

Is this evidence of pre-Western-influence romantic kissing? Certainly looks like it. But absent other evidence, I had to wonder what exactly was in the original and if anything had been added in translation. Looking at the original, several things are clear. The expression here is “kuchi wo sufu”1, literally “suck lips”, which does seem to specifically be an idiom for kissing. The romantic bit turns out to be “omofu yau ara n ya”, something along the lines of “perhaps they helplessly have longing”, omofu having among its various possible interpretations ‘think of’, ‘recall fondly’, ‘long for’, ‘love’, and ‘cherish’. I think we can fairly say, then, that my doubts of Dr. McCullough’s translation were unmerited. As for Westerners having introduced romantic kissing to the Japanese, as we say in the biz, “Myth Busted!”

I have also posted a complete translation of these two sentences.

Many thanks to Mister Bean (ミスター ビーン), whose analysis and translation of this passage into modern Japanese was quite helpful.

Footnotes »

Pivot Points

Japanese poetry traditionally putting strict limits on the number of syllables used, various figures of speech were employed to stretch those syllables as far as possible. One of my favorite is the kakekotoba, or “pivot word”.1 It’s a kind of pun based on using a single word twice for two different meanings. The way to think about it is this: come up with a sentence where a word would be followed immediately by a homophone. One of the two words can actually be longer, as long as the part that’s adjacent to the other word sounds the same. Then, when writing the sentence, only write the shared sounds once. Instead of a sentence having multiple possible interpretations, a word has multiple interpretations within a single sentence.(CJAG:366)

This doesn’t work all that well in English, but let’s give it a try anyways. Let’s say I’m writing a tanka about vampires. I might want to say “The kindred dread dawn’s swift coming.” Making ‘dread’ a kakekotoba, I can just say “The kindread dawn’s swift coming.”, saving one crucial syllable, and more importantly impressing my peers with my poetic cleverness. A slightly better example is “The sisters pine incense fills the air.”2

Kakekotoba work better in Japanese than in English for several reasons. Firstly, Japanese has a lot of homophones. Having a more limited set of syllables to build words from increases your chance of collision a lot; part of the reason the Japanese writing system is so complicated is to tell homophones apart. Secondly, phonetic spelling: if two words sound the same, they’re (most of the time) written the same way in hiragana,3 so you don’t have spelling conflicts like I did with ‘kindread’. Finally, Japanese grammar rules are a little more flexible about word placement, so it’s easier to get the proper juxtaposition.

Here’s a Japanese example from the Kokinwakashū (dating to 914, in the Heian Period). It uses one of the classic examples: the word “matsu” can either be the verb “to wait” or a pine tree. Here, the tree interpretation is actually the first part of the name for a specific kind of insect.

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