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 »

Period Award Scrolls

Just a quick one this week, since I’m off to the war. I was looking through translated excerpts of the Nihon Shoki(SoTJ:48), and I came across some imperial edicts very similar in style to the award scrolls used in the modern Society for Creative Anachronism. Since the Nihon Shoki, as an early Nara period work, is written in Classical Chinese, I’m not going to even consider trying to put together a parallel translation. These edicts are attributed to the Empress Shōtoku.

Notable in this edict are the focus on family merit over individual merit, reflecting the clan-oriented nature of Japanese society, and the focus on both religion and on engineering.(SoTJ:48)

It being my desire to encourage the Inner Doctrines, I was about to erect a Buddhist temple, and for this purpose sought for relics. Then thy grandfather, Shiba Tattō, offered me relics. Moreover, there were no monks or nuns in the land. Thereupon thy father, Tasuna, for the sake of the Emperor Tachibana no Toyohi, took priestly orders and reverenced the Buddhist law. Also thine aunt Shimame was the first to leave her home and, becoming the forerunner of all nuns, to practice the religion of Shākya. Now we desired to make a sixteen-foot Buddha and, to that end, sought for a good image of Buddha. Though didst provide a model which met our wishes. Moreover, when the image of Buddha was completed, it could not be brought into the hall, and none of the workmen could suggest a plan for doing so. They were, therefore, on the point of breaking down the doorway when thou didst manage to admit it without breaking down the doorway. For all these services of thine, we grant thee the rank of Dainin, and we also bestow on the twenty chō of paddy fields in the district of Sakata in the province of Afumi,

This next one has more political subtext, and also shows how much those who notionally retired from political life to become monks or nuns could retain political influence.(SoTJ:119)

It has been represented to us, in view of the master’s constant attendance on us, that he has ambitions of rising to high office like his ancestors before him, and we have been petitioned to dismiss him from our court. However, We have observed his conduct and found it to be immaculate. Out of a desire to transmit and promote Buddha’s Law, he has extended to us his guidance and protection. How could we lightly dismiss such a teacher?

Although our head has been shaven and we wear Buddhist robes, we feel obliged to conduct the government of the nation. As Buddha declared in the Sūtra, “Kings ye who take up thrones, receive the ordination of the bodhisattvas!” These words prove that there can be no objection even for one who has taken holy orders in administering the government. We deem it proper therefore, since the reigning monarch is ordained, that the chief minister should also be an ordained monk. Hearken, all ye people, to our words: We confer on the Master Dōkyō the title of chief minister and master, though the title is not of his seeking.

And with that, I’m off. Mata raishū!

Sealed Away

A while back, I mentioned a toy I made for drawing Japanese seals. So, what’s the deal with Japanese seals, anyway? Seals, called Inshō (印章), were used for means of authentication throughout Japanese history, in similar ways to how they were used elsewhere. They were generally made of stone, with a flat, generally square face where the seal is carved and a handle end that can be carved decoratively. Instead of being used with wax, Japanese seals, like seals in other East Asian countries, were used as stamps with ink to sign documents, from official proclamations and contracts to works of art.(en.wp:Seal (east Asia))
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O Auspicious Day

It’s a new year,1 and that means a new calendar. My new calendar, given to me by a mysterious benefactor, is a Japanese calendar with very nice pictures of Japanese castles. One thing I did not expect is for each date in the calendar to be annotated with an additional label in Japanese, in a mostly six-day cycle. It turns out that this is a system called Rokuyō (六曜) which came to Japan (from China, of course) towards the end of the Kamakura period.(ja.wp:六曜)

Rokuyō was supremely easy to use: just add the number of the lunar month to the number of the day in the month, and look at the remainder when divided by six.2

  1. Daian3 (大安): an auspicious day. Good for ceremonial occasions. The kanji literally mean “great peace”.
  2. Shakkō (赤口): unlucky except for the hours around noon, which are auspicious. Be careful with fire and sharp things. Literally “red mouth” (a Taoist reference).
  3. Senshō (先勝): lucky in the morning, but inauspicious in the afternoon; getting things done quickly is advised. Literally “victory before”.
  4. Tomobiki (友引): good day for trials and competitions, but bad for funerals. Lucky in the morning, unlucky around noon, and very lucky in the evening. Literally “friends pull”.
  5. Sembu (先負): basically the opposite of Senshō: unlucky in the morning and auspicious in the afternoon. Avoid haste and judgment. Literally “loss before”.
  6. Butsumetsu (仏滅): a very inauspicious day. Horrible for ceremonial occasions,4 but good for memorial services. Exercise restraint. Literally “Buddha’s death”.

The auspiciousness of a given day was a big deal. In fact, in much of Japanese history this and other astrological concerns were primary reasons for maintaining the calendar.(Lunar) Auspicious days were strongly favored for major events such as adopting a child, as recounted in the late-10th-century Kagerō Diary;(TJL:245) issuing a decree, as recorded in the 11th-century Tale of Flowering Fortunes;(CJP:206) and holding a wedding, as in the late Muromachi period street performers’ tale Shintokumaru.(TJL:1172)

In addition to ceremonial events, examples of travels being structured around these day categories can be seen in many places in Japanese literature. In the Kagerō Diary, we find, as the author sets out on a pilgrimage: “However, the day I decided on is inauspicious, so we make a pro forma start a day earlier, staying the night around the neighborhood of Hōshō Temple.”(TJL:230) The author goes to the trouble of spending the night at a temple in town to work around the restrictions of the Rokuyō. Similarly, in the Sarashina Diary, from around 1059, the author recounts making a similar preliminary start on a journey to the capital to allow the group to technically leave on the Daian instead of the Shakkō.(TJL:455)

The Japanese weren’t content with just this simple astrological system, however. In addition to the Rokuyō, there were days of abstinence (monoimi/物忌) for individual people, determined by astrologers, where one would stay isolated indoors, seeing no visitors, fasting, and generally abstaining from all activity.(TJL:256) Then we have auspicious and inauspicious directions, which also feature heavily in Japanese literature. We’ll explore those next week.

For now, if you’re ever wondering whether a particular day is a good day for an important undertaking, feel free to consult my Rokuyō script. I take no responsibility for your actual luck, however.

Footnotes »