Tuesday, December 3, 2013

つくばensis? (Drugs and mountains).

こんばんは! For months now, I've been sidelined from most of my Japanese activities—apart from transcribing pre-WWII passenger lists from Japan to Brazil, about which there is much to say and wonder about—but recently something interesting popped up that ties together the threads of illness and Japan.

I'm supposed to take a medication whose active ingredient is produced by the bacterium Streptomyces tsukubaensis, and—given that the species name combines the Latin "-ensis" (from) and "tsukuba-", I figured there must be a story there.

Microörganisms often are named for either their discoverer or their place of origin, so I wondered what "tsukuba-" might mean—any chance that it might relate to the tsukubai (蹲踞, or just 蹲), the "stooping" water basin outside the chashitsu at which Tea guests purify themselves before entering? Phonemes in Japanese are notoriously misleading, so I doubted it, but it was worth looking into.

It turns out that the bacterium is named for its place of origin, the area around Mount Tsukuba (筑波山), a double-peaked mountain in Ibaraki Prefecture, just under 40 miles north of Toukyou. There are some interesting legends about the peaks: It seems an unspecified god descended from the heavens and asked around for shelter; whereas Mt Fuji was too proud to offer, Mt Tsukuba did, and this is why Mt Fuji is frigid and Mt Tsukuba is lush with vegetation. Also said to be the burial places of the great deities Izanagi and Izanami. Lofty origins for a useful bacterium! So, we have the stinginess of Mt Fuji to thank for all the medicinal plants founts in Tsukuba.

In "tsukubai", the kanji are

  • 蹲, tsukubai, used for the basin itself—whose radicals include, funnily enough, a foot and o-sake (rice wine)
  • 踞, KYO / uzuku.maru, to crouch or kneel, with the same (but perhaps more understandable) foot radical
Funnily enough, apparently in a sumou context, 蹲踞 becomes "sonkyo", a formal "crouch" or bow to one's opponent before the start of a match. (Similarly, in Tea class we begin with aisatsu, a very formal [forehead almost to the ground!] bow to the teacher.)

Mount Tsukuba's kanji are

  • 筑, CHIKU / tsuku, which seems to refer to an ancient musical instrument (probably/presumably a drum); note that the on-yomi CHIKU matches the crown radical of bamboo (take/CHIKU)
  • 波, HA/nami, a wave, which in a secondary position in a two-kanji word would read as "BA".
All of which is to say, there's no particular connection that I can see between 筑波ensis and 蹲踞. 当て字かもしれませんね。

As a side note: I find that 波 (nami) also can invoke Poland. This is something I've been thinking about for a while with the passenger lists; I knew that the US is often represented as 米 (kome/BEI), rice; China as 中 (naka/CHUU), the middle;, and Japan as 日 (nichi), the Sun; 英 (EI) is England but also is read はなぶさ hanabusa, the calices or fringey outer parts of a flower. (If memory serves, the tassels that close my haori in the front also are "fusa".) But it seems Brazil (ブラジル) is 伯 (HAKU/etc.), which seems to have old political meanings. France is 仏 and variant 佛—the Buddha, or the dead. Spain is 西 (SAI/nishi, west). Mexico is sumi ink (墨). Etc. Clearly there is more to be learned about this.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mysterious kana.

Hello! I've been weirdly sick for the past few months and have left the house pretty much not at all—so I've been reading and practicing 書 at home. I've also been transcribing Japanese passenger lists from the 1930s for a database for people researching family history. Challenging work—many jinmeiyou kanji that I don't know and have to track down—but a great way to explore, and the lists are fascinating snapshots of families migrating at the time.

Also interesting to explore the typography; Cさん and I have in lessons written most hira- and hentaigana, but there are a few in these printed lists that I can't recognize. For example: A list I'm working on now contains a two-character name, written

in kana, that's [something]よ. The [something] is a three-stroke character, presumably hiragana, that's almost like a dotted こ: dot in the upper-right corner, then a stroke below that and to the left that runs northwest to southeast, and then a stroke below that that curves from the left and along the bottom and looks like it may derive from the shinnyuu "movement" radical. The bearer of the name is someone's imouto, so it must be a female name, but no -よ name I know makes sense here.

The batch is "due" today—rather, it was due yesterday—so if I can't figure it out I'll have to guess. Modern problems!

Update: A kind soul on a forum tells me that it's と, derived from tomaru (止・まる). I'll look for it in Kana Seishuu.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

こんばんは! I haven't been able to do much of anything in ages, but I wanted to post this link (http://360gigapixels.com/tokyo-tower-panorama-photo/) to an amazing interactive 360-degree panoramic of Tōkyo that's so incredibly high-res that you can pretty much see every brick in the city, for miles around. Neat! I can't wait to visit (someday, if I can ever again achieve any kind of stability in my life).

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

New summer poem: Mizuho in ruins.

The winds of change have been blowing at gale force, so I haven't been able to attend Tea class or my Japanese lessons, or even Sho lessons, for quite a while. But we did get to go to see 習字の先生 the other day, and I got to choose a new poem for summer! (Technically, by the old calendar, summer starts next week, but I'm sure I'll be working on this one for quite a while.) It's by 太田水穂 OOTA Mizuho (1876–1955).

Mizuho-san's biography seems not overwhelmingly remarkable for a poet—he studied the classics on his own, became a schoolteacher, and established a literary salon and a journal—but the temple where he's buried is fascinating: 松岡山東慶寺 Shoukozan Toukei-ji, informally known as 縁切り寺 Enkiridera or 駆け込み寺 Kakekomidera, the "divorce temple". It's a 13th-century Zen Buddhist site in Kamakura that for about 600 years was a refuge for women mistreated by their husband. Apparently, the rule was that if you stayed there for three years you could divorce your husband—and thousands of women did so. Men weren't even allowed in before administrative changes in 1902.

What really strikes me about this temple is the character 尼. The temple used to be a part of a five-temple complex called (very literally) 尼五山 Ama-go-zan, "the five mountains of nuns", "ama" being a nun. I know almost no Japanese slang, but apparently 尼 has many of the same derogatory meanings as "bitch" and similar words in English. Are the meanings connected—does the pejorative sense of an improperly behaving woman derive from the idea of nuns as women fleeing abusive husbands? Or maybe from sexual abstinence? Or something else?

My Random House dictionary lists only "nun"—not very helpful. (In any language, words for larger, or culturally specific, concepts almost never translate directly.) Maybe an etymological dictionary would shed more light. Henshall says it originally meant a person too badly injured to walk and may have evolved phonetically or through a sense of dedication. (I suppose it's possible that at one time there was a sense of women who cared for wounded soldiers; at least here in the West, nuns and nursing often go together.)

Anyway, I haven't been able to find Mizuho-san's poem online anywhere, in English or Japanese, so here it is:

horobiyuku mono no sugata ka—natsu no hi no hikari ni arete ooki shiroato
castle falling into ruin in the summer light—a sign of coming decline?
Not a very elegant translation on my part, but I think (mainly per 先生's explanation) that's the general sense.

Some interesting things in that poem:

  • "yuku" vs "iku". I've always wondered about this. Everywhere I turn, people say they're interchangeable, but "iku" seems to be used as a suffix in modern grammar (meaning a situation that is progressing from now, as opposed to "kuru") and 先生 says "yuku" is more appropriate here. Just for fun, I proposed "horobikuru", which I guess would mean something like "having decayed up to this point", but no dice!
  • "horobiku". There are (at least) two kanji for this that have the same sound and meaning: 亡ぶ, 滅ぶ. Both are jouyou, so it's not that one is antiquated; someone thought they both deserved to be taught in school. Per Jisho.org, 亡 is taught in sixth grade and 滅 in junior high. How do they differ? Must check Goo.
  • "ato". 跡, 址, 痕, and 迹 all are share the kun'yomi reading of "ato", and all mean something that's left behind—ruins, traces, even a scar. All except 址 (which is no longer in use) are taught in junior high. They seem to be linked by sound to 後, which has senses of "behind" and "after"—後々 atoato, the distant future; 跡形 / 後方 atogata atokata / atogata, traces/evidence; "atotori" and various versions of "atotsugi" for heirs and successors. 後釜 "atogama", a second (succeeding) wife (using the same character for "kama" in chanoyu, a kettle, to mean the wife—!). Strangely enough, the "ato" used in the poem is none of these; it's close to 址 (hand + stopping) but has a foot (足 ashi) rather than a hand. (跡 has ashi-hen, too, but with 亦 "again" instead of 止 "stop"). Feet going, feet stopping, and somehow it means ruins. Maybe something people stopped building; maybe something you trip on. More likely, neither.
Mizuho-san was from Nagano but later lived in Kamakura. I wonder whether he was referring to a specific castle and, if so, to which one.

Monday, March 18, 2013

More on suzuri from Tankei.

When I was trying to find out more about Tankei suzuri (and who wrote Cさん's poem), I found this interesting rendition from a blog based in Shitamachi:

The writer includes the following by way of explanation:

The "Tankei" that appears in the poem above is the name of a kind of stone that's famous for use in suzuri. It comes from the banks of a river called Tankei, near Zhaoqing, Canton (Guangdong), China. It's said to be known for its fine, soft, smooth grain.
Cさん e-mailed today that 先生 said the "hada" in question is more likely the surface of the suzuri (which now sounds like it may have the feel of skin), and that seems to work with the "ni" construction. Probably, then, too, would be better to read "komakai" as referring to the fineness of the grain, rather than to a small inkstone.

Midspring; fragrant suzuri.

Today in shuuji I managed an acceptable oseisho for the winter haiku I've been working on—

te de kao o nadzureba
hana no tsumetasa yo

when i run my hands over my face—
how cold my nose is!

So, it's time to choose a new poem, a haiku or a tanka. Sensei tells me that the season should be mid-spring, so I'll have to see what I can find.

Cさん is working on an interesting one about suzuri:
tankei no komakaki ishi no hada ni furete
nioi o aguru—haru no yo no sumi
Always tough for me to figure these out, but here's a shot:
端渓の 細かき石の肌(え?)(に)触れて
There seem to be (naturally!) a few ways to read this, depending on what you consider as modifying what, but the sense seems to be that when the poet touches a little suzuri from Tankei, it gives off the light fragrance of sumi ink on a spring night. Sensei told Cさん that Tankei Prefecture, in China (I think), is famous for its inkstones (suzuri, 硯). "Hada ni furete" seems to mean when skin touches stone; whether "hada" is skin or another surface isn't quite clear, but the idea of "coming into contact with" seems appropriate.

I'm even more uncertain about "hada ni furete" because the meter is off. I'd think this could be solved either by adding "e" ("hadae ni furete")—though that would result in an inappropriately seven-mora line, and I'm not sure "hada" and "hadae" are semantically equivalent—or, maybe, by dropping the particle "ni", if that's legal in this case, and saying just "hada furete". I'll have to find my pages of spring poems and look up the original.

Anyway, it's a nice image, no?

Update: I should have mentioned that Cさん's poem is by 尾上柴舟 ONOE Saishuu (1876–1957), a poet and calligrapher who seems to have been involved in "magazine wars" with another school of poetry, passions of human nature vs. ordinary experience (such as sniffing one's suzuri). It would be interesting to, one of these days, attempt to diagram all these schools, journals, literary circles, and teaching relationships. Just about every poet whose work we've written taught, was taught by, or was a colleague of someone else we've written. Maybe I'll try it with genealogy software. :-D

Saturday, February 9, 2013

子猫ちゃんがいますよ。 (kitteh is like a firefly)

I have a kitten (砂糖ちゃん) staying with me while her keepers are off Exploring the World. She's just had surgery and has a cone on, so when she walks her head moves from side to side in a way that I shouldn't find hilarious but totally do. It recalls a poem by Issa 一茶 that fellow student Cさん wrote a while ago, presumably this past summer:

oobotaru yurariyurari to toorikeri
fat firefly, swooping and swaying, passing by

"Yurariyurari" is one of those concepts that one has to ask a native speaker to explain, and the explanation of which almost certainly will involve mime. It seems to mean dipping and swaying while moving forward, like a hand conducting some slow piece of music, or like a slalom (but with downward movement), or what would happen if you were piloting a plane and moved the controller rhythmically left and right. A site that explicates the poem says this:

ooki na genji hotaru ga, kurayami no naka o ooki na ko o egakinagara yurariyurari to tondeyuku. (kigo) hotaru

A large firefly flies through the darkness, describing a large arc.

Several questions arise from this: "genji na hotaru"? What can this mean? Genji seems to refer not only to the famous tale, but also to the Minamoto shogunate, but that doesn't seem relevant here. But there's no particle between "genji" and "hotaru", so—?

"Describing an arc" is the phrase we'd use in English to talk about this, but the phrase "弧を描く" catches me because, as is true of so many other things, it seems to have a history that's more phonetic than graphic. I always have to check myself on these phonetic questions, because the response tends to be that there's no particular history there; but it's difficult to ignore that "egaku" combines "e" and "kaku"—writing a picture. There are several kanji for "kaku", I think—writing, composing, painting—but 描く does have the additional sense of 絵. Or not. I never know! Like this cat and her feather toy, I'm always chasing things that can't be caught.

"Tondeyuku" is helpful, because I've wondered about the meaningful difference between "iku" and "yuku", both having the sense of "to go". "Yuku" seems always to imply progression, as in not just going from place to place but the act of going. Here we have 飛ぶ + 行く, "tondeyuku", a progressive flying, with the additional image of reeling back and forth.

And then there's the "keri" ending, concerning which I'm about to throw up my hands. Shirane先生's book on classical grammar discusses き and けり as controversial and devotes about four pages to the distinction, with at least four totally distinct meanings for けり alone. "In contrast to the auxiliary verb ki, which indicates a past that is already distant from and separate from the present, keri begins with the present and looks back retrospectively at the past." So, that clears it all up. Another meaning is "exclamatory recognition". *sigh*

But the site goes on to say this: オノマトペ(擬音・擬態語)の達者として知られる俳人小林一茶は小動物をこよなく愛し、昆虫の中では蛍を詠んだ句も蝶(ちょう)に次いで多い。蠅(はえ)が手足を擦る所作を助命嘆願に見立てた句など、思い入れたっぷりだ Issa liked onomatopoiea (imitative/mimetic sounds) and insects / small animals (fireflies, butterflies) and wrote quite a few poems about them, especially with the theme of flies rubbings their "hands" together, as if asking for leniency (vs being swatted).

I'd like to look at other Issa poems about fireflies, but I have a cat that requires attention, so—so much for that.