Category Archives: Literature

Japanese Kindle

Having now moved back and forth several times between my home in the US and Kyoto or Taipei, on the other side of the world in East Asia, it has become clear to me that dealing with books is the biggest pain in the ass. This is exacerbated by the fact that I am both a congenital book hoarder and (although not at this exact moment) a graduate student. After the most recent move home, after graduating from my Masters program in March of last year, I decided that purchasing a Kindle would be the best way to reduce the amount of weight that my future self will be sending across the sea when the need arises.

And I do love the Kindle, and Amazon’s service in general. (I should mention here that my father owns some Amazon stock, which has benefited me, but that the investment is based on enthusiasm for the company’s service, rather than shilling in order to promote the company.) I happen to have the 3G keyboard model, and the e-ink screen is a wonderful replacement for paper books, even if not quite as good. I do also use the Kindle app on my phone when the Kindle device is not with me, and it is surprisingly comfortable to read books the large screen of my Galaxy Nexus. And the service has been fantastic; when I accidentally broke my Kindle’s screen, Amazon customer support sent me a new one no questions asked. This clearly because Amazon’s priority is very different from that of a consumer electronic company whose profit comes from the hardware itself, who would be happier persuading you to pay for a new unit, or at least repair costs, for breaking a non-defective unit; rather than even asking if I had broken it, they seemed more concerned in getting me a new Kindle ASAP, so that I could resume paying them for content.

Unfortunately, however, the Kindle Store does not include Japanese books. However, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that Amazon would be launching the Kindle in Japan later this year, with Japanese language e-books from Japanese publishers. Apparently they will be launching with the current generation of e-ink devices, rather than the Kindle Fire Android tablet, but since I personally prefer both the readability and long battery life of the e-ink devices I don’t think this is a problem. Anyway, Amazon already sells the “International” Kindle in Japan, so the key here is that Japanese e-books will be available in the store, which will then be usable on existing hardware, including the Kindle app on iOS, Android, and OSX or Windows computers.

The big question for me, however, is how the different national stores will interact. Will it be possible to purchase Japanese books from my Amazon.com account, using my American credit card? If not, will it be possible to use, say, a Japanese debit card linked to my Shinsei bank account? Or will I have to resort to the more convoluted maneuvers required for some international online media stores, by purchasing Japanese Kindle books through my Amazon.co.jp account, and then switching the currently logged-in account on my Kindle to that when I want to read a Japanese title? I do know that Amazon has already localized the Kindle for Italian, Spanish, with Brazilian Portuguese also launching later this year, so I am wondering if anybody reading this knows how it currently handles juggling purchases from more than one country store?

Now, despite the fact that the rumored Kindle Japan store will (presumably) not be launched for a few months, there is still one major source of Japanese e-books usable for it today. Many readers are probably already familiar with Aozora Bunko, a repository for public domain Japanese literature, roughly similar to the primarily English language Project Gutenberg. Since the Kindle software—that is, the OS on the Kindle device, not just the app for other platforms—has included support for East Asian text for some time, it can display Aozora Bunko text files with no problem. Well, there is ONE problem. You see, while perfectly readable, the current text file viewer only displays text in the same left-to-right horizontal lines that you are reading this blog in. While it certainly no challenge to read Japanese in this format, it just doesn’t feel right for literature, which is still universally printed in horizontal lines, and read from right-to-left.

Luckily there is a solution: an online utility called Aozora Kindoru, which generates PDFs formatted in literature style vertical columns for the Kindle screen (they will also work great on any other device with PDF support and a similarly sized screen), and even properly formats any furigana present in the original file. I was first alerted to this utility via a Twitter user, and here are two English blogs with instructions, although I imagine that anybody who would be reading any of the old stuff on Aozora Bunko can figure out the Japanese directions with no problem. [Link 1] [Link 2]

As a final note, it appears that the Nook, from Barnes and Noble, is also planning to introduce international versions, including Japanese. While looking for jobs, I ran across a posting for an “International Content Manager” for Nook, the duties of which involve:

The Manager, International Content Acquisition will have previous experience working with publishers around the world and should be familiar with each territory’s publishing industry.  Candidates should be familiar with the latest developments in digital publishing.  Ideal candidates must have business level command, speaking and writing, of English and at least one other language.

and the job requirements for include:
Professional, spoken and written fluency in English as well as one of these languages is required:  German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian.

This actually surprises me a bit, as one of the reasons I decided to go with Kindle rather than Nook in the first place (aside from my history with the company) was that I expected from that beginning that Amazon, a country with a strong presence in Japan, would eventually introduce a Japanese language store, while I was doubtful that Barnes and Noble, a company with no history that I am aware of operating in foreign language markets, would do likewise. I am happy to be proven wrong. Incidentally, I have yet to see this move by B&N reported anywhere, but I think the job posting is pretty clear evidence, although if they are currently recruiting for these positions it would seem likely that they are not as close as Amazon to opening their Japanese store.

George Psalmanazar, the famous fraud of Formosa

One of the more entertaining characters I’ve run across in my studies of Taiwan is has been George Psalmanazar, one of the famous hoaxers of all time. Born around 1680, nothing factual is known about his early life, even his country place of birth, although he later claimed it to be somewhere in southern France, which was allegedly corroborated as likely by those who had heard his French dialect, while doubted by those who were familiar with his ability to impersonate such dialects.

Regardless of where he spent his early years, upon completion of his education Psalmanazar began traveling around Europe, attempting to scam his way to Rome by impersonating an Irish pilgrim. Upon realizing that Ireland was neither exotic enough to elicit much interest from potential marks nor far enough to be entirely unfamiliar, he began instead impersonating a rare pilgrim from the distant land of Japan, and later to the even more exotic and lesser-known island of Formosa, which we now usually call Taiwan.

His wild tales of alien customs and bizarre foreign lands were popular, and after a detour through Rotterdam he arrived in London in 1703, where he became a minor celebrity. Banking on his fame, in 1704  he published a book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan. “Originally written in Latin by Psalmanazar, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa was translated into English and quickly went through two editions. A French translation appeared in Amsterdam in 1705 and interest in the book was high enough a decade later to prompt a German version, which was published in Frankfort in 1716. By this time, however, Psalamanazar’s fraud had been revealed in England and he lapsed into relative obscurity.”

This book provided a detailed description of the island of Formosa, including its history, geography, flora and fauna, religious customs, language, and so on. And virtually every single word of it was completely fictional. Psalamanazar knew all of this, he claimed, because he was himself a native of Formosa. Having been named after the great Formosan “Prophet Psalmanaazaar, who delivered the Law to the Formosans” as well as their writing, Psalamanazar was bringing knowledge of his exotic homeland to the credulous and curious people’s of Europe. In fact, not only had he never been to Formosa, or Asia at all, he knew nothing about it.

Although there were a handful of Jesuits who had been to the real Formosa, their denial of Psalamanazar’s fantastic claims were largely ignored due to the anti-Catholicism prevalent in England at that time. While it might seem absurd to us today that people would have believed such outlandish tales, consider how unreliable information on foreign lands was in the days before the photograph, the telegraph, and even regular long-distance trade to many regions. We may find it unbelievable that the English believed that a man with Western European features similar to their own could have been a native of the East Asian land of Formosa, but how many Londoners would have ever seen an Asian face themselves?

He not only created fanciful, entirely invented, accounts of Formosa all the while portraying himself as a native of that exotic island, but also invented a Formosan language, in what must have been one of the very, very few pre-Tolkien attempts at such an endeavor. Psalmanazar’s creation of a fictional Formosa was actually very Tolkien-esque, not merely in the way that it included a fictional language, but in the way that the development of the language was linked to the invented history. Although the fantasy island was named after the real island of Formosa, and the title of the book claimed that it was “an Island subject to”  the very real island of Japan, the descriptions of the customs, geography, history, and language of these real places was very nearly as invented as that of Rivendell or Gondor. Psalmanazar describes the language of Formosa as follows:

The Language of Formosa is the same with that of Japan, but with this difference that the Japannese do not pronounce some Letters gutturally as the Formosans do: And they pronounce the Auxiliary Verbs without that elevation and depression of the Voice which is used in Formosa. Thus, for instance, the Formosans pronounce the present Tense without any elevation or falling of the Voice, as Jerh Chato, ego amo; and the preterperfect they pronounce by raising the Voice, and the future Tense by falling it; but the preterimperfect, the plusquam perfectum, and patio poft futurum, they pronounce by adding the auxiliary Verb: Thus the Verb Jerh Chato, ego amo, in the preterimperfect Tense is Jervieye chato, Ego eram amass, or according to the Letter, Ego eram amo; in the preterperfect Tense it is Jerh Chato, and the Voice is raised in the pronunciation of the first Syllable, but falls in pronouncing the other two; and in the plusquam perfectum the auxiliary Verb viey is added, and the same elevation and falling of the Voice is obsery’d as in the preterit.

[...]

The Japan Language has three Genders; all sorts of Animals are either of the Masculine or Feminine Gender, and all inanimate Creatures are of the Neuter: But the Gender is only known by the Articles, e.g. oi hic, ey hoec, and ay hoc; but in the Plural number all the three Articles are alike.

[...]

TheJapannese wrote formerly in a sort of Characters most like those of the Chineses; but since they have held correspondence with the Formosans, they have generally made use of their way of writing, as more easy and more beautiful; insomuch that there are few now in Japan who understand the Chinese Characters.


Anyone with even the scantest knowledge of Japanese will instantly realize the absurdity of every word quoted above. In fact, the Formosan languages of his time (before it was extensively colonized by China) were the Austronesian languages still spoken by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples today, which have no relationship with Japanese.

He also provided a more significant sample of his Formosan language, amusingly in the form of a translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Here are the first five lines.

Lord’s Prayer
Koriakia Vomera

OUR Father who in Heaven art, Hallowed be
Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy, Gnayjorhe

thy Name, Come thy Kingdom, Be done thy Will
sai Lory, Eyfodere sai Bagalin, jorhe sai domion

as in Heaven, also in Earth so, Our bread
apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen, Amy khatsada

daily give us today, and forgive us
nadakchion toye ant nadayi, kay Radonaye ant

our trespasses, as we forgive our trespassers.
amy Sochin, apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin.


(A longer excerpt of the chapter on language, including the full Lord’s Prayer, can be found online here.)

To get an idea of how famous Psalmanazar actually was in his time, consider that he was referenced very prominently in Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay A Modest Proposal, in which Swift uses him (albeit spelled a bit differently, perhaps due to imperfect memory and a lack of handy reference) as part of his case for the encouragement of cannibalism.

But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty’s prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.

The fact that must be remembered here is that not only was George Psalmanazar a famous public figure in Swift’s time, but that by the year in which A Modest Proposal was published, 1729,  Psalmanazar’s account of Formosa was already been widely known as a fraud, the author having had confessed as much in 1707. While Swift’s essay is still widely read, virtually no modern readers will have any clue to what he is referring in this paragraph, and even fewer will realize that much of the basis for the humor in this section is due to the fact that the essayist is attempting to prove his case by referring to a a source that, at the time of publication, would have been recognized by Swift’s audience as not merely fraudulent, but famously and comically so.

Following the end of his career as a hoaxer, Psalmanazar used his celebrity to start a career as a legitimate writer, producing such works as The general history of printing: from its first invention in the city of Mentz, to its first progress and propagation thro’ the most celebrated cities in Europe. Particularly, its introduction, rise and progress here in England. The character of the most celebrated printers, from the first inventors of the art to the years 1520 and 1550: with an account of their works, and of the most considerable improvements which they made to it during that interval, published in 1732. As a now-respectable man of letters, he became friends with such luminaries as Samuel Johnson.

Although he revealed his fraud as early as 1707, details were not revealed until the year after his death. Naturally, this was in the form of a book, which is wonderfully entitled: MEMOIRS OF ****. Commonly known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; A Reputed Native of Formosa. Written by himself, In order to be published after his Death: Containing An Account of his Education, Travels, Adventures, Connections, Literary Productions, and pretended Conversion from Heathenism to Christianity; which last proved the Occasion of his being brought over into this Kingdom, and passing for a Proselyte, and a member of the Church of England.

The one thing that he never revealed, even in his posthumous memoir, was his real name. As far as I know, no details of his early life have ever been verified.

The table of contents, as well as some all too brief excerpts of Psalmanazar’s first book, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, can be found here, but until earlier this year it was very difficult to get one’s hands on a copy of the English version of the book, at least outside of certain libraries. Although it was published in Taiwan a couple of years ago, that was a Chinese translation, which even if I could read well would hardly be as entertaining. Original copies are very expensive, with the English first edition going for US$1426 on a rare book site, and the French version selling at an even less accessible $1900! Copies of his memoir go for a technically more affordable, yet still entirely unaffordable $600 or so.

Luckily, not only has an affordable reprint edition of both his Description of Formosa and his Memoirs (as well as some others) are available for purchase online. However, even better, just the other day I managed to locate a scanned electronic edition of both books, freely available in an archive of the British Library. As the online version only seems to be accessible from licensed institutions, such as libraries and universities, I am providing both of them for download as PDFs. Since their PDF creator can only generate files up to 250 pages in length, both of them have been split into two files. Scans of 300 year old books, these files are as public domain as they get. Feel free to spread them far and wide.

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part II

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part II

Update [August 5]: I regret that I forgot one very important detail from this when I first published it yesterday. While Jonathan Swift may be the most significant literary reference to Psalmanazar’s imaginary Formosa, it is not the only one. Many readers may be familiar with Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s wonderful comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and hopefully not the abysmal film based on it), in which they spin a version of our world in which every fantastic story, character, and geography is integrated into a single tapestry. While the story proper is mainly told in the form of comic book panels, Volume Two (for sale here, and highly recommended) contains, in the form of  a lengthy appendix, a sort of gazetteer of this fantastic geography, which contains the following text.

We passed east of Zipang, or of Japan as it is these days called, and went south by way of Formosa, which possesses of its coast another smaller island of the same name, where the women and the men go naked save for plaques of gold and silver.

Zipang is in fact one spelling of the Shanghaiese reading of “Japan,” formerly used by some Europeans and thought to be the origin for the modern spelling. Moore here is obviously referencing Psalmanazar’s Formosa, as we can see from page 225 of the Description (first page of PDF Part II). By describing this Formosa as “another smaller island of the same name”, Moore is cleverly leaving room on the map for both the real and fantasy Formosa.
The great difference between the Japannese and Formosans, consists in this, that the Jappanese wear 2 or 3 Coats, which they tye about with a Girdle; but the Formosans have only one Coat, and use no Girlde. They walk with the Breast open, and cover their Privy parts with a Plate tied about them made of Brass, Gold, or Silver.

Incidentally, Moore’s reference to Formosa is located just above a large illustration of Laputa – which readers may remember from either the eponymous Miyazaki Hayao film, or its original source: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. When one considers that Swift was clearly a fan of Psalmanazar’s imaginary geography, it actually seems quite reasonable to wonder if perhaps the Description of Formosa was an influence on Gulliver’s Travels, which as a chronicle of fantastic geography has some undeniable similarities.

Haruki Murakami on walls and eggs in the holy land

Great speech to give in front of the Israeli president (via Ikeda Nobuo)!

So I have come to Jerusalem. I have a come as a novelist, that is – a spinner of lies.

Novelists aren’t the only ones who tell lies – politicians do (sorry, Mr. President) – and diplomats, too. But something distinguishes the novelists from the others. We aren’t prosecuted for our lies: we are praised. And the bigger the lie, the more praise we get.

The difference between our lies and their lies is that our lies help bring out the truth. It’s hard to grasp the truth in its entirety – so we transfer it to the fictional realm. But first, we have to clarify where the truth lies within ourselves.

Today, I will tell the truth. There are only a few days a year when I do not engage in telling lies. Today is one of them.

When I was asked to accept this award, I was warned from coming here because of the fighting in Gaza. I asked myself: Is visiting Israel the proper thing to do? Will I be supporting one side?

I gave it some thought. And I decided to come. Like most novelists, I like to do exactly the opposite of what I’m told. It’s in my nature as a novelist. Novelists can’t trust anything they haven’t seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands. So I chose to see. I chose to speak here rather than say nothing.
So here is what I have come to say.

If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg.

Why? Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg. Each of us is confronting a high wall. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals.

I have only one purpose in writing novels, that is to draw out the unique divinity of the individual. To gratify uniqueness. To keep the system from tangling us. So – I write stories of life, love. Make people laugh and cry.

We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us – create who we are. It is we who created the system.

I am grateful to you, Israelis, for reading my books. I hope we are sharing something meaningful. You are the biggest reason why I am here.

Uchronie – great word

As often happens, I was chatting with my French friend Cerise when she tossed in a French word that she assumed we also use in English, but in fact do not. And as is often the case, the French have a fantastic and specific word where we have but a clunky phrase. The word in this case is “uchronie”, which in English means roughly “the setting of an alternate history story.” The word is based on the Greek roots “u” and “chronos”, as in “utopia” (or un-place) and time, and therefore means “a non-time”. The concept is of course familiar to any reader of speculative fiction (generally thought of as a classier term for science fiction, but really a broader term that includes science fiction as well as things like alternate history, that never fit comfortably in the SF category) but our language lacks such an elegant word for it.

Note that the English form of this word would be uchronia, as utopia is utopie in French.

Have keitai novels gone the way of the maid cafe?

Update on keitai novels: they’re dead! At least, it looks that way in the publishing industry.

According to J-Cast, Kinokuniya rankings show that not a single keitai novel made an appearance in the top 100 sellers of 2008, despite ongoing heavy promotion of the genre.

One publisher blames the sluggish publishing sales on a lack of an impactful release during the year. That, and the fact that “keitai novel” releases went from 1 or two titles a a month in 2007 to around a dozen in 2008, reportedly resulting in a more dispersed readership. However, the drama and movie versions of “Red String” have expanded the genre’s fan base, as evidenced by growing traffic and registered users at major site Orion.

But given the originally non-commercial and independent nature of keitai novels (really, a form of fictionalized blogging), one view, backed up by an unnamed industry insider, notes that going mainstream made the genre less grassroots and thus less cool. As a result, writers/consumers may have lost interest as the “independent” feeling of community was lost. Indeed, popularity of select titles has meant stable fan bases for particular authors, making it harder for less established newcomers to make money on a book gig (sounds like the traditional publishing industry, no?).

So that means in 2008, as NHK, Japan bloggers, and even the New Yorker marveled at this new consumer development, the actual fad had already begun to fade. Doesn’t it feel kind of dirty to have been part of the dreaded “Newsweek effect.”

“War and Japan: The Non-Fiction Manga of Mizuki Shigeru”

The web journal Japan Focus just published a translation of one of Mizuki Shigeru’s short manga pieces, entitled “War and Japan“, with a brief introduction to the man and his work written by Matthew Penney. One of the most famous and important manga authors in Japan, Mizuki Shigeru remains surprisingly obscure abroad, even among ardent manga fans. English translations of his most popular work may exist, but I have never even seen any. As Penney’s profile of Mizuki Shigeru (who, incidentally, is still alive at the age of 86-over 60 years since losing his arm to an explosion on a south Pacific island in WW2) makes a point of saying, “Mizuki, who unlike most prominent revisionists actually experienced the horrors of war firsthand, sees no contradiction between a love for Japan and its traditions, and a willingness to look honestly at the nation’s war history.”

Mizuki is in fact best known for his work involving Japanese folk spirits (or faeries or hobgoblins or monsters- the Japanese term youkai is a bit hard to translate directly), which despite having a generally comic tone do also occasionally deal with the horrors of war, and also received much acclaim for his truly excellent 8 volume Showa-shi (History of the Showa Period), in which he uses pages of pure historical explanation (all in manga form, of course) to frame the primary narative of his own life throughout the entire Showa period, which began around the time of his birth and ended as he was approaching pensioner age. Although covering the entire 62 years of the Showa period, Showa-shi focuses most heavily on his childhood, when he developed his lifelong fascination with youkai and folktales, and on the WW2 period, when he was the sole survivor of a bombing attack in the South Pacific island of Rabaul, lost his arm, and after the war’s end very nearly stayed behind in the native village that had nursed him back to health.

Showa-shi may be considered the capstone of Mizuki’s career. It is not his last work, but does form a synthesis of themes from throughout his entire career. Although it is his youkai manga that he is mainly known for, he had actually spent a chunk of his early career writing WW2 comics for the rental manga market, which at that time was a market publishing original material.

As it so happens, just last week I picked up one volume of a newly published series which reprints Mizuki Shigeru’s war stories for, I believe, the first time. Japanese books can have maddeningly scant publication history, however, so in fact the copyright page says only that this volume was first published in 2008, without specifying in detail the publication history, or even clearly labelling the original year of publication! Despite this annoying flaw, the book is great stuff. Labelled “comics for thinking about war and peace”, this particular volume is his stories of the air war. Much of the art bears little resemblance to Mizuki’s trademark style, instead opting for a sketchy grim style, particularly for the chaotic air combat scenes.

I haven’t yet had a chance to do more then flip through, although i did just read the first story -”Cockroach”, in which a Zero pilot named Yamamoto is shot down, captured by the Allies, kills a guard almost accidentally and then escapes only to discover upon his return that Japan had surrendered. He is arrested as a war criminal, without really understanding why, escapes from the jail in Japan, and then is finally executed-the last to be executed as a war criminal by the Allied military. In the final panel, as his weeping mother is handed a wooden box containing his ashes, she cries “my son’s entire life was just like that of a cockroach running about and hopelessly trying to escape.” Although the story is clearly anti-war, the ambivalence towards the war crime trials and criticism of winner’s justice presents a viewpoint difficult to sum up in the simplistic left/right paradigm that is all too often employed when discussing Japanese views of World War II.

Word of the year – English edition

Following Adam’s post on the word of the year awards in Japan, I thought I would give a quick rundown on the English version of the list, as determined by the New Oxford American Dictionary. I’ll present the various runners-up in list form, with the word of the year at the end, with each entry followed by my own comments in italics.

  • aging in place: the process of growing older while living in one’s own residence, instead of having to move to a new home or community
    We’re not off to a very good start here. First of all, this is not a word but a phrase, and not to me a particularly descriptive one at that.

  • bacn: email notifications, such as news alerts and social networking updates, that are considered more desirable than unwanted “spam” (coined at PodCamp Pittsburgh in Aug. 2007 and popularized in the blogging community)
    Total gibberish. While I agree that we could use a term for this semi-junkmail, a tier below spam, this word just plain sucks. What is this, an acronym? Wikipedia claims that it’s pronounced “bacon,” to imply that it is something better than spam, but still unwanted. Except that bacon is delicious, and I don’t see any reason to spell it wrong. In short- I like the definition, but we need a new word. Maybe 2008.

  • cloudware: online applications, such as webmail, powered by massive data storage facilities, also called “cloud servers”
    “Cloud computing” is a term I’ve seen for at least a couple of years now, and I agree that “cloudware” is the appropriate word for applications that represent the paradigm of cloud computing.

  • colony collapse disorder: a still-unexplained phenomenon resulting in the widespread disappearance of honeybees from beehives, first observed in late 2006
    The first one I’ve actually seen before! Both timely and important, and a great example of a term that rose to prominence during 2007. Unfortunately, once again we have a phrase. Try translating it into a nice agglutanive like German, Greek or Chinese and get back to me.

  • cougar: an older woman who romantically pursues younger men
    Another word I’m familiar with (and yes, I mean the word and not the thing itself.) A good slang term that has clearly cemented itself in the language, but I have no idea how long the term “cougar” has been around or if it rose to particular prominence this year for some reason. Has there been a rash of “cougar attacks” in 2007 that I was unaware of?

  • MRAP vehicle: Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, designed to protect troops from improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
    I’ve probably seen this term before, but I can’t swear. While the MRAP has probably existed for a good while, I do see a logic for its rise to prominence this year. On the other hand, has IED been a word of the year before? If not, then clearly that should have taken this slot.

  • mumblecore: an independent film movement featuring low-budget production, non-professional actors, and largely improvised dialogue
    I think I first saw this term only a couple of months ago. I don’t believe I have actually seen a mumblecore film, but it sounds like the sort of indy film that gives indy film a bad name. Does it deserve to be on the list? Well, whether or not the word existed before 2007, this was certainly the year it made it big, so I’ll give it a pass.

  • previvor: a person who has not been diagnosed with a form of cancer but has survived a genetic predisposition for cancer
    A word I have certainly seen before, although it bugs me slightly for some reason. While the etymology of “previvor” is clearly based on “survivor,” with an added implication of something not having happened yet- but it still feels slightly muddled to me. For a word created from a simple combination of two highly generic roots (pre- as in before, and vivor- as in “to live”) I feel that it should have a scope of applicability larger than just cancer, but I suppose a word has to start somewhere.

  • social graph: the network of one’s friends and connections on social websites such as Facebook and Myspace
    Definitely another sign of the times here. I would like this more if a literal, social graph, as in a nice web-form chart, of one’s social network were actually a core feature of these sites. God I hate Myspace.

  • tase (or taze): to stun with a Taser (popularized by a Sep. 2007 incident in which a University of Florida student was filmed being stunned by a Taser at a public forum)
    Not even a remotely new word-I personally have probably used it for years-and an obvious back-formation of “taser” (lit. “that which tases.”) Despite the lack of newness, the extremely high visibility of tasing incidents this year does give “tase” some extra cachet as a word of the year candidate.

  • upcycling: the transformation of waste materials into something more useful or valuable
    Not a word I have heard before, but it makes sense and doesn’t particularly bother me.

And the word of the year-

  • “Locavore” was coined two years ago by a group of four women in San Francisco who proposed that local residents should try to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. Other regional movements have emerged since then, though some groups refer to themselves as “localvores” rather than “locavores.” However it’s spelled, it’s a word to watch.
    I have two problems with this one. First of all, I feel that there is something just wrong about a word of the year that I had never heard of previously. This might be ok for a runner-up, but shouldn’t the word of the year be something widespread enough so that a media addict like myself would have at least seen it before? Secondly, a word clearly identified as having been created by a particular group of persons to promote an ideology just feels too manufactured, and not grass-roots authentic enough, to deserve word of the year status. On the plus side, it is etymologically sounds, although “localvore” is a lousy variant.

Comparing this list with the list of Japanese words Adam just showed us, a few things occur to me. First of all, you see a complete lack of words that are associated with, or hyping, any celebrity. Where the Japanese list gives us three celeb catch-phrases “そんなの関係ねぇ,” “どんだけぇ~” and the co-winner “(宮崎を)どげんかせんといかん” as well as one word famous for being the title of what is most likely a shitty self-help book “鈍感力,” and a phrase that describes a particular person, which Adam lovingly translated as “prince of the cheese-eating grin.”

By contrast, Oxford’s list has nothing of the kind. In fact, if you look at the two lists a bit closer you see a fundamentally different, and even oppositional, concept of what “word of the year” represents to Oxford and Jiyukokuminsha (the Japanese publishing company who issued this word of the year list.) The most apparent different between them is that where Oxford’s words were chosen by the professional dictionairians (yes, dictionarian is a real word. Check the 1913 Websters if you don’t believe me.) the Jikokuminsha list was chosen from reader submissions, by an entirely unidentified panel. While the solicitation of reader submitted words is a critical tool of the lexicologist, Oxford has chosen to weed out items that are in fact references to specific people or current events, and most likely not sustainable lexical items.

The second major difference is that while Oxford’s list consists entirely of neologisms (even if not all of them are 100% verified new in 2007), Jikokuminsha also includes the word “pension,” which certainly isn’t a new word. Now, the word “pension” is prefaced by the word “vanished,” but this is still just an ordinary phrase, not a novel formation of any kind, and even worse is a reference to a particular news event and not some ongoing phenomenon.

The Jikokuminsha list does, however, contain several quality words that I think are worthy of inclusion on a list more in the vein of the Oxford one:

  • Deceptive food (labeling) 食品偽装 : This is both a major item of concern for 2007, and a new word that will probably be with us for years to come, as food safety and accurate labeling is becoming a matter of increasing concern around the world, both in international trade and domestic markets.

  • Internet cafe refugees ネットカフェ難民 : I think the phenomenon was actually reported on several months before the term was coined, but it is an apt and catchy term that will likely stick. The phenomenon has been reported on at least twice on this blog including personal anecdotes, first by Adam just over one year ago and then far more negatively by myself, just a few months ago.

  • Mega eater 大食い : I believe this word is actually used as both a noun AND a verb (i.e. a “mega eater” and “to mega-eat.” In general, this term refers to mass food consumption in the contest of competitive eating contests, the most famous of which is the Coney Island hot dog eating contest won year after year by Kobayashi Takeru. According to the Wikipedia article on competitive eating, an appropriate English translation of the term might be “gurgitator” (with the verb form then naturally being “to gurgitate,” but this word lacks the necessary prefix to imply the “mega”ness of the Japanese word.

  • Very hot days 猛暑日 : At first I thought that this word lacked the necessary novelty, but on inspection I was wrong. In fact, it turns out this is a technical term used by the Japan Meteorological Agency to describe a day in which the maximum temperature exceeds 35℃. It appears that the word was officially coined in 2006, due to the fact that the number of such days had seen a precipitous rise over the previous decade, and they decided that they needed a word to specifically label days hotter than “truly hot days” (真夏日 – days over 30℃.)

While both lists are naturally attempts to choose words which are iconic of the year 2007 in some way, the Oxford panel attempted to select words that, while they
were newly relevant in 2007, at least have the potential to survive in the future. While there may be a couple of entries that I find questionable in quality (come on, “bacn?” For real?) at least I do not feel like Oxford is trying to make me feel like I need to buy more tabloid magazines or watch the E! channel. But then, both companies are basically trying to stoke interest in their respective dictionaries, and while Jiyikokuminsha’s “Basic Knowledge of Modern Terms” may be pretty good, Oxford publishes the Oxford English Dictionary, which I believe is inarguably the greatest dictionary that exists on the planet, for any language.

Great. Now I just went and reminded myself that not being an active member of a university I don’t have institutional access to the OED Online, and their personal accounts are ludicrously overpriced. Your dictionary may be awesome and all, but for $295/year I think I’ll make do.

More on fake Harry Potter

Today’s New York Times has published a moderate sized article on the Chinese phenomenon.

No one can say with any certainty what the full tally is, but there are easily a dozen unauthorized Harry Potter titles on the market here already, and that is counting only bound versions that are sold on street corners and can even be found in school libraries. Still more versions exist online.

These include “Harry Potter and the Half-Blooded Relative Prince,” a creation whose name in Chinese closely resembles the title of the genuine sixth book by Ms. Rowling, as well as pure inventions that include “Harry Potter and the Hiking Dragon,” “Harry Potter and the Chinese Empire,” “Harry Potter and the Young Heroes,” “Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon,” and “Harry Potter and the Big Funnel.”

Some borrow little more than the names of Ms. Rowling’s characters, lifting plots from other well-known authors, like J. R. R. Tolkien, or placing the famously British protagonist in plots lifted from well-known kung-fu epics and introducing new characters from Chinese literary classics like “Journey to the West.”


Harry Potter and the Big Funnel? I’ve heard of that one somewhere before… 

In related news, of the 100 or so blogs and other websites that linked to my fake Harry Potter post, this post at the blog of the comic book fansite Newsarama may be the only one to offer a substantial contribution. Now, I had posted a couple of pages from a nice, wholesome Harry Potter Japanese fan comic (dojinshi), but someone at Newsarama had apparently dug into their personal bookmarks collection and dug out links to online archives of-ahem-less than wholesome product. The sort of thing that chronicles the sort of activity that English boarding school was famous for before Hogwarts. Am I going to paste the links here? No, but anyone curious enough to click can take that extra step.

NPR on fake Harry Potter sequel

For the many thousands of readers who can’t get enough of fake Harry Potter, NPR’s Morning edition had a story on Chinese sequel-legging for their July 13 broadcast. And no, they don’t mention either of the two presented here.

Also, don’t forget the truly awe-inspiring Harry Potter in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese Translation web site, which gives detailed comparisons of the Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese translations of the novels. Fascinating reading for hardcore fans of the series (particularly those with some knowledge of one or more of the languages treated), and truly essential reading for any translators familiar with the world of Harry Potter.

The ultimate sequels aka Asia loves you,哈利波特

To tie in with the world-wide media extravaganza that is the release of the final volume of the megaselling Harry Potter series, today I would like present scans from three lesser known sequels in my collection.

First is the China exclusive 2002 release, Harry Potter and the Filler of Big, a title made only slightly less mysterious when one realizes that the Chinese title translates rather more accurately into Harry Potter and the Big Funnel, although you’ll need someone with better Chinese than mine to describe the plot of this gloriously audacious illegally published novel-length fanfiction.

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