Category Archives: Language

Trams in Japan

My long post the other day on the history of department stores in Kyoto naturally included a lot of discussion on the relationship between department stores and railways. In that I mentioned that:

The predecessor to the Hankyu Railway Company was Minou Arima Denki Kidou (箕面有馬電気軌道), or the Minou – Arima Electric Railway, and called Kiyu Densha (箕有電車). (kidou is a now rarely used word that translates to “permanent way” in English, referring to the physical infrastructure of railway tracks.)

In the comments section, Aaron corrected me by pointing out that the word 軌道 is not itself particularly rare, to which I responded. “I meant that particular usage of 軌道. Actually it’s still commonly used as railway jargon, but not among the general populace. My point is that the idea of seeing a railway actually using 軌道 in its name today would be anachronistic.”

Joe responded to this by pointing out that, in fact, there is a company with such a name in just the next prefecture, Osaka’s Hankai Tramway Co. Ltd., known in Japanese as 阪堺電気軌道.

Looking at Wikipedia’s list of Japan’s 20 or so surviving tram lines  (which thanks to Japan’s huge train otaku community, I think we can safely trust as comprehensive), there are actually three companies with this term kidou in their name. First is the aforementioned Hankai in Osaka, as well as the Nagasaki Electric Tramway (長崎電気軌道) and the Okayama Electric Tramway (岡山電気軌道). Very interestingly, Wikipedia claims that these two railway companies, founded in 1914 and 1910 respectively, are the only two (or at least two of the only, it is not entirely clear) Meiji-era railway companies in Japan to have never changed their name.

However, the Hankai Tramway is a different story. The current, old fashioned corporate name doesn’t even date from the age when it would have been a common name, with the company only having been founded in 1980 when it was spun off from the Nankai Electric Railway Co., which still owns 100% of the stock. The Hankai tramway itself dates back to 1897, and has gone through a dizzying number of acquisitions, sales, and name changes over the years. I won’t even begin to summarize it, but the important fact is that its name from 1910 to 1915, when it merged with 1915. In short, the current name is a relatively modern  (i.e. 1980) revival of a century old name, which I think can fairly be described as anachronistic.

Incidentally, Kyoto has two similar old fashioned tram lines remaining in use, which are currently two separate companies, were founded separately, but were at one point combined.  One, the Randen line going from Shijo-Omiya to Arashiyama was originally the 嵐山電車軌道 or Arashiyama Electric Railroad (founded 1910), but was acquired by Kyoto Electric in 1918. Kyoto Electric established the  Keifuku Electric Railroad Co. (京福電気鉄道) in 1942. (Randen, an abbreviation in Japanese of “Arashiyama Electric Railroad,” is still the name of the line itself, sometimes leading to minor confusion.)

While today, railway companies are most associated with department stores, early electric trains in Japan were often established by electric power companies, before electricity was such a universally available resource. Kyoto Electric (京都電燈) was founded in 1888 to provide coal power to Kyoto, and around 1892 began providing hydroelectric power from the Lake Biwa Canal.  As demand for electricity skyrocketed beyond the capacity of the Biwa Canal plant, Kyoto Electric shrunk, with Kansai Electric eventually taking over their power generation and transport operations. It went bankrupt in 1942, with Keifuku being established to continue the railway operations in its place.
The other old style line in Kyoto, the Eiden going to Kurama and Mt. Hiei, is called the Eizan Railroad (Eiden is an abbreviation of the Japanese, 叡山電鉄), but was previously  the Kurama Electric Railroad (鞍馬電気鉄道) , which had been established in 1927 to manage the railroad that had been started in 1925 by Kyoto Electric, and was later folded into Keifuku. Today it is a wholly owned subsidiary of the much larger Keihan Electric Railway, which acquired all of its shares in stages following its split from the Keifuku Electric Railroad Co. in 1985.

Incidentally, Keifuku Electric Railroad used to also run some trains in Fukui Prefecture, to which today’s Echizen Railway is a successor.

Update: One thing I didn’t specifically mention originally but meant to point out is that all three of the railway companies with kidoh in their name translate it as “Tramway” in English, while no other company or line (as far as I can tell) does so today. The standard word for “tram” itself is also 路面電車.

The Keifuku and Eiden are both trams, but Keifuku also still operates the, Eizan Cable line, which is technically a funicular, even though it is actually located in the territory of Eiden. Amusingly, the tiny cable line on the other side of Mt. Hiei, the Sakamoto Cable, is the only system operated by Hieizan Railway, which began in 1924 and today is, like the Eiden, a subsidiary of Keihan.

Japanese Names, White Faces

Marmot has a post titled “Funny, You Don’t Look Like a Mr. Fujita…” that looks at the case of Scott Fujita, a 6′5″ 250 pound white football player with a Japanese name who plays for the New Orleans Saints. He’s not ethnically Japanese, or even Asian, but was adopted by a family with a Japanese-American father born in the World War II detainment camps. He reportedly feels Japanese in his heart and is a fan of mochi ice cream and Pocky.

Reading the post and the comments reminded me of my meeting with Sailor Nathan Nakano, resident on the USS Kitty Hawk, when I visited as a guest of the Tiger Cruise in Yokosuka in 2006, seeing US military hardware and life on board an aircraft carrier, courtesy ComingAnarchy reader Eddie.


Curzon and Nakano, September 2006

I remember asking Nakano: That’s a Japanese name! What gives? And if I recall correctly, his father’s father was either Japanese or half-Japanese, making him one-fourth or one-eighth Japanese. You can read a news story that quotes Nathan here.

I wonder how many Westerners there are with Japanese names in the world? Marmot’s commenters have a few stories relaying similar stories about white kids with Japanese names due to adoption or stepfather relationships. There’s also a (sorta) opposite case, Haruki Nakamura, the current United States Chess Champion—he was born in Japan to a Japanese father and American mother, but his parents divorced, his mother remarried a Sri Lankan, and his stepfather, FIDE Master and chess author Sunil Weeramantry, taught him chess. So he’s got a Japanese name, but has only non-Japanese parents.

The Origin of 回教

If you read any dated text in Japanese that refers to Islam, or, say, watch the movie Ghandi with Japanese subtitles, you may see the word Islam written with the characters 回教, or kaikyou (or in Chinese, huíjiào). Archaically this was also written 回回, in which case it was pronounced Uiui in Japanese and huíhuí in Chinese. Where did these characters come from and why were they used to refer to Islam?

Christian Europe’s first interraction with the Islam religion was with the Arab Middle East and with the first Caliphate that rapidly expanded to dominate the Middle East, North Africa, and Persia and directly challenge the waning influence of the kingdoms of post-Roman Europe. The Far East had a much slower and gradual introduction to the religion and the Muslim people. The first reference of the characters identified by scholars is during the Northern Song Dynasty in the 10th to 12th centuries, when the characters 回回 were used to refer to the religion of the Uyghers (the name of the people was written as 回鶻、or 回紇). For centuries, the words were used almost interchangeably because the Uyghurs were the only Muslim people known to the Chinese, but as Islam spread, the characters 回回 were expanded to broadly include more people than just the Uyghurs, and during the Ming Dynasty, the characters 回回 were converted into 回教.

Through the Ming and Qing dynasties, Chinese people who converted to Islam and who lived in China were called 回民, and the Turks of Central Asia were called 回部. Today, characters 回族 refer to the Hui people, a minority ethnic group in China of people who appear Chinese in external appearance but who follow the Muslim faith. The word 回部 refers not to the Turks of Central Asia but the Uyghurs. Exactly when the words came to Japan, or when they arrived in Japan and were understood, is not understood, at least not in any resource that I can find in my online research.

In the mid-20th century, the words were slowly understood as being inaccurate and possibly politically incorrect. Japan now almost universally uses the word イスラム教 or イスラーム, while the Chinese use the words 伊斯蘭教 (Yīsīlánjiào). However, Vietnam, which converted to a Roman letter alphabet in the 19th century, still keeps the old word for Islam with the word Hồi giáo, adopted from the original characters.

The Tragedy of the Overseas Japanese

I’ve been in Dubai for almost two months now, and despite leaving Japan, everyday involves speaking, reading and writing Japanese in my personal and professional life. Since arriving I’ve probably met more than a hundred Japanese nationals here, such as company employees, government bureaucrats, waitresses and cooks at Japanese restaurants, and the wives and school-aged children that have accompanied many of them. That’s several percentage points of the whole Japanese population here—according to the local Japanese Consulate General, there are approximately 3,000 Japanese nationals living in Dubai.

The reaction to a Japanese-speaking non-Japanese person is overwhelmingly positive, and I have found it very easy to befriend Japanese nationals on that basis. I think one reason for this is the underwhelming penetration of English language proficiency in the Japanese community here, and the consequent loneliness and insular community that arises thereto.

It’s one thing when I meet Americans and Brits living in Japan who never exert even a cursory effort to learn the Japanese language. I’m disappointed by these types of people, but I understand that English is the lingua franca of the world, the lowest common denominator of language, that people can expect to use for communication in most cities of the world. I know people who have lived in Japan for years, knowing only English, and who have still been able to live a full life in Japan and enjoy all the major tourist locations such as Kyoto, Hakone, Nikko, and elsewhere.

Here in Dubai, I witness the same phenomenon—I meet Japanese people who have lived in Dubai for years and who can barely order food from a menu or instruct a cab driver. This is a city that follows the 21st century lingua franca—90% of the metropolitan population is foreign, and the common language between Lebanese, Indians, Brits, Egyptians, Iranians, Chinese, Kenyans, South Africans, Pakistanis, Greeks, Afghanis, and every other type of person you can imagine is English.

It’s one thing if a 30 year-old Japanese housewife can’t learn basic English communication after a few year in Dubai. That’s disappointing but understandable. But I’m truly shocked when I meet kids of the ages of 7 or 10, who have lived in Dubai for a year or two, and who have the potential to truly learn English like a native, and yet who can barely muster a sentence in English.

The blame lies squarely with the community and the education. The kids live in a Japanese community, attend Japanese schools that follow an ordinary Japanese curriculum, and basically have to study English in their spare time if they want to learn. And the general lack of English ability by many here has created a highly insular community. The Japanese tend to live in or around the Hyatt Regency, which offers serviced apartments for individuals and families, a supermarket with a small Japanese corner, and a genuine Japanese restaurant. Many other people live in the nearby neighborhood, and most of the authentic Japanese restaurants are in that area. With most Japanese socially cut-off from the rest of Dubai’s expat community, the result is a gossip network akin to a small inaka community. I met a bureucrat working at JETRO who had heard of me from his neighbor before we met—which we forensically determined was derivative to at least the fourth degree, with the information genesis beginning in a meeting that happened merely days earlier.

On the one hand, from a selfish perspective, this is great for me and has created all sorts of opportuities. But it’s also tragic that the Japanese, despite being very well educated and comfortably middle class for several generations, are so culturally isolated in a city where people gather from across the world.

Scratch not lest ye be scratched

Awesome site that photoshops those creepy Japanese Christian signs to change the word “God” to “cat.” Pure gold:

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The kingdom of Cat is upon us.

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Cat will judge adultery and fornication.

You see, erasing part of the word “God” (神) in Japanese will give you the word for “cat” (ネコ).

Thanks to Marxy for the link!

Ayase crime update: Possible foreigner robs sushi restaurant… across the street from my apartment

While making breakfast this morning, I noticed a couple of news trucks around the sushi restaurant across the street, which is the first thing I see when leaving my apartment in the morning. I figured that Gal Sone was probably eating a metric ton of kohada or something, but the truth was far darker. Kyodo reports:

Robbery at Choshimaru kaitenzushi: 720,000 yen seized

Around 6:30 AM on the 13th, a man entered from the back door of the Ayase Sushi Choshimaru kaitenzushi restaurant in Yanaka 1-chome, Adachi-ku, Tokyo, held a knife to the clerk (26) opening the restaurant, said “Give me your money,” seized 720,000 yen in sale receipts from the safe and fled. The clerk was unharmed.

The Metropolitan Police Ayase Station are searching for the man as a robbery suspect.

According to the Ayase Station, the man is around 30 and about 160-170 cm tall. He was wearing sunglasses, a black short-sleeved shirt and jeans. The clerk claims that “he threatened me in broken Japanese.” (Kyodo)

The Jiji report uses a fascinating phrase to describe the perp: “アジア系外国人風,” which means something like “looks Asian, seems foreign.” Fortunately, I only fit half of those criteria.

5 fun examples of Tochigi-ben (or whatever Mrs. Adamu’s family speaks)

After a long hiatus, Mrs. Adamu is back with a blog post about her local dialect, Tochigi-ben. She grew up in Ashikaga through elementary school and spent the rest of her school days in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture. We visit about once a month with her immediate family who still live in Chiba.

During my trips there, in addition to noticing strange Christian signs I’ve managed to pick up some phrases of the local dialect from her relatives. Some examples:

1. 「わりかし」= 意外と 
  父がよく、「これ、わりかしうまいんだよ」と言う。
Her father says this a lot, especially when he buys sashimi from his favorite roadside merchant.
2.「ごきちゃん」=ごきぶり 
  母が「ごきちゃんがでた!」と言う。両親の家にいた時、そんなに何度もでたとも思えないのだが。
A cute term for cockroach. They do appear from time to time.
3.語尾の「ど」
  父が使う。きっと栃木弁。
  「行ぐど!」=行くぞ、行くよ。「出たど」=出たぞ、出たよ。
I use this one mainly as a joke because her family says いぐど! all the time as if they have a cold.
4.語尾の「(だ)がね」
  私が栃木に行ったときに使う。祖母と会話するときなど。
  「私、それ言ったがね」=「私、それ言ったよね」
  「お店はこっちだがね」=「お店はこっちだよ」
This ends up sounding kind of angry a lot of the time.
5. 疑問形語尾の「ん?」
  「もう食べたん?」「寝てたん?」「テレビ見てるん?」 (= もう食べたの? etc)
This one Mrs. Adamu uses herself all the time when talking on the phone to relatives.

The history of Japanese text direction

Most of our readers are aware that, when written horizontally, Japanese is generally read left to right. When written vertically, as was the traditional method, paragraphs start on the right and each line is read down the page in order from right to left. Traditionally, though, Japanese and Chinese were both read right to left at all times, even when written horizontally.

The history behind this is kind of interesting. Here’s a timeline culled from the Japanese Wikipedia article on the subject.

  • Traditionally, Japanese was written vertically, and lines were read from right to left. Horizontal writing only appeared on signs, and in those cases it was also read from right to left.
  • Horizontal writing first appeared in print in the late 1700s as Dutch books were reprinted. (Dutch traders in Nagasaki were the only Europeans allowed in Japan at that time.) In 1806, a Japanese book was published in Japanese hiragana characters skewed to look like Latin characters and printed from left to right.
  • In the first foreign language dictionaries printed in Japan, foreign words were written horizontally from left to right, while the Japanese words were written vertically from top to bottom. The first dictionary to have both foreign and Japanese words written horizontally came out in 1885, and both were written left to right.
  • Japan’s first printed newspapers and advertisements had headlines and call-outs written horizontally from right to left.
  • In July 1942, at the height of World War II, the Education Ministry proposed that horizontal writing be from left to right rather than from right to left. Although the left-to-right standard was showing up in some publications at the time, switching over entirely was a controversial idea which didn’t make it past Cabinet approval.
  • The military also tried adopting left-to-right as an official standard during the war, but many people viewed this as too Anglo-American and refused to switch.
  • Because of the patriotic zeal surrounding text direction during the war, there were cases of stores being pressed to switch text direction on their signage, and cases of newspapers refusing to print advertising with left-to-right text.
  • After the war, Douglas MacArthur’s occupation team pushed for left-to-right text as an education modernization reform measure, along with the abolition of Chinese characters and other more extreme ideas.
  • Yomiuri Shimbun was the first newspaper to switch text direction in its headlines, making the changeover on January 1, 1946. The Nikkei switched over by 1948.
  • Japanese currency was first printed with left-to-right text in March 1948; before that, it had been printed right-to-left.
  • Asahi Shimbun conducted some internal design experiments around 1950 to switch its front page to an all-horizontal, left-to-right format, but this never made it past the drawing board.
  • In April 1952, the Chief Cabinet Secretary adopted a guideline that all ministry documents be written from left to right using horizontal text. Despite this, the courts kept vertical writing until January 1, 2001—the bar exam was also written vertically until that time—and the Diet itself continues to use vertical writing when publishing draft bills.

Right-to-left writing is still found in certain contexts. Sometimes it is used simply to appear more “traditional”: Wikipedia cites soba shops as a common culprit in this category. Another common context is vehicles such as trucks and ships; there, Japanese is often written from front to back, so on the right side of the vehicle it is written from right to left. Here’s an example which I spotted on a right-wing sound truck outside Odakyu in Shinjuku during my first trip to Tokyo, way back in 2000. Note that the text 愛国党, or “Patriot Party,” is written right-to-left on the side of the truck, but left-to-right on the back.

"Kick some Communist ass!"

(Thanks to our commenter Peter for suggesting this topic.)

An ex-diplomat’s three-step English boot camp for university students

judge_yanai

Shunji Yanai, former Japanese ambassador to the United States and current judge at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, offers some radical measures to help university students bring their English communication skills up to speed.

Writing in the July 21 evening edition of the Nikkei Shimbun, he explains that when he first started teaching at a university after retiring as a diplomat, he was asked to help lead extracurricular study sessions for students.

Though his students could read English fairly well, he soon became painfully aware of their poor conversational English. Typically, he blamed Japan’s education system for emphasizing test preparation over actual communication skills.

Out of a concern for their futures as global citizens, Yanai came up with the following crash course to whip the students into shape:

  1. Memorize and recite US presidents’ political speeches: He made all his students memorize a speech word for word and recite it in front of the group. The variety of sentence structures in each speech helped with conversational skills and composition, while speaking at length trained their mouth muscles to speak in English.

  2. Memorize jazz standards and listen and sing along to the songs at live performances: He took some of his students to jazz bars and pays for their drinks… on the condition that they memorize the lyrics ahead of time. Singing along to the songs with some drinks in them, he claims, helped students start speaking more fluently.

  3. Place a digestive pill in your mouth to help learn how to pronounce R’s differently from L’s: Japanese people grow up without using the English L and R sounds in their everyday lives - the sounds in standard Japanese that are written with a letter “R” in English are actually pronounced with a sound that’s somewhere between the L in “la” and the “D” in “dog.” To fix that problem, Yanai had students practice saying R words with a pill of biofermin digestive medicine in their mouths. The weight of the pill kept their tongues from hitting the roofs of their mouths, which would result in a mistaken L sound.

Now, I seriously doubt Yanai ever used these methods on himself. As a former diplomat he has presumably gone through the foreign ministry’s rigorous language training. As far as I can tell from the diplomats I have met over the years, this training is highly effective – every Japanese diplomat I’ve met has spoken very good, fluent English. If this is because of days spent with pills in their mouths, I would be very surprised.

I am far from an expert in English teaching methods, but I can’t help but question this plan’s effectiveness. Can a strict regimen of memorizing speeches and jazz songs, recitation, and jury-rigged palate correction do what commitment, good guidance, and more traditional practice cannot?