26 October 2010

How to Count Flying Bunnies in Japanese

(Ignore that watermark)

Japanese is not an easy language to learn at the best of times. One of the things which is, while not exactly hard, a headache is the fact that it has a couple of hundred "counter words". We have these to some extent in English too, like three pants (the North American variety) are "three pairs of pants", or two cows are "two heads of cattle", etc. But in Japanese, there are tonnes of 'em. There's nothing outstandly difficult about learning these besides volume, but there are a few irregularities. One such irregularity is the counter for birds, which is 羽. One bird is 一羽, two is 二羽, and so on. This counter, however, is also used by one mammal: rabbits.

And why is that?

According to anglo Wikipedia:
Japanese Buddhist monks were not allowed to eat any meat other than birds, but liked rabbit meat so much they came up with the contrived "explanation" that rabbits are actually birds, and that their ears are unusable wings. The rationale was that while moving, rabbits only touched the ground with two feet at a time. Nowadays, hiki is the usual counter for rabbits.
I didn't quite buy this because-- Wikipedia-- and checked around a bit. And in response to this theory, somebody posted on the Japanese internets:
I was also interested in the answer that it is related to Buddhism, so I asked an acquaintance who is a Pure Land Buddhist monk. I asked the Pure Land monk, Have you ever heard 'You can't eat rabbits, but if it's a bird, it's okay?

"Rabbits, cows, pigs, birds
and fish: you can't eat any of them! Doesn't that kind of theory sound like it has the intention of showing contempt for Buddhism?" he said angerly.

Accord to Wikipedia, "There are many opinions as to the origins, but according to the Nihonshoki, in the year 675, Emperor Temmu forbade the eating of meat of the five beasts -- cows, horses, dogs, macaques and chickens -- and ordered the protection of young fish between the dates April 1st and September 30th and through subsequent bans, rabbits (usagi) which are a pun of cormorants (u) and herons (sagi), were avoided by being treated as birds, or perhaps because because their long ears resembed birds feathers [...]."

[Editor's note: what?? Okay, there are some points where I have no idea what he was on about, so I apologize for any Engrishy parts]

「ウサギも牛も豚も鳥も魚も全部ダメ! そのような説には仏教を貶めようとする意図があるのではないか」

Wikipediaによると、「この由来には諸説あるが、『日本書紀』にある天武天皇5年4月17日(675年5月19日)の肉食禁止令で、4月1日~9 月30日まで稚魚の保護と五畜(ウシ・ウマ・イヌ・ニホンザル・ニワトリ)を食べることが禁じられ、それ以降の禁令などにより鳥の鵜と鷺(または佐芸)をもじりウサギとし、「鳥」として扱うことでこれを回避した、あるいは大きく長い耳が鳥の羽に見えるからとする説が有力とされている」とのことです。
The author listed from other theories, but to be honest, the mix of extremely formal Japanese relating to empirical edicts and absolute nonsense about getting by dietary laws through semantics is a bit too much for me right now. I decided to test my luck elsewhere.

Another website states,
In Japan until the Meiji Period (from 1868), for religion (Buddhist) reasons, the eating of four-legged animals was forbidden. During that time, hungry people said "Rabbit's ears look like feathers, so let's make 'em birds so we can eat 'em!" "Rabbits fly (ie. leap), so they must be birds!

I don't want to argue for arguing's sake, but I think the "rabbit = birds", therefore "one bird, two bird" way of thinking is plausable. No matter how you look at it, rabbits are not birds (hah!) and it was just an excuse for people that wanted to eat meat. ;)

日本では明治時代まで、宗教上(仏教)の理由から四本足の獣を食べることが禁じられていました。そのときに「うさぎの耳は鳥の羽と同じだから鳥にしよう。だから食べてもいいんだ!」 「うさぎは飛ぶから鳥だろう!(実際ははねている)」といって食べていたそうです。

Yet another website says (and this is the last one, I swear),
Before the Meiji period, there was a teaching that "If you kill a living thing, and eat it's flesh, a Buddhist curse will be put upon you", and it was forbidden. (Editor's note, I read somewhere they'd just sentence you to death, ironically, if you killed an animal to eat.) This meant, mainly, raising animals to eat was forbidden, but it was decided that hunting and eating deer or bears or wild birds and calling them "medicine eats" (Editor's note: I could probably translate that more gracefully but I choose not to) and the eating of meat little by little by sick people to help them recover was acceptable.

People who ate meat once didn't forget that taste, and for warriors who used up their energy in battle, it became a source of nutrients. Feigning that it was "medicine eats" and eating wildlife made them feel guilty. Especially the four-legged variety.

So, with their feather-like long ears and hippity-hopping around, rabbits are probably just birds, right? So, they started counting "flocks" of rabbits. If so, they felt a little less guilty and could catch and eat a lot of them.

明治以前は、「殺生して、肉を食べると仏罰があたる」という仏教の教え(名目??)で肉食が禁じられてました。 これは、食べるために動物を飼うことを主に禁じていて、狩猟したシカやクマや野鳥などを食べることは「薬喰い」といって、 病人の体力回復のために少しずつ肉を食べてもいいと認められていました。

一度肉を食べた人はその味が忘れられないし、 戦などで体力を使う武士は肉が栄養源になっていました。 「薬喰い」と称して野鳥獣の肉を食べることは後ろめたい。 特に四本足の動物は後ろめたい。

そこで、羽のような大きな耳を持って、ぴょンぴょん飛ぶウサギは鳥かもしれない、だったら1羽2羽と数えよう。 それなら、すこしは後ろめたさが少なくなる。 たくさん捕まえて食べることもできる。

So there you have it! There are many theories, but it is ostensibly because rabbits are delicious.

24 October 2010

Senkaku Island Notes

I've been going through a huge time line of the Senkaku Islands conflict which I found online in order to prepare for (maybe) having to write an essay for a grad school application. (We'll find out about that part soon enough.)

But I was reading through the time line and through some essays and newspaper articles and was thinking back to conversations I was having with Ikumi about it and what she was saying about extremely patriotic-- and sometimes just very extreme essays-- Japanese people were writing about the crisis on websites like mixi. I also happened to see a photo album on the Globe and Mail's website with a wide variety of far-right racist douchebags.

With all this swimming in my head I started reading a 40 year old essay by famous Japanologist Donald Keene and just-as-famous Mishima Yukio buddy talking about the cultural effects the Sino-Japanese War had on Japan, and he started off the whole essay talking about how before the war Japan still had a definite image of China as being culturally and militaristically absolutely superior to the still-東夷 Japan, with huge Chinese ironclad warships visiting Japanese ports and Japanese diplomats still being given "the treatment" in China while trying everything to impress Chinese diplomats in Tokyo. As the extremely popular war progressed there was a wide-scale propaganda campaign put on by newspapers and book and woodblock print publishers to glorify Japanese soldiers while depicting the Chinese as weak and cowardly and wholly undeserving of their now-perhaps-mythologized glorious past. This view of China seems to have continued on to this day amongst the previously stated far-right racist douchebags, some of whom are in parliament, and a lot more revealingly: it was during the same war where the image of the Chinese went 180° that China lost the Senkaku Islands to Japan. (This is only after an evenings pre- and post-StarCraft 2 reading, but) I think the economic and diplomatic conflict between Japan and China over the last two months, as well as the general attitude of nationalist groups in Japan toward China, really began during the war 115 years ago. The atrocities of World War 2 and subsequent US occupation, the communist revolution in China and sometimes forced attempts to "reunite" the country, and more than anything, the discovery of 100 billion barrels of oil in the vicinity of the islands of course have a huge role on this crisis, but I think the crux of the issue has, Japan and China are at a crossroads right now the same way they were 115 years ago in terms of regional power and influence and Japan seems to be relying too much on those old post-war stereotypes of China being a backwards, lesser country and China seems to be embracing the even older stereotypes of their own grandeur.

(How many Chinese or Japanese ultranationalists will leave long rants in the comments section now...)

9 October 2010

The Etymology of Kaba

Ikumi: your wish is my commend!

Kaba is the Japanese word for hippopotamus. This word probably has one of the strangest etymologies I've ever seen, so I thought I'd break that down.

The Japanese "kaba" uses the kanji 河馬, which comes from the Chinese "hema", using identical characters. The kanji in both cases seem to come from the Latin "hippopotamus", which is literally "river [河] horse [馬]", however, Japanese Wikipedia says it's also possibly a direct translation of the German word flusspferd, which is also literally "river horse", probably also coming from the Latin. Now, that Latin comes from the Greek ἱπποπόταμος, which you can almost see from the Greek characters is almost letter-for-letter the same. As you can see to your left, hippos used to live all the way down the Nile to the Mediterranean, where the ancient Greeks saw them in the mouth of the river and gave them that silly name. So, there you go! A Japanese word with an ancient Greek root.