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.


ikumi said...

It is really weird that the custom of eating rabbits really don't exist anymore in Japan. I don't know when people stopped eating them. :( I have never had one before.

Michael said...

That is weird, but that happened in Canada/"The West" too. I think something about being cute.

I forget if I've ever had rabbit or not though. You know-- German restaurants. ;)

Bobby Judo said...

Interesting. When the Pure Land Buddhist made that comment about contempt, I wonder how he meant it?

Brett and I went on a five day zazen retreat at a monastery in Oita a few years back, and one of the things we talked about was vegetarianism. The head priest had originally joined the monastery thinking that it would be a big vegetarian festival, but the head priest at the time explained that while they certainly didn't go out of their way to eat meat, if a parishioner stopped by with a bucket of KFC the monks would gratefully itadaku.

To me, it seems like a lot of the tenets that buddhism is famous for (non-violence, vegetarianism, holistic lifestyle, etc) is a product of modern buddhism, specifically the teachings of the current Dhalai Lama. The fundamental nature of buddhism, I think, has more to do with seeing and accepting things, right now, as they are, and realizing the interconnectedness of the universe. I'm not sure if that necessarily means you can't eat meat, or take up arms to defend yourself.

Michael said...

Actually, one of the weirdest "Japan" moments I ever had was in a Buddhist temple in Imari where our monk gave us all beef jerky to eat after meditating.

But, yeah, I think Buddhism in the west has been through a lot of cultural filters, and fits in well with a lot of orientalist stereotypes. On the other hand, from the little tiny bit that I've read, Shakyamuni apparently had pretty specific instructions on on things like diet, drugs and alcohol or sexual misconduct that monks in Asia and the West seem to pick and choose from at their convenience. Like the local Tibetan sect where I am now, the founder was an alcoholic who slept with his students. :|