Neuromancer – Japanese Vocabulary

During the 80s the United States started to see that unavoidably Japan would soon become the largest economy in the world. Japan was seen in the 60s and 70s as a country that was only able to produce cheap imitation gadgets but in the 80s Japan had turned into a country able to produce cutting edge technology of the highest quality. The neon lights and alleys of Japanese cities became the futuristic image of science fiction novels and films produced in the 80s and 90s.

Neuromancer

Neuromancer

Part of the action in the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, published in 1984 (just 2 years after the release of Blade Runner), is set in a dystopian Japan where technology has taken over the control of society.

Neuromancer

Neuromancer is a quite dense read and has a lot of made up vocabulary, something that is usual in science fiction novels. For example, “cyberspace” was a word coined by William Gibson that he first introduced in his novel Burning Chrome and he also used in Neuromancer. It would eventually become a well-known word nowadays. Cyberspace is a word easy to understand but when I first read the novel before coming to Japan I found paragraphs like this, full of terms with a Japanese origin:

He stepped out of the way to let a dark-suited sarariman, by spotting the Mitsubishi-Genentech logo tattooed across the back of the man’s right hand … The sarariman had been Japanese, but the Ninsei crowd was a gaijin crowd.

When you are not familiar with these jargon it is easy to miss some nuances and details of the plot, mostly in the first chapters of the book. I have compiled some of the Japanese terms that appear in the novel:

Chiba City/Ninsei: Chiba is a prefecture and a city located to the east of Tokyo. It is mostly known as the site of Narita airport and a couple of Disney amusement parks. Case, the main character in Neoromancer, lives in Chiba city in the beginnning of the novel and usually hangs around “Night City”, an area between Chiba and Tokyo that is full of criminals and drug addicts. According to the imagination of Gibson, in the Chiba of the future you can find arcology, underground markets for body parts (like in Alita) and hospitals specialized in neurosurgery.

The Japanese had already forgotten more neurosurgery than the Chinese had ever known. The black clinics of Chiba were the cutting edge, whole bodies of technique supplanted monthly…

Chatsubo (茶壷): name of the bar that Case frequents. Chatsubo 茶壷 in Japanese is the name of a ceramic container used to store matcha tea leaves before grinding them.

Neuromancer

The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese.

Zaibatsu: a group of large Japanese corporations usually controlled by the members of the same family. The term “zaibatsu” was mostly used before the Second World War. After the war most of the Japanese economy had to be rebuilt from scratch and “keiretsus” appeared. “Keiretsus” are similar to “zaibatsus” but are not centralized and controlled by a single family. William Gibson uses the term “zaibatsu” to express the large power of the monopolies that Japanese multinationals have in the future he imagines.

Kirin: a Japanese beer brand.

Neuromancer

Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin.

Fuji electric Company: a Japanese company founded in 1923 as a spin-off of the Furukawa zaibatsu.

Tokyo for the glare of the television sky, not even the towering hologram logo of the Fuji Electric Company, and the Tokyo Bay

Shinjuku: one of the main neighborhoods in Tokyo. It has a secondary role in Neuromancer.

Neuromancer

He punched a Tokyo number in Shinjuku. A woman answered, something in Japanese.

Ono-Sendai: in the novel it is a Japanese corporation that manufactures cyberdecks. In Japanese “Ono” means axe, and Sendai is the name of a prefecture in the northeast coast of Japan.

Pachinko パチンコ: a kind of Japanese arcade game.

Yakitori 焼き鳥: skewers.

Neuromancer

He bought yakitori on skewers and two tall waxy cartons of beer. Glancing up at the holograms,..

Sarariman サラリーマン: businessman or businesswoman employed by a corporation.

Neuromancer

The Finn, in a new Shinjuku suit, sarariman black, was waiting sourly

Mitsubishi-Genentech: William Gibson imagines a future in which the multinational Mitsubishi has taken over the American company Genentech.

Gaijin 外人: means “foreigner”. It literally means something like “person from outside”.

Yakuza ヤクザ: the largest Japanese crime organization. The Japanese mafia.

You’re Yak, aren’t you, Lupus? Gaijin soldierman for the Yakuza.

Bosozoku 暴走族: Japanese urban tribe associated with customized motorbikes.

Shuriken 手裏剣: sharp metal stars used by ninjas in Japan. Case, the main character in the novel, is fascinated by shuriken.

Case pulled the shirt over his head. He saw the shuriken on the bed, lifeless metal, his star.

Manriki o Kusari-fundo 鎖分銅: a metal chain used in feudal Japan as a combat weapon.

Street Samurai 侍: the samurai were the soldiers in medieval Japan. They usually worked for a daimyo (feudal lord). The samurai that were left without a daimyo became “ronin”. William Gibson uses the term “Street Samurai” to refer to mercenary criminals with improved/upgraded bodies.

Ninja 忍者: mercenaries in medieval Japan specialized in espionage, sabotage and murder.

Neuromancer

The ninja produced a credit chip and keyed Smith that amount out of a numbered Swiss account.

Hosaka: a Japanese last name. In the novel it is one of the most well-known computer manufacturers.

Your boss wiped the bank on that other Hosaka, and damn near took ours with it. But your pal Wintermute put me on to something.

JAL: Japan Air Lines, a Japanese airline. In the novel the main characters travel from Paris to Freeside in a shuttle operated by JAL.

Koto 琴: a Japanese string musical instrument.

Neuromancer

He listened to the piped koto music and waited.

Sanpaku 三白: it literally means three 三 whites 白. It is used to describe the eyes positioned in such a way that the iris does not touch the bottom eyelid, while the bottom of the white part of the eye (sclera) is visible.

Neuromancer

Sure. A millimeter of white showed beneath each of her pupils. Sanpaku. You watch your back, man.

Origami 折り紙: it literally means “to fold paper” (折り: fold, 紙: paper) in Japanese. Origami cranes are considered a symbol of peace associated with antinuclear campaigns in Japan. A coincidence with Blade Runner?

Neuromancer

Case stooped and picked it up. An origami crane.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Other science fiction books:

South of the Border, West of the Sun

Not long ago I re-read the novel South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami and I realized that I still hadn’t written about this fabulous love story in this blog.

Sometimes Japanese literary critics criticize Haruki Murakami for being a Japanese author that “is barely Japanese” and for being too influenced by Western culture. If you could measure the “japanicity” of the novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun by Murakami would be his most “Japanese” novel, which deals with topics such as nostalgia “natsukashisa 懐かしさ” and the impermanence of time.

The two main characters, despite being adults, behave like teenagers by avoiding their responsibilities as members of society and, in the case of Hajime, by eluding his family.

These are some paragraphs that I took from the novel that caught my attention (no spoilers):

“But you don’t know how empty it feels not to be able to create anything.”
“I’m sure you’ve created more things than you realize.”
“What sort of things?”
“Things you can’t see,” I replied. I examined my hands, resting on my knees.
She held her glass and looked at me for a long while. “You mean like feelings?”
“Yes, ” I said. “Everything disappears some day. Like this bar – it won’t go for ever. People’s tastes change, and a minor fluctuation in the economy is all it would take for this to go under. I’ve seen it happen; it doesn’t take much. Things that have form will all disappear. But certain feelings stay with us for ever.

“Our world’s exactly the same. Rain falls and the flowers bloom. No rain, they wither up. Bugs are eaten by lizards, lizards are eaten by birds. But in the end every one of them dies. They die and dry up. One generation dies, and the next one takes over. That’s how it goes. Lots of different ways to live. And lots of different ways to die. But in the end that doesn’t make a bit of difference. All that remains is a desert.”

“I pay him a lot of money. Which is a secret as far as the other employees are concerned. The reason for the high salary is his talent for mixing great drinks. Most people don’t realize it, but good cocktails demand talent. Anyone can make passable drinks with little effort. Train them for a few months and they can make a standard-issue mixed drink – the kind most bars serve. But if you want to take it to the next level, you’ve got to have a special flair. Like playing the piano, painting, running the hundred-metre sprint. … It’s like art. There’s a line only certain people can cross. So once you find someone with talent, you’d best take good care of them and never let them go. Not to mention paying them well.”

“Everyone just keeps on disappearing. Some things just vanish, as if they were cut away. Others fade slowly into the mist. And all that remains is a desert.”

“The sad truth is that some things can’t go backwards. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back to the way they were. If even one little things goes awry, then that’s how it will stay for ever”

“I don’t know… maybe thinking about ways to spend money is best, after all,” I said. I let go of her hand and felt that I was about to drift away somewhere. “When you’re always scheming about ways to make money; it’s like a part of you is lost.”

Murakami

Other posts about Haruki Murakami:

Edogawa Rampo Coffee Shop

Last month we were walking around Sendagi and Nippori and we ended up in a coffee shop where the writer Edogawa Rampo used to go.

We went into the coffee shop and a woman served us a bad and expensive coffee. But I found that the decoration, which reminded me of the mysterious narrative of Edogawa Rampo, made it worth it.

Edogawa Rampo coffee shop

Edogawa Rampo coffee shop

Edogawa Rampo

Edogawa Rampo

Edogawa Rampo

Edogawa Rampo

Edogawa Rampo

Edogawa Rampo

If you have never read any work by Edogawa Rampo I recommend you this book that compiles some of his best mystery short stories. In addition, you can read online in this link “Murder on Dogenzaka”, one of my favorite Edogawa short stories along with “The Human Chair” (人間椅子), in which the story revolves around a man that decides to live inside the sofa of a hotel lobby…

Map that shows how to get to the coffee shope