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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
At the end of every year the Japanese people choose a kanji character that represents the sentiment of their society during the year that is coming to an end. The most voted character this year has been 金 (kin, きん) which means “gold”. It has been chosen because 2012 has been an olympic year, the year of a total solar eclipse and also in honour of Shinya Yamanaka, which was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
A monk in Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto writes every year the kanji chosen as kanji of the year:
Every year the Japanese people choose one kanji character that represents the society’s sentiment regarding the year that is coming to an end. The most voted character this year has been 絆 (kizuna, きずな), which means “bonds”, normally used when talking about the bonds and collaboration among people, friends, family… In this case it has been chosen to represent how united the Japanese people and the whole world have been when facing what happened 9 months ago in Tohoku.
Once the kanji of the year is chosen it is publicly announced by writing it in Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto.
A monk writing 絆 this morning
Japanese language is written using three alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. However since Japan began being “connected” to the Western world there have been several attempts to write the Japanese language using our alphabet. The basic idea of all these attempts consists on emulating the pronunciation of Japanese characters the best possible way using the Latin alphabet. Even though none of the attempts has been perfect the most used method nowadays is the Hepburn romanization.
I have never taken really seriously to learn perfectly the rules to write Japanese with our alphabet because I find it quite absurd; it’s like if I would try to write English with Japanese characters. However it is true that for some people it’s quite useful to start learning the language; although I don’t recommend it. It is hard, but it is better to start learning Japanese directly with hiragana.
Notice for example this sign where the word 井の頭 is written as inoKashira and then as inoGashira. To say the truth, the word is quite complicated, technically it would be written inoKashira, but when pronouncing it in Japanese quickly it sounds more like what would be written inoGashira. It’s not something very relevant but it’s funny to see the word written in different ways in the same sign!
Japanglish is the kind of humorous English language usually seen around Japan characterized by a poor translation from Japanese to English. The results of those literal translations can be very funny. Japanglish is also known as Engrish.
Miguel Michán has sent me this great Japanglish example.
Can somebody decipher this Japanglish text?
Other Japanglish posts:
If you are not studying Japanese you will probably not be interested in reading this article.
It’s been a long time since I don’t write about the Japanese language. After many years studying the language I still learn new things every day. The other day I was curious to know more about the “々” character, it is a character that is usually learned at the beginning when learning Japanese, during the first lessons of the language; the character is used as a “repeater”.
For example, if you have a “色” character that is pronounced “iro” and you want to write the word “iro iro” that means “various”, instead of writing twice the character 色色 (iroiro) that looks a little ugly and difficult to read, what it’s done is to use the repetition character: “色々”(iroiro).
What I hadn’t asked myself up until now was the real “meaning” of this repetition character. I looked it up in a kanji dictionary to know more about its original meaning but it turns out that it’s not on the dictionary! Investigating more about it, it seems like it’s not considered a character of any of the three different Japanese alphabets and its considered a punctuation character and that’s why it’s not on dictionaries.
However, in the past, there was a kanji character that was used as a repeater, the character “同” was used, which literally means “the same”; it makes sense to use it as a repetition character! But the people, as they wrote the character very fast and carelessly, started to deform it and use less strokes to write it and thus the character became “仝”, and eventually it reached the current “々”, which is not a kanji anymore.
Evolution of the punctuation character “々” from the kanji “同”
Note to beginners: when using the repetition character “々”, sometimes it causes rendaku (softening of the pronunciation of a consonant to facilitate the pronunciation of a word when speaking). For example 時々 is not “tokitoki” (try to pronounce it loud, it’s a little bit tiring, isn’t it?). There is rendaku and the second “t” becomes “d” yielding “tokidoki” (ときどき) which is much more “relaxed” than to pronounce “tokitoki”.
The Japanese language has three different alphabets: hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana and katakana represent syllables and have a fixed number of characters (46 each, 92 in total). Kanji characters are much more complex; in theory there are more than 50,000 kanji characters. The good news is that “officially” only 1,945 of them can be used. These 1,945 kanji form a list known as jōyō kanji “常用漢字”, that supposedly every Japanese person has to known to be able to read without problems. These are the 1,945 kanji characters of the jōyō kanji list in a 10 minute video:
The “bad” news this week for Japanese learners is that after 29 years without changes the government has decided to add 196 new kanjis to the list. They have also removed 5 kanjis from the list, so the list from now on will have 2,136 official kanji characters. So, does this mean that now it is more difficult to learn Japanese? I don’t think so; it’s basically the same because the characters that have been added were being used in practice by almost everybody even if they were not on the list. I suppose that that is the reason they have decided to expand the list, the new kanji are really well-known and it is absurd not to consider them “official”.
This is the complete list of all the 196 characters added and the 5 characters removed. There are also some extra notes about new readings and extra 熟語 (jukugo).
Here I select some of the kanji that caught my attention because I thought they were already official but it turns out they weren’t. If you have studied Japanese for three or four years it’s almost sure you already know almost all of them; the ass character was no official!!:
Lately I have been able to take quite a few new pictures of Japanglish (broken English usually seen in Japan). The Japanglish example on the first photo is a classic; in a lot of restaurants they misspell hamburger, most of the time as “hamburg” (probably because they confuse it with the German city), another way is “humburg” (in the picture) and then there are other misspelling like “humburger”, “hanberg”, “hanbur”, etc.
Other Japanglish posts: