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.
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: