JOK Notebook

Moon River

A Japanophile acquaintance, David, stopped by my office last week, hoping to see the "nerve center" of Joy o' Kanji, as he put it! He brought me three kanji books, as well as Japanese desserts associated with a moon-viewing (月見, つきみ) festival.

Image Credit: N yotarou

Harvest moon–viewing ceremony (観月祭, かんげつさい) at Magatama Pond in a garden attached to a shrine (豊受大神宮, とようけだいじんぐう) in Ise City, Mie Prefecture.

With the moon on his mind, he jotted down a poem that our mutual friend Noriji Otani had taught him many moons ago:

月月に月見る月は多けれど
月見る月はこの月の月

Ah, a veritable river of moons streams through that poem! But what's going on here? Fortunately, David supplied the yomi:

つきづきに    つきみるつきは    おおけれど
つきみるつきは   このつきのつき

Clever! Not only does 月 repeat but the poet also made it so that the yomi is always つき. That seems hard to do!

Along with the yomi, David provided this translation:

There are many months for viewing the moon, but the month for viewing the moon is the moon-viewing month.

On one website, I found confirmation of all this, as well as the following interpretation of what 月 means each time:

月月に月見る月は多けれど
月見る月はこの月の月

In 月月: months
In 月見る: moon
In 月は: month
In 月見る: moon
In 月は: month
In この月: month
In 月: moon

This made perfect sense to me! I was surprised, therefore, that my proofreader took a different slant on the matter. He said he preferred to translate the last two list items the other way around. This, then, would be the overall translation:

Of all the months, there are many months for viewing the moon, but the (best) month for viewing the moon is the month with this (very) moon.

Wow, it does work if you reverse the meaning of the last two 月s!

Photo Credit: Hahn Family Wines

Wine region on the central coast of California, near Soledad.

Referring to this as a classic poem, he labeled it a tanka because it contains 31 syllables. To be precise, it's a 狂歌 (きょうか: comic tanka). He noted that the poem includes eight instances of 月 and found a site that deemed this number significant. As the site explains, the ideal moon-viewing month is the eighth month in the traditional Japanese lunar calendar. The full moon occurs on the 15th day of that lunar month, a day that typically falls in September or October if we shift over to the more familiar solar calendar. The moon to be admired at that time is actually the harvest moon.

Photo Credit: Roadcrusher

One thing still bothered me. When 月 means "month," I almost always see it with the yomi of ゲツ or ガツ. When should we associate つき with the monthly 月? I asked my proofreader, and he provided a few examples:

大の月 (だいのつき: long month (i.e., with 31 days))
小の月 (しょうのつき: short month (i.e., with fewer than 31 days))

Interesting! One day makes the difference between months that are long and short (or big and little, going with the meaning of the initial kanji).

He said you can't read those 月s as ゲツ because that yomi hardly ever stands alone.

Another example is a bit archaic, he says, but here it is anyway:

月のもの (つきのもの: menstruation)

This literally translates as "the thing of the month," which sounds to me like "the special of the day," though not nearly as appealing!

Then, too, there's the pattern that starts with these two words:  

ひと月 (ひとつき: 1 month)
ふた月 (ふたつき: 2 months)
etc.

Although one could write these terms as 一月, 二月, etc., people avoid doing so because readers would interpret them as いちがつ (January), にがつ (February), and so on.

My proofreader offered this generalization (one that's very loose and has many exceptions): 

• つき prevails when people refer to a particular month.
• げつ prevails when people refer to a period of time.

An example of each should make the difference clearer:

一番寒い (いちばんさむいつき)

一番寒い一ヶ月 (いちばんさむいいっかげつ)

The first refers to a specific month that's the coldest of the year. It could be December or February, but in any case this phrase makes us think of a particular page on a 12-month calendar. By contrast, 一番寒い一ヶ月 represents the coldest 31-day span (e.g., January 15 through February 14).

Hard to remember? Maybe. But just think of English; "moon" and "month" are so closely related that people once said things like "Many moons ago ...." Same goes for つき. It conjures up images of moons, months, and a poem that sounds like a tongue twister but may better qualify as a brain twister!

Photo Credit: Schyler

There's a new essay out this week—essay 1156 on 虚 (void, vacant; false, falsehood; futile). To some extent it focuses on spaces that are the inverse of the full moon, such as the crater of a volcano. A sneak preview:

Have a great weekend!

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