JOK Notebook


What a week! Monday, March 31, brought thunder so loud that it sounded as if a bomb had detonated. (The force of the noise blew out windows and set off car alarms.) The accompanying lightning was so powerful that it exploded a few massive redwood trees around the area, sending wood fragments flying for blocks. Near my office, one such explosion damaged 10 houses and various cars. March is supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb, but Mother Nature apparently didn't get that memo. Anyway, I spent much of Monday afternoon trying to soothe a terrified beagle mix who looked unrecognizable with his flattened ears and enormous eyes, every cell in his body trembling. (I finally decided to vacuum because I really needed to, and I figured it would be better for him to obsess about the dreaded vacuum cleaner than the storm.) 

All the while, I felt as if I were giving birth to an elephant. That day I started writing a massive essay on 舞 (dance). My "labor" lasted four days (instead of the usual one or two), resulting in a 52-page essay in Microsoft Word—the longest ever for Joy o' Kanji! I will need to make some cuts, but how can I when that kanji dances into so many fascinating words and contexts? (And as you may have noticed, deleting is not my strong point!) I've just posted essay 1706 on 髪 (hair on the head), which weighs in at 25 pages, all of them filled with material that I found utterly compelling. This means back-to-back elephant births for me. This is one tired elephant mama! Good thing I have a vacation next week.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Elephant Village in Thailand.

Photo Credit: Eve Kushner

Elephant Village in Thailand.

I'll share some tidbits that I gathered up in my trunk along the way.

This first comes from essay 1167 on 恐 (fear; dread; awe; overwhelmed (e.g., with gratitude); probably), which I posted last week:

早鐘を打つ (はやがねをうつ: to (have one’s heart) race)
     alarm bell (1st 2 kanji) + to hit

Literally, this means "to hit the alarm bell," referring to a bell that sounds in an emergency. How appropriate this term was on Monday as I held my dog close to my chest, our hearts racing in unison. 

Moving on to happier weather events, my language partner Kensuke-san told me about the cherry blossoms that are currently dazzling Japan. He said the TV newscasters even report about the following:

桜前線 (さくらぜんせん)     cherry + weather front (last 2 kanji)

He wrote the word for me, and from the kanji I imagined an advancing line (線) of blossoms, marching through Japan from south to north like an invading army. Then it dawned on me that there might actually be a connection. Sure enough, Breen defines the term this way:

桜前線 (さくらぜんせん: cherry blossom front)     cherry + weather front (last 2 kanji)

And 前線 can refer to either the weather or the military:

前線  (ぜんせん: (1) (weather) front; (2) (military) front line)     front + line

How about that?! Well, as invading armies go, one consisting of cherry blossoms isn't so bad. At least the "carnage" will be soft and pretty.

"Spring rain at the Sumida River" by Hiroaki Takahashi (18711945).

Kensuke-san also told me about another news story, one in which a promising biologist became a media darling until it looked as though her research might have some holes in it. At that point the Japanese turned on her. Concerned about the meanspiritedness behind this shift, Kensuke-san used this phrase:

手の平を返す (てのひらをかえす: to change one's attitude quickly)
     hand + palm + to turn upside down

This phrase literally means "to flip over one’s hand." That is, it took as long for people to turn on this woman as it would to turn over their hands.

Well, let's flip the "hand" of this conversation back to a more encouraging word:

脱サラ (だつサラ: setting oneself free from the life of a white-collar worker or "salaryman")  

The first part, 脱, means "escape," and サラ is short for サラリーマン, "salaryman." I bet the term 脱サラ was once much longer, turning into shorter and shorter bits until the compressed 脱サラ said it all. Everyone had been dreaming and talking about this freedom for quite awhile, so the word needed no elaboration.

This week also brought an insight about death. I'm talking about なくなる, which you can write in two ways:

無くなる (なくなる: to vanish)
亡くなる (なくなる: to die)

I realize now that people vanish when they die. I mean, I already knew that, of course! But I don't think I had ever grasped how connected these concepts must be in the Japanese mind, thanks to these homophones.

In musing about the top of 無 (the part minus the 灬), Henshall says, "It is not clear why such a complex character should have been chosen (to express 'not, cease to be')." When I read this, I laughed out loud! Is it ever clear why the ancient Chinese made these symbols so complex?!

"Cherry Blossom in Full Bloom in the Night at Mukojima" by Kiyochika Kobayashi (1847–1915).

My focus on 舞 led me into the world of kabuki (歌舞伎, かぶき), and for a brief moment the essay included this sentence:

I prefer Noh to kabuki because the former seems more elegant than the latter.

私 (わたし: I); 能楽 (のうがく: Noh play); 好き (すき: liking); 前者 (ぜんしゃ: the former); 後者 (こうしゃ: the latter); 優雅 (ゆうが: elegance); 思える (おもえる: to seem) 

This is pretty much the only content I have been disciplined enough to cut so far! Still, I wanted to share the sentence with you because I found two terms intriguing:

前者 (ぜんしゃ: the former)
後者 (こうしゃ: the latter)          

Why do they involve 者 (person)? Ah, Kanjigen shows that  has a kun-yomi of こと (thing). Therefore, we can interpret 前者 and 後者 as "former thing" and "latter thing," respectively. 

So as not to develop a case of elephantiasis with today's post, I'll stop here. But first I'll give you a sneak preview of my first-born elephant, essay 1706:

Have a great two weeks! 


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