JOK Notebook

Fish Tales

I recently came across a Japanese book on AI, and because I know that Jonathan Kirk of Kanshudo has a deep passion for the subject, I sent him the Amazon Japan link. He wrote back with great excitement about an idiom in the first comment and helpfully provided information about it from his site:

to see the light; be awakened to the truth; have the scales fall from one's eyes

目 (め: eye); 落ちる (おちる: to fall)

I was puzzled by the ウロコ, and when I looked into it further, I found that it corresponded to the non-Joyo 鱗, which means "(fish) scale" in this context. Oh! I've heard "the scales fall from one's eyes" but never imagined a connection to fish! As I then discovered, the English saying comes from the Bible story in which something like fish scales fall from a man's eyes, enabling him to see again. The idiom probably entered Japanese when someone translated the Bible into that language.

What perfect timing to encounter this fishy idiom now, when I've just come across a fun German saying on a Web page that provides this explanation:

The idiom: Tomaten auf den Augen haben.
Literal translation: “You have tomatoes on your eyes.”
What it means: “You are not seeing what everyone else can see.”

Would you rather have a tomato or a fish scale obscuring your vision? Not an easy choice!

Another coincidence involves the closure of Tsukiji, the famous fish market in Tokyo. As I read a well-illustrated article about it, my eye repeatedly flitted away from images of dead fish and went instead to the numerous kanji signs. I don't have the rights to the photos in that article, so I'll just tell you about the kanji that intrigued me. 

The first term, 水産, seemed to be saying that fish are manufactured (産) in water (水)! Yes, they are! But the compound has this meaning:

水産 (すいさん: aquatic products; fisheries)

And in this case, the 水産 is part of a fish store name.

A yellow sign on the ceiling has this puzzler:

Beware of Exposed Pipes on Ceiling

上部 (じょうぶ: upper part); 配管
(はいかん: pipes); 危険 (きけん: danger)

The 上部 means “upper part,” which contextually means “overhead" or "on the ceiling." The sign is probably telling people not to collide with the pipes, as some hang low.

Then there's this:

Let's treasure fish

魚 (さかな: fish); 大切にする (たいせつにする: 
to treasure, set a high value on)

Are they talking about monetary value? The value of fish in people's hearts and minds? According to my proofreader, the slogan is too general for us to know but generally says, "Let’s not waste fish."

The next part of that sign is as follows:

Omono Gyokai (an association of tuna brokers)

大物 (おおもの: big fish); 業会 (ぎょうかい: business organization)

卸五社 (おろしごしゃ: five distributors who belong to 大物業界)

In the first line, the 業会 is most likely a play on 業界 (ぎょうかい: business world; industry). 

As for the 卸五社, I nearly mixed up 卸 with the honorific prefix 御-, but they're quite different in meaning. The prefix conveys respect, as in 御顔 (おかお: your honorable face), to pick a random example. By contrast, 卸 means "wholesale"!

I spotted the next bit written faintly in vertical kanji, so the biggest challenge was making out the strokes clearly enough to decipher this:

謹賀新年 (きんがしんねん: Happy New Year)

The other obstacle was not expecting to see that message hanging in Tsukiji!

Then there was a sign with an enormous tuna and flamboyantly large writing:

極上 (ごくじょう: first rate, best quality)
本まぐろ (ほんまぐろ: authentic tuna)
築地すし一番 (つきじすしいちばん: lit. "best sushi in Tsukiji," the name of a sushi restaurant chain)
24時間営業 (24じかんえいぎょう: open 24 hours a day)

The very last bit is すぐヨコ, where ヨコ corresponds to 横 (side). As すぐ means "immediately" or "directly," すぐヨコ probably means “The restaurant or entrance or parking lot is just next to this sign."

I also found a huge sign saying 大雅 (だいが). Breen defines that word (with the yomi たいが) as a song, but that makes no sense here. Instead, the Tsukiji version of 大雅 is the name of a fish store specializing in tuna. When you go to that store's website, you'll see ... enormous dead fish. Does that image whet people's appetites?

Another fish store name starts with a kanji that I found very hard to identify:

篠一 (しのいち: name of a fish store)

The first kanji is non-Joyo and means "bamboo grass."

Then we come to a sign written in cheerful and very clear kanji:

海鮮丼 (かいせんどんぶり: rice bowl topped with seafood)
虎杖 (いたどり: Japanese knotweed)

The 虎杖 here is part of the name 虎杖マーケット (Itadori Market), so the plant definition doesn't apply. Nor does it matter that the name contains a tiger (虎)! That kanji precedes the non-Joyo 杖 (cane, walking stick).

The last characters that caught my attention were almost impossible to read, as they were in seal script on the back of a man's green happi (法被, はっぴ) coat. You can see the kanji in the logo at the top of one website. They correspond to 神田囃子 (かんだばやし) in the script we all know and love. The non-Joyo 囃 can mean "to beat time," "to jeer," or "to applaud"! That's quite a range! Be careful how you use that kanji!

I hope you applaud, rather than jeer, when you read the new essay. Here's a sneak preview:

Catch you back here next time! 


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