JOK Notebook

Odd Numbers

Let's start with a quiz. Where on the human face can you find the number 8?

a. the eyes
b. the ears
c. nostrils
d. mustache

I'll block the answer with a picture of my dog Kanji.

Photo Credit: Christina Coto

Kanji is a cute little guy (if I do say so myself!), so people always ask me about him. (I'm convinced that dogs are the last hope of creating connections in an otherwise alienated society.) Yesterday, a stooped, gray-haired Asian woman with large cheeks stopped to look him over, and when he jumped up on her jeans to say hi (a bad habit that we've never broken), I thought she might be afraid. Instead she smiled with pure delight.

"What's his name?" she said with somewhat of an accent.

"Kanji," I said.

"Kanji?!" she said in disbelief, no longer smiling. Actually, she looked almost stricken. "Kanji? It's Kanji?"

"Yes," I said, wondering what the problem could be.

"My father's name is Kanji!" she finally said, laughing with incredulity.

I actually wasn't that surprised. I come into contact with a lot of Japanese people, and I figured one of them would be named Kanji eventually. But just imagine how it was for her. Decades ago, she took a big leap and crossed the ocean, forevermore becoming an outsider with an accent. She never quite fit in or felt at home. And then, of all the things to provide an instant connection to a life she left behind, it was a 25-pound mix of a beagle and miniature pinscher bearing her father's name!

I haven't yet given you the answer to the first quiz, but let me pitch you a second problem to solve! If you combine one color with one number, you get 100. Which color and number do I mean?

a. blue + 6
b. white + 1
c. red + 4
d. purple + 3

Now I'll block the answer with a preview of the latest essay, which is on 偶 (by chance; spouse; even number; idol):

That essay has a great deal to do with coincidences, which feels quite fitting. For one thing, I told you last week that I would finish up our discussion of numbers in this week's post. But after saying that, I happened to encounter so many number-related terms that I actually need an extra week to cover it all! For another thing, how odd was it that that elderly Japanese woman happened to meet Kanji right when I was about to post an essay on coincidences? (And then this morning, for the first time ever, I met a dog with my father's name!) On top of that, one of the number-related tidbits I was planning to share today has to do with elderly, gray-haired women!

But this discussion is going in all directions (which, as I mentioned last week is known as 四方山話, よもやまばなし: talk about various topics), so let me tidy up one loose end by returning to the first quiz. The question again: Where on the human face can you find the number 8?

The options again:

a. the eyes
b. the ears
c. nostrils
d. mustache

The answer: d. mustache.

The following term starts with 八, which means "8":

八の字髭 (はちのじひげ: mustache in the shape of a 八)     8 + character + mustache

If you're having trouble envisioning a 八-shaped mustache, check out cartoons of characters from Natsume Soseki's satirical novel I Am a Cat.

A short passage from there offers us 八s in spades:

simultaneously making every one of my 88,880 hairs stand up, I shook my whole body (in rage or astonishment).  

毛髪 (もうはつ: hair); 一度に (いちどに: simultaneously); たてる (立てる: to erect); 身震 (みぶるい: shaking)

The keyword means "88,880 hairs" and has an awfully long yomi:

八万八千八百八十本 (はちまんはっせんはっぴゃくはちじぽん)
     80,000 (1st 2 kanji) + 8,000 (next 2 kanji) + 800 (next 2 kanji) + 10 +
     counter for long, slender things

As the novel title suggests, a cat serves as the narrator, so he's the one with the 88,880 hairs. But why does he mention that particular number? My proofreader postulates that the cynical, personified cat is pointing out that in having 88,880 hairs, he is far superior to his master. After all, that man's most visible asset is a mustache in the shape of a 八 (his 八の字髭). In effect, the cat is saying, "Human beings are deficient because they lack the facial hair that all animals should have." And he drives this point home by showing that instead of just one 8 (八), he has 88,880 hairs.

Let's return to the second quiz. The question again: If you combine one color with one number, you get 100. Which color and number do I mean?

a. blue + 6
b. white + 1
c. red + 4
d. purple + 3

The answer: b. white + 1.

If you take 白 (white) and add 一 (1), you get 百 (100).

Knowing this, we can begin to understand a rather complicated play on words:

• 白髪 (はくはつ: white + hair) means "white hair."

• 白 (はく: white) sounds a lot like 百 (ひゃく: 100).

• 次百 (literally, "the next (is) 100") means "99."

• You can read 百 as もも, so the yomi of 次百 is ツグモモ.

• From ツグモモ came the term ツクモ.

• The word ツクモ was once the name of a plant that resembles an elderly woman's gray hair (though I can't really see the similarity).

• We also find つくも heading off the yomi of this word: 付喪神 (つくもがみ: an old folk belief that a god will dwell in something very old, whether men or trees).

• From all that we arrive at this term:

九十九髪 (つくもがみ: (1) an elderly woman's gray hair; (2) elderly woman with white hair)      99 (1st 3 kanji) + hair

This bulleted list represents a compilation of theories from at least four dictionaries, as well as two proofreaders. What a lot of work to be able to talk about an elderly woman's hair!

At any rate, it's easy to see that Japanese wordplay often involves numbers, not just words. It's also apparent that the same themes pop up again and again across millennia: aging, hair, and animals. You could call these universal human concerns, or else you could see everything as a coincidence, as I'm likely to do nowadays.

Oh, there's one more coincidence to mention! The kanji of the week, 偶, can mean "even number," and you can't talk about even numbers without exploring odd numbers:

奇数 (きすう: odd number)      odd + number

In writing essay 1185, I realized that just as “odd” can mean “strange, unusual, eccentric,” so can 奇! How did this come to be? Did the Japanese borrow from the West in having 奇 mean both “eccentric” and “odd number”?

No, according to Henshall’s etymology for 奇, this character represents “person standing on one leg,” which is a “strange” thing to do. This means that the West and the Chinese independently decided to have a single way of representing both “eccentric” and “number not divisible by 2”! With “odd” and 奇, then we have a staggeringly large coincidence!

Have a great weekend!



A little more information has come in about 九十九髪. This term goes back so far as to have been in the title of a 13th-century story, 六十三章: 九十九髪, which appeared in the short-story collection「伊勢物語 (いせものがたり)」, or The Tales of Ise. A man in that story composes the following impromptu waka, a type of poem (because in those days, it was customary for sophisticates to improvise waka during conversations!):

There seems to be a woman (with gray hair) who is 99 years old and is in love with me; I see her in my imagination.

百年 (ももとせ: 100 years); 一年 (ひととせ: 1 year); たらぬ (not to reach (a number)); 我 (われ: I); 恋ふ (こふ: to be in love with someone); らし (seems); 面影 (おもかげ: imagination); 見ゆ (みゆ: archaic way of saying "to be seen")

If the readings and definitions of some of these terms look odd, that's because they are from archaic Japanese. For instance:

• The archaic 足らぬ, corresponding to 足りない in Modern Japanese, is the negative form of the archaic verb 足る (たる: to reach (a number); be enough), which corresponds to 足りる (たりる) today. The term 一年たらぬ means "to be 1 year short (of being 100)," or 100 minus 1, which is 99.

• The word 恋ふ is read as こふ in archaic Japanese and as こう in Modern Japanese.


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