JOK Notebook

From Professionals to Prisoners

A Japanese man asked me for the best English translation of 納棺師 (のうかんし), which some dictionaries define as "encoffiner." That answer is far from satisfying, and it certainly isn't clear to most of us. The term 納棺師 refers to someone who prepares a corpse for cremation, as depicted in the film 「おくりびと」 (Departures). Because this profession doesn't exist in English-speaking cultures, it's very difficult to translate the word concisely, as I explained to him.

Around the time we discussed all this, I saw Like Someone in Love (ライク・サムワン・イン・ラブ), a Japanese-language movie directed by Abbas Kiarostami (who is from Iran and knows no Japanese!). A character used the following word:

漁師 (りょうし: fisherman)

When I heard りょうし, I imagined that the -し corresponded to 士, as in 弁護士 (べんごし: lawyer). Clearly I was wrong. It's -師, just as it was in 納棺師.

Soon I found myself wondering about these -し profession suffixes. Is there any way to know whether one is hearing -士 or -師? How do they differ?

I consulted Building Word Power in Japanese: Using Kanji Prefixes and Suffixes. On pages 108–111, author Timothy Vance defines -師 and -士 exactly the same way—namely, as "practitioner" or simply "-er."

Here's what he says about 士: "A word formed with -shi denotes a person who does a job that requires special knowledge or skill. In some cases, a word with -shi implies a license of some kind." He gives this example:

建築士 (けんちくし: licensed architect)

After mentioning job suffixes such as -員 (-いん), -工 (-こう), -人 (-にん), -者 (-しゃ), and -手 (-しゅ), as well as -師, he differentiates -士 words by calling them "terms of respect." In fact, to convey an honorific nuance, people sometimes swap out one of the suffixes I just mentioned for -士. Some examples:

運転手 (うんてんしゅ: driver) —> 運転士 (うんてんし: driver)

調理人 (ちょうりにん: cook) —> 調理師 (ちょうりし: cook)

He points out that -士 words can reflect that people hold academic degrees.

Moving to -師, this suffix indicates that jobs or activities require special knowledge or skills, says Vance. In that sense, -師 overlaps with -士, but -師 lacks any kind of honorific nuance. "In fact," he says, many -師 words "denote a person whose activities are undesirable or illegal." He cites this example:

詐欺師 (さぎし: swindler)

With no apparent irony, he immediately says that -師 also appears in titles of religious leaders, both inside and outside of Japan. I won't even touch that!

To bring these distinctions to life, I investigated 士 and its supposed terms of respect:

• 士 (シ: military man, warrior, soldier, officer; samurai; gentleman; scholar; profession suffix)

兵士 (へいし: soldier)
騎士 (きし: knight)
武士 (ぶし: samurai; warrior)
博士 (はくし: doctor, Ph.D.)
弁護士 (べんごし: lawyer)
士農工商 (しのうこうしょう: warriors, farmers, artisans, and tradesmen), the 4 classes of Tokugawa Japan

I considered that perhaps -士 signified an aristocrat, so I consulted Henshall's etymology to see if it said anything about class differences. No; 士 is the pictograph of an erect penis! Henshall comments that the warrior may have been seen as the "epitome of masculinity." Meanwhile, "scholar" is an associated meaning.

So being in this -士 group is not an issue of class but rather a matter of machismo.

How about -師? Here's what I found:

• 師 (シ: master, teacher, instructor; member of a profession; performer of an action)

医師 (いし: doctor)
技師 (ぎし: engineer, technician)
牧師 (ぼくし: pastor, minister, priest)
絵師 (えし: painter, artist)
美容師 (びようし: hair stylist)

Hmm, being a doctor is prestigious, as is being a priest. Suddenly, I wasn't too sure of the clean lines Vance drew. Of course, he did mention an overlap in meanings.

I hoped that Henshall could illuminate the matter. According to him, 師 means "prominent hill." Hills were often associated with troop encampments, he says, noting that that's how 師 acquired its present meaning of "army" (a definition I didn't include above because I don't see that it's actually a core meaning). He says that the definition of "teacher" has resulted from confusion with the similar-looking 帥 (commander, leader).

This didn't help in the least. Maybe the etymology of 帥 is irrelevant to its function as a profession suffix.

While we're considering the meanings of components, though, I'd like to note that 納棺師 contains a great repetition of the 官 shape. The part under 宀 means "buttocks," so we have double the buttocks! Actually, this is appropriate because 棺 means "coffin," and Henshall reminds us that the "buttocks" component in 棺 sometimes means "corpse." It's also apt that 納棺師 abounds in buttocks because emptying the anus is one of the more memorable parts of that job, as I remember from おくりびと.

In light of this example, I agree with Vance that there's absolutely no honorific nuance to -師!

Despite the plethora of profession suffixes in Japanese, a word for a profession may have no suffix at all. I encountered that phenomenon in essay 1470 on 井 (well) with this example:

井戸掘り (いどほり: well digging; well digger)     well (1st 2 kanji) + digging

I asked my proofreader, "Can the second definition be right??? It seems that one would need to add 者 or something...."

He responded, "'Well digger' is correct. We never say 井戸掘り者." He then supplied a similar example (though it drifts from the idea of a profession):

大酒飲み (おおざけのみ: heavy drinker)

"We never say 大酒飲み者," he noted, providing this sample sentence:

He drinks like a fish.

彼 (かれ: he)

As long as we're talking about the -者 suffix, let me share a cool word I've discovered:

受刑者 (じゅけいしゃ: prisoner; convict)     punishment (1st 2 kanji) + person

A prisoner is a person who received a punishment! Fun, isn't it?! Well, not for the prisoner, of course....

Here's a preview of the new essay on wells:

I'm taking a spring break of sorts, so I'll see you back here in two weeks! 


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