JOK Notebook

Of Tide and Time

There are times when all roads seem to lead, not to Rome, but rather to the same kanji. This week that kanji was 潮 (941: tide). 

How appropriate that as the whole world seems to be flailing around in the waves caused by Trump's election, a kanji meaning "tide" should keep rolling onto my own personal shore! That's reassuring, in a way. The ocean reminds us that even as waves are in constant flux, there's a pattern to the changes, a soothing repetition, a way to absorb and dissipate the massive energy of every breaker. It all evens out into foam. And as the ocean "breathes" with its in-and-out motions, so perhaps can we. 

I first came across 潮 because Ulrike plans to write a mnemonic for it, so I needed to come up with the best definition. I surveyed words in which  appears and puzzled over this one:

血潮 (ちしお: (1) blood spilled from the body; (2) blood circulating within the body (often as a metaphor for strong emotion or hot-bloodedness))     blood + tide

Actually, Halpern defines this term only as "blood," and as I saw his listing first, I was particularly confused. What role could 潮 play in a term for "blood"? As my proofreader explains, the 潮 here suggests that blood is spurting out like a tide.

I also wondered why some sources define 潮 as "opportunity." That, as it turns out, is practically exclusive to this word:

潮時 (しおどき: (1) right time, favorable opportunity; (2) when the tide ebbs or flows)     tide + hour

Originally, this term meant "when the tide ebbs or flows," but today the term primarily means "the right time to do something."

The very next day, this term washed up on my desk again, so to speak. I realized that a link in essay 1784 on 捕 (to catch) had broken. It was to a page with a sign saying this:

Special People Permitted to Catch Eels

うなぎ* (eel); 特別* (とくべつ: special); 採捕* (さいほ: catching); 人* (にん: people)

Amazon Japan offers just such a sign:

I have linked to that for now, but this product may cease to be available soon, so I asked my proofreader for help. Although he found no such signs elsewhere online, he came across a local fisherman's association certificate saying this:

Special Certificate for Eel Catchers

証 (あかし: certificate)

Apparently, you have to have this certificate on hand in order to catch しらす (白子: young eels), which looks from its kanji as if it would mean "white children"!

Anyway, he noticed the following word on a document behind the certificate:

潮時表 (しおどきひょう: tide table)     tide + hours + table

Ah, 潮時 again! What are the odds?! But this time 潮時 has nothing to do with opportunities. Rather, it pertains to the original meaning of this word, "when the tide ebbs or flows." For those who like to fish, this term is common, but others won't know it. We can see the word much more clearly at the top of a timetable that should help people time their fishing expeditions.

All of this reminded me of a fascinating usage of 潮 in essay 1558 on 濁 (muddiness; impurity; voiced). The sample sentence in question came from the essay「茶の湯の手帳 (ちゃのゆのてちょう: “Tea Memorandum”)」 by 伊藤左千夫 (いとう さちお: 1864–1913, in which 伊 is non-Joyo):

People’s thoughts were soon taken over by the muddy stream of the era.

人間 (にんげん: person); 思潮 (しちょう: thought); 忽ちの内 (たちまちのうち: soon, in which 忽 is non-Joyo); 濁流 (だくりゅう: muddy stream); 支配 (しはい: controlling, dominating); 処 (ところ: nominalizer)

Regarding the “muddy stream” metaphor, the author of this 1906 piece felt concerned about how much the Japanese were changing. As they imported more foreign goods and Western ways and as the upper classes became wealthier, intellectual pursuits declined. People lost interest in the tea ceremony, which requires mental training, and instead took up mindless amusements. The “muddy stream” in his comment apparently symbolizes the cultural changes altering the older and better values in Japan.

All that aside, I find the author's use of 思潮 (しちょう: thought) here quite clever, as his tide (潮) imagery matches the muddy stream metaphor. He could have used 思想 (しそう: thought) instead but didn't. 

And this made me wonder if Japanese writers ever choose one word over its much more common synonym because a certain kanji or even just a radical slyly reinforces a theme. For six months I've been casting about in vain to find other examples of this, and finally I've succeeded! The new essay 1707 on 伐 (to cut down; attack) features the following book cover:

This is a collection of an architecture professor’s reviews of more than 90 architecture books and bears the following title:

Architecture Investigator, Dispensing Harsh Criticism

建築 (けんちく: architecture); 探偵 (たんてい: investigator); 本 (ほん: book); 伐る (きる: to cut down)

The Japanese often use きる figuratively as “to criticize something harshly,” but they usually render that word as 斬る (which literally means “to cut a person with a sword"). It turns out that the professor wasn’t that harsh about some of the books he reviewed. So why does this title include 伐? My proofreaders have come up with several theories:

1. The entity being criticized is books. As books are made from trees, 伐る (to cut down (e.g., trees, enemies)) is a clever play on words. 

2. The act of reading may be akin to selecting trees in the forest and bringing them out into the world of people, thereby finding materials for people to use.

3. Because 本を伐る (to cut down a book) looks so much like 木を伐る (to fell a tree), with just one stroke’s difference in the first kanji, the title could be a visual pun. Bing bing bing! This is the type of kanji playfulness I've been seeking! 

A friend of mine read my most recent newsletter, which touched on a kanji discussion in an Ozu movie, and though she knows no Japanese, she astutely commented that the language must have so much "pun potential." Indeed it does, thanks to kanji!

Here's a sneak preview of the newest essay:

Joy o' Kanji is off next week for Thanksgiving. If you're celebrating, have a wonderful holiday! Catch you in two weeks.


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