JOK Notebook

Tigers, Rakugo, and Rubin: Oh, My!

In recent weeks I've encountered the following words. See if you can match the kanji to the definitions (and first try to do so without breakdowns, which I'll supply in a moment):

1. 交渉 (こうしょう)  a. a sure thing
2. 根気のいる (こんきのいる)   b. negotiations
3. 鉄板 (てっぱん)  c. to be patient

While you think about it, here's something fun and fascinating from the new Radical Note 118 on the 竹 (bamboo) radical:

Photo Credit: Gary Lee Todd

This is a "tiger tally" from the second century BCE. Made of bronze with gold inlay, this tally was found in a king's tomb in Guangzhou, China. And what in the world is a tally?

Wikipedia says that in ancient China, tallies (符) were typically made of bamboo or wood, though metal (gold, silver, bronze) and jade were also possible. They were mostly shaped like tigers, but dragons, turtles, snakes, fish, and humans were also possible shapes.

People used tallies as proof of authorization. For instance, a king would have two-piece set of tiger tallies (虎符) and keep one piece with the central government while issuing the matching piece to army officials. Before commanding troops to leave a certain area, an army officer would need to show the correct tally, proving that he had the right to make such an order. Ah, a pre-electronic password!

Okay, here's the quiz once more, this time with breakdowns:

1. 交渉 (こうしょう)  to relate + to relate  a. a sure thing
2. 根気のいる (こんきのいる) root + feeling​   b. negotiations
3. 鉄板 (てっぱん) iron + plate c. to be patient

Give it another go. This time I'll entertain you with a great story.

As I explain in essay 1141 on 菊 (chrysanthemum) and essay 1307 on 皿 (dish, plate), Okiku was a legendary figure, a servant whose master killed her for having supposedly lost the tenth plate in a set. She didn't really misplace anything. However, she resisted his amorous advances, and he felt jilted, so he framed and murdered her. She became a ghost who emerged every night, counting from one to nine and then breaking into heartrending sobs.

One rakugo (落語: comic story) presents a fun twist on what happens to her after death:

Some curious people visit the mansion where Okiku lived, hoping to see her ghost. As expected, she appears as a ghostly figure, counting plates: "One, two, three ..." 

Scary as she is, Okiku's ghost is very beautiful. As soon as she gets to six, they run away because rumor has it that hearing her reach nine will make a person go mad and die. 

As word spreads about the beautiful ghost, more and more folks come to see her every day. People start selling bento box lunches and sweets, and others set up seats for the audience. Thus, the deserted mansion turns into a theater of sorts. Okiku starts greeting the audience amiably.

One day as the crowd applauds, Okiku appears and starts counting plates: "One, two, three..." 

People try to run before she gets to six, but they can't because the "theater" is too crowded. Okiku makes it to nine, but nothing happens. She goes on counting: "Eleven, twelve, ..."

To the amazement of the audience, the event ends after she reaches eighteen. 

"Why did you count to eighteen?" an audience member asks. 

She replies, "I counted twice as many as usual because I'm taking a day off tomorrow."

Okay, ready for the answers? Here they are:

1.b. 交渉 (こうしょう: to relate + to relate) means "negotiations; discussions," as well as "connection." Originally, 渉, which breaks down as 氵(water) + 歩 (to walk), meant "to cross a river (on foot)." Kanjigen says that crossing a river essentially means "to reach the other side." Therefore, 渉 means "to relate (to somebody else)." 

Now we finally know why the chicken crossed the road. He wanted to negotiate or, at the very least, get all relational.

2.c. 根気のいる (こんきのいる: root + feeling) means "patient." The Japanese use this word when being diplomatic and trying to take something boring and present it in a positive light. (But if that's the agreed-upon social code, can't everyone see right through the euphemism?!)

My proofreader says that the etymology of 根気 is unknown but that 根 in the following terms has similar meanings:

根性 (こんじょう: willpower; guts; tenacity)
精根 (せいこん: energy; vitality)

Kanjigen notes that it's only in Japan that 根 means something related to guts or persistence. My proofreader muses that this may have come from the idea of roots as the energy source for a plant. Sounds quite plausible to me!

3.a. 鉄板 (てっぱん: iron + plate) literally means "iron plate," as in 鉄板焼き (てっぱんやき), a style of cooking in which a chef cooks on a hot steel plate in the center of a table, as at a Benihana. Figuratively, though, 鉄板 means "a sure thing" or "certain" because an iron plate is hard, which suggests "sure, certain; reliable." In gambling, 鉄板 refers to a racer or horse (or something of that nature) that is sure to win. And in show business, it refers to a gag certain to make the audience laugh. 

I hope this quiz was a sure thing! Same goes for the newest essay:

Oh, and here's a third piece of writing that's quite likely to be a sure thing. Jay Rubin, who recently wrote a guest blog for Joy o' Kanji, has published a fascinating book review in the Times Literary Supplement. He discusses a nonfiction book by Minae Mizumura, one first published in Japanese with this title:

「日本語が亡びるとき    英語の世紀の中で」

日本語 (にほんご: Japanese language); 亡びる (ほろびる: to fall); 英語 (えいご: English); 世紀 (せいき: age); 中 (なか: in)

Her work has now become available in English as The Fall of Language in the Age of English and includes many provocative arguments about the state of the Japanese language and literature.

It's a little tough to find the article on the Times Literary Supplement site. If you're struggling with that, please let me know so I can help!

Have a great weekend!


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