JOK Notebook

Top Draw

I’ve long been a big fan of the word 看板 (かんばん: signboard). It goes back to the early days of my Japanese studies when I came across this phrase in a Murakami essay in Read Real Japanese: All You Need to Enjoy Eight Contemporary Writers (p. 134):

there was a signboard standing (there) with that slogan written on it

標語 (ひょうご: slogan); 書く (かく: to write); 立つ (たつ: to stand)

I was amazed by the way this Japanese text contained two verbs so concisely, not in a drawn-out sequence of verbiage. The 看板 lay at the center, and related phrases streamed out from it in either direction.

This syntax felt like a revelation, so I stored the phrase in my Japanese database and referred to it repeatedly, coming to feel a deep affection for 看板 as "sign." This affection may seem unfounded, but the whole essay was about a 看板 with which Murakami took issue, so I probably transferred onto 看板 my love of Murakami and my excitement about having read a Japanese essay from start to end. Who knows? The heart is mysterious.

Anyway, I thought 看板 could only mean "sign," and in fact my database now contains six sample sentences with 看板 as “sign." I was therefore stunned to come across the following sentence in the new essay 1475 on 逝 (to die; go) and to find a rather different meaning for 看板:

In 1969, Raizo Ichikawa, the top actor at Daiei Film Co., Ltd., and its last ray of hope, died suddenly at the young age of 37.

年 (ねん: year); 大映株式会社 (だいえいかぶしきがいしゃ: Daiei Film Co., Ltd.); 頼みの綱 (たのみのつな: last ray of hope); 俳優 (はいゆう: actor); 市川雷蔵 (いちかわ らいぞう); -歳* (-さい: years old); 若さ (わかさ: youth); 急逝 (きゅうせい: sudden death)

In this context 看板 means “draw, attraction,” matching the second definitions that Breen lists:

看板 (かんばん: (1) signboard; sign; billboard; hoarding; doorplate; (2) draw; attraction; feature; highlight; spokesman; figurehead; (3) reputation (of a shop); (4) appearance; look; (5) closing time)

Hoarding?! Spokesman?! Reputation?! And closing time?! I knew nothing about the double life (or quintuple life!) of my beloved word 看板!

Actually, it turns out that in the Daiei Film sentence, 看板 still means "sign" in a sense. That is, 看板俳優 (かんばんはいゆう) literally means “sign actor." The idea is that the actor is so popular that he virtually represents the company, as if he were the sign hanging in front of its offices. English speakers might call him the "face" of the company. 

Essay 1475 on 逝 also produced grammatical revelations, thanks in part to this book title, which looks as though it includes 逝く (to die):

How Dying People and Those Who Attend to Them 
Can Be Happy When Thinking of the End of Life

死ぬ (しぬ: to die); 人 (ひと: person); 看取る (みとる: to attend to a dying person); 幸せ (しあわせ: happy); 終末期 (しゅうまつき: terminal stage); 考え方 (かんがえかた: way of thinking)

As I learned, the 死に before –逝く (-ゆく) isn’t the noun 死 + the particle に but rather the pre-masu form of 死にます. Thus, although it may look as if this title contains two verbs meaning “to die”—死ぬ and 逝く—that isn’t the case. Instead, this –逝く serves as an auxiliary verb that means “parting.” 

It's rare to see 死に逝く. People much more often render しにゆく as 死にゆく or 死に行く.  Choosing 逝 in this context intensifies the idea of death.

Incidentally, 逝 has the Joyo kun readings い•く and ゆ•く, reflecting a strong ancient tie to the homophone 行く (to go). However, there’s really one main place people “go” with 逝—namely, to the world of the dead, as many Japanese conceive of it. 

Whatever the rendering of しにゆく, that phrase means “going farther away” from the speaker and toward the distant world of the dead. Whereas 死ぬ simply means “to die,” 死にゆく implies that the person is already moving in that direction and that the death will happen shortly. Moreover, 死にゆく suggests that the speaker is dreading that death.

I had trouble understanding this idea of moving (and in fact often struggle with the use of the auxiliary verbs –いくand –くる), so my proofreader provided an in-depth explanation. As I've already said a bit here, I'll save that discussion for next time. 

For now, here's a preview of the new essay 1475:

Catch you back here next week!


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