JOK Notebook

Twisting People's Arms

Today I'm feeling ineffectual, having failed to break through to someone I adore about a crucial matter. It was an intervention of sorts, and people urged me to give it a go, so I did, but I simply didn't have what it took to reach the other person.

Given that context, it comes as a surprise to realize that the newly published essay 1624 on 笛 (woodwind instrument; whistle; horn) is largely about trying to influence others. Just check out all the content that ties right into that theme.

The Pied Piper

The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a legend out of 13th-century Germany, is about a rat catcher who used a magical pipe to drive out rats (an essential service in the time of the plague). Even though the mayor hired him to perform this task, the citizens (or the mayor himself, depending on which version you read) refused to pay for his work. In retaliation, the rat catcher used his magical instrument to lure away the townspeople’s children.

The Japanese title of this story features the following keyword:

笛吹 or 笛吹き (ふえふき: flute player)     flute + blowing, playing a wind instrument

Here we see 笛 with its Joyo kun-yomi of ふえ. The title is as follows:

The Pied Piper of Hamelin

男 (おとこ: man)

Paying the Piper

A rare expression includes 笛吹き:

He who pays the piper calls the tune.

金 (かね: money); 払う (はらう: to pay);
者 (もの: person); 曲 (きょく: tune);
注文 (ちゅうもん: order, request)

My proofreaders have never heard this and say that it comes from the story of the Pied Piper, as does the English phrase “pay the piper.” That expression refers to paying a price even though it seems high or unfair. You pay it because if you didn’t, the consequences would likely be dire. Forking over the money grants you the freedom you need. The Japanese saying above makes the same point.

Peddling Sugar

My favorite use of the flute in Japan is the Edo-era candy vendor, the 飴売り (あめうり, in which 飴 is non-Joyo), who drummed up business (so to speak!) by walking around and playing the flute or another instrument. His intentions sound about two steps removed from those of the Pied Piper!

A Plaintive Call to a Missing Mother

A sad old tale takes place in a small village in what is now Yamanashi Prefecture:

About 600 years ago, a big river called Netorigawa flowed very fast. A young boy nicknamed 笛吹権三郎 (ふえふき ごんざぶろう) lived near the river with his mother. He was quite good at playing the bamboo flute and loved his mother very much.

One day, heavy rains caused the river to overflow, and his house floated away. He couldn’t find his mother, though he looked for her repeatedly. He decided to play the bamboo flute because she loved it, and he figured that if she were still alive, she would hear the music and find him.

He played it night and day in various places. The heavy rain began to fall again, but he didn’t notice and was eventually swept away. The people in the village tried to find him but couldn’t. A few days later, they finally located his body downstream.

The great monk in the village was very sorry to hear of the death and buried the boy reverently in the temple.

In his honor, people changed the name of the river from Netorigawa to Fuefukigawa.

I suppose this is a true story because that really is the name of the river. And many centuries later, the river name played an important role. That is, in 2004 some villages and a town merged to form 笛吹市 (ふえふきし: Fuefuki City), a name that comes from 笛吹川 (ふえふきがわ: Fuefukigawa River).

Talking to the Animals

In the old days, a shepherd would play a pipe partly to amuse himself and partly to soothe the sheep. Japan has never had shepherds, but the Japanese use this term for the instrument that pops up in old pastoral European paintings:

牧笛 (ぼくてき: shepherd’s pipe)     shepherd + pipe

I'm giving away a Quick Quiz answer here, but here's another instrument that enables people to communicate with animals:

雉笛 (きじぶえ: flute used to lure green pheasants)      pheasant + flute

The first kanji in this obscure term is non-Joyo. People devised this instrument to imitate a pheasant's song, and it works. When a pheasant hears the instrument, it thinks other pheasants are singing, and it heads in that direction. Actually, pheasants aren’t the only ones to fall for this trick; many other animals respond the same way, so hunting with this instrument has been prohibited in Japan.

Not Just Whistling Dixie

A police officer uses a whistle to direct and control people. A train or ship lets off a whistle to signal to people that it's on the move. Whistling to a dog is an attempt to tell him or her to come. One can express all these actions with 笛.

Breaking Bones

The following phrase (which doesn't include 笛 but appears in essay 1624) expresses the fatigue one feels with the failure of any kind of plan:

having one’s efforts turn out to be a mere waste

骨折り損 (ほねおりぞん: waste of effort or energy);
くたびれ儲け (くたびれもうけ: waste of effort; thankless task)

Given the similar definitions of 骨折り損 and くたびれ儲け (in which 儲 is non-Joyo), this expression strikes me as redundant. 

But what's going on with the first half? Here's how it breaks down:

骨折り損 (ほねおりぞん: waste of effort or energy)     bone + breaking + loss

The idiomatic expression 骨を折る (ほねをおる: lit. "to break a bone") means "to make an effort." The bone being broken is presumably one's own. The noun 骨折り (lit. "bone breaking") came from that expression and means "effort."  

Here are two related expressions:

• 骨が折れる (lit. "the bone breaks"), which means "troublesome."

• お骨折りありがとうございます (lit. "Thanks for the bone breaking" or "Thanks for breaking your bone for me"), which means "Thanks for your effort or cooperation." 

Musicians as Top Influencers

With flutes and whistles, people try to direct others to take action or feel a certain way. Maybe I would have had more luck today if I had pulled out a flute and played a tune (not that I know how!). Or would I have just been whistling in the dark?!

For much more on 笛 and all the sounds associated with that kanji, be sure to check out essay 1624. Here's a sneak preview:

Have a great weekend!


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