JOK Notebook

The Unreal Natural World

Let's start with a quiz!

What could the following words mean:

1. 山肌 (やまはだ)     mountain + skin

a. pimple
b. leathery, weathered skin from years of outdoors activity
c. bare surface of a mountain
d. making a mountain out of a molehill

2. 火口 (かこう)     fire + mouth

a. one's mouth after drinking alcohol
b. one's mouth after eating spicy food
c. spewing angry words
d. crater

I'll block the answers with a preview of the newest essay:

Here we go.

1.c. 山肌 (やまはだ: mountain + skin) means "mountain's surface; bare surface of a mountain." I came across this term in the following sentence that a friend wrote:

I couldn’t imagine how they built on the steep surface of a mountain.

急峻 (きゅうしゅん: steep, in which 峻 is non-Joyo); どのように (how);
建てる (たてる: to build); 想像 (そうぞう: imagining); 出来る (できる: to be able)

2.d. 火口 (かこう: fire + mouth) means "crater, caldera." 

Both 山肌 and 火口 suggest to me that the natural world has body parts!

Those quiz terms came out of a conversation with my language partner Kensuke, as did the matter of why part of Japan is called 中国 (ちゅうごく), which can also mean "China." We found this answer (which is just one theory) somewhere on Japanese Wikipedia, but to my frustration I can't find the page now:

(Historically) Japan’s big cities were in the Kinki region and Kyushu region. The part in the middle of those regions came to be called 中国.

日本 (にほん: Japan); 大きな (おおきな: big); 都市 (とし: city); 近畿地方 (きんきちほう: Kinki region); 九州地方 (きゅうしゅうちほう: Kyushu region); 真ん中 (まんなか: middle)

The Kinki region includes Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Nara, Wakayama, Mie, and Shiga Prefectures. The 中国 in Japan breaks down as middle + province.     

So far so logical. Now for some confusion! Yesterday, when Kensuke and I discussed the way we each feel after exercising, he said he loves to run because of the ひろうかん that follows. I knew かん had to be 感 (feeling). And on hearing the ひろう, I imagined 広い (ひろい: wide). That thrilled me because lately I've been noticing how good my heart feels after I run or play tennis, as if someone has massaged that organ. Plus, when I exercise in the morning, I feel optimistic for the rest of the day. 

Thinking of all this reminded me of how, just a few days before, I had revisited what my friend Malcolm Wells wrote in his book Ways to Play: "The whole range of human activity is manifest—or implied—in play, in free play of any kind, uninhibited. That's what this book is all about, not just getting your exercise, but trying to be more fully, again, the free, happy animal with the vast potential." 

Delighted that Kensuke and I were thinking alike about how exercise creates an expansive feeling in the body and mind, I shared the quotation with him so that he could love it as much as I did. That's really not how it went at all! Until I saw the passage through his eyes, I didn't have the slightest idea how difficult the syntax and vocabulary are! Poor Kensuke! What I put him through!

And it was all to find out that he wasn't referring to any kind of expansive feeling whatsoever. Instead, he was using this term:

疲労感 (ひろうかん: tired feeling; feeling of exhaustion; sense of fatigue)
     fatigue (1st 2 kanji) + feeling

Oh! Once I understood what he truly meant, I puzzled over why that feeling appeals to him, and all I could grasp is that a tired feeling tells him that he went running!

I'm grateful to him because he was enormously helpful yesterday in sorting out confusion that arose with another Japanese friend. That guy had posted a gorgeous picture of Chinese scenery on Facebook, and although I always use Japanese with him, I was feeling really lazy and simply wrote "Unreal!" as a comment. Of course he didn't grasp my meaning at all, instead mistaking my response for harsh criticism about a doctored photo.

I told Kensuke in Japanese what had I truly meant, and somehow he understood. Still feeling lazy and out of my depth, I asked him to write an explanation that I could pass along to the photographer. Kensuke did so, and then we scrutinized what he had written so that I knew exactly what "I" was saying. Kensuke helpfully presented the blue phrases, which I have now annotated:

この世 = 生きている世界
This world = the world of the living

この世 (このよ: "this world"); 生きる (いきる: to live); 世界* (せかい: world)

あの世 = 死んだ後の世界
That world = the world after death

あの世 (あのよ: "that world"); 死ぬ (しぬ: to die); 後 (あと: after) 

That is, この世 ("this world") is the world of living people, as opposed to あの世, the world of the dead.

Kensuke used the former term in this longer phrase, which is the crux of the matter:

この世のものとも思えない (このよのものともおもえない: unearthly; otherworldly; out of this world; ethereal)

Yes, that's exactly what I meant by "unreal"! The phrase literally means "unbelievable that (it's) something from this world, the world of living people."

Here was the explanation Kensuke wrote for me to give my photographer-friend:

My English expression was difficult to understand, so please let me explain.

私 (わたし: I); 英語 (えいご: English); 表現 (ひょうげん: expression); 難しい (むずかしい: difficult); 説明 (せつめい: explanation)

In this case, “unreal” doesn’t mean “lacking in reality” but rather "unearthly (beauty)." 

この場合 (このばあい: in this case); 非現実的 (ひげんじつてき: unrealistic); 意味* (いみ: meaning); くらい (位: to the extent); 美しい* (うつくしい: beautiful)

Your photo was beautiful, so I said "unreal."

写真 (しゃしん: photo); 言う (いう: to say)

I struggled to understand the use of くらい. It means "to the extent," so この世のものとは思えないくらい美しい is "beautiful to the extent that it’s unbelievable that it’s from this world."

As for とても, the placement of that word sounded odd to me. Why not put it before 美しかった, as that's what the とても really modifies? That syntax is entirely possible, of course, but the current wording is fine, too. I'm told that because とても is an adverb, native speakers automatically expect something like a verb or adjective to follow. As the noun 写真 obviously doesn't fit the bill, the listener stays primed. In this 美しかった satisfies the listener at last. Fortunately, the wait wasn't long!

I sent Kensuke's sentences to my photographer-friend, who replied instantly, relieved that I hadn't been criticizing him harshly and happy to know my true intention. And then he wrote a lot more difficult Japanese that I didn't understand. I'll take it to Kensuke next Saturday when we speak again. The cycle continues!

Catch you back here next time!


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