Old Stories of Madness

20160623_193717.jpgNext up in our “Mental Health in Japan” series is a limited selection of stories on “madness” as recorded in Japan’s classic literature of the Heian period (794-1185), with a special focus on terminology. I have already written several posts on Heian literature, partly because it was by reading these books that I became fascinated with Japanese culture. I am a huge fan of Sei Shonagon (I recommend her Pillow Book to everyone who wants to explore court life in Japan around the year 1000) and, of course, I should mention Murasaki Shikibu, creator of Japan’s biggest playboy ever. Both female writers are featured in this post. If you’re interested in the topic of “madness”, you should also check out part one, two and three of my “Mental Health” series.

Story no. 1: The Great Mirror and Mad Emperors

The Great Mirror (Ōkagami大鏡), a historical account written during the latter half of the Heian period, briefly mentions the “madness” of emperor Reizei (950-1011). Ōe Masafusa (1041-1111) describes in his diary (Gōki江記) the eccentric demeanor of the emperor at a young age: One day, he kicked a football for a whole day without minding his bleeding feet; when a fire broke out in the palace, he was singing songs with a loud voice while fleeing; in response to his father’s letter, he once sent a drawing of a phallus and so on[1]. Reizei’s fits of insanity are explained in The Great Mirror as “an affliction attributed to the angry spirits of his half-brother and disappointed rival, Murakami’s oldest son, and of the mother and grandfather of the unsuccessful Prince, all of whom had died when Reizei was about three years old[2]”. His condition is the result of a curse (tatari祟) caused by the revengeful spirits (onryō怨霊) of the relatives he had allegedly robbed from their imperial title, upon which they had died out of despair[3]. Once acceded to the throne, Reizei was forced to abdicate due to his mental instability only two years later. The curse also had repercussions for the mental health of his offspring, among whom Reizei’s son emperor Kazan is discussed in The Great Mirror as well. Another example is Reizei’s daughter Sonshi. It was rumored that she left the palace and became a nun because of a hereditary mental illness. [4].

Reizei_kyoto tomb.jpg

Emperor Reizei’s tomb in Kyoto.

Reizei’s mental disorder is referred to as 御物の怪 (o-mono no ke of which o is a honorific prefix) several times throughout The Great Mirror, a term of which the meaning is linked to religion and spirituality. Another term that is used at a certain point in the narrative, is kurui (狂ひ), which has a more negative connotation. Kurui appears in a dialogue between Minamoto no Toshikata, Minister of Popular Affairs, and the priest Fujiwara no Michinaga. Minamoto is sharing some amusing anecdotes about the eccentric behavior of emperor Kazan with Fujiwara, and attributes his mental disorder directly to his “deficient character from birth”. He adds that “Kazan’s craziness (kurui) is even more difficult to handle than his father’s, emperor Reizei”, after which they both burst out in laughter[5].


Emperor Kazan, Reizei’s son.

Unlike The Story of Splendor (Eiga Monogatari 栄花物語), in which a metaphorical approach is adopted, The Great Mirror criticizes the mental condition of emperor Reizei and his son Kazan directly[6]. Moreover, it is suggested that they bear the responsibility for their disorder themselves, despite the fact that the pathogenesis is otherwise stated as mono no ke throughout the work. Hence, The Great Mirror further comments that Emperor Kazan was said to be “looking great on the outside, but lacking on the inside[7]”, while emphasizing the latter[8]. From the context in which kurui appears, we can deduce that the two terms used to describe a mental disorder here have different connotations. Whereas mono no ke has a spiritual background and a rather positive nuance, kurui appears to be a means to enhance criticism or mockery towards the possessors of such a mental condition.

Another suggestion is that Reizei was only slightly eccentric, and that the abnormality of his behavior was grossly exaggerated by the Fujiwara clan. As a result of these rumors, Reizei as well as Kazan were forced to abdicate at a young age[9]. Even if the assumed mental disorder of both emperors would be part of  a political set-up, the criticism and mockery, or the fact that badmouthing about the opponent’s mental condition was an efficient way to eliminate them, still shows that the ancient society in Japan was, to a certain extent, prone to stigmatization against people afflicted with a mental disorder.

References: [1] Yawata, Kazuo八幡和郎. Biographies of Successive Generations of Emperors: “National History” You Want to Know as a Japanese歴代天皇列伝: 日本人なら知っておきたい「国家の歴史」(Rekidai tennō retsuden: nihonjin nara shitteokitai “kokka no rekishi”). Tokyo: PHP Research Institute, 2008, p. 895. [2] McCullough, Helen Craig, Tamenari Fujiwara, and Yoshinobu Fujiwara. Ōkagami, the Great Mirror: Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) and His Times : A Study and Translation, 1980, p. 346. [3] “Emperor Reizei” 冷泉天皇 (Reizei tennō) in Asahi Encyclopedia of Historical Figures in Japan 朝日日本歴史人物事典 (Asahi nihon rekishi jinbutsu jiten) Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Printing, 1994. [4] Groner, Paul. Ryōgen and Mount Hiei: Japanese Tendai in the Tenth Century. Studies in East Asian Buddhism 15. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002, p. 266. [5] For original text and translation in modern Japanese see appendix 3. [6] Satō, Asano佐藤あさの. “Emperor Reizei in The Great Mirror”『大鏡』冷泉天皇 (“Ōkagami” Reizei tennō) summary graduation thesis, Hokkaido university of Education, Association for National language and literature, Sapporo National Language Research, 17 (2012): 103. [7] Original text: その帝をば内劣りの外めでたとぞ、世の人申し. [8] Tsuji, Kazuyoshi辻和良. “The Appearance of Kazan: Narrative in The Great Mirror”花山の姿 : 大鏡の<カタル>方法 (Kazan no sugata: Ōkagami no ‘kataru’ hōhō) Journal of Nagoya Women’s University, Humanities and Social Sciences, 36 (1990): 304–297, p. 303. [9] Hattori, Toshiyoshi服部敏良. Research Tidbits on the History Medicine in Japan日本医学史研究余話 (Nihon igakushi kenkyū yowa) Kagakushoin, 1981, p. 299.

Story no. 2: The Pillow Book and  Mono no Ke


Writer Sei Shonagon

Mono no ke is a returning concept in Heian literature, represented in The Diary of Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book, all works written by women. It originated in 8th century China and became a popular term among the Japanese aristocracy during the 9th century. Mono no ke is composed out of the characters物 (mono, meaning “thing”, a substitute out of superstition for writing or saying the word “demon”鬼) and ke 怪, related to気 (spirit) and literally means “the spirit of an evil ghost[10]. It refers to the curse cast either by the ghost of a deceased person or by the vengeful spirit of a living creature. Such a curse took concrete shape in physical or mental illness. Sei Shonagon records in her diary The Pillow Book (Makura no Sōshi枕草子, 1002) under “hateful things” the following item:

Someone has suddenly fallen ill and one summons the exorcist. Since he is not at home, one has to send messengers to look for him. After one has had a long, fretful wait, the exorcist finally arrives, and with a sigh of relief one asks him to start his incantations. But perhaps he has been exorcizing too many evil spirits [=mono no ke] recently; for hardly has he installed himself and begun praying when his voice becomes drowsy. Oh, how hateful![11]

Doctors in the Heian period were called genza 験者, practitioners of esoteric Buddhism or folklore Shintoism, who treated illnesses by exorcizing the evil spirits causing the disease. Shirane explains: “The aim of the exorcist was to transfer the evil spirit from the afflicted person to the medium, usually a young girl or a woman, and to force it to declare itself. The exorcist used various spells and incantations to make the Guardian Demon of Buddhism take possession of the medium. When he was successful, the medium would tremble, scream, have convulsions, faint or behave as if in hypnotic trance. The spirit would then declare itself through her mouth. The final step was to drive the spirit out of the medium[12]“.

Once again, diseases are set against a religious and spiritual background. As the doctor in Sei Shonagon’s story is exhausted from overworking, it appears that sudden attacks of mono no ke were very common at that time. One believed that the most effective way to treat illness was to recite incantations. A failed exorcist session is covered in The Pillow Book as a “depressing thing”.

With a look of complete self-confidence on his face an exorcist prepares to expel an evil spirit [=mono no ke] from his patient. Handing his mace, rosary, and other paraphernalia to the medium who is assisting him, he begins to recite his spells in the special shrill tone that he forces from his throat on such occasions. For all the exorcist’s efforts, the spirit gives no sign of leaving, and the Guardian Demon fails to take possession of the medium. The relations and friends of the patient, who are gathered in the room praying, find this rather unfortunate. After he recited his incantations for the length of an entire watch [= two hours], the exorcist is worn out. (…) “Well, well, it hasn’t worked!” [13]

References[10] Takeguchi, Ryūsuke竹口竜介. “About the Genesis and Social Conditions of Mono no Ke during the Heian Period” 平安時代における物怪発生と社会状況について (Heian jidai ni okeru mono no ke hassei to shakai jōkyō nit tsuite) Journal of Ryūkoku University Graduate School for Literature Research 龍谷大学大学院文学研究科紀要 (Ryūkoku daigakuin bungaku kenkyūka kiyō), 27 (Dec 2005): 328-334, p. 330. [11] Shirane, Haruo, ed. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Abridged ed. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 151.[12] Original footnote in ibid., p. 149. [13] Ibid., p. 149.

Story no. 3: The Tale of Genji and jealous spirits

In order to nuance our definition of mono no ke, it is necessary to look into its use in The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari 源氏物語, early 11th century). The fact that this term appears 51 times indicates its role as a key feature throughout the work. Writer Murasaki Shikibu attributes 18 personae with a spiritual possession, among which the story of Genji’s wife, Aoi, and the spirit of his mistress, the Rokujō lady, is perhaps the most representative.

At Sanjō, Genji’s wife seemed to be in the grip of a malign spirit [mono no ke]. It was no time for nocturnal wanderings. (…) Several malign spirits were transferred to the medium and identified themselves, but there was one which quite refused to move. Though it did not cause great pain, it refused to leave her for so much as an instant. There was something very sinister about a spirit that eluded the powers of the most skilled exorcists. The Sanjō people went over the list of Genji’s ladies one by one. Among them all, it came to be whispered, only the Rokujō lady and the lady at Nijō seemed to have been singled out for special attentions, and no doubt they were jealous. The exorcists were asked about the possibility, but they gave no very informative answers.[14]

aoi rokujo.png

Aoi and Genji, surrounded by anxious court ladies.

Aoi passes away due to an illness caused by the jealous spirit of the Rokujō lady, who is unaware of her own soul’s wanderings. Apart from Aoi’s suffering, Shikibu also emphasizes the mixed feelings of the Rokujō lady, unable to suppress her jealousy and overcome with self-loathing. In this sense, both ladies are victimized by the “madness” mono no ke generates. Other characters described as haunted by an evil spirit, nearly all of them female, are driven mad by love-related conflicts.


“Aoi no Ue” in Illustrated Book of Monsters (怪物絵本, kaibutsu ehon 1881)

It is clear that the Tale of Genji does not strive to render a realistic image of mental disorders. Shikibu employs mono no ke as a metaphorical tool to liberate women from social restrictions and empower them to express their suppressed feelings. As Bargen argues, “spirit possession and exorcism are understood, on the one hand, as a dramatic, subversive response to social injustice and the psychological repression of women and, on the other, as the attempt of controlling groups to pacify female frustration and rage[15]”. The Tale of Genji already enjoyed great popularity in the Heian period. It should, therefore, not surprise that its influence attributed to the establishment of mono no ke as a dramatic concept in the literature and arts of later periods.

References[14] Murasaki Shikibu and Edward G. Seidensticker, translator. The Tale of Genji. eBooks@Adelaide, chapter 9 “Heartvine”. [15] Bargen, Doris G. “Spirit Possession in The Context of Dramatic Expressions of Gender Conflict: The Aoi Episode of The Genji Monogatari.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 48, no. 1 (June 1988): 95–130, p. 96.

Next post in this series: Mad Monks & Medieval Medicine

What Do You Mean?

It’s funny that some words can have a different meaning in other parts of the world. This is for example the case with English, French or even Dutch words, who started to live their own life in Japan. In fact, they look and sound like foreign words, but they do not exist or have a different meaning in the country of origin. These kind of borrowed words are called wasei eigo (和製英語, “Japanese pseudo-Anglicisms”) in the case of English, and maybe you remember I mentioned this in my post about hybridization. I give you some examples:


* マンション manshon < mansion : Sounds like a great place to live, but is just an ordinary apartment
* リムジンバス rimujinbasu < limousine bus : A bus you can hire. Not the one meant for public transport
* ヴァージンロード vaajinroodo < virgin road : the aisle in a Western church during a wedding ceremony
* サイダー saidaa < cider : some kind of soda
* カンニング kanningu < cunning : cheating

more examples here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GprKoUB7hY0#t=248


* アベック abekku < avec (together with) : romantic couple
* コント konto < conte (story) : short comedy
* ズボン zubon < jupon (petticoat) : pants


* オルゴール orugooru < orgel (organ) : music box
* おてんば otenba < ontembaar (untamable) : tomboy

The Japanese have some great creativity, but sometimes the same can be said about us. Some current Japanese words have a different meaning in the West. This week I was joking around with a Chinese friend and said something about yaoi manga. I was surprised that my friend, taking his doctoral degree in Japanese Studies, didn’t know what that was. It is, however, a Japanese word, but differently used there. It becomes clear when you try to look op the same word in different language on Wikipedia. I thought about some other words as well. When you hear the word …

1. YAOI  ヤオイ

… the West thinks of manga about homoerotic male relationships, mainly for a female audience. Sex scenes are more explicit compared to boys’ love manga.



… Japan thinks of the original meaning: an acronym of 山なし、落ちなし、意味なし (yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi – no climax, no punch line, no meaning). This term was mostly used with fan manga, “slash”, featuring beautiful young man in homoerotic  relationships, written by women and initially meant as a parody. It could also imply that a certain manga’s storyline was crappy. Further, “yaoi” was used as the counterpart of the “normal” mainstream stuff. Nowadays, manga or novels containing explicit homosexual scenes as the main feature of the story can be called yaoi as well in Japan. But, the term “boys’ love” is still generally used.


… the West thinks of the tradition to slit open your own stomach.


… Japan realizes that it is one of the many forms of seppuku 切腹, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. Harakiri is written with the same characters but has the native reading instead of the Chinese reading. Apart from the concept which is very difficult to explain to foreigners, there are different terms used in specific situations: tsuifuku 追腹, oibara 追い腹, junshi 殉死 and harakiri. Among these, harakiri is said to be the least honorable, because it was a less extended version and was performed without the help of a second.

3. HENTAI  変態

… The West thinks of pornographic manga or anime.

… Japan thinks of “deviant behavior”, the literal translation, or maybe “pervert”. It is not used to describe a genre at all. In general, other terms like ero manga or ecchi are used for that.


… The West thinks of traditional Japanese puppet theatre.



… Japan has to think twice about what you are trying to say, because Japanese people use the more accurate term ningyō jōruri 人形浄瑠璃, the combination of puppets plus chanting and shamisen playing. Bunraku is in fact the name of a particular theatre.


… The West thinks of uncooked fish dishes. Some people think sushi as well is a kind of sashimi, because it contains raw fish.



… Japan thinks of meat or fish sliced into thin pieces. Most important is that the delicacy is very fresh. Sushi is made with rice, and the ingredients are not limited to raw fish, but include cooked seafood as well.

23rd Japanese Speech Contest in Belgium

speechcontest20131031_161739Yesterday, I participated for the second time in the Japanese speech contest in Brussels. I didn’t finish in one of the first five places, but enjoyed an afternoon listening to everyone’s speeches and chatting with other participants and Japanese spectators. I will publish my speech here. I chose the topic of ‘wrapping culture’, something I have written about before on this blog.

こんにちは。ルーヴァン大学の三年生のアンソフィーと申します。今日は日本の物を包む文化についてお話したいと思います。どうぞ宜しくお願いします。私は今年、卒業論文を書くことになっていますが、 論文のテーマもこの「包む文化」について書くことに決めました。

日本の包む文化というのはどんな文化かをご存知ですか。今から、私の体験を二つお話し したいと思います。




二つ目の体験は去年の夏に日本のペンフレンド・クラブに応募した時のことです。 日本人のペンフレンドが四人も出来て、すごく喜びました。みんな女性です。男性は手紙を書くのがあまり好きではないようですね。応募用紙を送った2週間あとで、初めての手紙が着きました。またハッとしました。封筒だけでもアートワークだったんです。封筒も手紙もキラキラな色で、ステッカーも貼ってあります。(手紙を見せながら)信じられないほど可愛いです。






A Word on Loan Words



In June of this year a 71-year old man in Gifu Prefecture filed a complaint to broadcast station NHK for the use of “too many foreign derived words”. He asked for  ¥1.41 million to compensate for the great emotional distress words like システム (“shisutemu” system),トラブル (“toraburu” trouble) and コミュニティーデザイン (“komyunitii dezain” community design) caused him. The complainer has started his own club, 日本語を大切にする会, or “the group that attaches importance to the Japanese language”. The file was refused in the local court, but his action evoked some reactions among Japanese people and foreign students of Japanese. I collected some comments on the articles of the Japan Times (1) and (2):

Some people support the complaint and state that foreign derived words are unnecessary, confusing and annoying.

My definition of katakana-go is a word/group of words that make no sense in English or that are used in the wrong text. A word/group of words in katakana that is used strictly by Japanese people for Japanese people to understand.(…) As long as there is katakana-go in Japan, many people will suffer when it comes to studying English. Frank Thornton

Languages do exchange, but there is rhythm not to overtake, least a language becomes unclear and loses its communicating power together with its beauty. In that respect, web and sms and many modern ‘communication’ channels are a plague. Overuse of English originating katakanago is but another symptom of a serious pandemia. Jean-Michel Levy

I am an advanced level Japanese speaker, and I find katakana the most difficult to read and write. I am constantly stumbling with my computer or keitai to figure our how long loan words are written and never get them right. I also think that the huge use of katakana words destroys Japanese people’s ability to learn English. Eija Niskanen

 If he were complaining because it’s pathetic, annoying and meaningless, then you’d have a point. My guess is that he doesn’t even think about how horrible katakana is in the broader context of language use in Japan and how it’s actually an impediment (particularly because so much of it is phonetically incorrect) to learning or at least recognizing English. Jeffrey



Some people would like to object to that view.

It may seem arbitrary, but it is absolutely true that loanwords can be considered a part of the native lexicon to a greater or lesser degree based on how long they’ve been used, among other things. Mark Makino

Kanji comes from China and many 漢語 (kango) words are of Chinese origin. Maybe these Japanese language purists should take their initiative further and eliminate all foreign influence on their language by purging kanji and kango? nouveau_ukiyo

The people arguing in favor of the old man have no idea how trivial and stupid this is. If an American tried to sue NBC because he wanted them to call it “raw fish on top of rice” instead of “sushi”, or because the coverage of Egypt called it a “coup d’état” instead of “sudden deposition of government”, they’d be laughed at as either an idiot or racist. Brian Ryskind

They are clearly Japanese words. They have absorbed and adapted into Japanese to work within the language, well at least the ones referred to in the article. They have been borrowed from English but are now used in Japanese. (…) But what do you think the “Japanese language” actually is? It is a well-known fact that it consists of native vocabulary (和語), Chinese-origin vocabulary (漢語) and foreign vocabulary (外来語). John Baker



Sometimes, katakana words are experienced as both positive and negative.

Loan words are a normal part of any language and can add to its richness, but I do agree that sometimes the Japanese overdo it. Too much katakana English confuses understanding, communication becomes less efficient. tommy92

I do think a lot of it is adopted for the “cool” factor – it seems to be a concerted effort on the part of the media to adopt, or rather create something new for the “wow” or “kakkoii” factor. For older Japanese it is probably very puzzling, especially in the mainstream. Glen Douglas Brügge

frankly, this says much about the loss of innovative power in Japanese language.  Xiaochen Su

Where the loan words come from - www.jica.go.jp

Where the loan words come from – http://www.jica.go.jp

Personally, I’m more of the belief that a language evolves, changes and renews itself everyday. It is only natural in a globalized environment that words from other languages are absorbed very easily. However, these newly derived words are not just introduced rashly, but are subject to cultural adaptation.

Firstly, the words can be given another meaning, or can be matched together to form a whole different concept. The Japanese are by far as I know the most creative in doing so.

Secondly, the fact that there exist a lot of synonyms for many words, gives the speaker the chance to match his or her choice of words with the situation or context. If you want to express yourself as modern and “kakkoii“, you can do so by choosing katakana-go カタカナ語. If you give a scholarly explanation, you rather use kango 漢語. Speech you use in daily conversations, consists mostly of wago 和語.

I have to admit, though, that katakana is difficult to read, and when used constantly, it can become tiring. But at the same time, it makes sentences easier to read because you can separate the words before and after it.

On the other hand, I can imagine that  “politicians who pepper their speeches with katakana English to show off their erudition” get on your nerves. And cause great emotional stress, apparently.

Facts for Fun

– Tofugu on English but not so English loan words

– Tofugu again on Japanese as the borrower language

– Wikipedia list of Japanese words of Dutch origin. My personal top three is 1. ontemba 2. doronken 3. skoppu


– “VOX POPULI: ‘Katakana’ Words of Foreign Origin Are Overused.” AJW by The Asahi Shimbun, n.d. http://ajw.asahi.com/article/views/vox/AJ201306280049.
– Osaki, Tomohiro. “Gifu Man, 71, Sues NHK for Distress over Its Excess Use of Foreign Words.” The Japan Times Online, June 27, 2013.
– Schreiber, Mark. “When Does One’s Native Language Stop Being Native?” The Japan Times Online, August 25, 2013.
– “外来語乱用でnhk提訴.” ハフィントンポスト, n.d. http://www.huffingtonpost.jp/2013/06/25/adopted_words_n_3498850.html.

Manga in Dutch

"Dutch version"

“Dutch version”

Today, I want to write about the king of Japanese pop culture: manga (for the newbies to Japanese topics: Japanese comics). There are various reasons why I haven’t touched upon this subject up till now. In the first place, it’s not my hobby. I like to read, and I often have read manga in the past, but I prefer books. As a result I’m not an expert, unlike some of my fellow students. For a handful of them, manga, and evidently anime (newbies: animated comics), has been a major stimulation to study Japanese.

How is manga represented in Belgium? For that question, I took a look at my home collection. I have a younger brother and sister, so all the genres are well represented (me: josei and seinen, brother: shōnen, sister: shōjo).

manga-collectionWe almost bought all series translated into Dutch, published by Kana and Glénat. There are a handful of publishers, but these two are the main ones. These days, the Dutch manga business is kind of sloppy, due to the fact that translated versions doesn’t sell very well. Why is that? Reasons I can think of are:
1) Practically everyone understands English and reads them for free at scanlation sites.
2) Price has risen.
3) Manga are not promoted or displayed by shops, like you can see on the next picture, taken in the Fnac store.

This is the biggest rack of manga you can find in a Belgian shop. The picture is only a small part of a corner dedicated to "graphic novels".

This is the biggest rack of manga you can find in a Belgian shop. The picture is only a small part of a corner dedicated to “graphic novels”. Tezuka’s “Buddha” is prominently present.

I fairly agree with the genres of manga they provide. The first manga I bought, was Detective Conan (and I’m still a big fan). However, we always had to wait a long time for the next volume to appear. And suddenly they stopped publishing it. So in Dutch you can only get 13 volumes, quite poor if you know that there are 79 volumes and 15 movies in Japanese.

detective conan-dutch versionI believe the lay-out of the Dutch versions quite pretty. They have an extra plastic cover and the illustration and colors are attractive. As for the translation, manga published by Kana is very well translated (and that’s why it takes them so long, I suppose), what can not be said of Glénat. The translation is old-fashioned and unnatural, and I even saw a text balloon filled out with French, what raised the question: is it translated from Japanese to French, and afterwards from French to Dutch?

From Shōnen to Shōjo to Seinen (especially detective-like series). Urusawa is well represented.

From Shōnen to Shōjo to Seinen (especially detective-like series). Urusawa is well represented.

The most well-known Japanese thing here is Pokémon. Many children watched it daily on television. That’s why the image of anime is still linked with the shōnen genre. If you tell Belgians that there is also anime and manga for grown-ups, they immediately think of pornographic stuff. Comics are seen as something for kids, and only slowly so-called “graphic novels” could gain the attention and the interest of the public. The fact that they even had to change the name proves the connection between infantile stories and comics (because you have to admit, graphic novels are still comics). It’s true, Belgian comics focus on a younger public. Yes, even Tintin. That the storyline can be somewhat more complex than the umpteenth treasure hunting, is often surprising.

Japan’s Wrapping Culture

For our bachelor paper next year, we had to come up with a decent subject and research question this week. In fact, I already had been thinking a while on writing a post about ‘wrapping culture’. The subject proved to be more profound than I thought, so I decided to turn it into my field of research for next year. This post deals with the general content, while the listed items will be elaborated in further posts.


Japanese sweet1My interest in the topic has grown step by step.  My first encounter with wrapped objects happened last year. I had been asked by a Japanese friend to tour around some people in the picturesque city of Ghent (in which I somehow succeeded, mixing up broken Japanese and English) and received a furoshiki 風呂敷 as thanking present. Not only the furoshiki, a beautifully patterned piece of cloth to wrap things up, but the packaging on itself caught my intention. The present was wrapped carefully in nice paper with a ribbon and a sticker on it and put in a plastic bag with the shop logo. In Belgium, you wrap presents too (or ask the shop tenant to do it for you), but you definitely leave the bag at home. Ribbons are optionally, while stickers are hardly used. We also don’t put the object first in boxes, only a wrapping paper will do.

furoshiki-wrappingcultureTake for example Japanese food. We see a Japanese meal, each substance put in a separate bowl. Sushi in his jacket of seaweed. Biscuits double wrapped. Lunch packed in lacquered boxes (bentō 弁当). Japanese sweets, wrapped per each, inside the package another kind of wrapping. How beautifully this is done, shows the importance Japanese attach to presentation.

(…) If the means of presentation is elegant enough, the nature or even value of the medium of exchange may almost pale into insignificance. (Joy Hendry, 1993)

washiThe attention people pay to gift wrapping can be demonstrated by the famous gift-giving giri 義理, a social duty and obligation. The presentation of the present is so far as meaningful that the wrapping should indicate what’s inside. Business presents, for example, are often not even opened. People save it to pass it to the next business partner. There are standard envelopes for money gifts. Just giving a plain envelope would be considered as inappropriate.


picture by kErosEnE

picture by kErosEnE

So, I had the impression that Japanese people like to wrap. Further experiences have only strengthened this impression. Not only presents, people too are wrapped in presentation. Take for example the uniform. Throughout Japanese history, rigid dress code was brought into vogue. The outer appearance of attire displays rather someone’s function than his or her personality. For every job there’s a uniform. The school girl has her sailor uniform, the businessman cannot afford to wear something else than a suit, white shirt and tie. The human wrapping by excellence is the kimono 着物. Torso and legs are tightly surrounded by cloth, with the bow (obi 帯) as a finishing touch.

picture by Pitke

picture by Pitke

But, what is the effect on the environment? How much plastic would be saved if shop keepers didn’t put everything in three bags? How much less  air conditioning would be needed would be if people worked in T-shirt during summer?

wrapped apples


Then, I realised that ‘wrapping’ goes beyond material things. Japanese tend to wrap up their language and behaviour. Not only the perceptible use of honorific and humble speech, where plain words are embellished to express respect or modesty, but also the more hidden indirect form of communication. Japan is known for its “silent culture”, where a smile is used to hide shame or ignorance, “defending the face”. The face functions as the wrapping paper, covering up true intentions and feelings safely inside the Japanese mind.

Misunderstandings about each others culture sometimes bother negotiations between the West and the East. We like to get straight to the point and strictly separate our personal and professional ties, while Easterners prefer to create a favourable and friendly environment in which the negotiations can run smoothly. I visualise this by imagining  a present of which the wrapping layers are carefully ripped off one by one.

The Japanese have a genuine mistrust of verbal skills, thinking that these tend to show superficiality in contrast to inner, less articulate feelings that are communicated by innuendo or by non verbal means. (Reisschauer, 1977)

This indirect style communication is mainly present in cultures most influenced by Confucianism, i.e. China, Korea and Japan. Confucianism put the emphasis on social relationships in contrast with the Western individualism. We like to express ourselves clearly, we unwrap our thoughts in front of the other. Situations in which we use a lot of words, are often replaced by a slight bow and smile in Japan. I often have the impression that, for example in Japanese movies, fewer words are used.

My goal is not to judge about wrapping culture. I only want to research how various cultural differences could be traced back to the concept of wrapping. I hope I have caught your attention with this introduction, so please look forward to my following posts on this topic!

Gendered Language

I was deprived of the right to use imperative form (meireikei 命令形) the moment I was born. I will never have the opportunity of referring to myself as “boku” (僕). Instead of The Forbidden Particles like “zo”, the particles “wa” and “kashira” will be sticking at the end of my sentences for the rest of my life. The reason: I’m female. Not that I am sorry for that, but I just wanted to point out that there is a notable difference in Japanese speech between men and women.

woman-speech-japaneseThere is no trace of gender-related language differences in Europe. Proof of distinctive vocabulary was found in ancient cultures situated in Asia and Australia. Nowadays, Japan is the only language where the difference between the sexes is so obviously ruled by grammar and vocabulary, especially in the use of pronouns, verbs, sentence-ending particles and prefixes. For lists, you can check wikipedia and tofogu.

Why such distinctions? Is it used to define oneself, to express clearly ones gender?  Language is a powerful tool to indicate human relations and social position. For example, women who wanted to stand up against the male dominance, used the male pronoun “kimi” (君) to address the opposite sex. Nowadays, it has become quite common for girls to use terms like that. I guess that it has a lot to do with emancipation.

The Japanese woman has to be polite, submissive and humble, and so is her language, men speech“ladylike” (onnarashii 女らしい). They often use the honorific prefix “o” en “go” (御), and especially the particle “wa” expresses feminism, even a kind of coquettishness. They rather use polite (teineitai 丁寧体) than non-polite speech (futsuutai 普通体). Men speak in a lower register, using masculine words. That means that “manly” language (otokorashii 男らしい) shows that the man is dominant above women, because he addresses them as inferior by his speech.

It’s a cultural process that has been going on for ages, but women criticizing gendered language is quite understandable. You can see the tendency toward a fading of the strict distinction in Japan’s youth of today. On the other hand, elderly women still address you in polite speech, even if it’s not necessary because you’re younger. But gendered language will certainly not be gone in the following years. If I compare speech in popular Japanese drama, the differences are striking. Here are a few examples (M is male, F is female):

1. Kimi wa petto (君はペット, 2003)
These are conversations between a career woman and  her boyfriend, who was her senior (sempai 先輩) in college. She still uses polite language, despite the intimate relationship.

M: あれっ。やってみよう。(are. yattemiyō.)
F: へっ。プリクラですか。(he. purikura desuka.)
M: 実、俺、一枚も持っていないだよね。(jitsu, ore, ichimai mo motteinaidayone.)

M: Ah, let’s try that.
F: What? Sticker Photos?
M: Actually, I don’t even have a single one.

F: すみません。ありがとうございます。(sumimasen. arigatō gozaimasu.)
M: あ、これ。おいしそうだった。(a, kore. oishisoudatta.)

F: Sorry (for having you get me coffee). Thank you very much.
M: Oh, and this. It looked so good.

F: わらっています。(waratteimasu.)
M: 違う。ごめんごめん。(chigau. gomen gomen.)
F: あのう、本当本当に申し訳ありません。(anō, hontou hontouni mōshiwake arimasen.)
M: そんななんでも謝らなくていいってわ。(sonna nandemo ayamaranakute iittewa.)


F: You’re laughing.
M: No. I’m sorry.(informal)
F: I’m really really sorry.(formal)
M: You don’t have to apologize so much.

2. Ōran High School Host Club (Ōran kōkō hosuto kurabu 桜欄高校ホスト部, 2011)

M: 俺は飲むぞ!(ore wa nomuzo!)
F: あたしも今度、飲んでみようかしら。(atashi mo kondo, nondemiyō kashira.)

M: I will drink it!
F: Maybe I will drink it too, next time.

ouran-high-school-genderedlanguageIn non-formal occasions, schoolboys will always use “ore” to refer to themselves and “omae” and “omaera” to classmates. The girl’s speech is non-polite because she’s talking to a classmate, but she inserts feminine words (onnakotoba 女言葉 or joseigo 女性語) like “atashi” and “kashira”.

3. Rich Man, Poor Woman (リッチマンプアウーマン, 2012)
M is the company president, F is an employee.

F: できそうですか。(dekisoudesuka?)
M: ん、まあ。もういい。お前、帰れ。(n, maa. mō ii. omae, kaere.)
F: へっ。(he.)
M: なんだ? (nanda?)
F: いいえ。お疲れ様でした。(iie. otsukaresamadeshita.)
M: あ。(a.)

F: You made it?
M: Yes, seems so… You, go back.
F: Hé?
M: What?
F: Nothing. We had a good work session.
M: Yes.


There are a lot of “yesses” in Japanese, from the most formal “haa”, “hai” and “ee” to informal “n”, “a”, “o”. M uses imperative form and addresses F as “omae”. Even if F was M’s boss, she wouldn’t use this kind of language.

As you can see, there is no particular difference in the English, what makes it interesting for Japanese learners to grasp the nuances in underlying relationship, which are difficult to convey by translation. Watching drama and anime or reading manga can be a good exercise to train your linguistic feeling. But be careful to pick up the language of your own gender!

Facts for Fun

– This is an elaborated and very interesting post about (female) gendered language in manga by a fellow blogger: Tobidasu


– wikipedia, again wikipedia and tofogu

-Philips, Susan U., Susan Steele, and Christine Tanz. Language, Gender, and Sex in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Dramacrazy, for providing a mountain of drama

Waiting for the Snow: Winter Haiku

hai·ku 俳句 (n. pl. haiku also hai·kus)A Japanese lyric verse form having three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables, traditionally invoking an aspect of nature or the seasons.

No snowy Christmas this year in Belgium. Two of my favorite haiku to evoke the cosy winter feeling:nomoyamamo-joso
This poem was written by Jōsō Naitō (1662 – 1704), a pupil of Bashō. Imagine a wide landscape with rice fields and mountains. The falling snow literally “takes” the land by covering it all in white. Everything turns invisible, nothing’s left.

Famous haiku poet Bashō (1644-1694) wrote this poem in 1684. You can see the pun on the word kasa (笠/傘) clearly in the transcribed part. Kasa means umbrella, but is also a kind of bowl-shaped, big straw hat, very often worn in Bashō’s time.


Haiku found in:

– Tooren, J. van. Haiku : Een Jonge Maan : Japanse Haiku Van De Vijftiende Eeuw Tot Heden. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 2000.

– Matsuo, Basho, and David Landis Barnhill. Basho’s Haiku : Selected Poems by Matsuo Basho. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

(I didn’t use the author’s translation, but my own one)

Old Mac Donald had a farm

“Old MacDonald had a farm” is known and sung all around the world. This song is particularly famous for his animal sounds. It’s quite amusing to see how each language interprets these sounds: most of the time it seems that the animals themselves “speak” different languages too.

In Japan, onomatopoeia (giseigo 擬声語 ) are very often used. There are two different types: “real” onomatopoeia (giongo 擬音語) and mimesis (gitaigo 擬態語). Giongo is a transcription of the sound you actually hear, while gitaigo is a sound to express your actions of feelings. Because we don’t really have gitaigo in our language, it’s rather difficult to understand or to translate. An example of gitaigo is “gatagata” ガタガタ. It means that something is unstable. That can be literally (you’re trembling) or mental (the situation is unstable). Both types are often written in katakana カタカナ (one of the writing systems). Onomatopoeia may sound a bit childish to us (“the dog says woof!”) but are regarded as accomplished in Japan, because it’s difficult to master these sounds at a young age. Also, it enables you to put more feeling in your speech.

Let’s take a look at Old MacDonald’s animals. I thought it would be nice to compare three languages: Japanese, English and Dutch, my native language. The transcription of the katakana is written between brackets. The letters with a hyphen on top should be pronounced as long vowels.

animal Japanese English Dutch
duck ガーガー(gāgā) quack kwak
cow モーモー(mōmō) moo meuh
dog ワンワン(wanwan) woof or bow-wow woef
chicken コケコッコ(kokekokku) cluck or cackle tok
pig ブーブー(būbū) oink knor
goose ガーガー(gāgā) goble gak
horse ヒヒーン(hihīn) neigh hihihihi
donkey makes no sound in Japan… hee-haw ia ia
sheep メーメー(mēmē) bleat bèh or mèh

There are still some animals left on Noah’s ark:

animal Japanese English Dutch
bird ピチュピチュ(pichupichu) tweet piep or *whistle sound*
bee ブーン(būn) buzz zzz
bear グオー(guō) growl grr
dove ポッポッ(poppo) coo-coo roekoe
rooster コケコッコー(kokekokkō) cock-a-doodle-doo kukeleku
cat ニャンニャン(nyannyan) mew miauw
frog ゲロゲロ(gerogero) ribbit kwaak
cicade ジージー(jījī) chirp tsjirp
crow カーカー(kākā) croak kra
owl ホー(hō) hoot oehoe
wolf ワオーン(waōn) howl woehoe
mouse チューチュー(chūchū) squeak piep
tiger ガオー(gaō) roar graw
monkey キーキー(kīkī) gibber oe oe

Now try to guess the animals in the Japanese version of Old Mac Donald: yukaina makiba ゆかいな牧場, meaning “happy farm”. If you’re singing along, watch out for the modulation between the strophes.

 Facts for fun

– In yukaina makiba, there are two farmers: Ichiro and Jiro.

– There is no Dutch version of this song. In primary school, we used to sing this in English.

– The sound of rain has many onomatopoeia in Japanese. Which one to use depends on the heaviness. For example: zāzā ザーザー for heavy rain, potsupotsu ポツポツ for rain drops.

– You can test your Japanese animal sound knowledge on nciku.


– xamuel

– again blog tofogu

–  blog kapanikki, for the image.