Monthly Archives: May 2006

Summer Forecast: Very Light Posting

Over the next few months, I’m going to have to concentrate on some high-priority projects with relatively tight deadlines, so posting will be very light to this blog. However, I will continue backfilling my Japan travelogue posts with photographs. On top of that, I recently opened an account on Flickr (under the name Joel in Japan) and will be loading as many photos each month as Flickr’s free bandwidth allocations will permit.

Japan Travel Compendium (now illustrated!)

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Saipan Impressions: Chamorro and Carolinian

Carolinian village marker, GarapanWhen I went to Saipan I didn’t expect to encounter either of its two indigenous languages: Chamorro and Saipanese Carolinian. And indeed I saw next to nothing written in either language. Nothing in Chamorro but the greeting “Hafa Adai” (on every license plate), and nothing in Carolinian except a plaque (pictured here) in the American Memorial Park that marked the site of the old Carolinian village at Garapan.

But then I found KCNM-FM 101.1 on my rent-a-car radio and stayed tuned to it whenever I was driving. It played a wonderful assortment of contemporary Micronesian music, from Palauan enka to Chuukese country to Gilbertese gospel, which can all be sampled on Jane Resture‘s Micronesian Music Radio on

The music was interrupted periodically by NPR news in English and occasional announcements or classified ads in Chamorro, with prices quoted in English and telephone numbers in Chamorro. The Chamorro number system is now based on Spanish: unu, dos, tres, kuatro, sinko, sais, siette, ocho, nuebi, dies. (According to Wikipedia, the basic set of old Chamorro numbers was hacha, hugua, tulu, fatfat, lima, gunum, fiti, gualu, sigua, manot/fulu—far more Philippine-looking.)

Chamorros and Carolinians on Saipan are fighting an uphill battle to preserve their ancestral languages (and many have already surrendered). The resident population of the Northern Marianas is about 35% Filipino, 20% Chamorro, 10% Chinese, 10% Korean, 5% “Anglo”, with smaller numbers of Japanese, Palauans, and other Micronesians. Most of the retail clerks and wait help I encountered spoke Filipino and Filipino-accented English to each other. Most of the tourists I encountered spoke Japanese, Korean, or Chinese. The signage around Chalan Kanoa, which used to be the main Micronesian barrio when the U.S. Navy controlled most of the island, is now overwhelmingly Chinese and Korean, with some Japanese—and English, of course, one of the official languages of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.

The most ubiquitous signs in Saipan say Poker. Many such signs are lit up round the clock. Almost every little country store has a Poker sign over one door, often next to one above the store entrance that says Food Stamps Accepted.

On 18 March 2005, the Saipan Tribune published three essays from a “contest held by the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs’ Chamorro/Carolinian Policy Commission to promote indigenous languages in the Commonwealth.” Let’s examine a few sentences of each.


Meta e welepakk sibwe kkepasal Refaluwasch rel?

Mwaliyasch Refalawasch nge eghi prisisu sibwe ghuleey bwe iyel yaasch IDENTITY me kkosch me eew malawasch ghisch aramasal Seipel. Sibwe abwaari me amalawa mwaliyasch leel olighat, fatattaral iimw, gangisch nge mwetelo mmwal nge sibwe kki yaali schagh.

When I took linguistic field methods back in grad school, our class worked with a speaker of Saipan Carolinian, which was not well described at the time, although a lot was known about closely related Trukese (now Chuukese). I’ve studied quite a few Austronesian languages, but you really need to be familiar with the Micronesian subgroup of Austronesian before this starts to look very familiar. Nevertheless, here are a few items that strike me.

Ethnonym: The Saipan Carolinian name for themselves is Refaluwasch. The name Carolinian is derived from the Caroline Islands, where the ancestors of today’s Saipan Carolinians came from, probably starting around the 1700s, after the Northern Marianas had been almost entirely depopulated.

Unusual sounds: I believe the Germanic looking sch indicates a retroflex affricate that sounds a bit like Yapese ch or Kosraean sr. The double consonants in word-initial position are a bit unusual and take some getting used to for English speakers who ignore the medial double nn in Japanese konnichi-wa.

Dialects: The Trukic languages form one long dialect chain, where speakers on neighboring islands can understand each other fine, but speakers from farther apart have increasing difficulty. There is no contrast between l and n in most of the dialects. Where this speaker writes aramasal Seipel ‘people of Saipan’, a speaker of a different dialect might write aramasan Seipen. Similarly, the town of Tanapag, settled by a different group of Carolinians, also goes by the name of Tallabwog.


Hafa Na Prisisu Na Ta Praktika I Fino’ Chamorro?

Kumu uniku yu’ na pagton [sic] palao’an gi familia yan todu I dos saina-hu Chamorro, gi anai pa’go mafañagu yu’, hu hungok I sunidon Chamorro despues enao mo’na I fina’na’guen nana-hu yan tata-hu. Este I lengguahen Chamorro impottante na ta tungo’ sa’ I mismo lengguahi-ta dumiklaklara hafa nasion-ta na rasan taotao….

Pot uttimo, prefekto yu’ na patgon Chamorro ya ti bai hu sedi na bai hu maleffa osino bai hu na’ fo’na I otro lengguahi ki I mismo lengguahi-hu Chamorro.

A Spanish reader’s reaction to written Chamorro must be very similar to a Chinese reader’s reaction to written Japanese. The huge number of familiar borrowings let you know the subject matter, but the foreign grammatical framework remains opaque. You know what they’re talking about, but not what they’re saying.

Ethnonym: Many Chamorros prefer to call themselves Chamoru, perhaps especially Guamanian Chamorros, whose orthographic standards (at least at Unibetsidåt Guahan) seem to differ somewhat from those in Saipan.

Unusual sounds: Chamorro ch is pronounced like [ts] (and some capitalize both members of the digraph: CHamoru, like Dutch IJssel); while y is pronounced like [dz]. The apostrophe marks a glottal stop. Spanish syllable-final -r regularly becomes -t and syllable-final -l assimilates to the following consonant.

Grammar: One of my term papers in grad school was an analysis of the historical morphology of Chamorro and Palauan, both of which look more Philippine-like as you go farther back. And both are verb-initial to a significant degree. (So is Yapese, but it’s not very closely related to any other Austronesian language.) But Palauan morphology is far more opaque: with Philippine -in- showing up as -l- and -um- showing up as -o- in some environments. Chamorro is more straightforward. The Spanish loanword diklara, for instance, is both infixed and reduplicated in d-um-iklaklara. Compare Tagalog bili ‘buy’ and one of its inflected forms, b-um-ibili.

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Validating the Road to Genocide

Finally, the role of validation must be considered. We saw that failures to adequately punish the perpetrators of earlier massacres either of Armenians in 1894–96, Jews in Ukraine in 1918–20, or Tutsi in Rwanda beginning in 1959 likely contributed to the perceived vulnerability of these groups.

With the rise of contemporary mass communications, perhaps even resulting in a global village in the half-century since the Holocaust, validation does not have to be confined to the earlier unpunished murder of the potential victims themselves. If the ongoing process of massacre is not addressed, then victimizers anywhere in the world may conclude that mass killing will not be interrupted or punished, even if in a different location and with different victims. A process of this type likely occurred prior to the Rwandan genocide, and specifically in the early stages of the Bosnian conflict two years earlier. At this time, it had all the appearances of genocide, at least to many observers. The fact that the apparent mass murder of tens if not hundreds of thousands in Bosnia went unopposed, at least militarily in the opening, most influential stages of the conflict, made it appear that genocidal activities could be accomplished without serious external constraint in the post-Cold War climate of the 1990s. In other words, “if they can get away with it, so can we.”

Regarding another African conflict, “I call it the copycat syndrome,” said Dame Margaret Anstee, who was the UN secretary general’s special envoy in Angola in the early 1990s. She said that, in 1992, when the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi “chose bullets over ballots,” he had been watching the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic [still at large!] “getting away with murder.” This interpretation accords with the finding of Stuart Hill and Donald Rothschild that receptivity to outside political violence is conditional upon a recent history of domestic strife, amply found in both Angola and Rwanda. The fighting between Hutu and Tutsi in 1959–64, the sporadic persecutions after independence (especially in 1973), and the ongoing strife after the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front] invasion of 1990 amply satisfy this condition.

Widespread massacres anywhere in the world, particularly in regions with powerful states such as Europe, have the potential to be extremely influential, especially if these states do nothing to stop the massacres. If power disparities between potential interveners and victimizers are substantial, again as in Europe in the early 1990s, and no intervention occurs, then validation of massacre, if not genocide itself, can be even more pronounced. Thus, prevention of genocide in one location is dependent on prior occurrences not only in that location, but in almost any place in the world in which successful intervention to prevent mass murder could have occurred, but did not. As in understanding the etiology of genocide, prevention is a complex matter requiring vigilance and awareness of the appropriate antecedent variables.

SOURCE: The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century, by Manus I. Midlarsky (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), pp. 394-395

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Genocide Prevention by Democracies: OIMBY?

And now we arrive at a paradox of genocide prevention. Although one of the best preventives of the genocide of a state’s minority population is the existence of a liberal democratic regime within that state, quite the opposite is true of democracy in bystander states. Here, the desire to be reelected, as in the case of the Allied governments at Versailles, or simply to avoid negative public reaction, may preclude any governmental action on behalf of endangered citizens of another state. Recall … President Roosevelt’s refusal to authorize the bombing of Auschwitz because of the fear of embarrassment, not to mention his earlier narrowing of immigration possibilities for Jews seeking refuge in the United States. Opinion polls had revealed the high level of anti-Semitism in the United States that might make his governing more difficult and, of course, his reelection as well. The British followed a similar path, as did President Clinton more recently in the Rwandan genocide.

At the Evian immigration conference in 1938 …, the only state to open its borders to Jewish immigration was the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo, a dictator who was among the least responsive to public opinion. The Western democracies were extremely uncooperative in opening their borders. To be sure, public outcry on behalf of a threatened population potentially may reach a larger audience in a democracy than in an autocracy, if allowed, but on the whole the presumption in democracies, almost universally accepted, is that the electorate will be far more responsive to issues directly concerning its own perceived well-being than to the concerns of “alien” people….

Democracy, therefore, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its spread will make the lives of minorities more secure within states that democratize successfully. This conclusion is suggested by the findings of Rudolph Rummel and Barbara Harff. On the other hand, populations threatened with genocide may find fewer islands of refuge within democratic states. Recent restrictions on the granting of political asylum in European countries, not to mention greater difficulties generally in immigrating to Europe, and all of this even after the European Holocaust experience, suggest the importance of this distinction.

SOURCE: The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century, by Manus I. Midlarsky (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), pp. 392-394

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Proving One’s Faith in Tehran Jails, 1980s

We exchanged stories as we walked that day. Nassrin told me more about her time in jail. The whole thing was an accident. I remember how young she had been, still in high school. You’re worried about our brutal thoughts against “them,” she said, but you know most of the stories you hear about the jails are true. The worst was when they called people’s names in the middle of the night. We knew they had been picked for execution. They would say good-bye, and soon after that, we would hear the sound of bullets. We would know the number of people killed on any given night by counting the single bullets that inevitably came after the initial barrage. There was one girl there—her only sin had been her amazing beauty. They brought her in on some trumped-up immorality charge. They kept her for over a month and repeatedly raped her. They passed her from one guard to another. That story got around jail very fast, because the girl wasn’t even political; she wasn’t with the political prisoners. They married the virgins off to the guards, who would later execute them. The philosophy behind this act was that if they were killed as virgins, they would go to heaven. You talk of betrayals. Mostly they forced those who had “converted” to Islam to empty the last round into the heads of their comrades as tokens of their new loyalty to the regime. If I were not privileged, she said with rancor, if I were not blessed with a father who shared their faith, God knows where I would be now—in hell with all the other molested virgins or with those who put a gun to someone’s head to prove their loyalty to Islam.

SOURCE: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2004), p. 212

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Wordcatcher Tales: Imari, Potters, and Abduction

Recently the Far Outliers finally got around to visiting one of Ashikaga City’s principal tourist attractions, the Kurita Museum near the Flower Park, both of which lie in the outlying town of Tomita, one JR train stop to the east.

The beautiful Kurita Museum grounds house not only one of the finest and largest collections of Imari and Nabeshima porcelain (磁器 jiki) in the world, they also include exhibits of international archaeological finds and pottery-making techniques, a climbing kiln (登り窯 noborigama, as opposed to the single-chamber 穴釜 anagama), gift and snack shops, and an off-limits working potters’ village. The Sushi and Maple Syrup blogger has posted a lot of photos from a weekend visit to the Museum (and Ashikaga Gakko) last year.

伊萬里 (or 伊万里) Imari – My sources seem to indicate that Imari is one subset of Arita ware and Nabeshima is another. They were all manufactured in Arita (有田), in Saga Prefecture in northwest Kyushu. Imari is the port (near Hirado in neighboring Nagasaki Prefecture) from which export varieties were shipped, and Nabeshima (鍋島 ‘Pot Island’) is the name of the Saga domain lords who controlled production, guarded secrets, and commissioned works of the highest quality for their peers in Japan.

As porcelain grew in popularity, the Nabeshima Clan took steps to keep their production and decorating techniques a closely guarded secret. They were aided in this effort by the Tokugawa Shogunate and other feudal lords, who commissioned the Nabeshima Clan to make porcelain for only the elite classes — the sale of Nabeshima ware to commoners was actually forbidden, and the number of kilns and wheels was strictily limited by law.

無名陶工 Mumei toukou ‘Unnamed potters’ – The highest point on the grounds of the Kurita Museum is a memorial hall dedicated to all the unknown potters whose work Mr. Kurita so obviously cherishes. Unfortunately, Mr. Kurita’s flowery words of appreciation fail to note that the first of these potters were Korean, and that at least one went by the name Ri Sampei in Japanese (李参平, 1579-1655).

In the early 1600s, Nabeshima Naoshige, the feudal lord of the Sage [sic] Clan, brought a group of Korean potters to Japan, including the potter Risampei, who in 1616 discovered a superior white-stoned clay at Izumiyama (Izumi Mountain, Arita). Wares fired with this earth are called “hakuji” (white porcelain …). Some say this was the beginning of Arita Ware.

拉致 ratchi or rachi ‘abduction’ – This word is much in the Japanese news these days as the government and individual citizens seek to determine the fate of various young people thought to have been abducted by North Korea in order to teach Japanese to North Korean spies. After failing to find the word (under either pronunciation variant) in my electronic dictionary, I had to resort to looking up the individual characters. The first kanji (拉, Sino-Japanese ratsu) is used to indicate the sound Ra as an abbreviation for Raten ‘Latin’ (which is usually written in katakana when spelled in full). But 拉 also appears in the native Japanese verb 拉ぐ hishigu ‘crush, smash, overpower’ and in the Sino-Japanese verb 拉っする rassuru ‘drag along; kidnap’. The second kanji, whose Sino-Japanese reading is chi, is used to write 致す itasu ‘do; send; cause; render (assistance); exert (oneself)’, as in どう致しまして dou itashimashite ‘what have I done (to deserve thanks)?’ (= ‘Not at all / Don’t mention it’).

The Japanese arts website bleu et blanc provides a succinct account of the role of international supply and demand in the early history of Imari ware. (“Blue-and-white” is the English epithet for 染付け sometsuke porcelain. Literally, it means ‘dye added’ but the default coloring agent for porcelain was cobalt, just as the default dye for textiles was indigo, which I recently heard is also effective as an insect repellent.)

Porcelain was first fired in Hizen province of Northern Kyushu in the early 17th century by Korean potters, and most likely by the potter named Ri Sanpei, who was brought to Japan by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in his second invasion of Korea in 1597.

Early examples were somewhat primitive (but now highly prized) white or celadon toned wares, decorated with underglaze cobalt blue, until the 1640s when the first enamels were fired in red, green, blue, yellow, purple, and eventually gold; associated with the first enamels is the famous Sakaida Kakiemon (1596-1666). Before long Dutch traders aggressively sought to obtain Japanese porcelains, whose sources in China had been disrupted due to political turmoil [the fall of the Ming and rise of the Qing dynasties]; they quickly turned to Arita to provide for European demands. The first large order at Arita was placed by the VOC in 1653, and in a short time the area enjoyed prosperity as providers for the European elite, with export production reaching a peak in the 1680s, the beginning of Arita’s “golden age.”

While market demand continued for some time into the 18th century, Arita could not compete with China, who from a near cessation of operations in the 17th century, rebounded in the 18th century. The last official order from the VOC in 1759 was for three hundred pieces, and the VOC itself was dissolved in 1799.

Simultaneously, and more substantially, Arita provided for its own domestic market throughout its long history. Both style and form evolved parallel with artistic and cultural trends, and show the strong influence at different times of Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu), Chinese ceramics, painting trends, and Chinese style tea ceremony (Sencha). Some of these domestic pieces were exported privately and incidentally to the West, however much of upper tier pieces were reserved for use by feudal lords and like members of society. Arita porcelains are remarkable for their rich variations in form, style and subjects.

POSTSCRIPT: To those who think I am suggesting a moral equivalence between contemporary North Korea and contemporary Japan, let me suggest a much better match, one between Kim Il Sung, would-be unifier of a fractured Korea, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, successful unifier of a fractured Japan. That should irritate both Korean and Japanese nationalists.

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Burma: Once Wealthy, Now Wasteland. Why?

While I was in Katha I went to visit a woman who is the guardian of one of Burma’s many secret histories…. ‘We historians must keep our mouths tightly shut,’ she said as she bolted the door and motioned me to a seat…. Tin Tin Lay used to work as a history professor in Rangoon University,… She now sat down opposite me and asked, ‘What is it you want to know?’

Before the Second World War, Burma was one of the richest countries in the region. Any economist comparing it with other countries in Asia would have thought it safe to wager that it would develop one of the region’s most successful economies. Since then, civil wars have raged across Burma’s border areas, taking an infinite toll on lives and natural resources, and the military regime has outlasted almost all other dictatorships around the world. How, I wanted to know, had the fertile ground of Burmese Days evolved so quickly into the wasteland of Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Tin Tin Lay blames all Burma’s woes on a streak of authoritarianism that she believes runs through Burmese society. Before the British arrived in Burma the country was ruled by an absolute monarchy. ‘We Burmese spent eight centuries living under these all-powerful monarchs,’ she said. ‘A Burmese king could kill you or destroy you or arrest you whenever he wanted.’ As a result, she argued, the Burmese have become conditioned to authoritarian rule. ‘We are trained to listen to our elders, she said. ‘We are trained to obey.’ In other words, the Burmese have a psychological receptiveness to authoritarian government.

I had heard this controversial theory before. It was set out in a famous essay published in the early 1960s by the late Maung Maung Gyi, who had a doctorate from Yale University. He wrote about the despotic nature of Burmese kings, who were traditionally extolled as Thet-oo Hsanbaing Mintayagyi, which means ‘The Great Owner of Life, Head and Hair of His Subjects’, or a more succinct title could be used: Bawa-Shin Min-Taya, meaning ‘The Arbiter of Existence’. Because there was no consistent law of primogeniture, the history of Burmese kingdoms is drenched in bloodshed…. The large number of rivals and challenges to the throne led to brutal massacres not only of the challengers themselves, but also of their families. The people lived at the whim of these great Arbiters of Existence; whole villages could be turned into slave markets, or be burned to cinders for harbouring dissenters. The result, wrote Maung Maung Gyi, can be seen in a Burmese proverb that says there are four things in life which cannot be trusted: a thief, the bough of a tree, a woman and a ruler. The Burmese thought-pattern had become adapted to the idea of a government as something oppressive and evil. The Burmese came to believe that misrule was an inevitability of governance. This psychological legacy has taught them that it is futile to stand up against a bad ruler, no matter how bad things get.

It is a theory that Tin Tin Lay would never be able to discuss in public, unless she wanted to provoke the ire of the military junta (not to mention the many Burmese who would disagree with her). ‘The views are unpopular – I know they are,’ she told me. ‘But there is a truth to them. Look at us. Here we are, suffering. Suffering under our own people. Year after year we are made poorer. Year after year we become more downtrodden. The government runs free, robbing, looting and raping us. Why?’ She repeated her question, more sharply: ‘Why?’

I suggested a more accepted explanation of how authoritarianism was able to take root in Burma: it was the fault of the British. When the British took over Burma, they destroyed all the country’s traditional institutions of government – the monarchy, the monkhood, the central administration. They deported the king, who was the linchpin of the country’s administration and religious systems, keeping him until his death under careful guard in exile in India. And they practiced a system of divide and rule among the ethnic minorities. This system was unsustainable without the British, and, when it crumpled in on itself after they left, the Burmese army stepped in to quell the ensuing chaos.

Tin Tin Lay looked at me with absolute disdain…. ‘The British,’ she said, brought us democracy. It was the first time we had tasted it. We had never even heard of it before the British came, and we were not ready for it. I am ashamed of the Burmese people. I am ashamed of Burma and I am sad for the Burmese. We are very, very ignorant. We are always looking for someone to blame, so we blame the British.’

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), pp. 203-205

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Knowing How to Use vs. Knowing About Keigo

Information presented in the how-to industry confirms that the formal grammar of keigo [‘polite language’] itself is not the central issue for Japanese speakers. Of much greater interest are situations associated with keigo or that call for particular language. In the classes I took at the hanashikata-kyōshitsu [‘how-to-speak classroom’] formal instruction was kept to a minimum. Even when it was included, its function seemed to be as much to lend credibility to the enterprise as to teach. When our formal knowledge was tested in the hanashikata-kyōshitsu, the results frequently brought me up short. As we sat through numerous keigo quizzes, I noticed that a friend, a woman in her thirties, was consistently befuddled when asked to provide, for example, the honorific (sonkeigo) form of iu [‘say’] (ossharu); the humble kenjōgo form for iku ‘go’ (mairu); or the error in Okyaku-sama no onamae wa nan to mōsararemasu ka? ‘What do you say your name is?’ (Mōsararemasu is incorrect because it is an honorific inflection [-araremasu] attached to a humble verb [mōs-u].)

These were tasks that I, as a language student and a linguist, found eminently reasonable and even comforting. But for most of those around me, including my friend, appeared to find such tasks frustrating and artificial. They exhibited consternation at the analysis of language. But at the same time, I never heard my friend err in any of her conversations with our instructors. She may have lacked the confidence in or been suspicious of what educational psychologists term her “declarative” knowledge of Japanese, but she was far from inept in her “procedural” know-how. She just used common sense—and apparently took comfort in the instructor’s excursus on the importance of correct keigo. What she lacked, in my estimation, was confidence in her own ability to apply her common sense to heretofore unknown situations. So to the extent that the hanashikata-kyōshitsu class expanded its participants’ horizons, it served an educational purpose. But from the relational perspective, the proffered advice of how-to does not serve actually to instruct consumers in using language. Rather, it lays out familiar (to the insider) contexts that serve as frames for keigo usage that speakers may not have seen or heard before.

This is surely one way in which native speakers differ from non-natives, as I had demonstrated to me again and again. One aspect of the hanashikata-kyōshitsu that I found instructive was the constellation of contexts and other phenomena that came together in the course of a class—naturally for the Japanese participants, in edifying fashion for me. One example of this was the six-week class called shikaisha yōsei senka ‘training for emcees’. A shikaisha in Japan is the person who chairs the PTA meeting, operates as master of ceremonies at weddings, or in general runs the social event. We were given specific training for weddings and business meetings, but we also did a unit on running outings for work associates. In our case, because it was May, and spring was upon us, we elected to role-play a get-together at a park to engage in hanami (cherry-blossom viewing). I learned that for such get-togethers there are secondary roles that had to be filled, for which the shikaisha was ultimately responsible: the person who made the reservation, the “treasurer” who collected each participant’s contribution, the person who acted as uketsuke ‘receptionist’ for the event. There was also an agreed-upon progression for the event itself, where each person was given a chance to speak in front of the group. Each of us was expected to practice and gain control of the language forms associated with our role. My colleagues were already inculcated in the roles, as well as in the secondary basic communicative practices (who did what when). Keigo emerged as just one aspect of the whole package of what it meant to be a shikaisha.

Such conflation of language and the real world is not unique to Japan.

SOURCE: Keigo in Modern Japan: Polite Language from Meiji to the Present, by Patricia J. Wetzel (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2004), pp. 99-100

If only foreign languages were taught in Japan in the same way as keigo, that is, as an instrument of social interaction rather than as a body of facts to be memorized and tested on.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Noborifuji, Shakunage, Tsurubara

This afternoon the Outliers paid another visit to the Ashikaga Flower Park. We waited until the peak season crowds had cleared and the price had dropped, thereby saving ¥600 each at the cost of missing the Park’s signature exhibit: the huge arbors of purple, white, and yellow blossoms hanging from massive wisteria trees (藤 fuji). But the great profusion of roses (バラ, bara), clematis (クレマチス, kuremachisu), and rhododendrons (シャクナゲ, shakunage) almost made up for it. And so did the chance to learn a little more about plants and their names—in English as well as Japanese.

上り藤 noborifuji ‘ascending wisteria’ – Although we missed the hanging wisteria, we discovered another plant still in bloom whose nickname in Japanese is ‘ascending wisteria’: lupines, also called ルピナス, rupinasu (pictured above). I remember first reading about lupines while devouring a lot of Steinbeck during language school in Monterey, California, but had never really studied them up close, and had certainly never compared them to wisteria.

石楠花 shakunage ‘rhododendron’ – When I checked the labels and read their name in kanji, it took me a good while to figure out that what seemed to be seki+nan+ka ‘stone+camphor+flower’ was actually read shaku+na+ge and meant ‘rhododendron‘. That’s why plant identification labels in Japan usually render the names in katakana.

つるバラ tsurubara ‘rambling rose’ – When we first encountered a long hedgerow with trellises, the flowers didn’t look like roses, but a nearby label identified them as tsurubara カクテル (kakuteru, ‘cocktail’ probably meaning ‘hybrid’). The flowers looked a bit like John Cabot explorer roses, but with golden centers. They turned out to be just one of the varieties of rambling roses (or climbing roses) on display in the park.

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Animal Farm in Burma

Animal Farm was unpopular in Burma when it was first published there in the 1950s. Many of the leading intellectuals at the time had leftist leanings and read it as a criticism of the socialism they admired. When the US Embassy printed excerpts as anti-Communist propaganda, the book’s fate was sealed. The society which had sponsored the translation had to give away remaindered copies. But years later, when people began to reread it, they saw similarities to their own history. I met one university lecturer who told me she had tried to put Animal Farm on the syllabus for English-literature students, but the authorities had warned her off: the text was just too similar to what was going on in Burma. A few years ago Animal Farm was serialized on the BBC’s Burmese radio service. For weeks afterwards, Tun Lin told me, Mandalay tea shops were abuzz with attempts to match the animal characters to Burma’s own leaders. Could you compare ‘the Lady’, as democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is known, to the exiled porcine revolutionary Snowball? And which pig was General Ne Win? Was he Major, the imperious old pig with a vision who died so suddenly? (Hopefully.) Or was he Napoleon, the grotesque ruler who grew stronger and more deranged each day? (Probably.)

Ne Win was perhaps a bit of both. He was a famously reclusive leader, known for his foul mouth, many marriages and obsessive superstition. It was his dabblings with numerology that had the most dramatic consequences for Burma. In 1987 Ne Win demonetized certain banknotes, replacing them with new notes with denominations of 45 kyat and 90 kyat – each value neatly divisible by nine (an astrologically auspicious number, and the general’s favourite). People’s already paltry savings were wiped out overnight and, with little to lose, a year later they took to the streets in the 1988 uprising.

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), pp. 89-90

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