Daily Archives: 14 November 2012

Wordcatcher Tales: biombo, subaru

Biombo – The Spanish term biombo ‘folding screen’ comes from Japanese byōbu (屏風 ‘wallwind’ or ‘screenwind’) for the same item. I first learned the term in the caption to Fig. 9 in the book I’ve been reading, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. The figure shows an oil-painted canvas biombo depicting “The Encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma” as imagined by the artist Juan Correa c. 1683. It goes on to describe biombo as “a popular Mexican artform introduced by the Japanese ambassador to Mexico City in 1614”! This left me skeptical because Tokugawa Japan (1600–1868) is far better known for its policy of national seclusion (sakoku) than for international outreach.

But in fact Tokugawa Japan did engage in a bit of outreach before the 1630s. In 1613, Date Masamune, first lord of Sendai, had Japan’s first galleon built in Ishinomaki (one of the cities hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami). Later christened the San Juan Bautista and laden with ceremonial gifts, it set sail for Acapulco in New Spain with Japan’s first ambassador to the Vatican, Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (支倉六右衛門常長, also spelled Faxecura Rocuyemon in Spanish sources), who spent time in Mexico City in 1614 and again on his return trip in 1618. About 60 of his Japanese compatriots who remained in Mexico until his return were baptized there as Christians. Hasekura himself waited until he got to Spain before being baptized as Francisco Felipe Faxicura.

Subaru – I was shocked a few months ago to realize that I had never bothered to wonder what the name Subaru means in Japanese. The logo on Subaru cars should perhaps have given me a hint, but I only found out about the Japanese meaning from a linguist friend who was researching whether the position of the Pleiades marks a seasonal cycle in any languages I was familiar with in Papua New Guinea.

In Numbami, the two words used to translate English ‘year’ are damana, which also means ‘Pleiades’, and yala, which comes from German Jahr. According to Streicher’s (1982) Jabêm–English Dictionary entry for dam(o): “The Pleiades are the main constellation seen in Jabêm during the dry season (October to March), and governing their activities in their gardens, i.e. the felling of trees to clear the ground for new gardens; the burning and planting of fields is done according to the position of the Pleiades.”

In Japanese, ‘Pleiades’ is usually rendered into プレアデス星団 Pureiadesu seidan (= ‘star group’), but the older native Japanese name for the cluster is Subaru, and the Chinese character for it is 昴, pronounced BOU in Sino-Japanese. I’m not aware that the Pleiades play any role at all in Japan’s highly conventionalized seasonal cycles, but the constellation may be a convenient symbol of the five divisions of Fuji Heavy Industries that merged to create the Subaru car company.

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