Monthly Archives: June 2013

Along the Sumatra Railroad, August 1945

From Chapter VI, The golden spike, in The Sumatra Railroad: Final Destination Pakan Baroe, 1943-1945, by Henk Hovinga, trans. by Bernard J. Wolters (KITLV Press, 2010), pp. 276-281:

It was 15 August 1945. The previous night telexes had spread the news across the world: ‘Japan surrendered. Armistice on 15 August at 00.00 hrs.’ The Japanese officers there in the godforsaken green heart of Sumatra also knew that. They shouted: ‘Banzai Nippon’ while they knew that they had been defeated. But they kept quiet. They only talked about the railway that was finally completed at the cost of immeasurable human suffering. At the cost of more than eighty thousand dead, the vast majority of which were romushas.

The POWs who were waiting motionlessly between the trees, still had no knowledge of the surrender. With sweat dripping down their chins, they did not dare to move. Ignorant of this historical moment in the world’s history, they looked breathlessly at how the bottle on the table was uncorked, how the glasses went around and the biscuits were presented. A short while later the tense ceremony, that had lasted not even half an hour, was abruptly terminated. Tables and chairs were hastily loaded on to the lorries after the emaciated workers had also been offered a biscuit and a swig from a bottle. Then they were ordered back to the trains. One departed to the north, the other to the south, to the camp in the gorge, where fresh rumours had circulated in the meantime….

That evening, shortly before sundown, the POWs were counted and recounted. All men had returned from the railway. The Japanese commander stepped forward in front of the hundreds of almost naked human wrecks. The ribs could be counted on most of them; many were covered in wounds and tropical ulcers. With their hollow eyes they tensely watched the well-fed, arrogant Japanese. Would he announce what they had all for so long desperately wanted to hear? Lieutenant Visser interpreted:

‘Now that the railway is finished, thanks to the efforts of all of you, I have been given the authority in the name of His Majesty, the Emperor, to inform you that all of you are permitted to rest from this moment on. In a short while you will all be relocated to more pleasant parts of the country. As of today all rations of rice, vegetables and meat will be increased. You will be provided with these new rations as soon as we receive new stock. At this moment we do not have any meat or vegetables and we have only a supply of rice for a few days. Pending your relocation, you are not permitted to leave the camp.’

That was all…. The choking uncertainty lasted for over a week, while the men were hanging around the camp with nothing to do. It was probably 24 August when the first train with a real steam powered locomotive stopped at Camp 11…. On August 27 a second contingent of POWs was transferred in the same manner…. The last group from the south departed on 30 August, taking with them the entire inventory of the camp that was now completely abandoned….

‘We obtained complete certainty a little later during roll call. Lieutenant Visser stepped forward and shouted: “Today is 31 August. It is the birthday of our beloved Queen Wilhelmina. That is why together we are now going to sing our national anthem, the Wilhelmus: one, two, three…” But nobody had the courage. “Then I will do it alone”, Visser said as he began to sing. Fearfully, we looked at the Jap, but when he did not move we all joined in one after the other. At first hesitatingly, but then louder, from the heart. It was a very strange moment. I saw the Jap slowly move his legs; he put down his samurai sword and stood up. When the last words of the anthem sounded, he stood directly across from us and saluted. That was when we knew. At last! We hardly dared to believe it, but this time it was true. We were free. We cheered, shouted and cried. We were free. Finally free…’

Without an official Japanese declaration of surrender lieutenant Visser’s group was the last to find out that the war was over. Two weeks earlier the wildest rumours of a possible surrender had already been going around the first camps near Pakan Baroe [‘New Market’]. Mid August hope of an impending liberation was also glimmering in Camp 2 when the usually sadistic Koreans suddenly turned friendly, even inviting a group of prisoners from the camp staff to a meal! That had to occur at midnight and without knowledge of the Japanese. Naturally the place that would be least likely to attract undesired visitors and snoopers was the cemetery on the other side of the stream. There, at the graveyards, the Koreans offered the representatives of their victims a conciliatory meal. They told the captives that the war was almost over and that they, the POWs, should not be too hard on them. After all Korea had also been occupied and suppressed by the Japanese for years, so that the prisoners and the guards were actually partners in adversity….

When a few days later the news of liberation seeped through to everyone, the most heart-warming scenes took place everywhere along the railway. On 25 August at eight o’clock in the morning the POWs in Logas (Camp 9) were informed that the war was over. The Japs disarmed the Koreans, while a Korean non-commissioned officer stood to attention before a Japanese soldier third class. The next day all ducks and chickens of the Japanese camp commander had disappeared. They had been consumed by the prisoners.

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Filed under disease, food, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, labor, Netherlands, slavery, war

Maggot therapy in Sumatra, 1944

From Chapter IV, Maggots with sambal, in The Sumatra Railroad: Final Destination Pakan Baroe, 1943-1945, by Henk Hovinga, trans. by Bernard J. Wolters (KITLV Press, 2010), pp. 184, 186:

A great problem in many camps was the acquisition of an adequate amount of proteins. Even though in Camp 3 little fish were caught in the river with a klamboe [= Malay kelambu ‘mosquito net’, also borrowed into Tok Pisin], most other camps were not near a river. Again Indonesians knew that the maggots of fire ants and coconut beetles were edible and also palatable when cooked with sambal. Doctor W.J. van Ramshorst, who was fighting a losing battle against disease, came to similar conclusions:

‘The greatest problem was the lack of food. The sick men were totally emaciated and had lost their immunity to all kinds of infectious diseases. I got the idea to use maggots from the chickens that were quickly becoming fat foraging around the latrines, feeding on the fly maggots there. There was always a cloud of flies buzzing over the holes in the ground where people were defaecating. And I thought to myself, what is good for chickens, must also be good for men. It is a filthy story, but we hauled those maggots by the bucketful from the latrines, washed them, cooked them and gave them to the sick men with sambal. On this protein rich diet their condition improved visibly.

I made another discovery in that terrible camp, where those working on the railroad were sent to die. We had no disinfectants to treat the filthy tropical ulcers. But again maggots were the solution. I bound an old rag with larvae around the wound and after a few days it was cleaned beautifully. Many still died from undernourishment, beri-beri, malaria and bacillary dysentery, for which we had no cure. But at least with those maggots we were able to save a good number of our people.’

POW Ben Wolters discovered another remedy for tropical ulcers, when two large ones developed on his left foot instep. One afternoon he was sleeping on his left side on the balé-balé [bamboo stretcher on wooden posts] with his left foot instep toward the boards. He woke up due to an itch in the ulcers, which had turned dark red. When he took a closer look and inspected them he saw tiny ants. They had removed all deleterious material. After [he removed] the tiny ants, he covered the wounds with a cloth patch and glued it with fresh liquid latex from a rubber tree. Soon the wounds were healed. And so ants and maggots made a positive contribution to the POWs’ lives.

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Venice’s Imperial Stato da Mar

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1815-1866:

By the treaty of October 1204, the Partition of the Lands of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire, Venice became overnight the inheritor of a maritime empire. At a stroke, the city was changed from a merchant state into a colonial power, whose writ would run from the top of the Adriatic to the Black Sea, across the Aegean and the seas of Crete. In the process its self-descriptions would ascend from the Commune, the shared creation of its domestic lagoon, to the Signoria, the Serenissima, the Dominante—“the Dominant One”—a sovereign state whose power would be felt, in its own proud formulation, “wherever water runs.”

On paper, the Venetians were granted all of western Greece, Corfu, and the Ionian islands, a scattering of bases and islands in the Aegean Sea, critical control of Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, and, most precious of all, three-eighths of Constantinople, including its docks and arsenal, the cornerstone of their mercantile wealth. The Venetians had come to the negotiating table with an unrivaled knowledge of the eastern Mediterranean. They had been trading in the Byzantine Empire for hundreds of years, and they knew exactly what they wanted. While the feudal lords of France and Italy went to construct petty fiefdoms on the poor soil of continental Greece, the Venetians demanded ports, trading stations, and naval bases with strategic control of seaways. None of these were more than a few miles from the sea. Wealth lay not in exploiting an impoverished Greek peasantry, but in the control of sea-lanes along which the merchandise of the East could be channeled into the warehouses of the Grand Canal. Venice came in time to call its overseas empire the Stato da Mar, the “Territory of the Sea.” With two exceptions, it never comprised the occupation of substantial blocks of land—the population of Venice was far too small for that—rather it was a loose network of ports and bases, similar in structure to the way stations of the British Empire. Venice created its own Gibraltars, Maltas, and Adens, and like the British Empire it depended on sea power to hold these possessions together.

This empire was almost an accidental construct. It contained no program for exporting the values of the Republic to benighted peoples; it had little interest in the lives of these unwilling subjects; it certainly did not want them to have the rights of citizens. It was the creation of a city of merchants and its rationale was exclusively commercial. The other beneficiaries of the partition of 1204 concocted scattered kingdoms with outlandish feudal titles—the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the Kingdom of Salonika, the Despotate of Epirus, the Megaskyrate of Athens and Thebes, the Triarchy of Euboea, the Principality of Achaea, the Marquisates of Boudonitza and Salonae—the list was endless. The Venetians styled themselves quite differently. They were proud lords of a Quarter and Half a Quarter of the Empire of Romania. It was a merchant’s precise formulation, coming in total to three-eighths, like a quantity of merchandise weighed in a balance. The Venetians, shrewdly practical and unromantic, thought in fractions: They divided their city into sixths, the capital costs of their ships into twenty-fourths, and their trading ventures into thirds. The places where the flag of Saint Mark was raised and his lion carved on harbor walls and castle gates existed, in the repeated phrase, “for the honor and profit of Venice.” The emphasis was always on the profit.

The Stato da Mar allowed the Venetians to ensure the security of their merchant convoys, and it protected them from the whims of foreign potentates and the jealousy of maritime rivals. Crucially, the treaty afforded full control of trade within the center of the eastern Mediterranean. At a stroke it locked their competitors, the Genoese and the Pisans, out of a whole commercial zone.

Theoretically Byzantium had now been neatly divided into discrete blocks of ownership, but much of this existed only on paper, like the crude maps of Africa carved up by medieval popes. In practice the divisions were far messier. The implosion of the Greek empire shattered the world of the eastern Mediterranean into glittering fragments. It left a power vacuum, the consequences of which no one could foresee—the irony of the Fourth Crusade was that it would advance the spread of Islam, which it had set out to repel. The immediate aftermath was less an orderly distribution than a land grab.

The eastern Mediterranean became a magnet for adventurers and mercenaries, pirates and soldiers of fortune from Burgundy, Lombardy, and the Catalan ports. It was a last Christian frontier for the young and the bold. Tiny principalities sprang up on the islands and plains of Greece, each one guarded by its desolate castle, engaging in miniature wars with its neighbors, feuding and killing. The history of the Latin kingdoms of Greece is a tale of confused bloodshed and medieval war. Few of them lasted long. Dynasties conquered, ruled, and vanished again within a couple of generations, like light rain into the dry Greek earth. They were dogged by continuous, if uncoordinated, Byzantine resistance.

Venice knew better than most that Greece was no El Dorado. True gold was coined in the spice markets of Alexandria, Beirut, Acre, and Constantinople. They impassively watched the feudal knights and mercenary bands hack and hatchet each other and pursued a careful policy of consolidation. They hardly bothered with many of their terrestrial acquisitions. They never claimed western Greece, with the exception of its ports, and unaccountably failed to garrison Gallipoli, the key to the Dardanelles, at all. Adrianople was assigned elsewhere for lack of Venetian interest.

The Venetians’ eyes remained fixed on the sea but they had to fight for their inheritance, continuously dogged by Genoese adventurers and feudal lordlings. This would involve them in half a century of colonial war. Venice was granted the strategic island of Corfu, a crucial link in the chain of islands at the mouth of the Adriatic, but they had to oust a Genoese pirate to secure it and then lost it again five years later. In 1205, they bought Crete from the Crusader lord Boniface of Montferrat for five thousand gold ducats, then spent four years expelling another Genoese privateer, Henry the Fisherman, from the island. They took two strategic ports on the southwest tip of the Peloponnese, Modon and Coron, from pirates, and established a foothold on the long barrier island of Euboea, which the Venetians called Negroponte (the Black Bridge), on the east coast of Greece. And in between they occupied or sublet a string of islands around the south coast of the Peloponnese and across the wide Aegean. It was out of this scattering of ports, forts, and islands that they created their colonial system. Venice, following the Byzantines, referred to this whole geographic area as Romania—the “Kingdom of the Romans,” the word the Byzantines used for it—and divided it up into zones: Lower Romania, which constituted the Peloponnese, Crete, the Aegean islands, and Negroponte; and Upper Romania, the lands and seas beyond, up the Dardanelles to Constantinople itself. Farther still lay the Black Sea, a new zone of potential exploitation.

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Crusaders vs. Constantinople, 1204

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1547-1597:

The Crusaders repaired and re-armed the ships and prepared to launch a new assault the following day: Monday, April 12.

They adjusted their equipment for this second attempt. It was clear that a single ship throwing its flying bridge forward to attack a tower had not worked: The defenders could bring all the weight of numbers to bear on the one spot. It was now decided to link the high-sided sailing ships, the only vessels with the height to reach the towers, in pairs, so that the flying bridges could grapple with a tower from both sides like twin claws. Accordingly they were chained together. Again, the armada sailed out across the Horn to the din of battle. Murtzuphlus was plainly visible in front of his tent directing operations. Trumpets and drums sounded; men shouted; catapults were cranked up—the waterfront was quickly engulfed in a storm of noise, “so loud,” according to Villehardouin, “that the earth seemed to shake.” Arrows thocked across the water; gouts of Greek fire spurted up from the siphons on the Venetian ships; enormous boulders, “so enormous that one man couldn’t lift them,” were hurled through the air from the sixty catapults ranged on the walls; from the hill above, Murtzuphlus shouted directions to the men, “Go here! Go there!” as the angle of attack altered. The defensive arrangements of both sides worked well. The Greek fire fizzled out against the timber superstructures on the ramparts, which were protected by leather casings soaked in vinegar; the vine nets absorbed the force of the boulders which struck the ships. The contest was as inconclusive as the day before. And then, at some point, the wind shifted to the north, propelling the giant sailing ships closer to the shore. Two of these vessels which had been chained together, the Paradise and the Pilgrim, surged forward, their flying bridges converging on a tower from both sides. The Pilgrim struck first. A Venetian soldier clattered up the walkway, sixty feet above the ground, and leaped onto the tower. It was a gesture of doomed bravery; the Varangian Guard advanced and cut him to pieces.

The Pilgrim’s flying bridge, responding to the surge of the sea, disengaged and closed in on the tower for a second time. This time a French soldier, Andrew of Durboise, took his life in his hands and leaped the gap; scarcely grabbing the battlements, he managed to haul himself inside on his knees. While he was still on all fours, a group of men rushed forward with swords and axes and struck him. They thought that they had dealt him a deathblow. Durboise, however, had better armor than the Venetians. Somehow he survived. To the astonishment of his assailants, he climbed to his feet and drew his sword. Appalled and terrified by this supernatural resurrection, they turned and fled to the story below. When those on that level saw the flight, they in turn became infected with panic. The tower was evacuated. Durboise was followed onto the ramparts by others. They now had secure control of a tower and tied the flying bridge to it. The bridge however continued to dip and rear with the movement of the ship against the sea. It threatened to pull down the whole wooden superstructure. The bridge was untied, cutting off the small band of soldiers on their hard-won foothold. Farther down the line, another ship struck a tower and managed to take it, but the Crusaders on the two towers were effectively isolated, surrounded by a swarm of men on the towers on either side. The contest had reached a critical point.

However, the sight of flags flying from these towers put new courage into the attackers now landing on the foreshore in front of the seawalls. Another French knight, Peter of Amiens, decided to tackle the wall itself. Spotting a small bricked-up doorway, he led a charge of men to try to batter it open. The posse included Robert of Clari and his brother, Aleaumes, a warrior monk. They crouched at the foot of the wall with their shields over their heads. A storm of missiles pelted down on them from above; crossbow bolts, pots of pitch, stones, and Greek fire battered on the upturned shields while the men beneath desperately hacked away at the gate “with axes and good swords, pieces of wood, iron bars and pickaxes, until they made a sizable hole.” Through the aperture they could glimpse a swarm of people waiting on the other side. There was a moment of pause. To crawl through the gap was to risk certain death. None of the Crusaders dared advance.

Seeing this hesitation, Aleaumes the monk thrust his way forward and volunteered himself. Robert barred the way, certain his brother was offering to die. Aleaumes struggled past him, got down on his hands and knees and started to crawl through with Robert trying to grab his foot and haul him back. Somehow Aleaumes wriggled and kicked his way free to emerge on the far side—to a barrage of stones. He staggered to his feet, drew his sword—and advanced. And for a second time the sheer bravery of a single man, fueled by religious zeal, turned the tide. The defenders turned and ran. Aleaumes called back to those outside, “My lords, enter boldly! I can see them withdrawing in dismay. They’re starting to run away!” Seventy men scrambled inside. Panic rippled through the defense. The defenders started to retreat, vacating a large part of the wall and the ground behind. From above, Murtzuphlus saw this collapse with growing concern and tried to muster his troops with trumpets and drums.

Whatever the new emperor may have been, he was no coward. He spurred his horse and started down the slope, probably virtually unaccompanied. Peter of Amiens ordered his men to stand their ground: “Now, lords, here is the moment to prove yourselves. Here comes the emperor. See to it that no one dares to give way.” Murtzuphlus’s advance slowed to a halt. Unsupported, he drew back and returned to the tent to rally his forces farther back. The intruders demolished the next gate; men started to flood inside; horses were unloaded; mounted knights galloped through the gaping holes. The seawall was lost.

Meanwhile Peter of Amiens advanced up the hill. Murtzuphlus abandoned his command post and rode off through the city streets to the Bucoleon Palace, two miles away. Choniates bewailed the behavior of his fellow countrymen: “The cowardly thousands, who had the advantage of a high hill, were chased by one man from the fortifications they were meant to defend.” “And so it was,” wrote Robert of Clari from the other side, “that my lord Peter had Murtzuphlus’s tents, chests, and the treasures which he left there.” And the slaughter began: “There were so many wounded and dead that there seemed no end to them—the number was beyond computation.” All afternoon the Crusaders plundered the surrounding area; farther north, refugees started to stream out of the land gates.

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Venice and Constantinople, 1082

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 335-379:

For four hundred years the Adriatic itself had been ruled from Rome; for another six hundred the sea, and Venice itself, had been subject to Rome’s Greek-speaking successor, the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople. By the year 1000, this power was starting to wane, and the Venetians were engaged in a stealthy act of substitution. In the small stone cathedrals of Zara, Spalato, Istria, and Traù, the Venetian doge was remembered in prayers only after the name of the emperor in Constantinople, but this practice was, simply, a ritual. The emperor was far away; his power no longer stretched much north of Corfu, at the gates of the Adriatic, and along the Italian shore. The lords of Dalmatia were in all fact the Venetians. The power vacuum created by weakening Byzantine control would allow Venice to move up the scale progressively from subjects to equal partners and finally, in tragic circumstances, to usurpers of the Byzantine sea. The lords of the Dalmatian coast were embarked on the ascent.

The relationship between Byzantium and Venice was one of intense complexity and longevity, chafed by mutually contradictory views of the world and subject to wild mood swings, yet Venice always looked to Constantinople. This was the great city of the world, the gateway to the East. Through its warehouses on the Golden Horn flowed the wealth of the wider world: Russian furs, wax, slaves, and caviar; spices from India and China; ivory, silk, precious stones, and gold. Out of these materials, Byzantine craftsmen fashioned extraordinary objects, both sacred and profane—reliquaries, mosaics, chalices chased with emeralds, costumes of shot silk—that formed the taste of Venice. The astonishing Basilica of Saint Mark, reconsecrated in 1094, was designed by Greek architects on the pattern of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople; its artisans recounted the story of Saint Mark, stone by stone, in imitation of the mosaic styles of Saint Sophia (Hagia Sophia); its goldsmiths and enamelers created the Pala d’Oro, the golden altarpiece, a miraculous expression of Byzantine devotion and art. The whiff of spices on the quays of Venice had been carried a thousand miles from the godowns of the Golden Horn. Constantinople was Venice’s souk, where its merchants gathered to make (and lose) fortunes. As loyal subjects of the emperor, the right to trade in his lands was always their most precious possession. He, in turn, used this privilege as the bargaining chip to rein in his uppity vassals. In 991 Orseolo gained valuable trading rights for Venetian support in the Adriatic; twenty-five years later they were tetchily withdrawn again in a spat.

Differing attitudes to commerce marked a sharp dividing line. From early on, the amoral trading mentality of the Venetians—the assumed right to buy and sell anything to anyone—shocked the pious Byzantines. Around 820 the emperor complained bitterly about Venetian cargoes of war materials—timber, metal, and slaves—to his enemy, the sultan in Cairo. But in the last quarter of the eleventh century the Byzantine Empire, such a durable presence in the Mediterranean basin, started to decline, and the balance of power began tilting in Venice’s favor. In the 1080s the Venetians defended the empire in the Adriatic against powerful Norman war bands, intent on taking Constantinople itself. Their reward was sumptuous. With all the imperial pomp of Byzantine ritual, the emperor affixed his golden seal (the bulla aurea) to a document that would change the sea forever. He granted the city’s merchants the rights to trade freely, exempt from tax, throughout his realms. A large number of cities and ports were specified by name: Athens and Salonika, Thebes and Antioch and Ephesus, the islands of Chios and Euboea, key harbors along the coasts of southern Greece such as Modon and Coron—invaluable staging posts for Venetian galleys—but above all, Constantinople itself.

Here, Venice was given a prize site down by the Golden Horn. It included three quays, a church and bakery, shops and warehouses for storing goods. Though nominal subjects of the emperor, the Venetians had effectively acquired their own colony, with all the necessary infrastructure, in the heart of the richest city on earth, under extremely favorable conditions. Only the Black Sea, Constantinople’s grain basket, was barred to the avid traders. Quietly echoing among the solemn, convoluted lines of the Byzantine decree was the sweetest Greek word a Venetian might ever want to hear: monopoly. Venice’s jostling rivals in maritime trade—Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi—were now put at such disadvantage that their presence in Constantinople was almost futile.

The Golden Bull of 1082 was the golden key that opened up the treasure-house of eastern trade for Venice. Its merchants flocked to Constantinople. Others started to permeate the small ports and harbors of the eastern seaboard. By the second half of the twelfth century, Venetian merchants were visible everywhere in the eastern Mediterranean. Their colony in Constantinople grew to around twelve thousand and, decade by decade, the trade of Byzantium imperceptibly passed into their hands. They not only funneled goods back to an avid market in continental Europe, they acted as intermediaries, restlessly shuttling back and forth across the ports of the Levant, buying and selling. Their ships triangulated the eastern seas, shipping olive oil from Greece to Constantinople, buying linen in Alexandria and selling it to the Crusader states via Acre; touching Crete and Cyprus, Smyrna and Salonika. At the mouth of the Nile, in the ancient city of Alexandria, they bought spices in exchange for slaves, endeavoring at the same time to perform a nimble balancing act between the Byzantines and the Crusaders on one hand and their enemy, the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, on the other. With each passing decade, Venice was sinking its tentacles deeper into the trading posts of the East; its wealth saw the rise of a new class of rich merchants. Many of the great families of Venetian history began their ascent to prominence during the boom years of the twelfth century. The period heralded the start of commercial dominance.

With this wealth came arrogance—and resentment.

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Wordcatcher Tales: minarai, shashou, tetsuya, akuma no daibensha

I learned a few more interesting Japanese etymologies from reading Delayed Departures, Overdue Arrivals: Industrial Familialism and the Japanese National Railways, by Paul H. Noguchi (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1990).

見習い minarai (lit. ‘see-learn’) ‘apprentice’ – The components of this native Japanese term for ‘apprentice’ are not only much easier to recall, but also far more positive than the standard Sino-Japanese term that renders ‘apprentice’ in many compounds, 徒弟 totei lit. ‘useless-younger.brother’. The kanji 徒 appears in such words as 徒心 adagokoro ‘fickle heart’, 徒物 adamono ‘useless thing’, 徒桜 adazakura ‘ephemeral cherry blossom’, 徒者 tadamono ‘ordinary person’, 徒労 torou ‘wasted effort’, 徒食 toshoku ‘life of idleness’, and 徒論 toron ‘worthless argument’.

車掌 shashou ‘conductor’ (lit. ‘car-handler’) – The native Japanese readings for the kanji 掌 include tsukasado(ru) ‘rule, administer, conduct’ and tanagokoro ‘palm, hollow of the hand’ (< ‘hand-heart’). It also occurs in such learned Sino-Japanese compounds as 掌中本 shouchuubon (lit. ‘palm-middle-book’) ‘pocket edition’ and 掌状 shoujou (lit. ‘palm-shape’) ‘palmate’. Train conductors hold our fates in their hands.

徹夜 tetsuya ‘all-nighter’ (lit. ‘pass-night’) – The tetsu in this compound has nothing to do with 鉄道 tetsudou (lit. ‘iron-road’) ‘railroad’. Its native Japanese reading as a verb is tooru ‘pass (by or through)’, always written with a synonymous kanji, 通る. In the JNR, 徹夜 tetsuya meant a 24-hour shift on duty with only 4 hours of sleep.

悪魔の代弁者 akuma no daibensha ‘devil’s advocate’ – When I first encountered just the romanized shape, daibenmono ‘mouthpiece’, in this book, I really wanted to analyze it as 大便物 (lit. ‘large-convenience-stuff’), rendering ‘mouthpiece’ into ‘(bull)shitter’. But the actual kanji are 代弁者 daibensha (lit. ‘change-speech-person’) ‘spokesperson, proxy’. The kanji 弁 ben can also mean dialect, as in 広島弁 Hiroshima-ben ‘Hiroshima dialect’. The kanji 代 dai has three broad clusters of meanings: (1) ‘age, generation, era, reign’, as in 六十代 rokujuudai ‘in one’s sixties’ or 六十年代 rokujuunendai ‘the 1960s’; (2) ‘change, proxy, substitute’, as in 代母 daibo ‘godmother’ or 代名詞 daimeishi ‘pronoun’ (‘proxy noun’); and (3) ‘rate, fee, price, charge’, as in 代金引き換え daikin hikikae ‘C.O.D.’ (‘charge reversal’). Now, add in one devil and you get 悪魔の代弁者 ‘devil’s advocate’.

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Wordcatcher Tales: hagitoriya, ekiben daigaku

I learned two new Japanese idioms related to transport in Delayed Departures, Overdue Arrivals: Industrial Familialism and the Japanese National Railways, by Paul H. Noguchi (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1990), on pp. 41 and 46-47, respectively:

Hagitoriya 剝ぎ取り屋 ‘peeling-taking-doer’
or hagashiya 剥がし屋 ‘causing.to.peel-doer’

Commuter culture is a common feature among all transportation systems. However, the JNR worker had to contend with the intensity of this culture in Japan more than his Western counterpart. Twice a day the major urban centers in Japan become transportation madhouses which pale the images of New York’s Grand Central Station. Commuters have acclimated themselves to a high tolerance for discomfort in an over-crowded mass transportation system and have devised complex strategies for coping with these stressful conditions. They have learned the technique of sleeping while standing as well as the best way to fold and read a newspaper to minimize the use of space….

A direct result of this overcrowding on commuter trains was the creation of a specialized occupation, the oshiya ([推し屋] pusher), whose job it is to make sure the commuter is safely shoved into the railroad car before the doors are closed. The counterpart of the oshiya is the hagitoriya [剝ぎ取り屋 ‘peeling.off-taking-doer’, or hagashiya 剥がし屋 ‘causing.to.peel-doer’], or the one who pulls out passengers who insist on boarding an already overcrowded train so it can depart. Some of these trains carry more than than 200 percent of their rated capacity.

Ekiben daigaku 駅弁大学 ‘station-boxlunch-college’

Another part of the culture complex of the railways in Japan is the various box lunches (ekibentō) sold at many stations. For some older Japanese they are symbolic of railroad transportation itself. The box lunch sold at any particular station is distinctive to that station, and some have achieved considerable fame throughout the country…. These box lunches have persisted into modern times; even on the bullet train one can purchase a bentō as the train passes through a geographical region famous for a particular kind of box lunch…. A number of idioms built around ekiben have crept into the Japanese language. For example, in the postwar period after higher education was made more available to the Japanese masses, the nation witnessed a phenomenal growth in the number of colleges and universities under the new educational system. Obviously, these were not of the same calibre as the prestigious national universities and the selective private colleges. As station box lunches could be found almost anywhere, so, too, could these fourth-rate institutions be discovered throughout Japan. Hence they were labeled ekiben daigaku (station box lunch colleges).

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