Why do Japanese words not start with p?

I hadn’t even noticed this until a commenter pointed out that the name “Pokemon” must be based on borrowed words (namely “pocket” and “monster”) because all words in Japanese with an initial /p/ are either borrowings or onomatopoeia. A quick bit of research revealed that the reason for this strange gap is that what is now /h/ (ish) was once pronounced /p/ (ish), and all the words starting with /p/ drifted to the present sound, leaving us initial-p-less (drifting of sounds like this being a normal linguistic process). I haven’t found out why /p/ does exist in the middle of Japanese words, but I imagine it’s because a middle /h/ is so damn hard to pronounce.

Why do Japanese cook the pasta first?

My students swear no one does this, but I’ve both seen it and read about it, and finally find an explanation. According to a story on the originator of Japanese “Napolitan spaghetti” in Japan Times:

“He later supposedly left the pasta for hours after cooking it so that the texture would become more like that of udon noodles suited to Japanese tastes”


Why do the Japanese rub the back of their heads and hiss through their teeth?

This seems such a natural reaction to difficult questions and impossible requests that the Japanese rarely notice that they use it, but it’s definitely more common here than in any other country I know. It’s also much more common among men than women and much more common at work than elsewhere. I think it’s just a consequence of the difficulty of simply saying “No”. Note that sucking of teeth is in no way the aggressive sound it is in some cultures.

Just added to my much expanded Japanese Gestures and Body Language page here.


Why is a turkey called “shichimencho” in Japanese?

… because “seven face bird” is an odd name even for as strange a creature as a turkey. According to a page on the topic on a Japanese site on word origins, it is because the neck looks like it has many different colours, which kind of makes sense. The Xmas edition of The Economist says that the name came from Chinese and spread to Japanese and Korean, though in China it later became “‘fire chicken’ for its face’s tendency to flare up shades of red, white and blue”.

Why do the Japanese call a mummy “miira”?

I’d been wondering this for a while because many guides to foreign borrowings into Japanese list “miira” as coming from Portuguese, but the Portuguese for (Egyptian etc) mummy is “mumia”, seemingly unconnected to “miira”. According to a typically fascinating post on the great Language Log blog, the totally unexpected answer is:

“The Japanese word for “mummy” is mīra ミイラ (“myrrh”) because, when the Portuguese were selling Egyptian mummies to the Japanese as medicine, they often mentioned myrrh as one of the preservatives, and the Japanese took the part for the whole.”

However, as a couple of commenters noticed, that just leads to another even more fascinating question:

“Can you direct me to an article about how (and why) the Portuguese sold mummies to the Japanese?”

Why is it only okay to slurp noodles in Japan?

not rice, soup, spaghetti, etc…

The most common explanation is that slurping makes noodles taste better because you can eat them hotter, the oyaji (older men) who slurp their soup, coffee and rice would probably say the same about those things. Slurping noodles also seems to help with no getting whiplash and hence stains all over your shirt (or even your neighbour), so I’d suggest that this is more of a reason than the taste thing.

From my new Japanese table manners explained page.


Why don’t the Japanese do more about crows?

In the most extreme example of this, the woman who is in charge of the bins for our block of flats was standing almost next to a crow ripping apart rubbish bags to get at some food without doing a single thing about it. Considering that you can get rid of a crow simply by pretending to throw a stone and that they sometimes attack people’s heads as well rip open rubbish bags, it seems strange that the Japanese don’t do more about these pests.

I think it’s partly a (Buddhist?/ Zen?) attitude of letting nature get on with its natural business, as also seen with the Japanese generally swatting at flying bugs much less than I do. More than that, though, I think it’s mainly not taking the initiative and doing anything unless you’re told to – if the government announced that crows were the enemy I’m sure you’d soon see an almost Cultural Revolution-style attack on them…

Why do the Japanese not give reasons when they apologise, refuse invitations and deal with complaints?

Countries tend to fall into two groups – ones like Britain and America where not giving excuses is seen as not being bothered to do so or being deliberately rude (like saying “I’m busy” to an unwanted date invitation), and ones like Japan where giving excuses is seen as not accepting responsibility (like saying “The dog ate my homework”).

Just added to my much expanded Japanese Etiquette and Manners Explained page.

Why do many Japanese women walk pigeon toed?

Without specifically mentioning Japanese women, the December 2014 edition of the freebie Tokyo Families warns parents that pigeon toed feet could be a consequence of “W sitting” (similar to kneeling seiza, but with the bottom on the ground and legs down the sides of the body). This is a more likely explanation than seiza kneeling position, given how seiza has become less common but pigeon toed walking seems less common among older generations. Not sure that W sitting is a major factor though, given that you see young boys sitting that way and you rarely see pigeon toed men. It could be that W walking combined with a lack of other muscular development is the reason that explains both generational and gender differences, but I still think it’s mainly a cultural thing and if people disapproved of women walking that way it would soon decrease.


Why do the Japanese greet each other with “Konnichi wa” (“Today!”)

This was one that really puzzled me in my first couple of years in Japan and then I completely forgot about as it got older. According to Japanzine, it used to be used in longer phrases like “Konnichi wa atsui desu ne” (“It’s hot today today, isn’t it?”, common nowadays as “Kyou wa atsui desu ne”) and just got shortened as time passed.

Japanzine is admittedly not the most academic of sources, but this seems to be fairly common in greetings, as in “Ca va (bien)” in French, so makes sense to me.

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