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 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 called “Japanese” encephalitis?

“Although named Japanese encephalitis, because it was isolated in Japan in 1935, this form of the condition is much more common in parts of Asia outside Japan”

Although it’s somewhat more common to the south and west and in rural areas “in Tokyo the last fatality was reported in 1969 and no infections have been recorded since 1990”. So – not much more danger than of getting Spanish flu in Spain…

Quotes from the May edition of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan magazine.

Why were rickshaws invented in Japan?

The word rickshaw comes from Japanese “jinrikisha” (human powered car) and the first (pulled by man) ones were invented in Japan in around 1869, before the technology and the name spread around the world – the kind of Walkman of their day.

The invention seemed to be due to a unique combination of factors in Japan at that time: the scrapping of the Tokugawa rule against wheeled transport, the import and then mastery of western wheel technology, and the lack of horses to take advantage of those two other things.

Why is the Japanese parliament called the Diet?

Not only have I always wondered this, I’ve had my Japanese students asking me. However, only now got round to researching it. I did already know most of this Wikipedia entry:

“The word diet derives from Latin and was a common name for an assembly in medieval Germany. The Meiji constitution was largely based on the form of constitutional monarchy found in nineteenth century Prussia and the new Diet was modeled partly on the German Reichstag…”

but that still leaves open the question of whether foreign commentators invented the expressions (like “bullet train”) or if the Japanese people setting the Diet up chose the description of it in English (the Japanese expression “kokkai” always being used when speaking that language).

In either case, I wonder if they didn’t choose the word “parliament” because they didn’t want it to sound like a real parliament, given the powers of the Emperor and in the case of Westerners perhaps their unwillingness to accept that an Asian country could run a real democracy.

Why do Japanese farmers have so much electoral power?

Believe it or not, it’s the Americans’ fault again:

“disparities in Japan’s election system have long favored conservative rural districts over urban ones by giving them a disproportinately large number of representatives in the Diet, Japan’s Parliament. Those inequalities… date from U.S. occupation policies after World War II aimed at turning farmers into a powerful anti-Communist voting bloc”

From this weekend’s International Herald Tribune

Why did the Tokugawa Japanese trade with the Chinese through the Dutch?

This interesting little nugget was also in the episode of the Radio 4 programme In Our Time that I mentioned in the last post. Apparently, the Chinese refused to trade directly without the Japanese taking on their previous tributary position of being (theoretical) vassals.

Why sakoku?

Despite one incredibly waffly professor, I learnt quite a lot from this BBC radio programme on the policy of closing Japan to (most) foreign contacts in the Edo period. One thing that it wasn’t such an unusual policy because the Chinese had attempted to do the same more than once before. They also mentioned that because Japan was self-sufficient most imports were fripperies, something frowned on in zen-inspired samurai bushido culture. The main reason, however, seems to be that unrestricted trade would have enriched the rather independent-minded Kyushu daimyo lords.

Why “university potato” (daigaku imo)?

It’s long struck me as an odd name, and finally got round to looking at the daigaku imo Wikipedia page. Alternative explanations given are:

– In the Taisho period university students in the Kanda area of Tokyo liked eating it

– In early Showa period Tokyo University students made and sold it to help support themselves

– There was a popular shop for this dish in front of the main gate of Tokyo University


Why did the Japanese go to Brazil?

… home of the largest population of Japanese outside Japan.

The main answer is that unlike most other places, the Brazilians let the Japanese in:

“At first, Brazilian farmers used African slave labour in the coffee plantations, but in 1850, the slave traffic was abolished in Brazil. To solve the labour shortage, the Brazilian elite decided to attract European immigrants to work in the coffee plantations. The government and farmers offered to pay European immigrants’ passage. The plan encouraged millions of Europeans, most of them Italians, to migrate to Brazil. However, once in Brazil, the immigrants received very low salaries and worked in poor conditions, similar to the conditions faced by the black slaves: long working hours and frequent ill-treatment by their bosses. Because of this, in 1902, Italy enacted Decree Prinetti, prohibiting subsidized immigration to Brazil.

The end of feudalism in Japan generated great poverty in the rural population, so many Japanese began to emigrate in search of better living conditions. In 1907, the Brazilian and the Japanese governments signed a treaty permitting Japanese migration to Brazil.

Japanese immigrants began arriving in 1908, as a result of the decrease in the Italian immigration to Brazil and a new labour shortage on the coffee plantations.

In the 1930s Japanese industrialisation had significantly boosted the population. However prospects for Japanese people to immigrate to other countries were limited. The US had banned non-white immigration, on the basis that they would not integrate into society; these laws were specifically targeting the Japanese. At the same time in Australia the White Australia Policy prevented the immigration of non-whites to Australia.”

From an absolutely fascinating page on Wikipedia here:

Japanese Brazilians

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