Why is Japanese “ken” translated as “prefecture”?

I don’t know why it took me ten years to look up the answer to this nagging question on Wikipedia, because the answer to that question has been waiting for me there:

“The origins of the Western term prefecture being used to describe Japanese subdivisions date from 15th century Portuguese contact with Japan, whereby the word prefeitura was used to very roughly describe Japanese fiefdoms, in Portuguese the original meaning was more analogous to municipalities than provinces. (Reciprocally today, Japanese uses the character ken –  to refer to Portuguese districts.)”

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 is the pokemon called “Pikachu”?

According to most sources, it comes from the Japanese onomatopoeia for sparking (“pikapika”, more commonly used for shiny and so-clean-they-shine things) and the sound a mouse makes in Japanese (“chu” or “chu chu”), because Pikachu is a mouse which gives off electricity. Googling “Meanings of pokemon names” brings up loads of complete lists of origins such as this one, many of the meanings being interestingly bizarre.

Why do the Japanese say “presentator”?

I’d always assumed what this Japanese site says, that this Japanese version of “presenter” was a made-in-Japan word made to sound like other words like “commentator”. I therefore told a Belgian student of mine to start worrying about picking up Janglish when the word came out of his mouth. However, it turns out he was right when he told me it is used there too. As there are few if any recent borrowings from Dutch into Japanese (though many in much earlier history), it still seems likely that this is just coincidence and it was actually created in Japan.

For much more on Janglish/ Japanglish/ Japanese English/ Japlish, there’s loads more on JapanExplained, or have just updated my full list and made a collection of my favourites on my English teaching blog:

TEFLtastic Janglish dictionary

Janglish which we should all start using

Why were the character and game called Donkey Kong?

I don’t think I’d wondered this since about 1987, but finally had the mystery solved anyway when it came up in a book I’m reading about the history of Nintendo computer games.

The Kong obviously comes from King Kong, which is a gorilla like the character, and apparently the English word donkey was chosen by the Japanese designer to mean “stubborn”, because the character never gives up.

Why are the Japanese so insensitive to swearing in other languages?

In just one week I’ve heard someone saying “Merde” in a NHK programme for primary school kids, seen “Jesus Christ!” coming out a speech bubble on Yamanote line train posters, and become aware of this incredibly profane T-shirt on local station Kanagawa TV. Is it just because there is very little concept on swearing in Japanese, or just the incredible ability of the Japanese to filter out most of what is going on around them, especially text in foreign languages?

Why is there a Harris tweed boom in Japan?

I first heard of this through the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan magazine, and finally came across it myself last week in my local Aeon supermarket, of all places, where Harris tweed was brightfully decorating some manbags which were twice the price of the other choices.

Upon doing some research, this hand-spun wool from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland seems to be going through a bit of a boom in general, but virtually every article on the topic mentions that Japan has suddenly become the number one market. What I can’t find is any ideas about why. Could it be related to the Japanese love of expensive Scotch whiskey or, more recently, expensive Scottish beer? Any theories or further info, anyone?

Why don’t Tokyo trains and buses run at night?

According to the Japan Times, Tokyo’s very first night bus has started running once an hour from Roppongi to Shibuya and back.  Reasons given against underground trains doing the same in the article include the need for maintenance (something other places somehow get around) and salarymen not wanting a reason to work even later (i.e. not to lose the excuse to leave of the last train home).

What the article doesn’t mention is the ability of well organised and pushy taxi drivers to block proposals like this – including in some countries their apparent ability to make sure that there are no other easy ways of getting to the airport! Given the famous electoral influence of farmers and owners of small shops in Japan, I’d be very surprised if taxi drivers don’t also have a real impact on policy.

Why is Kannon so popular in Japan?

I have difficulty believing it’s a major factor, but a recent very insightful piece on BBC Radio 3 about Christmas in Japan mentioned in passing that many secret Christians in the Tokugawa period transferred their affection for Mary mother of Christ to this (usually) female Buddhist Bodhisattva, also known as Kwannon in Japanese and Guanyin in Chinese.

The relevant Wikipedia page also has a brief mention of that use of Kannon statues, along with the details “During the Edo Period in Japan, when Christianity was banned and punishable by death, some underground Christian groups venerated Jesus and the Virgin Mary by disguising them as statues of Kannon holding a child; such statues are known as Maria Kannon. Many had a cross hidden in an inconspicuous location.”

However, the popularity of this figure is by no means limited to Japan, so I can’t imagine that had a large impact overall.

In case you’re wondering, yes that is where the company Canon got its name from.

 

Why do Japanese secondhand media shops have overpriced DVDs that no one ever buys?

A lot of the tacky ones on main streets that I’m speaking about seem to basically be porn shops, so I’m guessing they need a certain amount of non-sex-related product to not be classified as sex shops, because if that happened they’d have to conform to more legal constrictions (as in most countries).

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