Words and Meanings

The index page for a character search in my Nelson’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary.  An antique?  No but pushing 40.
In Architecture, in Kimono
Being a non-native speaker of Japanese I have spent a great deal of time turning the pages of dictionaries, especially when I was translating.  Mind you, if the subject matter was traditional Japanese architecture or craft there were times when even a dictionary was little or no help at all in finding a definition.  An expert had to be consulted or I had to trust very specialist dictionaries or the Kojien—a truly encyclopaedic dictionary of Japanese words and expressions.

Recently I have been using an iPhone App to look up words but even before I went to live in Japan I was using a character dictionary.  My Nelson’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary, which lists characters and their combinations, has been so well thumbed for more than forty years that it looks more like a highly valued volume from an antiquarian bookshop.  It is, nevertheless, an “old friend” amongst whose pages I have had many an adventure.

Adventure?  Well yes, because while looking up one character I would sometimes come across another definition that was more interesting than the original word I was researching.

Not sobbing but laughing nervously behind 
her kimono sleeve.
I was once doing some translation on lacquerware.  In the explanation of how lacquer was reinforced to form a ground coat, the text explained that tamoto-kuzu, literally meaning “fluff from a kimono sleeve” was used.  Although my Nelson’s did not throw any light on this word, it was a surprise to find this expression in my Kenkyusha New Japanese-English Dictionary—a very weighty volume.  It was especially surprising as craft terms are sometimes so localised, a telephone consultation becomes essential.

In this case, however, the definition I needed was not the only surprise.  Another listed expression was tamoto wo shiboru, literally “to wring out a sleeve”.  The meaning alludes to shedding a flood of tears on parting forever from a sweetheart.

Reading this for the first time, I was stunned.  I immediately pictured a kimono-clad young woman in a samurai movie almost obscuring her face behind the long sleeve of her kimono in fear of showing her true emotions.  She was crying so much that the sleeve had became dampened by her sobbing to the extent, metaphorically speaking, that the sleeve would need to be wrung out.

This little word adventure left a very strong impression on me.  So much so that just now when I checked the dictionary definition once again, I knew I would find the word toward the bottom of a right-hand page.  Yes, there it was.  I once again relived that sense of excitement on first finding these two entries.

The characters for kara-hafu to the left and toutotsu to the right.
A similarly intriguing adventure started with the word kara-hafu.  This is the name of a style of gable found on some traditional Japanese buildings.  Unlike the many gently sloping gables of roofs in Japan, this Chinese-style gable has an abruptly rising line.  What is interesting is that the first character of kara-hafu is also used in a character combination to mean “sudden” or “abrupt”, although with a different reading.

Having puzzled over this for sometime, I finally asked a Japanese friend who is a language specialist if there was a reason for it.  Not being familiar with the term kara-hafu, he simply said, “Oh!  So that is why we use the character for Chinese in the adjective for “abrupt”, toutotsu—the line of the gable changes abruptly!”  The sharply rising line of the Chinese gable, in other words, came to exemplify a sense of abrupt or sudden change.

A fine example of a Chinese gable at Agishi Honseiji Temple.
I came across a magnificent example of a Chinese gable on one of the ancillary buildings at Agishi Honseiji Temple, not far from Route 222 on the Noto Peninsula.  This gable with its “abrupt” change of line gives character and status to the entrance it shades.  As if this splendid building were not enough to make this temple special and worthy of a visit, the main Worship Hall is one of the very few temple buildings in Japan with a reed thatched roof.  It also has a precipitous rake and is in great need of being re-thatched.  It has to be said that in its present state it is a magnificent spectacle, although perhaps for the wrong reasons.  It looks more like an edifice from a Hayao Miyazaki movie in which nature is all powerful and redeems everything from the clutches of man.

Some very fine carving on the gate, frames a glimpse of the 
Main Worship Hall “growing” thatched roof.
Vegetation is slowly but surely taking over the steps.
Miyazaki would perhaps approve.
I am sure that few people will share my enthusiasm for the main topic of this post.  If, however, you have read this far I hope you have found it interesting.  To me finding expressions with such an interesting background is as exciting as discovering an archaeological relic.  There is something thrilling and fundamental about how people choose to express actions, emotions and phenomena with language.  The meaning is locked in the words and waits to be understood.

A dragon hides in the shadow of the eaves of the Main Worship Hall.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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