Another, the horror novel adaptation that the people at P.A. Works want to use to broaden their creative horizons, will be on air in January. So far, we have only seen tantalizing glimpses of what the show has to offer in its promotional videos. Let’s make the most of what little we have, then.
“Hey, Misaki-san. How do you write ‘Mei’?”
“It’s the kanji for ‘a cry’. The one in ‘resonance’. The one in ‘shriek’.”
You don’t need to be Japanese to have experience answering the question “How do you spell that?”. The most troublesome words, regardless of language, are usually proper nouns – names of people and places. If the language uses a single alphabet, it’s not so bad. You just list the letters used one by one. However, with Japanese and the kanji system it uses, things are not quite so easy.
Some common names, like the female name Aiko, for example, have several dozen ways they can be written in kanji (or hiragana, or a mixture of both…). The same problem even works in reverse – write your name down and you still have to tell everyone how to read it if you want to be sure they get it right. The illustrator and essayist Ootagaki Seiko (大田垣晴子) bemoans this in one of her works, stating that nobody has ever read her name correctly on the first try because of the much more common reading ‘Haruko’.
But with the relatively small number of sounds the Japanese phonetic system has to offer, the issue is not limited to just names. The language is riddled with homophones, different words sharing the same pronunciation. The word pronounced ‘idou’, for example, can be referring to at least four commonly used meanings, ranging from transit to the art of medicine.
Which makes it no wonder that most Japanese are both used to and quite skillful at clearing up this kind of ambiguity. Two common ways are:
a) naming one of the simple, single-kanji words of native origin (Wago, 和語) that use the desired kanji (even if the pronunciation does not match)
b) naming one or more of the Chinese-origin kanji compounds (Jukugo, 熟語) that use the desired kanji
The first one is simple enough, as there are usually no more than a few valid readings for the person explaining to choose from. The second one, on the other hand, is all up to the speaker’s imagination, with numerous options to choose from. And that’s where things get really fun.
From a pragmatic point of view, you would want to use the most common and least ambiguous words available. But, reality being far from ideal, you will usually end up using the first thing that comes to your mind. Watched a horror flick last night? You might find yourself explaining ‘absorption’ with the word ‘vampire’ (literally blood-sucking-demon in Japanese). An avid mecha fan? Be careful not to let the infamous ‘combine!’ command (合体、 gattai!) slip when pointing to the kanji for ‘body’. There is human subconsciousness at play here, and you never know the result before you try. But even if you stop before blurting some embarrassing words out loud, the process still reveals the vocabulary that feels most familiar to you at the time, your personal lexicon. If you’re perceptive enough, you can sometimes glimpse a person’s hobbies and interests in the words they pick here.
Mei is kind enough to explain her name both ways… but why does she bring up the reading for ‘shriek’, of all things? That’s not one of the words you want friends to associate with your name, and certainly not what Mei’s parents had in mind with the name, either. Her expressionless face hints it’s more than black humor. Does Mei delight in gory literature? Are tortured screams a common topic of conversation at school? Or is she so used to hearing shrieks that the word came naturally to mind?
We don’t know. We will never know what is going on inside another human’s head. We can only tell there is something wrong. And that’s where the unseen horror begins.