Posts Tagged ‘Kanji’


The title of KyoAni’s latest show, Tamako Market, seems like a straightforward affair. Tamako is the main character’s name and the market is an important part of the setting – no tricks there. But viewers with basic Japanese reading ability might notice something odd about the title (no, not the bird nested between the “ma” and “ke”). It is all written in hiragana, up to and including the obvious loanword maaketto (market), which you would expect to appear written in katakana.

Two seasons ago, we had Mankind has Declined replacing its kanji and katakana with hiragana to strengthen the fairy-tale feeling of the setting. But this is probably not what is going on here, though director Yamada did admit that at one point, Tamako Market was planned to include significant fantasy elements (with a prince from a mysterious land appearing and Tamako possessing a magical ability).

The Japanese writing system has a long history which affects how the different scripts are viewed. At the point when only kanji were used in Japan, the art of writing was accessible only to the upper classes. Similarly, the original use of katakana was for notes during study of Buddhist texts. Hiragana, on the other hand, was the script of the masses ever since its invention. For a long time, it would not appear in official documents but it would in poetry and fiction. Both men and women were expected to know it, and hiragana was the script of everyday life – short notes, diaries, shopping lists…

The kana syllabaries are an original Japanese creation, and hiragana was the most widely used of the two. This means that, to this day, hiragana is the script the Japanese feel most comfortable with. The Japanese also value hiragana characters for their soft, curvy shapes. Research shows that when presented with the same text written using different scripts (kanji, hiragana, katakana), Japanese readers tend to point to the text written in hiragana as ‘warmer, more pleasant’ than the other two. This might also have something to do with how hiragana brings to mind the sweet days of childhood.

So the non-standard hiragana usage in the title can be seen as part of setting the mood of the show – a promise of a heartwarming slice of life. That Tamako’s name is one composed entirely of hiragana characters is also surely no coincidence.

While Tamako Market is KyoAni’s original piece, the studio has already met with this phenomenon in works it adapted. Remember Lucky Star? The obviously English-inspired title ends up written not in katakana, as you would expect, but hiragana – らき☆すた. And K-On? Both kanji (軽音) and katakana (ケイオン) would be perfectly fine candidates for the writing of the title, but again we get hiragana instead – けいおん. The unexpected appearance of hiragana in those titles can certainly be linked to their identity as soothing slice of life shows.

On a side note, I see a mochi replacing one of the strokes in the “ta” in the title…

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Mankind has Declined – lovable fairies, simple character designs and vivid colors that bring both to life. The perfect packaging for a sugary fairy tale. Well, sugar is an important plot point, too…


But if you’ve seen the first episode or two, you don’t need me to tell you that what’s inside the package isn’t exactly your typical fairy-tale. The social commentary is harsh, the characters jaded. But it’s exactly because of the show’s cutesy style that it never feels gloomy or preachy. 


The episode title screen shows how much though goes into maintaining this unusual balance. To create a fairy-tale like feel, we have:

  1. a fairies-and-sweets theme
  2. a rich and curly font style
  3. non-standard hiragana usage
  4. non-standard honorifics usage

The first two points are obvious enough. What about point three? We have three nouns that would be written with kanji in standard Japanese: fairy (妖精), secret (秘密), and factory (工場). Japanese children learn how to write the kanji for ‘secret’ in sixth grade and the kanji for ‘factory’ in second grade, but both are intentionally written with hiragana in the title, like they would be in a picture book geared towards young readers. The kanji for ‘fairy’ stand out here, especially since the first half of the word uses a kanji that goes beyond the basic schools curriculum entirely. But this, again, is common treatment for a select few keywords that will repeat again and again in a given picture book (usually with furigana to help the children out).


The fourth point regards honorifics. The honorific –san is probably one of the best known among anime fans, often equated with the English Mr. and Ms. In this case it is attached to a plural noun, and a species name in particular. You’ll probably never see this usage in everyday Japanese… except in fairy tales and when speaking to children. Mr. Doggy and Ms. Sakura Tree are perfectly valid characters of a fairy tale, and the honorific helps distinguish those ‘characters’ from simple ‘creatures’.

Every part of Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita is packed with detail like this, and it will certainly be fun to look for those details in the episodes to come. Though to be honest, I was sold when I heard Nakahara Mai’s performance in this…        

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With the broadcast of the first episode of Another right around the corner, it’s time to take one more look at what we learn from the preview. Last time, our main character found out more about Mei than he bargained for. But Mei sure knows how to get even…

“You’re Sakakibara Kouichi, right…? Nobody in class told you? Your name makes them think of death. And no ordinary death. Cruel and senseless death surrounding a school.”

Kouchi’s family name happens to overlap with the alias of the real-life homicidal maniac Sakakibara Seito. The murderer’s resume includes beheading a child with a hand saw… but then again, Sakakibara himself was no more than fourteen when he committed his crimes. There should be no surprise that the incident shook Japanese media and society, and it will undoubtedly still be fresh in the mind of those watching Another.

Notably, the killer’s alias was something he made up himself, and it’s writing does not match that of a normal family name. In fact, the characters used (酒鬼薔薇聖斗) can be interpreted as “a demon drunk on the blood spilled through his holy fight”, which tells us a lot about the murderer’s mind…

The main character of Another has his name written in the standard kanji meaning basically “a field of sakaki trees”, so there’s no risk of mixing the two up on paper, even if the phonetic similarity is disquieting. This way, the precise kanji writing, which indicates both meaning and reading, saves the Japanese language from its numerous homophones.

Except that Mei plays around with that paper-thin defense. As she walks away, she pronounces Kouichi’s family name one syllable at a time, tearing away the rhythm associated with a kanji word and bringing it to the fair playing field of simple sounds. Somewhere where there is no way to distinguish between demons and innocents. The producers join in on the sadistic fun by displaying the word in the phonetic katakana.

The first episode is coming to our screens soon enough, let us hope for a great ride.

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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.

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Most people who regularly watch anime have probably had at least passing thoughts about learning Japanese. First you pick up some of the words and phrases that have already penetrated the fandom lexicon, like kawaii or ohayou. Then you have a taste of the Japanese grammar and see that, while different from your native tongue, it is not that difficult. Unfortunately, at some point you realize that there are at least two thousand of those shrub-like kanji waiting for you, and you think it’s about time to give up. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Rules? What rules?

The Japanese grow up surrounded by kanji. They learn to associate some of the basic symbols with their meanings at the age when discovering the world around is all a big adventure. And then they go to school to start rote learning the hundreds of kanji still left. The people behind the Japanese education system never held much doubt about the best way of internalizing the writing system – write every kanji a thousand times and it will stick naturally. That’s anything but fun. Maho doesn’t think its fun.


Whenever the girls meet up online, take a look at Maho’s speech bubbles. The energetic blonde is happy enough to stick to the easier hiragana and katakana rather than type the kanji. This applies even to very simple words a girl her age is certain to know. As is often the case with contemporary Japanese youth, she evidently has no problem reading the words her friends use, she’s just too lazy to type properly herself. The word processing software that converts kana to kanji is really handy and it takes neither much time nor effort to use… which makes me afraid to think what Maho’s hand-written school assignments look like. Actually writing the kanji is, after all, incomparably more bothersome than just typing them out…

Consider other Maho scenes to see how this detail fits into the picture of her personality. Maho is impatient and dead set on instant gratification. She won’t put more effort into things than is necessary, unless there is an obvious incentive to do so. It is difficult to image her sitting down and practising her kanji when she couldn’t be bothered to research what the ‘thirty-second rule’ in her hand-held basketball game actually is. At least it’s not only Subaru that has his hands full with her. I pity the teacher who expects her to keep still and quiet during class…

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