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Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009
Learn the coded language all Japanese know
Encoding and decoding may be almost as old as writing itself.
This past summer I read "Treason by the Book," a fascinating work by Yale University professor Jonathan D. Spence set in 18th-century China. It seems a scholar named Zha Siting (1664-1727) was charged with intrigues against the imperial court. He had allegedly asked students taking an examination to comment on a passage from the philosophical classic 大学 ("Daigaku"; "The Great Learning") that read, "Where the people rest."
"If one juxtaposed the first and the last characters of the four-character phrase," Spence writes, "one came up with two characters that were recognizable as the reign name of the current emperor, but in each case missing the top stroke. Zha Siting, in other words, had been luring the students to think of beheading their emperor."
It's a good thing the education ministry approves textbooks in advance or, who knows, writers might have to regularly fend off accusations that they have filled students' examination papers with potentially seditious secret messages.
Years ago in Osaka I had much more fun with a different type of secret code, a Japanese version of "Pig Latin" that my friend's young sons taught me.
In American Pig Latin, the speaker moves the initial letter of a word to its end and adds "ay," so that "very fat" becomes "ery-vay at-fay."
The Japanese variety that the Ohara boys taught me (whose official name I have yet to discern) was quite simple. Yet unless you know the key to decode it, a person talking rapidly is almost incomprehensible.
Of course, such a code has to be easy: The trick is to add のさ (no sa) after the first syllable of each word. For example, take a sentence like, gohan wo tabemasu（ご飯を食べます, I eat rice). Using our secret code, this would then become gonosahan wo tanosabemasu(ごのさはんをたのさべます).
Unfortunately, I've met very few people — other than the Ohara boys, who are now both married and in their 30s — with whom I can use this secret code.
On the other hand, virtually every Japanese seems to be familiar with goroawase (語呂合わせ), the system of using numbers to create words and phrases.
For nonnative speakers, learning numbers in Japanese can be very challenging. The simple ordinal numbers one, two and three are not only expressed as ichi, ni and san but also as hitotsu, futatsu and mittsu, which are regularly shortened to hi, fu and mi.
The advantage of this potpourri of Japanese numerics is that when applied creatively, you can transform almost any string of numbers into a coherent phrase or vice versa.
The number "one," for example, can be read hi (ひ), i (い), hito (ひと), ichi (いち) and even the English "wan" (ワン). Two can be pronounced fu (ふ), futa (ふた), ni (に), or tsū (ツー). Three is mi (み), mittsu (みっつ), sa (さ), or san (さん). Ten can be pronounced to (と), jū (じゅう) and even ten (てん). And so on.
In addition to conventional numerics, the list of possibilities can be further expanded by pronouncing numbers in the Chinese style used when people play majan (麻雀, mahjong). For instance, 8 and 9 can also be read pa and chu, which are close to the Mandarin pronunciation ba (8) and jiu (9).
Words written using numbers include 1-1-1-3 (ii imi, nice meaning) and 4-6-4-9 (yoroshiku, best regards).
Goroawase finds wide use in commerce. Take the famous 109 Building (イチマルキュウ) in Shibuya, which gets its name from "Tokyu" (10-9), a reference to Tokyu Dentetsu (東急電鉄), the railway company that operates it. A nearby rival is Marui (丸井), written out as "O1O1," with the letter O (or a zero) pronounced maru, which means a circle, followed by the first syllable of ichi (いち).
Goroawase is helpful in memorizing telephone numbers. The local dental clinic, for example, might apply to NTT for a number that ends with the last four digits 6-4-8-0,which using goroawase read as mushiba zero (虫歯ゼロ, no cavities).
Another common usage is in calendar dates. The 29th of the month, for one, is Niku no Hi or "eat meat day." Why? Because 2 and 9 are read ni-ku (meat).
Nov. 1 — 11/1 — is dog day (wan, wan, wan — the sound of a dog barking). Likewise, July 10 — 7/10 — is Nattō no Hi, the day on which nattō (納豆, fermented soybeans) should be consumed. An association that campaigned for improvements in public lavatories even managed to get "Toilet Day" onto the calendar, on Nov. 10. It seems that 11/10 can be read ii to(i)rei or "nice toilet." Please remember this one at least, so you can use it to mail felicitations to your columnist on his next birthday.