When I wrote about Japanese a few weeks ago, I was worried about the fact that any Kanji can have two different readings in everyday use: on-yomi (Chinese Reading) and kun-yomi (Japanese Reading). (There is a third reading, nanori, which is used for names, which I will get to later!) A “reading” goes further than pronunciation: you have different spoken words for the same written Kanji. The choice of reading you use appears to be interchangeable according to convention, history, even regional variations between east and west Japan. I don’t think I was overstating the seriousness of the situation for someone trying to learn to read written Japanese.
Take the following two Kanji as an example:
- meaning: to cut
- on-yomi: セツ setsu / setzu
- kun-yomi: き(り) ki(ri)
- meaning: abdomen, stomach
- on-yomi: フク fuku
- kun-yomi: はら hara
Put the two kanji together in one way, the on-yomi reading is used, the kun-yomi is not. And vice versa:
- セツ + フク = セップク
- setzu + fuku = seppuku
- はら + きり = はらきり
- hara + kiri = hara-kiri
So, since the order of the Kanji does not affect the overall meaning, we have two different sayings for the same action, one based on on-yomi, the other on kun-yomi.
You may have heard both these at various times, they mean ritual disembowlment, usually suicidal. I found this example when I was preparing to watch Misihima: A Life in Four Parts, a US-produced biography of Mishima Yukio, the writer, and wondered what the difference was. I’d heard musical references to his work in various places, such as the work of Sakamoto Ryuichi and David Sylvian, whose Forbidden Colours collaboration was named after one of Mishima’s plays.
I didn’t see anything obviously false in the film’s portrayal of his life. A homosexual in post-war Japan had it even worse than the Great American Queer. Paradoxically, Mishima became obsessed with the apparent decline in Japanese moral values over the next twenty-five years, using it as a tangential theme in much of his work.
In 1970, Mishima and a few followers apparently tried to stage a military coup, by dressing up in self-designed uniforms and attempting to take over a military base near Tokyo. After tying up the commanding officer, Mishima addressed the gathered troops (and Press), exhorting them to reject the modern commercial softness of Japan, and regain their Imperial heritage. They all laughed at him, so, after saluting the Emperor, Mishima went back inside and committed seppuku.
Now, that puts a whole new spin on Japanese culture, doesn’t it? I can see where Takeshi Kitano gets some of his ideas from, and then there’s the Manga, which I hope to read in the original Japanese one day.
The name Mishimo Yukio was a 仮名 (kamei), a nom de plume or pen-name, chosen deliberately by young Kimitake Hiraoka; so what does it mean, if anything? This is where the nanori comes in: the third type of Kanji reading, after on-yomi and kun-yomi. He actually has an entry in the JWPce Japanese Dictionary – 三島由紀夫 (1925 – 1970) – so let’s look at the individual Kanji:
- 三 = Three
- 島 = Island
- 由 = Reasons (why)
- 紀 = Chronicle, History
- 夫 = Man, Husband
I don’t mind saying I’m none-the-wiser: a reference to Japanese history, perhaps? Maybe I’ll get it later.