Correcting Names With Bacteria

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People and place names can be very difficult to read in Japan; even for natives. From this comes interesting ways to clarify which character you are telling someone.

For kana there is a chart called the gojuuonhyou (五十音表), which literally means 50 sound chart. The chart was actually developed by someone from my city, Tsu (津), and is quite convenient. In Japan the chart has columns of five characters each (e.g., a i u e o, ka ki ku ke ko, …) This permeates how TOC, phone listings, and many other tables are organized.

When I was trying to get my name corrected on the phone, I used the first method, which is to state the character and the row which contains it – “ha of ‘ha hi fu he ho’.” (「ハヒフヘホ」のハ) I had a little fun with this because there is a cartoon character that is famous for saying “ha hi fu he ho”. He is Baikin Man, which means Bacteria Man. He is the evil counterpart to Anpanman, which means Sweet Bean Paste-Filled Bread Man (perhaps the Japanese name is better here.) I asked the clerk if she could write down ‘ha’ from Baikin Man’s ‘ha hi fu he ho’. She gave me a courtesy laugh – barely.

For kanji there are a few ways to describe characters, and one is similar to the kana method above. There are several kanji that have the same reading: for example, 関 完 間 官 感 観 缶 寒 韓, all have a reading of ‘kan’ in addition to other readings. The simple way to clarify which ‘kan’ to use, is to mention a compound, called jukugo (熟語), of characters that contains this one character. “This kan is kan of genkan” (このカンは玄関のカンです) Since everyone knows the word genkan, entry hall, they can immediately identify which character you mean. This is kind of like saying, “Write sauce, as seen in applesauce.”

Since characters have multiple readings it is not unheard of to say something like, “This kan is gen of ningen” (このカンは人間のゲンです) or “This kan is ma of nakama” (このカンは仲間のマ). Sometimes this can be amusing. For English speakers it is hard to tackle the idea that the same character can sound completely different. I like to find well known compounds that have peculiar readings just to stretch native Japanese speakers’ concept of reality. If the compound is sufficiently well-known, the fact that it contains an obscure reading kind of melts away.

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2 Responses to “Correcting Names With Bacteria”

  1. sulochanosho Says:

    It gave really an amazing experience entering into a new territory, that too into an unchartered Japanese language, sound and culture territory, thru this beautiful blog. Beating the unchartered territory is always refreshing and beautiful. I luv the sounds: “ha hi fu he ho”. I am not joking, these sounds make a good “mantra”, for I come from a good land of “mantra”, “tantra” called INDIA! My guess at least is that this “ha hi fu he ho” makes a good heart exercize to keep us calm and relaxed!

  2. Keven Says:

    Again, a very fascinating post. Thanks for taking the time to write such details about an interesting side of Nihongo!

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