Utsukushii Kotoba – Beautiful Japanese

Have you ever found a beautiful Japanese word? Japanese language can be roughly divided into so-called wago and kango – words which have a Japanese origin, and those which are Japanized loanwords from China. The latter ones are like Latin or Greek in European languages and serve similar purposes. There is often a Japanese expression which can be replaced by a Chinese kango, or vice versa, just as you can replace beginning with inception.

I noticed recently that I like the sounds of original Japanese words better than those from China. Kango are precise and short, and you can piece them together like lego bricks: Bi-Shô – the smile.  – copper.  Kan-Tan – easy. Kon-Nan – difficult. Sei-Fu – the government.
Oftentimes, the Japanese expressions for the same things are the exact opposite. Long and melodic and soft. Like pearl strings that you connect to each other in a row: Hohoemi – the smile. Akagane – copper. Yasashii – easy. Muzukashii – difficult. Matsurigoto – the government. To me, their archaic long-windedness is a point that adds to their beauty. They do not quite fit to the short attention span and economical thinking of our present-day. Kango are very suitable for science, philosophy and trade. Wago only seem to be good for describing nature. It’s completely useless for technology. A simple word like electron would be a challenge to be expressed through wago alone, while it is rather easy to pull out two pieces of Chinese and create a perfect expression (denshi 電子, by the way). And this effective modular system can be even shortened down. Genshiryoku-Hatsuden-Sho (原子力発電所) – which means “nuclear powerplant”- is often abbreviated to a snappy genpatsu (原発).
Another example: For “physical strength” you would use two Chinese characters and simply say tairyoku (体力), which is a four syllable word. In Japanese you would need to say karada no chikara (からだのちから). Seven syllables. No one wants to lose time, so you go with four. That saves a little bit of tairyoku, too.

I know, I know, Chinese loanwords are so engrained into Japanese that nobody feels uncomfortable using them or considers them as some exotic import. Rather would it be unnatural to swap them for obsolete Japanese words. And I certainly have no sympathy for those who cling to furuki-yoki, “good old”, Japanese culture for no good reason. Language changes and wago and kango alike sound much different than 1000 years ago anyway.

However, the more wago I encounter the deeper I feel touched by their poetic expressiveness, in sound and meaning, especially when it comes to verbs and adjectives. To me, they feel more organic, as if re-invoking the sensibility of people who lived close to nature. There is a beautiful verb for the dawning night, when the day enters twilight: tasogareru. There is also a verb that describes the cherishing of nostalgic feelings, or the longing for something gone by: natsukashimu. Sometimes, wago are straight to the point.
Ancient Japanese believed in kotodama, the magical, spiritual power of words. Maybe that’s why they sound so poetic to me. When they named the world around them, they clothed it into these beautiful, simple sounds. Sumire-iro for “violet”. Oborozuki for “a moon veiled in clouds”. Kagayaku is when something shines brilliantly. Mabataku means “to blink” your eyes, but then you use it to express things like “a flickering lamp”, mabataku tomoshibi or “the twinkling stars”, mabataku hoshi-tachi.

I think most people unfamiliar with the Japanese language have the image of it being a hectic shing-shang-shong. Well, the hyperbolic use of high-pitched ad messages in tv and pop music does not exactly help making people notice the beauty of words like uruwashii or ôunabara. Hearing a new word that beautiful can make me almost cry. And when I listen to a song like “Koi wa momo-iro” (“Romance is peach-colored”), whose lyrics are almost entirely made up of wago, I believe they strike right into my emotions because of their simplicity and tenderness:

Performed by Hosono Haruomi and Yano Akiko

And I am still looking for good contemporary Japanese poetry…

2 thoughts on “Utsukushii Kotoba – Beautiful Japanese

  1. Hello, this was really a good reading to start today, thank you for the posting 🙂

    Here’s this passer-by’s thought triggered by this post.

    First of all, bumping into a post like this was one of several particular events happened to me in the past 6 months that made me realize how much I’ve personally gone overboard for the way of life of the West, always feeling very weird for the very-much-japanese-ish custom like that indirect expressions and ambiguous attitude for any critical moments, or simply all those people who find their lives unworthy of living and such an insane number of people who kill themselves each year, long since my entering to college where my major was North American regional studies/American literature. (And yes, probably that one year studying abroad experience in London strengthened this weirdness of mine) Wow, I’m sounding like a visitor from the west culture criticizing every bit of differences between them and Japan, but believe me, I was born and raised in Japan. Are the globalization and the whole internet and SNS spread to the world to be blamed for building up a person like me, who has a trouble having pride or confidence in her own country’s custom and how things go (less so in the sense of ‘tradition’ but more so in the present situation of this country and its citizen) therefore trying to be always stimulated by the products or opinions created by other foreign countries often simultaneously somewhat degrading her own country’s?
    Or is this just another feature of the “very-much-Japanese-ish” mindset; very low self-esteem?

    Sorry for the diversion! (I maybe am sounding extremely negative, but I guess this would help to clarify the point.)

    Anyway, what I wanted to say was that I also don’t stand by those who claim that we all should go back to the good old days of Japan for nothing but filling up their sentimentality, but at the same time, I feel the significance of knowing and nurturing the things of our country too, especially now. This isn’t to direct people toward more nationalistic nor more exclusive to the things from foreign culture and say, “hey let’s not look at the hideous result of blogging, twittering, mixing-up border-less world!.” But just as much I also find the sensitive beautifulness in wago as you find, I also feel the need of rather more conscious act to look at our own heritage from the past and keep it, pretty much also in order to cope with the more globalized future of the world. I’m totally for the changes of a culture and the fusion of it with another culture but in doing so, I think the culture should be remain self-explanatory to its citizen to some degree.

    Well, sorry if you find this rather indiscreet. Hope my thought would have, even tiny, viewpoint in yours 🙂

    FYI, among a number of impressive encounters with great artists/artworks recently for me was definitely a poet 茨木のり子. I recommend hers if you haven’t checked it yet.


  2. Hello and thank you for stopping by!

    It’s true that there is much in today’s Japanese society which can and should be criticized – politics, social norms, education and the endless commercialization through the media, to name a few of the issues that I feel discomfort about… Japanese people sense themselves that something is wrong with their country, especially when they get in contact with foreigners.
    On the other hand, I am convinced that Japan is a country with unique strengths and qualities, not to mention its rich history of arts and skills. Pointing out the negative aspects is easy. But scrambling for a superficial ‘Westernization’ or ‘Internationalization’ is also questionable, especially when Japan has a lot to offer to the world. I do not mean more Japanese products, but the spread of culture, useful values, aesthetics. So, I can really agree with your suggestion, to reshape cultural identity by fusing new influences while appreciating the own heritage. I hear very similar opinions from Japanese who spend time overseas.

    In my opinion, more Japanese need to get out of the country to acquire foreign language skills and break out of the boxes in which they are kept in. We need to adapt positive foreign modes of thought, while finding confidence in unique Japanese traits that are worth carrying into the 21st century. Right now, too people here seem to be stuck on mental islands, thinking that eating nattô is the thing that makes them “Japanese”.

    Thanks a lot for adding your thoughts, I really appreciate it!

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