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. Dô – 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…