BITS and Pieces

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Be it the Bollywood golden oldies like “Sayonara” from “Love in Tokyo”, or today’s always-in-vogue generation that loves wearing kimono and slurping on momos while flipping through manga or unriddling sudoku, Japanese language has been enchanting Western culture for decades. Some of us like to take up karate or go to karaoke on weekends, while others prefer the Zen state of mind rather than giving into the tsunami of emojis on the phone. Whether or not we realise it, Japanese has shaken up the mainstreams! Let’s propose a toast to this wonderful Oriental culture where the valiant Samurai and delicate Sakura play house together.

 Japanese – the what and the where

Japanese is an East-Asian language primarily spoken in the island-nation of Japan. Before World War II, the Japanese dominated Asian Countries such as North and South Korea and Taiwan to name a few and made it incumbent upon them to speak Japanese. If the statistics are to be believed, more than 130 million people speak Japanese even today, making it the ninth most widely spoken language in the world.

Roots and development

The origins of Japanese are the bone of contention among linguists. Japanese is most widely believed to be linked to the Ural-Altaic family, which includes languages such as Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu, Korean. The country’s geography has fostered the development of various dialects throughout the archipelago. All these dialects, namely Honshu or Aomori and Akita, are often mutually unintelligible. However, linguistic unification has been achieved by outstretch of the kyotsu-go (common language), which is predominantly based on the Tokyo dialect.

Japanese writing system

Did you know that Japan did not have a writing system for the longest time? The first documented evidence was found around the 5th and 6th centuries, with names inscribed on things such as swords. Written records of Japanese date back to the 8th century, much before kana was invented. By the 12th century, the syllabic writing systems, hiragana and katakana, were created out of kanji, providing the Japanese new freedom in writing their native tongue. The Japanese Ministry of Education designates approximately 2,000 kanjis as a prerequisite before high school graduation. A standardised written language, which is believed to have come into existence in the mid-18th century, has adopted a huge amount of Gairaigo (foreign words) mainly from English such as teburu (table), biru (beer), takushi (taxi) etc.

Culture of Translation

Japanese culture is often characterised as a culture of translation because the today’s Japanese language is the result of translators struggling to match Chinese characters and Japanese words, hitching on native pronunciation and adopting approximations of Chinese pronunciation. It is likely that the founders of modern Japanese literature tended to be either scholars of Western literature or translators. Murakami, however, went even further and developed a distinctive rhythm of writing drawn from 20th century American jazz when creatively tackling the rhythmic prose of The Great Gatsby. Though deemed “unnatural” by some Japanese critics, his translations are so popular that ‘the ‘Murakami style’ now feels quite normal, especially for those raised on it since the 1980s.  

Linguistic Trivia

All you Star Wars fans in the house will be surprised to know that the basis for George Lucas’ famous venture “Star Wars” was “The Hidden Fortress” – a film by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

Haiku poetry, which was invented in Japan, comprises only three lines and is the world’s shortest poetic form.

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Shreya Bhat German - English Translator A total arts-fanatic, Shreya loves to lose herself in the world of creative possibility. She is a true-blue admirer of Gulzar, a self-indulgent beast, writer, photography enthusiast, Yoga disciple and an avid reader of classic and modern literature as well as clothes-hoarding, shoe-loving, fashion industry columns. With a Master’s degree in English Literature and proficiency in Japanese and German, this poetic soul is a little bit of everything, all rolled into one.