Picture conan_lupin_sansei.jpg When I last wrote that entry on the many shortcomings of Japanese mangas, my original intent truly was to follow it up shortly with my own recommendations, or at least observations, as a skeptical, yet sincere newcomer to the genre…

The fact that it took me three months to get to it, is a testament to the sad state of affairs of this industry (and my own sorry ass’ inability to get anything done when not threatened at gunpoint). Actually, the decision to start reading mangas is an old one, one that arose around the time I woke up one day and realized I could suddenly understand Japanese (すっげぇ〜!日本語を喋れるよ!さああ、僕は貝が好きなの・・・). Well, alright: understand might be pushing it a bit, but I’ve been known to conduct reasonably flawless weather-related conversations with my neighbours: a major improvement from my arrival on Japanese soil, where my vocabulary was essentially limited to three Japanese words, one of which I cannot repeat on this site unless you can testify you are over 18 and click here.

Thing is: drunken conversation with Samurai friends did and still does wonders to my verbal skills, I can pull off a semi-decent everyday-Japanese provided it stays on the topic of whose turn it is to pay the next round, or monosyllabic expressions of my appreciation for miscellaneous types of music or other artistic works. Anything slightly off the beaten path usually gets me nodding complacently until I somehow manage to catch a few words that could clue me in on whatever it is we are talking about. Similarly, that whole level-of-speech issue has not been getting any better: you know things are bad when your friend – who has just chugged half a gallon of rum directly off the bottle – kindly worries about your use of excessively colloquial expressions.

Horizons have to be widened and grammar needs improving dramatically.

Hence: Mangas

First, because books are convenient: you can study them anytime, anywhere and by yourself; they do not require a language exchange partner who will be either convinced you are hitting on her, or actually hitting on you (and yea, the feminine form here has a purpose: just check the number of candidates for language exchange in English or French out there and their repartition by gender).

Also because, taking my cue on the local upcoming generations, I cannot read kanjis for shit. Which rules out most magazines and daily newspapers. Some magazines are not that hard – possibly even below my level – but there are only so many times you can read about the latest news on panty thieving activities, detailed voyeuristic recounts of schoolgirl groping-related arrests or nampa tips, straight from the pros (the gist of which can usually be found in all its quaint alliteration-riddled English translation glory on the Mainichi’s website).

As for regular books, real literature, eternal classics of the Japanese masters: try opening an original Mishima volume for laughs, just once. I swear, that guy uses kanjis even my dictionary has never heard of.

Mangas, on the other hand, rarely make use of overly elaborate kanjis, yet can cover a wide array of situations and lexical fields, all along offering saucerplate-eyed visual clues of the ongoing story. Additionally, most have furiganas for part or all of the kanjis used (depending on the target age for the series).

Let’s stop here for a slightly tedious digression that you may want to skip if you know anything about the Japanese language and the black magic art known as reading it:

As you may know, Japanese is written using both kanjis (roughly 1000 to 2000 different ones for basic books and newspapers) and two syllabaries known as kanas. A syllabary is similar to an alphabet, in that each character represents a sound, but unlike, say, the latin alphabet, Japanese kanas each match a full sound (“ma”, “mi”, “mu”, “mo”, “ra”, “ri”, “ro” etc). Each syllabary contains 80-some characters and is usually the first thing anybody will learn when studying Japanese.

In theory, every Japanese word could be spelled using only kanas (and thus easily readable by anybody with reading abilities above kindergarten level). This is quite convenient in cases like computer interfaces, where words are typed using kanas, before being turned into kanjis through some menu selection or such. In practice, though, most people (yours truly, included) will find it incredibly tedious to read a text written entirely using phonetic kanas (remember that Japanese doesn’t separate words either). For texts meant to be readable by kids or sufficiently important not to take a chance with the odd illiterate countryman, a compromise is found by writing both the kanji and its kana spelling alongside. These kanas are usually written in a smaller font above (when writing horizontally) or to the right (when writing vertically) of the kanjis they explain. They are called furiganas and will make the most arcane reading accessible to the casual reader.

One important reason to love furiganas, especially for foreigners, is that if you encounter a kanji you are unfamiliar with, you will probably want to look it up in a dictionary… Which is infinitely easier to do if you actually know how to pronounce it.

It is still possible to look up both meaning and reading of an unknown kanji by using a method known as “multiradical lookup”, relying on the number of strokes and a few recognizable components of the whole ideogram. Even if with a bit of habit and the right tools, multiradical searches can be done fairly fast, they are considerably more annoying to conduct than regular phonetic lookups.

End of digression

Finding readable materials…

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Dr Dave, 3 days after Landing, attempting to convey to a befuddled bank clerk that the damn ATM outside refuses to take his US card (conversation transcribed to English for clarity purposes):


Ten months and twenty full pages of Japanese phrasebook later: trying to open a bank account in order to cash my first paycheck. After literally half-a-dozen fruitless attempts, I find one bank (みずほ, if you must know) that doesn’t mind the fact that I have: 1) no relatives born within 50 miles of the branch, 2) not been living a few decades on the island, 3) no inkan emblazoned with my kanji name and 4) a suspiciously pale skin color, compared to the local shade in fashion. I am not about to ask if they have multilingual staff on the premises.

In Japan, whenever a foreigner steps into a business asking for service, it is customary for staff to hastily draw straws. Failing that, they seek the one employee who has foreign country’s experience (usually a one-week honeymoon in Thailand). Failing that, they send the youngest trainee with instructions to commit seppuku if things get out of hand.

Two hours, many outdated Japanese-English dictionaries and one slightly rattled employee later, I have a Japanese bank account. It only took us 40 minutes to figure how to spell my name in katakana. It will only take me a few more months to figure out how to withdraw money from it.

Three years later: “Hi, I just lost my cash card in Paris, need to change my two-year out-of-date address, make a bank transfer (without my card) and, oh yea, gimme 50,000 yens in cash, by the way that’s a lovely necklace you got here. kthanx.”

Somehow even ended up with her personal phone number on the back of my checkbook.

This language thing is becoming way too easy, high time to leave the country.

Clicking through some stuff this morning, I stumbled upon somebody’s account of life in China, and in particular, a funny observation about hanzis:

Turning now to Chinese characters: We are learning them again at last, and many make me pleased. The character for “to endure” is a knife held to a heart. A tomb is required to draw “antique.” There are other things, too, of course: the local glyphic idea of “peace” is a woman in a house, while that of “family” is a pig in a house. This surely explains either less or more than it purports to.

Like most people, I too struggle to give more or less apocryphal interpretations to kanjis in order to make them more memorable. Some of my findings are quite far-fetched. Yet, this particular set never occurred to me before (as usual: mouse-over to get kanji pronunciation and meaning):

  • 忍, as in 忍ぶ, is made of and
  • A woman () under a “roof” (宀), becomes … Though in japanese, the 安 character doesn’t really hold the meaning of “peace” as in “war and peace” (usually written 平和), but rather a “spiritual, inner, peace” (安心). Interestingly, it is frequently used to indicate “cheapness” or “easiness” (安い).
  • A “pig” () under a “roof” (宀), becomes a “house” () and by extension: a “family” (家族).

Funny how the semantic oddity has been perfectly preserved in the transition from Chinese to Japanese (commonplace, indeed, but certainly not the all-encompassing rule).

Of course, there are hundred of these observations to be made, and I could probably come up with stories for nearly every kanji I know, but to stay with the farm theme, there is this one classic I really can’t get over:

Japanese kanji for “beauty” () is none other than a combination of “big” () and “sheep” (): makes way for all sorts of weird thought processes when a friend points out a 美人 in the street…

Decent week-end, slow news evening.

I’m sure nobody’s eager to hear the fascinating tales of my uneventful yet appropriately social week-end: birthdays were celebrated, morning were slept in, lazy afternoons sitting in the sun, sipping on drinks and writing physics were spent, ice-cream while people-watching on the steps of Shibuya’s Oy’ Oy’ department store(*) were had… Nothing quite blog-worthy, as you’ll realize: no waking up in puddles of bodily fluids in some unknown street/train station/love hotel, no unexplained whip marks in the lower back, no kidney unaccounted for in the morning. Only routine Summer week-end stuff, minus the drink-till-you-puke and hangover stories.

Luckily, I have just what we need for such an occasion!

And thus, let me introduce our generic cultural blog-filler of the day:

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A pretty bad week for databases.

After nearly killing a client’s DB yesterday (and spending most of my night restoring every bits and pieces semi-manually), I felt it wise to secure my own DB here. The one that stores this blog. Guess what happened then?

Yea, I blew the DB too. Or to be more precise: mySQL blew the part of the DB encoded in Japanese.

Here again I just spent half my night recovering everything that could be. Unfortunately all Japanese content for entries posted in June and early July is lost for good: not like it had much literary value, but still a bummer. And in case you are wondering about backups: believe me, I have backups, hundred of them… It just turns out that this piece of crap SQL isn’t even able to properly back up an exact binary copy of your tables that won’t screw up when it encounters encodings it can’t handle properly. So every single backup I have, is identically screwed.

My last personal piece of advice to any mySQL user out there, is to stay away from mysqldump do a freaking binary copy of the db files directly.

擬音語 are the Japanese version of Western onomatopeia. They are often used in comics, to add intensity to a scene, describe a noise or even a texture (though technically these would be 擬態語, and not onomatopoeia). But they have a much wider use, often replacing bona fide words or full sentences, in everyday conversations. They nearly all follow the same specific pattern: a group of two syllables repeated twice (pika-pika, pera-pera etc)… which makes them very easy to spot and remember… Using them in your daily conversation will simultaneously propel you to the ranks of l33t native speakers, and make you sound like one of these 13 year-old Japanese schoolgirl with 5 pounds of plushies dangling from her keitai.

I have compiled below a short list of all those I could remember, off the top of my head, along with a few friends’ contributions. I have made arbitrary use of katakana and hiragana, more or less dictated by what I’ve seen more often in writing. Rule of thumb is that most of these can be found in either form, depending on the mood of the author and the type of material it is used with. Mouse-over the kanas to get the romaji pronunciation….

The ubiquitous (all the time, provided you ever watch TV or speak to a Japanese teenager):

  • ピカピカ glittering!
  • ソラソラ sparkling!
  • ギリギリ quick (chop chop!)
  • ぺらぺら fluent (in a language)
  • ぺこぺこ starving
  • モシモシ [when answering the phone]

The commmon

  • ドロドロ messy/dirty (a room, a floor) or muddled (a relationship)
  • チャキチャキ efficient
  • ツルツル smooth, slippery
  • プンプン intense smell or furious anger
  • ポツポツ bit by bit
  • ベタベタ clingy (overeager lovers) or sticky (sweaty gaijin pig)
  • じめじめ humid, damp
  • ゆらゆら flickering

The uncommon (friends use them, dunno how universal they are):

  • バラバラ scattered, all over the place
  • エロエロ [will let you guess that one…]

The rare (those you likely won’t find in a dictionary, as they are total slang):

  • ブリブリ high
  • パキパキ fucked-up (much stronger than the slightly ‘cute’ ブリブリ)

The manga-style (those that sound like a comic strip description all by themselves):

  • キョロキョロ looking around restlessly
  • イライラ getting nervous (also as kanji: 苛々)
  • うろうろ walking aimlessly
  • カチカチ scared motionless

The real deal (actual onomatopeia, such as used in comics):

  • ワンワン bow-wow (dog)
  • ザアザア water sound (rain, river etc), white noise
  • ケラケラ cackle (hen)… [not quite certain]

The fake (not really 擬音語, but still close):

  • 色々 miscellaneous
  • 時々 sometimes
  • 中々 quite, considerably

Now your turn: send me your favorite 擬音語!

As part of an elaborate not-getting-laid-at-all-cost strategy, I spent the best of my Friday night hacking at home on a whim, bravely ignoring 1am drunken phone calls from a lonely ex, I didn’t stop until I basically had a working prototype.

And thus here you go:
Dr Dave’s Keitai Kanji Multiradical Dictionary!

Of course, you can use this dictionary from any browser, but it has been made especially compact, so as to offer convenient browsing on a small keitai screen.

Why bother making yet another multiradical dictionary when Jim Breen (and many others, most likely) already offers a very decent one on his site?

Two reasons:

  1. I wanted one that be easy to use from a keitai. Jim Breen’s is still a bit heavy to load and browse with a small screen.
  2. I wanted a smarter system for radical selection. All the systems I’ve seen so far let you choose your radicals from a checkbox list of all common radicals. Such a list can be quite long. This makes finding each radical quite tedious and particularly cumbersome on a keitai. Mine use a slightly different approach, that requires at least some knowledge of basic kanjis, but make it much faster then.


Fairly obvious, really:

  • Screen 1: enter a string of kanjis. Can be any kanjis containing one of the radical you want to match or directly a radical. In practice, this means you should pick kanjis that look similar to the one you are trying to match… Say, you want to figure out [汾], you could enter [分] and [海]…
  • Screen 2: you will get a list of all radicals matching any of the kanjis entered previously (in our example, you’d get: [ハ], [刀], [母] and [汁]). Select the ones that belong to the kanji you are looking for (e.g. [ハ], [刀] and [汁]). Optionally, enter a number of stroke, with a margin of error (if you want to get any stroke count, do not change the ‘all’ value).
  • Screen 3 will give you a list of all kanjis (if any) containing all the radicals selected in the previous screen, ordered by frequency and stroke count (in our example, you’d get only the kanji you were initially looking for: [汾]). Along with the kanji, you are given stroke count and unicode value. Clicking on the kanji will do a word search in WWWJIC (translations). Clicking on the unicode value, will give you WWWJDIC’s Kanjidic entry (kanji pronunciation keys and data).

This script has been successfully tested with AU’s EZweb, but should work on any net-enabled keitai, please let me know if you encounter any problem. Suggestions and general comments most welcome.

Hope you’ll find it useful, I know I will!

Note: As usual, this project uses extensively the amazing amount of data gathered and made available by the EDRG on Jim Breen’s website.

You know you’ve lived in Japan too long, when…

  • … you keep complaining that nobody serves real rice anywhere in Europe (only that crappy non-sticky thai version). Yea, I’ve become a rice snob.
  • … you manage to find yourself with two slices of whitebread and scrapes of Nutella for sole dinner, because it’s Sunday evening and you forgot that there isn’t a 24h combini on every streetcorner in Paris.
  • … you burst into inextinguishable laughter, to the stupefaction of everybody else on the bus, when that big stocky white dude gets in with his cool-ass Japanese t-shirt proudly proclaiming「ホワイトトラッシュ」in bold letters on the back.

Otherwise, it’s good to be back home. I think I even missed the mushy weather.

ヨロッパにいつもご飯を食べたと「本物じゃなくて」文句を言って、長くてドライご飯だってから:ほとんどヨロッパで大国ぽいご飯を食べられてるね。ヨロッパ人は短いご飯があまり好きじゃない。最近に僕は日本ご飯の方がとても好き。うん。多分日本で住むすぎたね ^ー^。

I flipped a coin, and between blogging about health, cats or the Deeper Meaning of Life, the latter won.

Then I realized I had very little to say about the Deeper Meaning of Life tonight.

Health is good.

I’m told it’s a good sign that I have stopped spitting blood.

Damn, I meant to mention: if you are planing on reading, you may want to stop eating now. If you are planning on eating, you may want to stop reading now…

Of course, I’d appreciate this news even more, had it not been replaced by recurrent bouts of blood sneezing. It would appear that, despite near-seasonal-record temperatures registered all over Europe for the past two weeks, I have managed to catch, of all things, a cold.

I think I know exactly when I caught it. Right after my surgery. Not only were the conditions memorable, but they also featured some very strange insights in the utterly fucked-up way my poor excuse for a brain seems to work:

Dunno if that was due to the longer-than-expected duration of the surgery, but apparently, my post-op wake-up was a bit more shaky than should have been…

The usual procedure goes something like this:
1) open eyes 2) say “hello world” and give my bravest sickly-young-boy smile with a thumb up worthy of the most ridiculous afternoon soaps 3) feel intense pain in every parts of my body, barely mitigated by the horrible aftertaste of anesthetic in the back of my throat 4) give the International Sign Language version of “please more painkiller in my I.V. drip” 5) go back to sleep…

Instead, it went something like:
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When the apex of your kanji reading abilities is being able to handle automated furikomi (money transfers) on your own (the mere action of paying my monthly rent, fearlessly navigating 50 screens of instructions on the local ATM machine, is enough to bring me a deep feeling of achievement for the remainder of the day), it is dangerously easy to fool yourself into thinking you can actually read some of this barbaric language.

Lucky for me, just when it might happen, something comes up to remind me that I’d still get my ass kicked at japanese crosswords by any 5-year old.

Even if that reminder is some utterly stupid technical detail of tear-inducing banality. The fact that it resulted in the waste of a complete afternoon and nearly failing to secure my plane ticket in time for my departure, sure helped giving it due attention.

For those of you wondering, just note that Sumitomo Trust (住友信託) and Sumitomo Mitsui (三井住友) most definitely aren’t the same bank. And moreover: Sumitomo Mitsui is spelled freaking backward in Japanese (Mitsui first), thus appearing under the マ (‘ma’ and other ‘m’ sounds) section, not the サ (‘sa’ and other ‘s’ sounds) section. As such, even if 住友信託 is the only bank appearing under that section and your brain tells you it looks close enough to be the bank you are supposed to make your transfer to, believe me: It’s not.

Well, all that to say that I’ll be off the island from the end of this week until the end of next month. Please feed the Godzilla when I’m away and take him out for a bit of city-stomping at least once a week, his cans are in the top left shelf in the cupboard. Rie is taking care of the garden and the cats.

bipppu no ato ni, messeiji wo rekohdo shite kudasai…