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Counter culture

It's just plain embarrassing when Apostropher scoops me on Japanese news items. If he keeps doing it, I am going to be watching closely for interesting developments in North Carolina politics, just to show him up.

Anyway, the 'pos takes note of the latest burst of gratuitous invective from Tokyo's governor, Shintaro Ishihara. The Associated Press reports:

A group of teachers and translators in Japan on Wednesday sued Tokyo's outspoken nationalist governor for allegedly calling French a "failed international language," a news report said.

Twenty-one people filed the lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court, demanding that Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara pay a total of 10.5 million yen ($94,600) compensation for insulting the French language in remarks last October, national broadcaster NHK said.

In their suit, the plaintiffs accused Ishihara of saying: "French is a failed international language because it cannot be used to count numbers."

"It's natural for different languages to have different names for numbers and different ways of counting them, so it's unacceptable for him to insult French in this way," Malik Berkane, who heads a French-language school in Tokyo, told reporters at a news conference.
Now, French numbers can be a bit odd, what with, say, "ninety-eight" being quatre-vingt-dix-huit, or, essentially, "four-twenty-ten-eight." Gets a bit unwieldy. (Then again, the phrase "Four score and seven" worked pretty well for Abe Lincoln.)

But regardless of how cumbersome the French counting system may be, Ishihara is ill-positioned to criticize it. Counting in Japanese presents its own infamous challenges.

The actual numbers themselves are fairly straightforward and predictable. "Two" is ni. "Ten" is juu. "Twenty" is ni juu. And "twenty-two" is ni juu ni. Simple.

But if you actually want to count something, Japanese requires you to add one of a bewildering array of "counters" to the end of those numbers. Sometimes, the counter modifies the number itself. Other times, the number modifies the counter. And yet other times, they both change.

For example, "two", as we have noted, is ni. "Person" is hito. So you might think "two people" is ni hito. And you would be wrong. It's futari. (Except sometimes, when it's ni mei, but let's not go there.)

Jeremy Hedley provides an excellent summary of the fun to be had with Japanese counters here:
Counters in Japanese are so elaborate and obscure that a group of comedians has been able to make a TV show out of them. I don't mean to reinforce stereotypes of Japanese weirdness, but sometimes it can't be helped: here's how it goes.

There are half a dozen guys dressed up like bõsõzoku (delinquent motorcycle gang members) and they sit on souped-up motorcycles that have been set up on a kind of merry-go-round with the camera in the middle. As their merry-go-round rotates, each member comes into view and says their piece. They play a game where you have to aggregate the count of things or objects and then say either the same object or throw out a different one. The next person has to increase the count by one using the correct counter for the object the previous person said.

If someone makes a mistake, a group of sumo wrestlers appears from backstage and beats up the offending player.

I'm not making this up.

The difficulty derives from Japanese having a bewildering variety of counters for different objects. In English we can simply say "one dog," "two dogs"... but in not in Japanese. For smaller animals you count "ippiki, nihiki, sanbiki..." and for larger animals you count "ittõ, nittõ, santõ..." Birds have their own counter: "ichiwa, niwa, sanwa..."

There are counters for long thin things (bottles, pens, neckties), flat things (pieces of paper, towels), larger flat things (tennis courts, ponds), machines (tractors, cameras), small ships, larger ships, planes, hand tools, books, newspapers, letters and forms, large buildings, apartments, houses, vacant lots, events, bundles (spinach, beans), other bundles (flowers, rice), slices, cups or glasses, mouthfuls of something, plates of something, suits, socks, sets of things (tableware, decks of cards), and then a variety of ordinals depending on whether we're talking about first place in a competition, in class, in a list or order, in a generation, and so on apparently ad infinitum.

What's worse is that some counters are pronounced the same as others, but are spelled differently. For example, houses are counted "ikken, niken, sanken..." but vacant lots are counted "ikken, niken, sanken..." with a different kanji for "ken"!

If you ever want to drive yourself to very brink of insanity or beyond by learning another language, Japanese counters are an excellent place to start.
There's also the fact that Japanese counts large numbers differently than Western languages do. Instead of counting by thousands ("I won twenty thousand dollars!"), Japanese counts by ten thousands ("I won two ten-thousand dollars!").

It also counts really large numbers by hundred-millions instead of billions. I have gone to financial results meetings of big Japanese companies, where the executives' comments in Japanese are simultaneously translated into English. People can listen with those one-ear headsets, like at the UN. On one memorable occasion, the professional translator screwed up converting some Japanese numbers (i.e., forty hundred-million) into English numbers (i.e., four billion). She had to go back and restate them, to her great embarrassment.

As Apostropher observes, suing Ishihara over his remark is pretty silly, but the remark itself was silly, too.

Here is the Japanese TV show Jeremy Hedley was talking about. No video clip of the skit in question, unfortunately.


Anonymous said...

If I had five ten thousand yen for every time Ishihara says something stupid... 

Posted by tokyobk

Anonymous said...

The counter thing? Holy crap.  

Posted by apostropher

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I enjoyed the post. I've linked. 

Posted by Kathryn

Anonymous said...

As much of a blowhard as Ishihara is, he shouldn't be sued just for saying something that hurt someone's feelings. 

Posted by Ex-Dem in Japan



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