大器晩成 (たいきばんせい) – “Genius matures late”

The Japanese expression 大器晩成 (たいきばんせい – taiki bansei) is used for people who achieve success later in life


The world-renown Japanese painter Hokusai created his, perhaps, most famous painting, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, in his early 60s. He changed his name four times and kept reinventing his style his entire life.

Although he gained fame early on in life, he truly blossomed in his autumn years. On his deathbed at 88, he reportedly exclaimed, ‘If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.’

The Japanese expression 大器晩成 (たいきばんせい – taiki bansei) is used for people who achieve success later in life. It is credited to the Chinese sage Lao Zi, who is traditionally considered to be the mastermind behind Tao Te Ching, one of Taoism’s most revered texts.

Share This:

Why is Tokyo called Tokyo?


Before 1868, Tokyo was called Edo and was the actual seat of power in Japan, with the military government bakufu resident there. At the time, it was one of the most populated cities on earth with over 1 million inhabitants.

However, in 1868 when the bakufu came to an end, the emperor was moved from Kyoto to Edo, soon renamed Tokyo (東京) meaning the Eastern Capital. Where are the Northern, Southern and Western capitals then? If you move your finger on the map in those directions away from Tokyo, you will quickly find that Beijing (北京) is the northern one, and Nanjing (南京) is the southern one. Both were the capitals of either united China or various Chinese kingdoms at different periods of time.

The western capital may not be obvious, it is Xi’an (西安). The an bit was an auspicious wish for peace for the city and its kingdom. Together with Luoyang (洛陽), after whose layout Kyoto’s was modeled, those are the Four Great Capitals of China. Thus, Tokyo, by way of its name, latches on to this noble and ancient lineage, positioning itself as its inheritor.



Share This:

Hirano Gen – a bodybuilder and a pianist

Share This:

同性社交性 – homosociality

Many sociological terms lack decent equivalents in Japanese.  It seems the order of the day to get away with some clumsy Katakanese but to me it feels very unsatisfying ( 物足りない). In that sense, Chinese, having no other way but to render foreign words in relevant characters, shows more effort and creativity. Yet, character usage does differ between Chinese and Japanese and some Chinese neologisms feel a bit of a stretch or not quite there.
One example: homosociality. The Japanese Wikipedia article is titled ホモソーシャル, which is not just a mere phonetic rendering, but is not even a noun. What’s the noun from this then, ホモソーシャル性?Clumsy.
The Chinese term is 同性友愛. Makes a lot of sense,  doesn’t it? But then it excludes hierarchical homosocial relationships, which are not about either friendship or love.
My suggestion for a term with the coverage more or less equivalent to the English original is 同性社交性 or 同性関係性. What do you think?

Share This:

The origin of the Japanese word keizai (経済 ‘economy”)


No, you won’t see this yojijukugo in common use, but it is the one that a the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese word for economy 経済, is thought to derive from.

When Japan opened to the rest of the world in mid-19th century, it had to learn to communicate a lot of new things. Despite the thousands years of both inherited Chinese and indigenous Japanese scholarship, Japanese at the time lacked words to convey many concepts. Names for new objects as well as for abstract ideas had to be invented. In those days, the Japanese did not rely as much on katakanese, so they put their minds to make up new kanji-based words. Most of times,  those would  be very clever renderings of the meanings deciphered from European words and then reassembled  in Japanese. For example, the word for society, shakai, would be made of two characters 社会 meaning “gathering in/around a Shinto shrine”, which rather neatly and with a hint of metonymy gets across how the contemporary Japanese would envision ‘society’. Swap the characters, and we got 会社 kaisha, “company” or “firm” (by the way, both société in French).

Economy in the sense of a discrete domain, (egregiously) thought to exist independently of everything else, such as society, environment, or psychology, is a relatively new way of thinking about the relations between money, commodities and labour. It was novel to the 19th century Japan (and, granted, just barely established in the West too). Understandably, there was no corresponding Japanese word for it. So Meiji intellectuals, well versed in Classical Chinese, digged out a wise maxim 經世濟民 keisei-saimin from The Book of The Master Who Embraces Simplicity, a 4th-century treatise by Ge Hong, a Jin Dynasty official.

The meaning of  the phrase can be interpreted  as “keeping the world in order will help out the people”. This idea shows a strong influence of the Chinese political concept of the Mandate of Heaven with its insistence that “moral government brings peace to the country”). That kind of understanding echoes well with the parallel, much later Western concept of political economy: every political decision will have economic repercussions (i.e., the  prosperity of the population).

Ancient Greeks, to whom we trace the two words, thought of them as separate domains. Politics was the matters of the polis, whereas economy was to do with the oikos, home affairs. The wise man was to keep the twain asunder.

Bizarrely enough, despite centuries of effort in political and social theory, the modern practice is still more in  line with that archaic separation of the domains. The latter-day Neo-Classical theory, the dominant one in policy making worldwide, understands economy as a self-contained entity. Its success is judged by arbitrarily chosen quantifiable attributes, such as growth, controlled inflation and an infinitely expanding slew of other numerical meta-entities. Everything else  – environment, society, psychology, humanity itself  –  is treated as “externalities“, well worth sacrificing to keep the basic economic indicators within the range considered desirable  (a.k.a. #GoodForTheEconomyShitForThePeople). That makes it possible, for example, for the Economist to comment gleefully and sincerely on Pakistan’s economic growth while the country was devastated by floods. The same kind of thinking governs the global development industry, bringing the never-ending misery to the Third World.

It is exactly the opposite of the spirit of the original Chinese expression that gave birth to the word 経済. Will economics ever manage to overcome this pernicious misunderstanding?

Share This:

Writing Thai with Chinese characters? Consider it done!

When I started learning Thai, I really missed characters to make sense of the language. Many ur-Thai words (not those of Sanskrit, Pali or Khmer descend) do have that East Asian quality of being short, expressing a conceptual meaning, and also being handy to use as morphemes to form word compounds with new meanings. So what I did, I assigned Chinese characters to Thai words with corresponding meanings! I was so proud of myself,  thinking I invented a new way to write Thai! Besides, it really helped me ease in into a new language. As my Thai got better and words started making sense to me, I stopped writing them with characters.

Twenty years later, almost to the day, I discovered that there has long been a very similar way to write a Tai language like that: Sawndip script of the Zhuang language. This fascinates me no end, so I thought I would share this  discovery with you.

Share This:

花鳥風月: the beauties of nature

花鳥風月  literally means “flowers, birds, the wind and the Moon.” In the Tang Imperial court of China, whence the Japanese picked up their penchant for such four-letter words (四字熟語), nature appreciation was a big thing. After all, it was the early centuries of the Common Era and, in the absence of TV, internet and pachinko parlours, the only competitors to admiring the beauties of nature would be sex and, for the educated, books.

We rarely think this way, but for the most of us, everything around us, every single thing is man-made. Even trees in the park are planted there and the water in river is pollution-controlled and partly comes from sewage-processing plants. The nature on the other hand, is just-so. It happens there without anyone’s apparent will, yet it organises itself into ridiculously complex ecosystems, as if by chance. Human intrusions upon that marvelous order are like encroachment on a beautiful, elaborate building by increasingly smart, malicious mould that leaves mostly toxic waste and destruction in its wake. Even such beautiful excuses for progress and development as some architecturally fascinating cities and towns, ultimately are festering ulcers on the body of our planet. A particularly poignant example of such  human activity is the Tokyo Olympics 2020 site next to which the largest ongoing man-made disaster, the Fukushima Nuclear Plant keeps dumping lethal radioactivity into the Pacific Ocean and East Japan’s densely populated areas.
So, enjoy your 花鳥風月, while they are still around.

Share This:

喜怒哀楽 – Human emotions, which ones are desirable?

喜怒哀楽 kidoairaku “joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure”.

Recently I attended a talk by an American anthropologist Melissa Caldwell, where, inter alia, she shared her observation that Russians consider experiencing the whole range of emotions from suffering to joy as natural for human beings, while for Americans being always happy is the desired objective.

For me, the latter has a lot to do with the technologies of the self of the Neo-Liberal subject: our life objective is assumed the be the relentless pursuit of happiness (a nod to the Founding Fathers), where we would strive for perfection in every aspect of our lives. It should be rather self-evident that such a unrealistic goal-posting is a recipe for disaster: if a basic acquaintance with how the human nervous system works (it naturally operates in up-ad-down cycles  and prolonged periods of either negative or positive stimulation wearing it out) is not enough, the 21st century’s boom in anti-depressant consumption should confirm that the pressure to be always happy achieves exactly the opposite.  

Share This:

浅からず深からず : interested but not involved

浅からず深からず – Asakarazu, fukakarazu.

Technically, this is not a four-letter compound, although it can be written as such, kango-style, 不浅不深 (please correct me, if necessary, I’m not big on kango). I heard it some 20-odd years ago, when a Japanese girl I knew told me that the best way to keep relationships with people is “not too shallow, not too deep”. Coming from a culture where it’s all about emotional extremes, that came across cold and indifferent to me. Not any more though, as life experience has taught me that to enjoy earthlings the best, you ought to keep them at a healthy distance.
There’s another Japanese saying to that effect: 附かず離れず (tsukazu hanarezu), “no attachment, no detachment”. It popped up in an interview I made with a 70-year-old Japanese man in Bangkok last winter. After meditating on the two above sayings as a kind of koan for a while, I had a minor epiphany, triggered by accidentally revisiting the famous talk Krishna gave Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Ghita: “Stay interested, but not involved. There’s nothing about this world that is real.” My own insight was that “interested” is exactly the Middle Path, my dear majjhima, between being indifferent and being too involved.

As usual, the truth is in the middle, just ask those mysterious, exotic and oh so wise Orientals. 🙂

Share This:

On power and respect: the change in Thai perception of Russia

The other day we went to a restaurant in Silom, Bangkok’s business district.  At the end of the dinner, I got to chat with our waitress, who upon learning where I am from, started waxing on lyrically about what a great, strong and admirable leader Putin is and what a great rich country Russia is.
I am not quite used to Thais enthusing about anything Russian at all. When I lived in Bangkok in the late 1990s, Russia was a defeated Communist tyranny fighting a poor self-image, hyper-inflation  and a complete rehaul of its entire way of life in the midst of Yeltsin’s lawlessness. I remember reading then an article in the Times of India to the effect that Russia, with its compromised economical and international clout, is now a poor cousin to ignore not an ally to side with. It sounded unpleasantly opportunistic, yet  it did, with unashamed honesty, describe the wide-spread perception of Russia at the time. In Thailand, Russians were the farang jon, ‘poor Caucasians’, stragely dressed and with little purchase power.
All that has changed with Putin dragging Russia out of the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes that it was in the 1990s. Russia’s estimated 5 billion dollar annual investment into Thailand and the influx of cavalierly spending Russian tourists seem to caus a sea change in Thais’ ideas about the country. Besides such visible signs as the ubiquitous Russian-language signs and menus, the attitude has shifted too: neither any longer a feared Communist empire, nor a poor cousin of the farang world, Russia now seems to be admired mostly on the back of its economic resurrection.

Share This: