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What Day is It?

JAPAN | Thursday, 10 March 2016 | Views [301]

One of Suzuki-sensei’s favorite starts to the class is asking “what is today’s date? What day is today?” The first is a straightforward question, the second is a question that only she knows the answer to. Usually it’s something odd like “well, if you write the kanji, then give them a skewed pronunciation, you could read it as “nya nya,” which is the sound a cat makes, so today is Cat’s day!” But it’s informative, I guess, in the same way going to Wikipedia and clicking the random article button is informative.

Tuesday, even the simple part of answering the date was kind of a trick question. See, Japanese loves stealing things from Chinese. And as if the alphabet weren’t enough, they decided to take numbers too. Not just the numbers, but some pronunciation that is supposed to be derived from the Chinese as well. But they still wanted to keep their own numbers and pronunciation. So they kept both.

If you ask a student studying Japanese to count to ten in Japanese, odds are they’ll give some close variant of “ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, nana, hachi, kyuu, juu.” (I say “some close variant” because “yon” and “shi” are both ways of saying four and “shichi” and “nana” are both seven, and I still need to guess which one I should be using.) And then if you say something like “what about ‘hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, yottsu, itsutsu, muttsu, nanatsu, yattsu, kokonotsu, tou?’” They’ll probably roll their eyes and say “that too.”

On one hand, having two different ways to count to ten in the same language is kind of annoying, and it would be easiest if we could just stick to the sino-Japanese numerals. (The first one I listed.) On the other, native Japanese numbers don’t have a counter. And if you want to give the number of something, you can usually get away with using the native Japanese number. Provided there are under ten of them and your teacher isn’t too picky. Otherwise, you have to use counters.

Counters are simply a word, usually with a single character, added on at the end of a number to explain what kind of thing you’re dealing with. Some of them make sense, even in English. For example, if someone were to ask what floor of the apartment your room is, you probably wouldn’t just say “five.” You might say “fifth,” but you’d likely say “fifth floor.” If a classmate asks “how much longer do we have to wait,” you’re not going to say “10.” You’re going to say “ten minutes” or “ten hours” or “ten weeks,” depending on which answer it is.

However, if someone asked how many cards were on a table, you wouldn’t say “there are 10 flat things.” If someone asked “How many knitting needles are you using!” You would say “four,” or maybe “four knitting needles.” You wouldn’t say “four long thin things” or “of knitting needles, I’m using four long thin things.” Those translations sound ridiculous, because there’s no reason to literally translate the counters into English. But in Japanese, you need them. And there are a lot to learn, and some of them change the pronunciation, usually in a logical manner though it takes a while to get that logic. And there really are a lot of them. So being able to use native numbers and avoid them is convenient.

And you need to learn them anyway, because they show up when you’re trying to count certain objects. Like people. “Hitori, futari, san-nin, yon-nin, go-nin…” or dates. The first ten days, and any day that ends with a four, use a variant of the native Japanese numbers that are easily recognizable. So the tenth is “touka.” The ninth is “kokonoka.” The fourth is “yokka.” (Not to be confused with “youka,” the eight.) The second is “futsuka.” The first is… “tsuitachi?” Where does that come from?

I don’t know. It never appears again. But you had better learn it, because that’s how you mark the first day of a month. And even if that’s only twelve days a year, it is twelve days that Japanese teachers are sure to ask you about, because they know you can almost, but not quite, get away with not knowing it.

Once we’d passed that test, Suzuki-sensei moved on to the next question. What day was it? We had no idea. So she read us a passage talking about three people who had their birthdays on 1 March. The first time through, the only name I caught was “Chopin,” and I had to ask a clarifying question to make sure it was the composer. The second time through I somehow managed to catch everyone’s name, even the person I’d never heard of before that day, and made a rough stab at the years she was saying. I got the century right, at least. Having heard of two of the three people she was mentioning helped both for taking notes, and helped a lot in the conversation that followed and ended up taking up most of the class.

First of all,  I needed to explain who Chopin was. This is what happens when you use aizuchi too well. “Oh really? Frederic Chopin? Hmnnn…” It makes it sound like you’re actually interested in the subject, which implies you know something about it.

What I know about Chopin: he lived in Paris, and died there. He was a composer of piano music, and wrote a number of Études, Preludes, Mazurkas, and Nocturnes, including Opus 27 Number 2. He’s buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, and I have a friend who’s a huge fan. That is such scattered and useless knowledge, but I was the one asked to explain who he was. After I translated some of my knowledge into Japanese, Suzuki-sensei played pieces composed by him. Dan didn’t recognize any of them.

Moving on… the next person born on 1 March was Ryuunosuke Akutagawa. Suzuki-sensei seemed to want to go through the explanation of who he was more quickly than we’d gone through Chopin, but this was an author who I actually knew things about. I don’t have real music knowledge, and even though I can sometimes give facts about composers, I don’t actually know anything. Chopin wrote Fantaisie-Impromptu for piano… what’s a piano?

By contrast, even though I don’t always have genuine knowledge about the books that I’ll talk about, I feel on much steadier ground. And I like talking about it. So when Suzuki-sensei started giving some titles, I immediately chipped in with the titles that I knew. Rashoman was easy, no translation necessary. In a Grove  was harder. Explaining how Kurosawa took the plot for In a Grove and gave it the title of Rashoman when he was making a movie was harder, so I just went with mentioning that Kurosawa made films about Akutagawa’s works. And also Akutagawa had a major literary prize in Japan named after him. Having watched Rashoman the film and skimmed through the list of Akutagawa prize winners, that still felt like more real knowledge. It’s not necessarily more helpful than what I know about Chopin, but on the other hand knowledge of Akutagawa is much less common, so that should count for a lot.

Finally, it was also the birthday of Ogura Yuki. She was a Japanese artist. 以上。

And that’s what day it was. It was 1 March (三月一日)and it was the birthdays of Frederic Chopin, Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, and Ogura Yuki. That’s a lot less contrived than “Cat day.”

I waited until it was 1 March in the United States and texted the friend who adores Chopin to wish him a happy Chopin’s birthday. Because that’s definitely a thing that you wish someone. (Actually, I’d probably be pretty happy if someone were to wish me a “Happy Eugene O’Neill’s Birthday!” Happier still if they celebrated it by reading one of his plays. The person who did so would be more depressed as a consequence, but such is life.) He did not know that it was Chopin’s birthday, and I got to continue pretending I actually knew things about music. Now if I could just figure out what a piano was...

Tags: akutagawa, chopin, dates, japanese, literature, music, numbers

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