So many alphabets, so little time

20 Aug

ImageBecause S and I have tickets to two different concerts in a brief period of time, we actually needed to make two sets of uchiwa.  I posted about the last set, those for Hey! Say! JUMP, a little while ago, but last Tuesday, we made a second set for another concert we’re going to next weekend for a Johnny’s and Associates band called Sexy Zone (yes, it’s a really awful name, I know, but to an average Japanese person it probably doesn’t sound nearly as ridiculous as it does to a native English speaker).  However, since I’ve already blogged about uchiwa-making here, I figured I would take this opportunity to write about something else that I find interesting and that can sometimes be confusing, Japanese writing systems and alphabets.

There are three Japanese writing systems: two alphabets of 46 basic characters (katakana and hiragana) and one set of pictographs containing thousands of symbols that convey a meaning rather than a pronounciation (kanji).  Americans might recognize kanji as the symbols often seen on tattoos, shirts, bags, or other decorative items; they stem from (and in many cases are identical to) Chinese characters.  The origin of Japanese written language is China; the Japanese borrowed Chinese characters sometime around 500 CE, but since Chinese and Japanese are fundamentally different spoken languages, they adapted the use of kanji and added simplified characters called kana.  These kana, first just hiragana and later katakana as well, represent syllables rather than meaning.

ImageMost if not all Japanese names contain kanji.  Some kanji are much more complex than others, but the one that happens to be used on this uchiwa is 中, a very simple kanji that can be pronounced “naka” or “chu” most of the time.  It means middle, and can be seen in the words for junior high school (中学校) and central (中央).  For the purpose of the concert, 中 stands for Nakajima Kento (中島健人), one of the band members.

However, while almost all natively Japanese names contain kanji, non-Japanese names are written in a different way, with katakana.  Katakana is a script almost exclusively used on non-Japanese words, such as hanbaga (ハンバーガー), as well as non-Japanese names, such as my name, Miranda (ミランダ).  The name on the uchiwa, マリ or “Mari” is short for Marius Yo, one of the members of the band who happens to be half-German, quarter-Japanese, and quarter-Chinese (Yo is actually 葉 or the Chinese last name Ye).  Like me, Marius has a katakana first name and a Chinese kanji last name!

ImageIt’s highly unlikely that hiragana would ever be used for a name on a single uchiwa; some over-zealous fans bring 3 or 4 uchiwa with one hiragana character on each (such as 3 uchiwa with や ま だ or “Ya Ma Da” to spell out Yamada, more concisely seen on one of my Hey! Say! JUMP uchiwa as 山田) but for the most part, uchiwa are decorated with kanji, or in the case that an idol doesn’t have kanji in his name, katakana.  However, hiragana can be seen on the backs on many uchiwa as a part of the request there.  Almost all requests contain して or an imperative verb meaning “do [something]” and our uchiwa are no exception.  

All in all, I find Japanese an interesting if confusing language!  However, I’m not looking forward to the day that I have to make a sticker cutout of a kanji like 優 for an uchiwa.

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