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2008 June 6

It’s a little overwhelming being surrounded by signs covered in complex characters, so I often find myself relying on the katakana portions to give me some clue as to the meaning of the sign. カタカナ are simple, angular characters that make up Japan’s second phonetic alphabet. They’re mostly used for foreign words – gairaigo, as in the title of this post – and names but sometimes sub in for a character the writer thinks is too complex or serve as emphasis for an important word. If you’ve ever purchased a Japanese-made electronic device, you’ve probably seen some, and they probably spell out something you understand. コンピュータ is pronounced “konpyuuta”. メニュー is pronounced “menyuu”.

Thus why a Japanese student such as myself tends to like seeing katakana on a sign. It’s like reading Japanese, except you know the end result of sounding it out is going to be a word you understand.

Well, except when it isn’t. Within the category of 外来語 is the tricky 和製英語 – “made-in-Japan English”. These words are based on real English words, but the Japanese have adapted them for a different meaning by plucking a non-essential word from a descriptive phrase or conjoining English words in a non-English way. Wikipedia has a good list of gairaigo and waseieigo terms; if you read out the roomaji column to yourself, you will recognize the word the term is based on, but you may not always connect it with the Japanese meaning. Thus why relying on words that appear in katakana is often a bad idea.

The story that prompts this explanation: I got back to my hotel this evening after spending a couple hours in Akihabara and getting a decent deal on a Sharp Papyrus denshijisho. (I think it may be a little harder to use than the Canon WordTank I purchased earlier, but since the Canon WordTank speaks Chinese, I may have an easier time selling that one.) I had purchased a carton of milk tea and an anpan from a convenience store at the station on the way back, so I decided to put them in the mini-fridge, and the note taped on top caught my eye:


I can read the last part: “Please put in ~.” I have no idea what the kanji mean, though I know a few of them. That angular word should tell me what’s going on – but it reads “konsento”. Is there a consent form I need to sign to use this fridge?

So I whipped out my new denshijisho and started copying characters. The first set has something to do with shopping – okay, grocery shopping, it’s a fridge. The lone kanji means something like “in the event of” – so, “should you have groceries…”. But that still doesn’t explain what I have to consent to.

Finally I typed こんせんと into the denshijisho’s Japanese/English dictionary and discovered that it actually means outlet. I have no idea why. At any rate, all the fridge is telling me to do is plug it in if I need to put groceries in it, and I figured that much out a long time ago. Wikipedia at least has the answer to the mystery of why “konsento” means outlet; it comes from “concent(ric plug)”. You picked the wrong word, Japan!


I purchased my tickets for tomorrow; hotel checkout is at ten, but I’ll be hanging around Ueno station until 12-ish. The bullet train will have me to Echigo-Yuzawa in a little over an hour, after which I’ll wait thirty minutes and then take a train the remaining two hours out to Kanazawa Station. The pictures of it online show that it has a beautiful large red gate in front, but Professor Miura assures me that it actually only has one ticketing station, so the Hashibas’ son won’t have too much trouble finding me. Chances are good that I’ll be the only gaijin at the station. There were quite a few in Akiba today, of course.

By the way, Akihabara is NOT the best place to go on your second day in Japan. It’s rather overwhelming, crowded with stores you can barely figure out the purpose of – but the duty free shops are very useful if you need any electronics. The man I met yesterday advised me to bring my passport with me when shopping, which worked out nicely; not only did I get a duty-free price on an electronic device, I was given an extra discount by the salesman since my stay in Japan is on the short side. He led me to the Papyrus rather quickly, which made me worry he was trying to oversell me, but it looked like they were sold out of the WordTank V80 and were almost out of this model as well – the price was considerably reduced from the original, so I guess a new one is coming out soon. The other duty free shops didn’t seem to have anything under $200, so I did pretty well. 

One thing I’m working on figuring out is the Japanese etiquette on drinking a drink from a vending machine. Jidouhanbaiki are literally everywhere, which makes it easy to buy a drink when the heat gets rough; but I’ve been told that eating on the street in Japan is traditionally considered rude, despite the fact that young people often do it. Drinking seems more essential to me, but I can’t figure it out. Drinking while walking seemed to get me some stares, but I spotted a Japanese businessman drinking while stopped waiting for the crosswalk, so I guess the issue is just making it the sole order of business. But is there an appropriate place to stop and drink?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Davey permalink
    2008 June 6 9:53 am

    I remember I had the most trouble with ‘akuseru’. Since the material dealt with motorized vehicles anyway, I was translating it as ‘axle,’ but while it fit, it never seemed accurate. Someone else finally pointed out that no, it was the japlish shortening of ‘accel(erator)’, which all of a sudden made translations make a lot more sense.

    Envying the journey.

  2. dad permalink
    2008 June 6 2:29 pm

    A good map of Tokyo.

  3. dad permalink
    2008 June 6 2:37 pm

    A good map of Kanazawa.

  4. dad permalink
    2008 June 8 7:41 pm

    Mara is offline for a few days and will probably post on 6/9 or 6/10.

  5. traci-chan permalink
    2008 June 13 10:14 am

    words i am a fan of that come from english

    チェリーボーイ cherībōi -cherry boy -A male virgin

    バイキング baikingu -viking -smorgasbord, buffet.

    ベビーカー bebīkā -babycar -stroller (best visual EVER)

    ジンギスカン jingisukan -Genghis Khan -Mongolian style barbecue (next time i got to the mongolian BBQ i am saying that to my friends “LETS GO TO THE GENGHIS KHAAAAAAAN!)

  6. marainjapan permalink
    2008 June 13 10:37 am

    I personally think we should adopt “viking” for all American buffets. It would make them slightly more dignified!

  7. traci-chan permalink
    2008 June 14 11:12 pm

    oh man. yes.


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