Saturday, 10 June 2017

Rain, Snails, and Japanese Animal Names

On Wednesday, the rainy season was officially announced to have begun in Tokyo. The start of the rainy season is known as tsuyu-iri (梅雨入り)using the verb hairu (to enter), while the end of the season - usually 5 or 6 weeks later - is called tsuyu-ake (梅雨明け) . This latter phrase uses the verb akeru which means the end of a season or period and, by implication, the beginning of another. For example, the phrase yo(ru) ga akeru means the end of the night (and by implication day-break) while the end of one year (and therefore the start of a new one) is toshi ga akeru: the common greeting on New Year's Day is akemashite omedetō. The word tsuyu itself is made up of the characters for ume (plum=梅)and rain, the former because this is the season when Japanese plums ripen.

Four shots of a snail crawling on a tree trunk
A snail enjoying the start of the rainy season which began in Tokyo on Wednesday

Apart from umbrella manufacturers, the only creatures happy with the coming of the rainy season are probably snails, pictured above, which are out on force at this time of year. The name for snail in Japanese, katatsumuri (カタツムリ), is usually written in katakana but does have kanji (蝸牛, sometimes pronounced kagyū), the second character of which is cow/bull (ushi), reflecting the fact that snails, like bulls, have "horns" (tsuno =角). Children though have different names for snails based on their movement and actions, namely maimai and denden-mushi, the latter featuring in a well-known children's song:

でんでん虫々 (mushi-mushi)カタツムリ
お前(mae)の頭(atama)はどこにある (Where is your head?)
角だせ槍(やり)だせ 頭だせ (Stick out your horns, stick out your spear/s, stick out your head!)

The second verse is the same except atama (head) is replaced with medama (eyes). Actually, snails are not the only animals with special onomatopoeic names - dogs, cats, pigs, and a few other animals are commonly referred to by children (and adults talking to children) using the sound those animals are perceived to make. This is rather different to English in which animal names are made cuter for children (doggie, kitty cat, piggly wiggly) but rarely changed altogether to mirror the sound. For example, while it would be perfectly normal to say "wan-wan da" when pointing to dog in Japan, it would be very strange to say, "Look at that woof-woof over there" in English! The table below lists some common animal sounds in Japanese and compares them with their English equivalents, illustrating just how culturally specific such sounds are:

a table comparing English and Japanese animal sounds