Achieve, Eggplant! (A Message from Edo Period, Japan)

The things you learn at your breakfast table. My wife was looking at our desktop calendar and pointed out to me that the traditional pattern adorning the top border of September was an Edo Period (1603 – 1863) eggplant motif that plays on the dual meaning of the Japanese word ‘nasu’ (なす). In Japanese, the word ‘nasu’ is the infinitive form of the verb meaning ‘to achieve’, and is indicated in this case using the Chinese character+Japanese verb suffix as such – 成す. When referring to the eggplant/aubergine the Japanese use the simple Japanese character form seen above, or occasionally the Chinese character for the vegetable, thus – 茄子.

Still, the Japanese love to play on the sound/meaning combination as a form of poetry or pun. The written word adds another dimension to this game in traditional poetry forms, but in this case it’s all about the oral/aural.

"Flathead fish and eggplant" from the series "A Variety of Fish" by Utagwawa Hiroshige (Tokyo National Museum)

One of the modern forms of this poetry/pun combo also came to my attention years ago via my wife (then girlfriend). Before taking tests or similarly taxing activities, she would eat at Kit Kat, explaining that in Japanese the verb ‘katsu’ (勝つ) means ‘to win’ or ‘to be victories.’ In Japanese, ‘kitto katsu’ (きっと勝つ) shows one’s determination to be victorious and so (probably via a marketing strategy from the Kit Kat folks) Kit Kat has become associated with the sentiment.

"Daigaku-imo" Sweet Potato-flavored Kit Kat

The above Kit Kat is one of Japan’s special flavors, including cherry blossom, green tea, and Hokkaido milk, among others. This one is a sort of caramelized sweet potato flavor from the traditional flavor of Japan and plays on the words “daigaku” (university) and “imo” (potato). The cap at the bottom of the package is part of the traditional male high school uniform, which came from the Dutch during the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912). No one wears the cap anymore, but the rest of the uniform remains. The caption in “oenshiteruyo” which means “Cheering for you!”

These Kit Kats are given to high school students cramming for the torturous Center Examinations, which determine which universities will have you. It’s a hideous system of education with the main lesson that society will crush you into submission in order to show you your place in the bureaucratic order of things. But that’s beside the point at the moment. If you love and support your high school student in their time of Inquisition, this kind of treat is both sweet and sends a message of support.

Language play is awesome.

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About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
This entry was posted in education, language and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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