The other day my son and I ate lunch at a local branch of the chain udon restaurant Marugame (丸亀). I usually let my son order in these situations, partly to give him confidence, partly because I’m self-conscious of speaking Japanese in front of him. However, on this occasion, he stumbled on how to read the first kanji of the 釜玉うどん (kamatama udon, “udon with a half-boiled egg”) dish we wanted to order. We ended up pointing to the menu and no harm was done, but I was curious as to what was this kanji that he couldn’t read.
According to Goo’s Shogakukan Progressive Japanese–English Dictionary, 釜/kama means:
an iron pot; a kettle; a boiler
which made sense in the context of a noodle dish. However, I wondered if this “kama” was in any way related to おかま (okama), which is used loosely for men who want to be women or to mean “homosexual” (more about that below).
Looking it up in the New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, there is a mention under a “slang” heading of “homosexual”, confirming my suspicions. But I was also intrigued by another, separate slang sense of the character: “buttocks”. Now, no offense intended to anyone, but it’s not too far a stretch to see how buttocks and homosexual might be related. But how did we get from iron pot to buttocks/homosexual? Being a hobbyist etymologist of sorts, I felt I needed to get to the, uh, bottom of this.
As best I can tell from a 30-minute whip around the internet, the iron pot of old bore a resemblance to the anus (or perhaps it was the other way around?). Although an anus wouldn’t be the first thing I would conjure up when idly looking at a pot (one hopes!), I can’t say the association is way off base either. Anyway, it was this image of the pot as an anus, so the armchair etymology goes, that led to the gay male being labeled okama.
Regarding what exactly okama means, I found it hard to pin that down for your average Japanese in today’s context, though it would seem that the “gay male” or “homosexual” meaning has taken a backseat somewhat to a meaning along the lines of “effeminate male”. My wife, no expert on the matter to be sure, but fairly representative of her generation, insists it has little “gay” meaning and basically means “a man who wants to be a woman”, and that it’s a sort of umbrella term under which you would classify terms like 女装 (jousou, drag queen) or ニューハーフ (nyuu haafu, transsexual). For her, and she claims most young people these days would do the same, she would refer to a gay male as ゲイ (gei, gay). However, it doesn’t seem nearly so cut and dried, as this old Usenet thread between mainly non-Japanese colorfully shows. (By the way, the apparently much newer slang term おなべ (onabe, literally “a pot”) refers to women who like to dress up as men, although I’m not sure how often such a term is used, to say nothing of how prevalent this form of gender crossing actually is.)
One interesting discovery made along the way was learning the Japanese for “fag hag”, that rather harsh-sounding but wonderfully assonant slang term for a straight woman who likes to hang out with gay men: おこげ (okoge). Literally, お焦げ (okoge) means the food that sticks to the pot after cooking, particularly rice. I really don’t know the level of pejorative nuance this word carries, but you have to give it points for cleverness. These days, the term やおい (yaoi) has a fair amount of currency both in Japan and abroad among those interested in manga and anime, and is a type of fag-haggery, if you will — it refers to romantic manga (usually written by females) revolving around two male protagonists and is a genre favored in large part by straight women. As if that bit of subculture wasn’t interesting enough in its own right, the term yaoi, coined in the 1970s, is an acronym of sorts that comes from 山なし、落ちなし、意味なし (yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, “no peak/climax, no fall/denouement, no meaning”). Apparently, this was a disparagement used by older established manga elite like Osamu Tezuka to refer to what they saw as the meaningless drivel being put out by younger (and often independently-published) manga artists in the early 70s. Not surprising then that the fuddy-duddy’s opprobrium got appropriated and mantle-ized by the new kids on the subversive block.
This brings me on to 薔薇 (bara, literally “rose”), another genre of gay manga that is actually meant for gay men rather than okoge women and whose name might originate from– No, I gotta stop there, or I’ll still be writing this post days from now. You see, this etymology stuff is both addictive and in reality, never-ending.