Marukame's kamatama udon
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.

Japanese iron pot, photograph by Christian Kaden
Photograph by Christian Kaden. Used with permission.

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.

The arbitrary difficulty of language

A friend recently wrote the following on his blog about his son (1 year, 4 months old):

I have to work harder at teaching him [English] words, but I get the feeling he will speak more Japanese first, because there are so many easy two-syllable words for him to pronounce easily in Japanese, and most English words that I say to him are longer and harder to pronounce in comparison.

To which I responded, in a comment (I’m posting more or less verbatim, so this is a bit rough-hewn):

just my two yen of course but I wouldn’t fall for the “japanese is easier to pronouce than english” trap too quickly….i heard similar when my little one was taking his first verbal steps….just remember, your little one isn’t saying anything is difficult, his parents (and other well-meaning folk) are! for him, the concept of “difficulty” doesn’t exist.

the fact of the matter is, is that kids in an English environment, or kids in a Swahili environment (okay, i know nothing about Swahili but you get the idea), learn perfectly well how to start repeating sounds, regardless of whether the word is “difficult” to pronouce. the very concept of “difficulty” is arbitrary and tends to reflect the speaker’s point of view, not an objective fact. I mean, for most of us native English speakers, French is at the same time an incomparably beautiful and exceeding difficult to pronouce correctly language…yet the very fact that there are millions of people who can speak the language beautifully gives the lie to the idea that the language is difficult at all, for those born into that language.

I have found that if you are serious about your child learning your own language, as I trust you are, you have to view that development within your language, not via the pov of the other language. Granted, being that English is the minority language, and that the child is surrounded by Japanese almost every moment of his life, it IS an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean you should be raising any white flags. In actual fact, there is little difference between “atta” and “there it is”, or “baba” and “grandma”, but even to acknowledge that is to worry too much about it. just teach him what you want. hell, I’d start him on “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” right now!

(of course the same applies to your [Japanese] wife wanting him to speak Japanese as a native, which means we need to try not to correct his pronunciation when he says “makudonarudo” [McDonald’s in Japanese])


I’m curious what others think, especially those raising (or trying to raise) a child bilingually. I’m no expert of course, and Kaika still has a long way to go before we can hope to proclaim him bilingual, but I guess I’m natually suspicious of this idea that Japanese, which doesn’t have a lot of words longer than 2 syllables (at least not any words a toddler needs to know!), not to mention that it does have a lot of onomatopoeic words that can at times be mistaken for “baby talk”, automatically makes it easier to learn.

On the other hand, I suppose one could make the argument that the child really isn’t aware he’s repeating “words” but rather is just sounding out sounds, sounds he’s only vaguely connecting with meaning. In which case, I guess the easier to replicate sounds (or syllables) would get the advantage. I don’t know.

Well, you can see I’m no linguist, but if you have an opinion or your own experiences to share, please leave a comment.

For the intermediate and up Japanese learner


In March of this year, Nihongo Journal, a magazine for those studying Japanese as a second language, ceased publishing. While the magazine had its faults, namely too much English translation and more furigana than I thought healthy for Kanji improvement, it was a well-put together monthly magazine complete with a CD and more stuff than one could ever hope to digest in a month’s time.

While ALC, the publisher, has added some content for Japanese learners to it’s Monthly Nihongo, a magazine geared towards teachers of Japanese, and have also recently introduced a new “free paper” monthly focused on foreigners living in Japan (J-Life), nothing has really stepped into the void created by Nihongo Journal’s demise, especially when it comes to intermediate and advanced learners.

One relatively new venture that I’m excited about is the monthly chuujoukyuu no nihongo magazine that started publishing this past summer. I recently subscribed to this at home after having used some material from past issues at the school I was attending. While it cannot hope to match the slickness of Nihongo Journal (frankly it looks more like a fanzine than a magazine), and there’s no CD, I’m finding it a very good way to maintain my reading ability as well as expand my vocabulary (a major weak point, I’m finding out).

Each issue is about 35 pages or so, and features topical news articles, a couple of Japanese usage or kanji quizes, a comic strip highlighting different aspects of Japanese culture and language usage, a “daily life” vocabulary builder (this month’s is about the common cold), a more in-depth look at an issue in today’s Japan (this month’s is regarding the issue of a female heir to the Imperial throne), and an extended reading passage . The nice thing about the magazine is that there is no English to be found anywhere in it. When vocabulary or expressions are explained, it’s done in Japanese. And what’s more, for most of the reading passages, they have chosen not to include furigana with the main text, but rather move this to a second page or boxed off at the bottom of the article. (I find that no matter what my kanji proficiency is, if there’s furigana above or below kanji, my eye immediately gravitates there, depriving myself of a chance to improve my kanji reading skills.)

I’m not sure if any of the major bookstores are carrying this yet, but subscription information is here. However, I don’t think they’re set up as yet to take subscription requests from folks overseas, making this a Japan-only thing for now. (If you are interested in the magazine and live outside of Japan, it might be worth your while to send them an email (listed at their site) so they’re aware of the interest).


Another new resource for intermediate and up students of Japanese that I’ve discovered is Nihongo-Juku, a blog-style site which aims to improve students’ reading and listening comprehension. It does that — there are mp3 files of the reading passages that can be downloaded to your mp3 player or listened to via your browser — but even nicer, the reading passages actually discuss different aspects of accepted (and not so accepted) Japanese usage (such as appropriate ways to respond to compliments, or how to express “I” properly). The site appears to have just gotten off the ground, but what’s been posted already seems right up my alley.


Last (and definitely least), I guess I should finally get around to announcing that I have a Japanese study blog, which I’ve only sporadically been posting to. However, now that intensive studying for this year’s Japanese Language Proficiency Exam is over, I hope to be spending more time there as I look for ways to keep studying. There’s not a whole lot up there at the moment, to be honest. (Perhaps knowing a couple of folks might actually be looking at it might spur me on to continue maintaining it).