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Public Domain Day 2015

Japanese Public Domain Day

Matt Treyvaud looks at the latest works of Japanese literature to hit the public domain, including a guide to rakugo argot.

Every year Japan puts older creative works into the public domain — something that no longer happens in the United States. For works of literature, the tireless website Aozora Bunko celebrates Public Domain Day each year on January 1 by presenting a neat list of newly free works. (Note, however, that these works may not be considered public domain in other jurisdictions, including the U.S., because Japanese copyright — “life + 50 years” — is on the short side by international standards.)

This year, Aozora Bunko released works by ten different authors. One noteworthy example: critic and free verse poet Miyoshi Tatsuji‘s groundbreaking Surveying Ship (“It is twilight/ O mother, push my pram/ Towards the tear-damp evening sun/ Push my creaking pram”). Another: feminist historian and activist Takamure Itsue‘s “From the Standpoint of Research into Women’s History” (“Women’s history is a completely new field for development, and if this research is continued, it is only natural that many fallacious aspects of the hitherto prevailing views of history should be corrected”).

Okay, one more: rakugo artist San’yūtei Kinba III‘s “Argot Etymology.” Most of this essay is about the argot used by the author and his contemporaries in the entertainment industry (so, mainly the senbo tradition deriving from Osakan puppeteers of the Edo period) but there are some interesting comments about his era’s shopgirl slang too. Towards the end, for example, he lists some senbo number words:

  • 1 = hei, the Sino-Japanese pronunciation of 平, meaning “flat, level”
  • 2 = biki, from the Japanese crest known as maru ni futatsu-biki, “circle with two [lines] drawn [through it]”
  • 3 = yama, because the character 山 (yama, “mountain”) has three points on top
  • 4 = Sasaki, after the quartered-square crest of Sasaki Takatsuna, visible on a flag here
  • 5 = katako, because if you’re counting things on your fingers, you can count to five (go-ko) on one hand (kata-te)
  • 6 = Sanada, after the sixfold crest of the Sanada clan
  • 7 = Tanuma, after Tanuma Okitsugu‘s “seven celestial bodies” (七曜) crest
  • 8 = yawata, a native Japanese pronunciation of 八幡 “Hachiman
  • 9 = kiwa, because it’s on the edge (kiwa) of ten

All these can also be found in Umegaki Minoru’s 1956 Argot Dictionary 隠語辞典, albeit with different etymologies in some cases. For example, observing that katako and biki show up as kata-kobushi (“one fist”) and maebiki (“front-puller”) in other traditions, Umegaki proposes those as the direct sources for those two. Mind you, he is unsure what “front-puller” is supposed to mean (“Because carriages were pulled by two men?” he asks forlornly).

Anyway, should you ever need to talk business with a rakugo artist without the other punters catching on, now you can. Happy Public Domain Day!

January 6, 2015

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

2 Responses

  1. leoboiko Says:

    Edogawa Ranpo died 50 years ago as of 2015, right? I don’t know law; I wonder when he’ll go public?

  2. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Assuming the laws don’t change, 359 days from now! (First January 1st after date of death + 50 years.)