水素 suiso—hydrogen   1 comment

The RIKEN institute in Kobe (home of the Kei-computer) has been credited with the discovery of the 113th element, and now has the right to propose a name for it, taking its rightful place in the periodic table between elements 112 (copernicium) and 114 (flerovium) . The name “Japonium” (symbol: Jp) has been suggested, to commemorate its country of discovery.

element 113

Element 113: Jp?

On a visit to the Science museum in Osaka last year, my attention was grabbed by a “Periodic Table Wall”, where the various slots were occupied by little vials containing samples of each element.

Periodic Table Wall

Periodic Table Wall: いろいろな元素 means “various elements”

Looking at the names of the elements in Japanese, I became curious as to why, while many are simply the familiar international name written in katakana (for example リチウム richium—lithium) or a variation thereof (セレン seren—selenium), the names of several of the elements were written in kanji. I wondered what is special about these particular elements, that they have their own kanji.

It seems they fall into a number of categories, depending mainly on when the elements were discovered. In the case of elements known to the ancients, native words, or very old (Tang-dynasty) Chinese loan-words, are used:

  • 鉄 tetsu: iron
  • 金 kin: gold
  • 銀 gin: silver
  • 銅 dou: copper
  • 鉛 en: lead
  • 錫 suzu: tin
  • 燐 rin: phosphorus (normally written in katakana as リン; among the ingredients listed on a can of coca-cola you will find リン酸 rin-san—phosphoric acid)
  • 硫黄 iou: sulphur
  • 水銀 suigin: mercury (literally “water-silver”; an intriguing parallel to the meaning of Latin hydrargyrum, but long-predating European contact)

A couple of oddballs (usually written in katakana as the kanji are so uncommon) combine the old name of the substance with the character 素 so meaning “element”:

  • 硼素 houso: boron (usually written in katakana as ホウ素)
  • 硅素 or 珪素 keiso: silicon (usually written in katakana as ケイ素)
  • 砒素 hiso: arsenic (usually written in katakana as ヒ素)

The names of some of the elements are 18th-century Japanese coinages:

  • 亜鉛 aen: zinc (meaning something like “lesser lead”)
  • 蒼鉛 souen: bismuth (“blue-green lead”); nowadays, however, this element is known by its international name as ビスマス bisumasu.

A bismuth crystal

News of the discovery in 18th-century Europe of new elements such as oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen came to Japan through German (or Dutch); the Japanese names are exact calques of the German names:

  • 水素 suiso: hydrogen (“water element”, from German Wasserstoff)
  • 炭素 tanso: carbon (“coal element”, from German Kohlenstoff)
  • 窒素 chisso: nitrogen (“choking element”, from German Stickstoff)
  • 酸素 sanso: oxygen (“acid element”, from German Sauerstoff)
  • 白金 hakkin: platinum (“white gold”, from Dutch wit goud)

This pattern was extended to some native coinages in the early 18th century:

  • 塩素 enso: chlorine means “salt element”
  • 臭素 shuuso: bromine means “smelly element”

The names of fluorine and iodine are phonetic borrowings based on the initial sound of the German names, combined with the character 素 so meaning “element”:

  • 弗素  fusso: fluorine (usually written in katakana as フッ素)
  • 沃素 youso: iodine  (usually written in katakana as ヨウ素)

After around 1900, however, everything settled down and all the more recently-discovered elements just use the international name in Japanese, so there is no special Japanese name or kanji for ネオン neon, サマリウム samarium or ジスプロシウム dysprosium. How boring!

大数—big numbers   2 comments

The fastest supercomputer in Japan is at the RIKEN institute in Kobe and is called the K-computer or kei-computer (京コンピュータ).


With 80,000 8-core processors, using an incredible 10 MW of power, it was the fastest computer in the world when it was built in 2011, and 4 years later it is still the 4th fastest. According to Wikipedia, it uses a “proprietary 6-dimensional torus interconnect called Tofu“.

The reason it’s called “kei” is that 京 kei is the Japanese word for 10 quadrillion (10 to the power of 16). And the fact that Japanese has a word for 10 quadrillion is a fascinating thing in itself. Because 10 quadrillion is a very, very large number. It’s approximately the number of meters light travels in a year: one light year is one kei meters. But it is not the largest number word in Japanese – not by a long shot.

Learners of Japanese will be very familiar with the word 万 man meaning 10,000. 1 man yen is equivalent to about 100 dollars or euros, so when you ask about the price of a nice hotel room, an airfare or a car, or the population of a town or city, you’re likely to hear the word man.

The next number word is 億 oku—100 million. While it’s not as common as man, it still crops up fairly often. 一億円 1 oku yen is equivalent to about a million dollars or euros, so you’ll hear it on the news, talking about company profits or budgets, or even the price of an expensive house or apartment.

In fact, the word 億ション oku-shon is used to mean a luxurious apartment. This is a bit of Japanese wordplay. You see, the Japanese word マンション manshon (from English “mansion”) means a large apartment or apartment building. But wouldn’t it be even more impressive if, instead of a “man-” (10,000) shon, you had an “oku-” (100,000,000) shon?

According to Statistics Japan, the population of Japan is 1億2682万人 — that’s 1 oku 2 thousand six hundred and eighty two man people, or 126.82 million. (That example may give some insight into how confusing it is to translate numbers between Japanese and English, even if you know both languages perfectly, which I don’t. Understanding Japanese numbers is very challenging, calling on mathematical as well as linguistic comprehension skills.)

After 億 oku comes 兆 chou—one trillion. This is a big number, but you’ll still come across it, thanks to the fact that the yen is a relatively low-value unit of currency. National budgets and some large infrastructural projects are measured in 兆円. The new maglev Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Nagoya is expected to cost around 9 chou yen.

So what’s bigger than chou? That’s where we meet our old friend 京 kei, ten quadrillion. And until the kei computer was named, I had never heard this number used in real life. It far exceeds the entire world’s money supply. But in 2011, the kei computer was clocked at a speed 10 petaflops per second, which is 1 kei flops. And that’s where it got its name.

And there’s a whole world of numbers after kei. In the Japanese tradition of recreational mathematics, wasan, a 17th-century arithmetician called Yoshida wrote a textbook, Jinkouki, that starts by setting out the names of large and small numbers. I don’t know whether any numbers larger than kei are ever used nowadays, and I seriously doubt that anyone would understand them.

1 垓 gai is 100 quintillion, or 10 to the power of 20. That’s far more than the number of animals in the world, including all the tiny insects and teeming krill in the sea. After that, the numbers continue to go up in powers of 10,000. For example, 1 穣 jou (10 to the power of 28) is about the number of atoms in my body, and if you wanted to estimate the number of atoms in the whole world, that would be around 百極 a hundred goku.

What’s the largest number name in Japanese? The honour goes to 無量大数 muryoutaisuu which is 10 to the power of 68, and appropriately means uncountable large number.

So where did these absurdly large number names come from? Did Yoshida simply invent them, or was he drawing on an existing tradition? I don’t know for sure, but there seems to be a connection to Sanskrit and Buddhism. Wikipedia tells me that the ancient Indian passion for large numbers extended to naming extraordinarily large numbers. Some of the Japanese number names come from Sanskrit, while the word 恒河沙 gougasha, meaning 10 to the power of 52, refers to the constant sands of the Ganges River.


Posted January 31, 2016 by daraconnolly in Uncategorized

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紅白—red and white   5 comments

We’re watching the New Year’s Eve TV show called 紅白歌合戦 kouhaku uta gassen—the red and white song contest. This is the 66th annual contest. It’s a variety show featuring all kinds of music from this year’s J-pop hits to enka ballads to hard rock.


X-Japan “Born to be Free”

Many of the participants appear year after year; it’s Arashi’s 7th time to perform and some stalwarts have been on the show for 30 or even 40 years.

It's Perfume's 8th time to appear on Kouhaku

It’s Perfume’s 8th time to appear on Kouhaku

The show is structured as a competition between the akagumi “red” team (female performers) and the shirogumi “white” team (male), red and white taking turns to perform, with the result decided by popular vote. The staging and light shows are reminiscent of the Eurovision. I would have liked to see cross-dressing death-metal wrestler Ladybeard included, but inexplicably there is no sign of him in this year’s line-up!

Most of the performances are on stage in a concert hall in Tokyo, but one song was an outside broadcast from Nagasaki.

Misia performing at the Peace Park in Nagasaki

Misia performing “Tears of the Orphans” from the Peace Park in Nagasaki

You’ll see from the screenshots that the lyrics are shown in subtitle for all of the songs. This is very helpful for a struggling Japanese learner like me!

The most prestigious spot is the last to perform and is called 大とり ootori. This year the ootori slot is awarded to “eternal idol” Seiko Matsuda.

SMAP were ootori in 2010; this year they are 5th from the end

SMAP were ootori in 2010; this year they are 5th from the end

Then the show finishes Japanese-style with an ensemble finale performance of Hotaru no hikari (“Auld Lang Syne”).



Update: This year the red team (the girls) won by a tiny margin: 356,000 votes to 346,000.

Happy New Year everybody! 明けましておめでとう!

Posted December 31, 2015 by daraconnolly in Uncategorized

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おっさん—middle-aged man   3 comments

One day in Osaka, I went out for lunch to a nearby restaurant with a colleague. On arrival, we discovered that every Tuesday was  おっさんデー (ossan-day); discounts were available to middle-aged men. The notice didn’t specify what age you have to be to qualify as “ossan”, but after a brief discussion we somewhat ruefully concluded that 40 was probably the cut-off, and that we were both entitled to a discount.

“ossan” is a shortened and uncomplimentary version of ojisan meaning “uncle”. To be an ossan is to be irredeemably uncool.


An ossan-gyagu (ossan gag) is a terrible, unfunny joke of the kind an uncle would tell. He may even sport a “bar-code” hairstyle (a comb-over).


But the ossan can’t be entirely useless, because there is an ossan-rental service, where you can hire a middle-aged man for only ¥1,000 per hour (less than €10).  One 47-year-old “assari ossan” says that you can talk to him as if you were talking to a potted plant and he will listen and absorb like a sponge. You can talk to him about your divorce or other issues that may be troubling you. Another aspiring ossan is only 39 and may not be quite ready for ossan duties – he says his favourite food is gummi bears.

Apparently your rental-ossan is more than just a listening ear; you can also get him to help with test-driving a car, viewing an apartment or general advice, or even just send him to the shop or the post office.

The word oji, meaning uncle, is written in kanji as 伯父 if he is your parent’s older brother, and 叔父 if he is your parent’s younger brother. It is an example of a distinction that appears in the written language and not in the spoken language (a distinction imported from China, along with the characters – the Sino-Japanese pronunciations are hakufu and shukufu). This is a point I want to come back to in a future blog post about the advantages of the kanji-based writing system.

Different languages distinguish different kinds of uncles. In Latin, your father’s brother is patruus and your mother’s brother is avunculus. The two words have very different connotations: patruus is a “severe reprover” whereas avunculus is, well, avuncular. Similarly in Finnish, your father’s brother setä is strict and austere, while your mother’s brother eno is fun and indulgent. Of course, in any family the same man may be patruus to one group of people and avunculus to another; will the two sets of cousins perceive him differently? I believe that some languages (Indian languages, Thai) have different words for as many as five or seven different kinds of uncle; for those cultures the English word “uncle” must seem hopelessly generic.

Posted December 28, 2015 by daraconnolly in Japan, Uncategorized

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Spittelau—Hundertwasser at home   1 comment

Back in July 2012, I wrote about this building, the Maishima waste incineration plant in Osaka, Japan, designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser:


Maishima waste incineration plant, Osaka

In June of this year, I was in Vienna for a conference. One afternoon when I had some free time, I took the underground to Spittelau, a suburb on the banks of the Donaukanal.


Döblinger Steg, a pedestrian bridge over the Donaukanal, linking the suburbs of Döbling and Brigittenau

My destination was the Spittelau waste incineration plant, the exterior of which was designed by Hundertwasser in the late 1980s.


Müllverbrennungsanlage Spittelau, Vienna, Austria


The facility, owned and operated by Wien Energie, turns municipal waste into heat and electricity for the city.


Vienna district heating office building, Spittelau

This was the building that inspired the mayor of Osaka to invite Hundertwasser to design the new waste incineration and sewage treatment plants in Maishima.


Spittelau façade 1

The building in Vienna has many motifs in common with its younger sibling in Osaka. For example, the chimney disguised in the style of a minaret, the irregularly-placed windows, the use of child-like blobs of primary colour and the trees and plants on the roof.


Spittelau façade 2

However, I felt somewhat disappointed. Unlike the Japanese building, designed from scratch by Hundertwasser, in this case the whimsical design features had seemingly been added on to the façade of an existing industrial structure. The result is surprisingly drab by comparison.

The setting is also quite different: while the Japanese building stands proudly on a brand-new artificial island in a bay spanned by modern bridges, its elder sister in Vienna is hemmed in by urban clutter and traffic.


Vienna district heating office building, Spittelau

It didn’t help that renovation works are currently underway, attended by Portakabins and construction materials and machinery.


“We’re renovating the Spittelau thermal waste treatment plant for you”


Maybe next time I have some free time in Vienna, I’ll visit the Schönbrunn Palace instead!

Jul i Skåne—A Swedish Christmas   Leave a comment


During my time in Malmö I worked for an electricity company called Sydkraft. Now owned by Eon, they were the regional electricity company for the southern one-third of Sweden.


The Sydkraft building (now Eon Sverige)

My Swedish colleagues were extremely friendly and I remember that once a week we would go to lunch in the nearby Kronprinsen shopping centre and eat fläskpankakor med lingonsylt—bacon pancakes with lingonberry jam. Delicious! On another occasion, we went to a public bath where you alternate between sweltering in a hot sauna and plunging into the icy sea. I remember we got told off for drinking beer in the sauna.

On Saint Lucia’s Day, 13th December, we had an unexpected treat when a group of beautiful young women came into the canteen at lunchtime and sang Lucia carols, while we ate ginger biscuits and special buns called lussekatter.


Saint Lucia singers, Sydkraft, December 2001


I had weekends free, so I took the opportunity to travel around the local region and further afield. Near Ystad on the south coast of Skåne, I visited a stone circle or “stone ship” called Ales stenar (Ale’s stones), magnificently situated on a clifftop looking out to sea. Fans of Wallander may recognise this as the spot where Wallander brought Annette Brolin for a romantic picnic.


Ales stenar, near Ystad, Sweden

Yuko and I also visited the nearby university city of Lund, where the cathedral has a wonderfully complicated mediaeval astronomical clock.


Horologium mirabile Lundense


Nowadays, Malmö’s outstanding landmark is the Turning Torso building by Santiago Calatrava, the tallest building in Scandinavia, towering above what remains otherwise a low-rise city. But when we were there in 2001, it did not exist, and the city’s tallest building was still the Kronprinsen—or possibly the tower of St Peter’s Church.


Sankt Petri Kyrka, Malmö (14th-century Gothic)


This fine building is the old city hall in Stortorget.


Saluhallen (a covered market with restaurants) in Lillatorget


Also in Lillatorget was this fine old telephone box


For our Christmas dinner in Sweden, we went Swedish style, including smoked reindeer. If you examine the packaging closely, you’ll be pleased to see that Rudolf has, in fact, been allowed to join in the reindeer games.


Can you spot Rudolf?


Christmas dinner, with glögg

We bought these “triangle lights” in Sweden and still use them in our window every Christmas. In the picture, you can see lights like these in each of the windows across the courtyard.


God Jul!

Nu kommer vintern—Öland, southern Sweden, winter 2001   2 comments

In the southernmost counties of Sweden, winter arrives later than in the rest of the country. But when it arrives, it definitely arrives. One day in mid-December, the snow starts to fall, nor does it cease to fall until it has covered the world in a thick white blanket that remains until spring.

Yuko and I had just got married before I left for Sweden, and in December she came to visit me there. Together we drove across the southern part of the country from Malmö to the Hanseatic city of Kalmar and onto the island of Öland. Over 6 km long, the Öland bridge was the longest in Europe when it was built, and is still an impressive sight. We had fitted snow tyres to the car at the start of December, as required by law, and were amazed at how effective they are, although driving in falling snow at night can be tiring.

It was a lot colder on that side of the country than in Malmö. The daytime temperature was below -10°C, which at that time was the coldest I had ever experienced, and the biting wind meant that ordinary clothes were inadequate to prevent you from getting chilled within a few minutes.

Here are some photos Yuko took in Öland that convey some of the bleak majesty of the place in winter.


Windmill and stone circle, Öland


Dara at the ruin of St Knut’s chapel, Gråborg, Öland.


Ponies in Öland. We really felt sorry for these guys as it was bitterly cold.


Windmill silhouetted against the sunset sky

Posted November 29, 2015 by daraconnolly in Uncategorized

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