In English, if we want to show off a little while writing, we can mine the thesaurus for obscure words (at risk of obnubilating our message and discombobulating the reader). With tens or hundreds of thousands of words to choose from, the vocabulary of English represents a practically unlimited resource to play with. But what if, rather than words, there were 10s of thousands of letters or characters, the majority of which were unfamiliar to even the best-educated reader? What if I could write something to you in your own language, and you have no idea what it says because you have never seen those particular ᖃᓂᐅᔮᖅᐸᐃᑦ before? In English, the concept seems absurd because we only use 52 characters and a few punctuation marks to write the language. If we come across a new word, we may not understand it, but we can at least read it. But it’s quite different in Japanese.
One morning in the office after a work night out, a colleague got an email from the section manager, describing him as 蟒蛇. Having never come across this word, he had no idea either how it was pronounced or what it meant. Some kind of snake? Why was the buchou calling him a snake? His fellow team members gathered around his desk, but they didn’t know either. Looking it up online, they discovered that it was pronounced uwabami and that it refers to a giant python or a great drinker (a reference to the previous evening’s activities, which had involved rather a lot of beer). It seems that there is an old story about a giant snake that ate and drank a great deal. What was interesting for me is that the first character, 蟒, is used only to write that one obscure word and in no other context in Japanese.
As it happens, the section manager makes a study of obscure kanji and has demonstrated a very high level of knowledge of the Japanese writing system by passing the “pre-1” level of the kanji kentei exam, an exceptionally rare achievement of which he is rightly proud. (Passing Level 2 is considered evidence of a good university education, while level 1, the most difficult level, is only for the most dedicated kanji scholars, with only a few hundred obsessives passing it every year.) Success at pre-1 level means knowing thousands of kanji, both their common and unusual readings as well as unusual uses in compound words and old Japanese proverbs. So it’s not so surprising, having amassed such a wealth of learning, that you might want to share some of it with your hungover colleagues in a light-hearted e-mail on a Friday morning. Even if it means showing off a little!