蟒蛇 uwabami——a drunken python

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!



I discovered netsuke on a visit to the British Museum many years ago. I was immediately charmed by the beauty, detail and whimsy of this miniature art form. Later, netsuke were introduced to a wider audience by author Edmund de Waal, in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010).

Skull with lizard


This week I once again had the opportunity to spend a few hours in the British Museum, where I sought out the relative tranquillity of the Japan rooms on the 5th floor.


The museum has thousands of netsuke in its collection, of which only a small sample is on display at any time, so the ones in these photos are not the same as I had seen on my previous visit.


Octopus and a jar; Two horses; Rabbit
A fish and a dove

These human figures are none too flattering, but the artistry and detail are delightful. Check out the movement in the Ainu woman’s dress and sleeves. The Dutchman has a cockerel in his right hand, and some kind of implement that looks like a golf club in his left.

Chinese trader and Dutch trader
Ainu mother and child

This image of a monkey trainer is compelling – the man is grotesque with a manic grin; the poor monkey seems less happy.

Monkey trainer

Look at the bulging veins on this three-clawed demon arm:

severed arm of oni from Rashomon legend
Bat in a shell

This piece consists of a beautifully formed aubergine (eggplant) which splits into two halves. One half contains a carving of Mt Fuji, the other a hawk perched atop a yardarm or banner.

Hawk inside an aubergine
Lion-dog with a ball

おっさん—middle-aged man

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.