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Canny Japanese playing it by the numbers

by Mark Schreiber

Any time I require the services of a taxi, I can easily recall the telephone number of the Daiwa Taxi Co., 3563-5151, because it transliterates phonetically into “Sa, Goro-san, koi-koi” (Well, come and pick me up Goro-san).

“Goro” of course is a common man’s name — even if it’s probably not the taxi driver’s.

I only recently learned the proper Japanese term for this contrivance, which has captivated me for many years. The word is “goro-awase.” It bears no relation to Goro the taxi driver, but means a device, such as a formula or rhyme, to aid in memorization.

The Japanese language boasts what is perhaps the world’s most sophisticated system of mnenomics. It serves not only as a useful tool for remembering things, but is imaginative, lively, humorous and at times even raunchy.

The Japanese language has a great advantage in this regard, thanks to a singular characteristic.

Numbers can be pronounced in a remarkable variety of ways.

The number 1, for example, can be read “hi,” “hito,” “hitotsu,” “ichi,” “i” and — borrowing from the English — “wan.” The number 2 can be read “fu,” “futatsu,” “ni,” and “tsu”; 3 is “mi,” “mitsu,” “sa,” “san” and “tsurii.”

The number 8 permits many as six different readings: “ya,” “yatsu,” “hachi,” “ha,” “ba,” and “pa.” And so on.

Goro-awase would appear to debunk accusations voiced by some that this country’s education system is based entirely on rote memorization.

“The first thing Japanese do to memorize numbers is create a goro-awase,” explains journalist and rock musician Hiromichi Ugaya. “Not only phone numbers, but all kinds of numbers including things we learn in high school history, chemistry and physics classes or car license plates.

For example, the ancient capital of Heian-kyo (now Kyoto) was established in A.D. 794, so high school kids are taught to memorize the date in the form of a poem: “Naku-yo/Uguisu/Heiankyo” (A nightingale sings in Heian-kyo).

Literature students, I subsequently discovered, can memorize the years of William Shakespeare’s birth and death with the phrase “hitogoroshi mo iroiro” (all kinds of murders), which pretty much describes what tragedies such as Hamlet and Macbeth, are all about.

To decrypt this phrase into numbers, you read “hito (1), go (5), ro (6), shi, (4), MO (arbitrarily added as a separator, which is permissible), i (1), ro (6), i (1), ro (6),” giving 1564-1616. Now, wasn’t that easy?

A common usage of goro-awase is by businesses, many of which apply it to their telephone numbers. Dentists will try to register a number that ends in the four digits 6480, which can be read as “mu-shi-ba-zero” or “no cavities.”

Then there’s the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist whose number ends in 3387, “mi-mi-ha-na” (ears and nose); or, the men’s clothier whose number ends in 1129 “i-i-fu-ku” (nice duds); or the public bathhouse whose number ends in 4126 “yo-i-fu-ro” (nice bath).

Writer James Bailey, a longtime pundit of the Japan scene, recalls that back in the days when Tokyo exchanges had seven digits instead of the present eight, a moving company’s telephone was 541-3411 “go-yo-i, sa yo-ii” (as soon as you’re ready, let’s get going).

Goro-awase is also used to designate special days on the calendar. The 23rd of every month has been designated “Fumi-no-Hi” (letter-writing day), because 23 can be read as “fu-mi” (letter).

July 10, by the same token, was designated “Natto-no-Hi” (natto day), since 7 and 10 are read “nato.” (Natto are fermented soybeans, a wholesome but rather malodorous dish that ranks rather low in popularity among resident foreigners.)

Incidentally, this writer’s birthday, Nov. 10, has been designated “Toire-no-Hi” or Toilet Day, a day on which symposiums are held to campaign for improving sanitary facilities. The date was selected because 11-10 can be read “i-i toire” (nice toilet).

Juxtaposing a set of numbers to create meaningful combinations demands a certain degree of mental dexterity; but once you get the hang of it, it’s great fun.

Several male friends I polled about their favorite numbers responded with risque puns, the inclusion of which, alas, would not be suitable for a family newspaper.

I was also amused to learn that young women pressured by males to give out their telephone number will write down a certain west Tokyo exchange with 5963 as the final four digits. Callers are disappointed to hear a recorded weather forecast message.

Perhaps only then they will realize that the number’s final four digits signify rejection, since 5963 is read “go-ku-ro-san” (nice try).

If you’ve done me the honor of having read this far, let me conclude mnemonically by saying “3939″ (“sankyu, sankyu”, i.e., thank you) and also “4649″ (“yo-ro-shi-ku” — please treat me favorably in the future). And don’t forget my birthday either.