One boast you’ll never hear from me is that I have a good head for numbers. I’m all right up to two figures beyond a decimal point — I know that 3.14 approximates to the 円周率 (enshūritsu, Pi, i.e., the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter) and likewise 2.54 cm is approximately one inch. But for just about anything else I have to reach for my trusty 電卓 (dentaku, electric calculator).
But thanks to the Japanese system of mnemonics called 語呂合わせ (goro-awase), I can perform tricks that might fool you into thinking I’m some sort of numbers wizard.
For instance, I can unfailingly recall my telephone number from 38 years ago.
Back in 1973 I moved into a 独身寮 (dokushin-ryō, bachelor’s dormitory) in Funabashi City, Chiba Prefecture, to be closer to the soon-to-open international airport at Narita. Phones being an expensive luxury in those days, the dorm’s residents all shared one that was inside the entrance on the ground floor.
To help us memorize the new number, the guys in the dormitory staged a competition to come up with a catchy goro-awase. The city code for Funabashi was 0474 and the final four digits of our dorm were 8203. (I can’t give you entire number, because it seems it’s still in use.)
A young fellow from Mie Prefecture suggested that 0474 could be read oyori na yo (c’mon over here) and 8203 could be read 初男さん (Hatsuo-san, a male name whose kanji mean “first man”).
To come up with these, the readings of the numbers had to be tweaked slightly. Zero is read as “o,” the first 4 is read as yori instead of yon. Then the nana and yon are abbreviated to na and yo. But these modifications are permissible under the rules, as long as they don’t stray too far.
As for 8203, the ha is the first syllable of hachi, tsu is English for “two,” zero is read as “O” in the way some English speakers read out numbers, and san is three.
Strung together thusly, the goro-awase came across like a worldly wise older woman beckoning to an inexperienced young fellow named Hatsuo.
The suggestion was henceforth adopted by acclaim, and I have retained it in my mental databank to this day.
Did that anecdote put you in a good mood? No? Well cheer up, because today, the eighth day of the eighth month, also happens to be Haha-no-Hi (ハハの日, Laughter Day). It was accorded such status because 8/8 can be pronounced “ha-ha.” Haha also happens to mean mother, and 88 can also be read “papa,” but Japan already observes Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June.
By the way, yesterday was バナナの日 (Banana no Hi, Banana Day). Just add the 濁点 (dakuten, two dots) to “ha” and you’ve got ba, which also happens to be how 8 is pronounced in Mandarin Chinese. So 8/7 can be read “ba-nana.”
And if you’re suffering stiffness in the joints from the humid summer weather, take note that tomorrow, Aug. 9, will be 鍼灸の日 (Hari-kyu no Hi, Acupuncture and Moxibustion Day).
Feeling poetic? Friday next week, Aug. 19, is Haiku-no-Hi (Haiku Day), since 8-1-9 can be pronounced ha-i-ku.
The whole gamut of numbers that can be mixed and matched to form goro-awase phrases is quite extensive. Just for the number 1 we’ve got at least six: hi, hito, hitotsu, i, ichi, and wan (the last item being taken from the English “one”).
For 5, you can use i, itsu, itsutsu, go, ko and faibu; for 6, you can use mu, mutsu, ro, roku, and shikusu. And so on.
Probably Japan’s most famous mnemonic helps history students memorize A.D. 794, the year the ancient capital of Heian-kyo was founded: It goes, 啼くよ、うぐいす平安京 (Naku yo, uguisu, Heian-kyo, Sing, nightingale, Heian-kyo). Here, the numbers 794 are pronounced na-ku-yo.
But the system can be creatively applied to virtually any historical event. The years of William Shakespeare’s birth and death, which are 1564 and 1616, can be arranged to read 人殺し（も）いろいろ (Hitogoroshi [mo] iroiro, various kinds of murders — such as in Hamlet or Macbeth). To get this, the numbers are read: 1 (hito) 5 (go) 6 (ro) 4 (shi) with “mo” added as a connector and then 1 (i) 6 (ro) 1 (i) 6 (ro).
Once you master the basics, it should be easy to turn out goro-awase on your own. But if you find yourself hamstrung, try logging on to seoi.net/goro/, a site that automatically generates goro-awase for numbers of up to nine digits.
To experiment, I entered 3453-5312, the number of the main switchboard at The Japan Times, and it promptly produced five possibilities. The one I liked best was 雑誌っ子 (zashikko — 345) 未婚 (mikon — 35) 財布 (saifu — 312), meaning “the wallet of an unmarried child of a magazine.” Not especially good, but usable, at least until somebody can come up with a better one. Any suggestions out there? 4-6-4-9! (yoroshiku, please remember me).