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Can-can dancers, tea-time snacks and katakana confusion

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

In last month’s column, I looked at the origins of several famous Japanese product brands. Thinking back, perhaps the very first brand I noticed here was a confectioner named 文明堂 (Bunmeido). The company, a 老舗 (shinise, well-established shop), was founded in Nagasaki in 1900, taking its name from 文明開化 (bunmei kaika, the opening of Japan to “civilization and enlightenment”). This expression was used to put a positive spin on the import of newfangled Western ideas from around the start of the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

Nagasaki of course has long been associated with trade links with the West, which date back to the mid-16th century. In addition to firearms and Christianity, the Portuguese are credited with having introduced a number of baked foods, known collectively as 南蛮菓子 (nambangashi, “southern barbarian confections”), one of which was a spongy cake called pão de Castela, literally bread from Castile (a province in central Spain). Shortened to カステラ (castella), it became Bunmeido’s specialty. The company opened its first Tokyo outlet in 1914 and by 1925 had been designated 宮内庁御用達 (kunaicho goyōtashi, an official purveyor to the Imperial Household Agency).

But an adorable commercial jingle on TV deserves credit for spreading the company’s fame. In the early 1960s, an ad agency executive happened to attend a marionette performance by an Australian couple, the Bergs, and was charmed to see five puppets dancing the can-can to the overture from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld.”

The executive signed up the puppeteers for his client, Bunmeido, and for the next 40-plus years, every day around 3 p.m. (tea time) TV viewers viewed the Bergs’ “Can-can Cats” — referred to by some as 仔熊 (koguma, baby bears) — singing in falsetto voices that went:

カステラ一番 Castella ichiban,

電話は二番 Denwa wa niban,

三時のおやつは文明堂 Sanji no oyatsu wa Bunmeido.

(Castella is number one.

The telephone is number two.

It’s Bunmeido for the 3 o’clock snack.)

At each finale, the kittens hit the floor in the splits, leant forward and wiggled their tails in unison. This is 超カワイイ, (chō-kawaii, super-cute) as only Japanese can fully appreciate.

While we’re on the subject of cake, I also recall my initial confusion between the words ケーキ (kēki, cake) and 景気 (keiki, business situation). The first time I encountered the term 景気が悪い (keiki ga warui) I had no idea what the speaker was complaining about. To my untrained ear, it sounded like he was saying ケーキが悪い (kēki ga warui). The former means business conditions are unfavorable; and the latter — unlikely to be used by anyone except an irate customer at a bakery — means the cake is defective.

Looking at the kanji for keiki, no one would be likely to infer that it relates to economic conditions. Kei, written with 日 (nichi, the sun) above 京 (kyō, capital), usually means a scene or view, as in 景色 (keshiki). And ki means spirit, atmosphere or mood.

So then keiki is one of those euphemisms we just have to accept as-is. In other words, 他言語には正確に合致する単語はないと考えられている (tagengo ni wa seikaku ni gacchi suru tango wa nai to kangaerareteiru, it is considered to have no exact equivalent in other languages).

Japanese certainly has no shortage of tricky homonyms. For instance, 公害 and 郊外 are both pronounced kōgai, but the first one (written “public damage”) means pollution and the latter (written “outskirts”) means suburb.

But at least with kanji such homonyms can be visually differentiated. Words written in katakana, on the other hand, have a maddening tendency to get truncated and spliced onto native Japanese or other foreign words, to form incomprehensible compounds.

Below I’ve listed several terms ending in kon, most of which derive from different foreign words.

• 合コン (gō-kon, short for 合同コンパ godo kompa or mixed company, a type of informal group-dating similar to the practice of blind dating in Western countries).

• .ジミ婚 (jimi-kon, an inexpensive, low-key wedding) combining 地味 (jimi, plain) and 結婚 (kekkon, marriage). Its opposite is ハデ婚 (hade-kon 派手, hade, loud or extravagant).

• パソコン (paso-kon, from パソナール コンピューター, personal computer).

• リモコン (rimo-kon, リモート コントロール, a remote-control unit).

• バリコン (bari-kon, variable condenser, a type of electrical capacitor).

• マーザーコン (māzā-kon, マーザー コンプレックス, Oedipus complex).

• エアコン (air conditioning).

Wouldn’t you agree that’s really kon-fusing?

  • Roan Suda

    Most interesting and informative as usual, Mark. Two quibbles: 1. The spellings of 景気 and ケーキ in both kana and romaji seem to indicate different vowels, but in fact they are the same: ee. The words differ in accent: keEKI vs. KEeki. 2. 郊外 ‘suburbs’ and 公害 ‘pollution’ are not entirely homophonous. According to the standard accent, the former is tonic, i.e. KOogai; the latter is atonic, i.e. koOGAI, with any following particle likewise having a high pitch. An accepted variant of 郊外 is, however, the same as 公害, though not, it seems, in Kyoto speech.

  • tomoko

    You translated “電話は二番” as “the telephone is number 2,” but actually, it should be “the telephone number is 2.” (Unless that’s what you meant by “the telephone is number 2,” but I doubt it…) Back then, you made phone calls through telephone operators, and their telephone number was “赤坂局2番” or “Akasaka Station #2.”