Books | RECENTLY PUBLISHED BOOKS ABOUT JAPAN

'The Japanese Linguistic Landscape': Essays on language by the man behind 'Reiwa'

by Iain Maloney

Contributing Writer

For the student lost in the midst of memorizing kanji, it’s easy to forget that languages are molded not just by the sharp corners of reality but also by the careful caressing of poets. What a joy it is then to have this window into the poetic beauty behind some “quintessential words.”

The Japanese Linguistic Landscape, by Susumu Nakanishi Translated by Ryan Shaldjian Morrison.
304 pages
JPIC, Language.

Susumu Nakanishi is one of the nation’s foremost experts on Japanese literature and was last year revealed to be the scholar behind the choice of “Reiwa” as the name for the current era. Who better then to guide us into the forests of layered references, classical allusions and cultural signifiers that can make the Japanese linguistic landscape so daunting.

This book, thanks in part to Morrison’s accessible translation, is far from being a dry scholarly tome trawling through an ocean of citations. Organized into thematic sections like “Sky/Light” and “Human Experiences,” and peppered with gorgeous photos, each word gets a two-page essay that flits spryly around in the manner of a friend who has discovered something quite interesting rather than a lecture.

His explanation of tasogare, “The Twilight Hour,” or the hour when you cannot tell “who is lurking out there in the dim light,” for example, moves deftly through anthropology, sociology and memoir before ending with a joke about demons, all in a handful of paragraphs.

It is just one essay of many in a book designed to be dipped into and enjoyed for itself, or to be used as a gateway to greater depth, pointing out ancient writers to explore, and history into which to burrow.