While watching a variety program on NTV over lunch a few weeks ago, I happened to see the word 儚い (hakanai) flash up on the screen.

I didn’t recognize it right off — I can only speculate how many viewers did, as it is a 表外漢字 (hyōgai kanji), i.e., it does not appear in the list of 2,136 常用漢字 (jōyō kanji, regular-use Chinese characters stipulated by the Ministry of Education). Fortunately the character was accompanied by explanatory furigana, the little superscripts, which are positioned at its upper right, usually but not always in hiragana.

Hakanai can mean fleeting, transient, short-lived, momentary, ephemeral, fickle, vain and so on. It’s a Japanese word I seldom see, let alone use. That said, the kanji (儚) is not particularly difficult; it’s broken down into 亻 (ninben, the person classifier), to the right of which appears 夢 (yume, dream). Yes, here’s a good case where the components in a character seem to make perfect sense: people’s dreams are fleeting.

I actually remember my first encounter with this word. Before the invention of karaoke, in the days when 45 rpm vinyl records were popular, the back sides of records’ protective jackets usually carried the songs’ 歌詞 (kashi, lyrics).

Hakanai, written out as はかない in hiragana, appeared in the lyrics of 「恋心」 (“Koigokoro”, “Awakening of love”). Translated into Japanese by 永田文夫 (Fumio Nagata) and sung by numerous artists, including 越路吹雪 (Fubuki Koshiji) and 岸洋子 (Yoko Kishi) — two very talented chanson singers — “Koigokoro” had originally been a major hit in France titled “L’amour c’est pour rien” (Love is for nothing).

In French, the song’s refrain goes something like, “Love, you can’t buy it. It’s a hope without reason and without law.” The Japanese lyrics go like this:


(Yoru ni naru to, When night comes)


(Anata no koto wo yume ni miru no, I see you in dreams)


(Keredo watashi ga mezameru toki, But when I awake)


(Yoake to tomo ni kiete shimau, You vanish with the dawn)


(Koi nante hakanai mono ne, Love, it’s a fleeting thing)


(Koi nante, nan ni naru no? Love, what will become of it?)

The second time I encountered hakanai was in a joke. On my way to work, my train used to pass a station on the JR Sobu Line called 小岩 (Koiwa). A coworker with a sense of humor asked me, 小岩に墓地がない. なぜか、知ってる? (Koiwa ni bochi ga nai. Naze ka shitteru?, There are no cemeteries in Koiwa. Do you know why that is?)

When I confessed that I had no idea, he grinned and said, 小岩墓ないから (Koiwa hakanai kara, because there are no graves in Koiwa) — a pun on 恋は儚い (Koi wa hakanai, love is fleeting).

Recalling the song, I caught the joke immediately and chuckled in delight. It was times like these that I felt I was making real headway in learning the intricacies of the Japanese language.

Hakanai pops up a lot in poignant ballads and romantic literature, which may be why it’s not part of my everyday vocabulary. But thanks to those furigana on TV, I have at least acquired its kanji.

The authoritative 広辞苑 (Kojien) dictionary defines furigana this way: 漢字の傍にその読み方を示すためにつける仮名 (Kanji no soba ni sono yomikata wo shimesu tame ni tsukeru kana, Kana [letters] attached to the side of ideographs to indicate how they are read.) Another term I’ve seen used to describe them is “phonetic transcription.” In the printing industry it’s referred to as a “ruby annotation.”

Like the man who wasn’t there, my reference books on Japanese language, devote precious little to the subject of furigana.

One problem is that while ubiquitous, no definitive rules seem to exist for their use beyond educational materials for primary and middle schoolers. A narrow strip is provided to write them in on application forms, personal resumes, etc. that require entry of one’s name and address.

In the introduction to “The Study of Kanji” (Hokuseido Press, 1971), Michael Pye notes, “… material which does have a lot of furigana is useful for increasing one’s reading experience without having to look things up all the time. An illustrated history of Japan edited this way for children would probably be of interest, but there are all kinds of things to choose from. After studying a passage, go back over it and try reading it fluently with the lips, without looking at the furigana [emphasis added].

In other words, Pye is advising kanji learners to get in the habit of disregarding furigana at the earliest stage possible.

I admit to having mixed feelings about furigana. On the one hand, it’s nice to have guidance when reading; on the other hand, their overuse tends to give printed Japanese a cluttered appearance. My myopic eyes have trouble focusing between different size typefaces.

Some also point to furigana as evidence that the Japanese writing system is so capricious, its mastery requires the equivalent of 補助輪 (hojorin, training wheels).

That’s not entirely fair, as English spelling has plenty of arbitrary rules and quirks that threaten to drive non-native speakers crazy. Like the British spelling of “hiccough,” which is pronounced the same way Americans spell it — “hiccup.”

Or, to take an extreme example, the parish in the county of Cheshire spelled Cholmondeley and pronounced “chumley.” These are called “counter intuitive pronunciations” — which means they are pronounced contrary to what seems intuitively right or correct.

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