Note: Some readers have expressed their need for a glossary for the Mas Arai mysteries. One reason why I don't include definitions is that the glossary would be too long! (Actually I believe that these Japanese phrases are used in the U.S., so they have become American, not foreign, terms.) I try to use the Japanese words in a way that all readers will be able to understand their meaning within their given context. But for those who demand more, here are a few definitions. If you have other words that you would like me to define, e-mail me at bachi (at) naomihirahara.com.
abunai (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 22)
Dangerous, risky, perilous. Abunai, Will Robinson, abunai. Enough said.
atarimae (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 8)
Take a good look at the word—see something that you recognize? How about "ATARI," like in video games? Atari means "hit," "success," or "gotcha." Mae, pronounced mah-'e, means "before." Together, atarimae means "naturally," "a matter of course," or "of course."
bachi (Summer of the Big Bachi, title and page 1)
What goes around, comes around. Divine retribution. Bad karma. All that good stuff.
bakatare (Gasa-Gasa Girl, page 84)
Bakatare, pronounced ba-ka-TA-re, can have different versions—bakayaro or just plain baka. They all mean essentially the same thing: stupid or foolish. In high school, I somehow convinced my junior varsity basketball team to yell "BAKATARE" before we started an official game.
chanto (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 127)
Proper, appropriate, just right. Japanese American parents usually impress this principle upon their children. Years ago, I wrote a column, "The Importance of Being Chanto," for my former newspaper, The Rafu Shimpo. It was later excerpted in the Los Angeles Times and reprinted in a book for Japanese American youth, Nikkei Donburi, and then reappeared in my column, "Three Degrees of Separation," for the Pacific Citizen. It related how "unchanto" I was, much to the chagrin of my mother.
daikon ashi (Gasa-Gasa Girl, page 89)
Daikon means white radish, the stumpy kind that you find in Japanese markets. Ashi is legs. Combine the two and you get white-radish legs. Long live daikon ashi!
gasa-gasa (Gasa-Gasa Girl, title and page 1)
Gasa-gasa is an onomatopoeic word for "rustle" or "rustling sound." It's also used to describe a child who moves around a lot.
inaka (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 136)
Country. I guess in kabuki there's often an inaka girl and a machi, or city, girl.
inoshishi (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 75)
Boar, wart hog. It's pronounced EE-no-she-she. Boar birth years are 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, and, of course, 2007. Boar people are supposed to be pure of heart, generous, and kind. A true friend with a passion for life and indulgence. They are supposedly compatible with Tigers, which would make any Boar a good buddy of mine.
kattenahito (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 153)
I know this word looks scary, but just cut it up. First of all, we have katte, which means selfishness, and the na turns it into adjective which in turn modifies the noun, hito, or person. Selfish person.
kawaii (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 213)
Spend even a couple of hours in a store with any Japanese female from junior high age to young adulthood and you'll undoubtedly hear the screech, "ka-WA-eeeeeee." Kawaii means cute. Just think Hello Kitty, Kero-kero-pi, etc., and you get the picture.
kokoro (Summer of the Big Bachi, pages 127 and Gasa-Gasa Girl, page 20)
How to define kokoro? A mixture of heart, mind, soul. In western culture, intellect and emotion are separate, but in Japanese culture it's all together.
kuru-kuru-pa (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 180)
The beauty of the Japanese language is its onomatopoeic language. Say kuru-kuru three times fast. What does it sound like? Perhaps an old wooden spoke wheel going round and round? Or fishing line being released from around a rod? In fact, kuru-kuru means to turn, twirl, or go round and round. Kuru-kuru-pa, on the other hand, is a colloquialism meaning "crazy." It comes with its own hand gesture, too—use the same American gesture for crazy, twirling an index finger around the ear and then when getting to the pa part of the phrase, close the hand and open quickly, extending all five fingers. There you go. Apparently kuru-kuru-pa is no secret in the States—there's an art-noise punk band in Philadelphia who has adopted the phrase as its name.
meishi (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 18)
Business card. In Japan you always present your meishi with two hands and a slight bow.
monku (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 87)
To complain or a complaint. Once upon a time in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, there was a shoe store that sold T-shirts that read, "Monku, Monku, Monku."
niisan (Snakeskin Shamisen, page 111)
Pronounced NEE-san, it means older brother, not to be confused with younger brother, which is ototosan. For older sister, there's nesan (NAY-san) and younger sister, imotosan. In terms of "sisters," there's the word, shimai, but I personally haven't heard it used that often—which may mean absolutely nothing.
obaachan (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 76) and obasan (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 216)
Grandma. The suffix, chan, denotes affection or endearment. You can use san to create obaasan, as well, which is a more formal version. Obasan, with a shorter "a" sound means aunt or lady.
oishii (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 29)
Delicious. Say it with gusto (OIIIII-shiiiiii) after you take a big bite of your favorite sushi and your itamaesan (sushi chef) will be so happy.
okanemochi (Snakeskin Shamisen, page 86)
Rich person. Pronounced "o-KA-neh-MO-chee." Okane means money and mochi is derived from the infinitive motsu, or to hold onto.
omiyage (Gasa-Gasa Girl, page 241)
Every good Japanese American knows that when you visit someone, you come bearing gifts. The gift—whether it's fancy or a two liters of Coke—is omiyage, pronounced o-MI-a-geh. And when you go to visit family in Japan, you must bring omiyage back for all your relatives. Which makes for a very heavy suitcase. Coffee and Almond Roca used to be standards, but they have all that and more in Japan. Decaf coffee is rarer in Japan, but what is definitely a big hit is American baseball T-shirts with Japanese players' names. The most popular: Matsui on the Yankees, of course. Go Godzilla.
pikadon (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 48)
Look carefully again–what do you see? How about pika? For those with children, does Pikachu ring a bell? Pikachu is, depending on your feelings about crass commercialism, an adorable yellow Pokemon creature with floppy ears or else related to the kid in the “Omen.” At any rate, its name means "Electric Mouse" and I believe that it resides near a power plant, thus having some kind of post-nuclear connection to its ugly cousin Godzilla, a product of an explosion in the Marshall Islands. Anyway, pikadon, which literally means "bomb of light," refers to the atomic bomb. The people of Hiroshima also use the term genbaku.
sensei (Summer of the Big Bachi, page 258)
Actually sensei is officially an American word, as it's in Webster's dictionary, as is Issei (first-generation Japanese American) and Nisei (second-generation Japanese American). Anyone who's taken a Japan-based martial art knows what sensei means, right? Teacher.
© Naomi Hirahara.
Photo of Naomi by Mayumi Hirahara.
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