JOK Notebook

Kudan

I'm reading The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, newly out from editor Jay Rubin. Thus far, I'm luxuriating in the astoundingly in-depth and compelling introduction by Haruki Murakami. In a text that stretches from page xi to page xxxiii, he has painstakingly provided context for each story, author, and theme.

The Japanese titles of the stories are in romaji, leaving me to scratch my head over what the kanji would be. That was certainly the case with "Kudan" (the title in both languages), which was published in 1922 by a man who used the pen name Hyakken Uchida (內田百閒: 1889–1971). Murakami says this:

The title is written with a character that combines the elements for 'human being' and 'cow,' displaying in written form the hybrid creature from Japanese mythology at the story's centre. The title alone is enough to give me the creeps (p. xxvii).

(Penguin headquarters are in London, if you're wondering about the sudden outbreak of British punctuation and spelling.) 

The bit I just quoted stopped me in my tracks. I figured he could be talking about any of these components:

human: 人, 亻, or the top of 介

cow: 牛 or the left side of 物

How would these be combined in the character? Would they occupy its top and bottom, mirroring the creature itself, which has the face of a human and the body of a calf? Or would the kanji sport left and right sides?

My head swimming with possibilities, I looked up くだん, finding that Murakami meant this kanji:

件 (660: matter)

What?! How could this character be the stuff of mythology?! It looks so simple! And we know it from common words such as these:

事件 (じけん: event; affair; incident; case; plot; trouble; scandal)

条件 (じょうけん: condition; term; requirement)

Those terms often pop up in really boring and even bureaucratic contexts, as when people refer to the "facts of the case" or the "terms of the agreement" or when they say "with regard to that matter."

In those terms, 件 carries its on-yomi ケン, which is its only Joyo reading.

Even as くだん, this kanji can come across as stiff and official:

件 (くだん: the aforementioned; the said)

However, a dull bureaucrat might have a wild side, one that emerges when the sun goes down and the neon lights are shining. So it is with 件. This character has existed since the days of ancient China, but at some point in Japan, someone creatively reinterpreted its components and made it represent a mythical creature, as well. That's quite a clever repurposing, given the half-human, half-cow makeup of this beast. And I assume that that's also when they named the beast kudan, borrowing the yomi of 件.

This image is of an engraved tile depicting a kudan that supposedly appeared on Mount Kurahashi in 1836. Note that 件 is one of the two big bold kanji and that the furigana くだん lies to its right.

The creature in the picture above isn't unbearably grotesque—I mean, not the stuff of nightmares—so why did Murakami say that the very title "Kudan" gave him the creeps? I had no idea, but one Wikipedia article supplied good information about this beast:

• A reference to a kudan appeared as far back as the early 11th century in The Pillow Book.

• The kudan was first described in the late Edo era (1603–1867) and became well known in Japan in the first half of the 19th century.

• Although the kudan is traditionally depicted as having a human head and a bovine body, people have sometimes reversed this arrangement.

• After a kudan is born, it lives for only a few days, then issues a prophecy (likely predicting a calamity, such as a war) and promptly dies. Not much of a life! A kudan allegedly foretold Japan's defeat in World War II.

• Although the kudan brings bad luck, people associate this creature with honesty, so they treat pictures and talismans of the kudan as good-luck charms. In the past, at least, people who wore an amulet depicting a kudan were said to experience great prosperity and large harvests, even when those around them were having a terrible time of it. That's what it supposedly says in the image above, though the writing is too messy even for a native speaker to decode.

• The idiom 件の如し (くだんのごとし: like the kudan) used to appear on deeds and official documents. The phrase meant, "Just as the prophecy of the kudan is always true, so too is the information in this document." (For updated information on this, see the postscript below.)

• This phrase is in the title of a short story by Shimako Iwai:

「依って件の如し

"Therefore, It Is as Written"

依って (よって: therefore)

Having sufficiently steeped myself in kudan information, I jumped to page 341 in Rubin's anthology and checked out Uchida's story. It's from the point of view of a man who has just been reborn as a "pathetic" kudan, and he has flown into a panic because he has no prophecy to give the mobs who have gathered to hear his all-important utterance! What a dilemma! Although I'm not sure of the author's intent, it seems to me that he captured two profound human fears:

• One could be forced to do public speaking while having absolutely nothing to say.

• Our leaders might not have the slightest idea what they're doing!

Here's a preview of the latest essay:

Catch you back here next time!

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Postscript 

I shared this blog with Jay Rubin, who has very good instincts when it comes to the Japanese language. He doubted Wikipedia's etymological explanation of the phrase 件の如し. "Basically, it's a piece of legalese, not a nod to folklore," he said.

I turned the matter over to my proofreader "Lutlam," who dove into various dictionaries and then said that "for the most part" he agreed with Rubin.

As Lutlam noted, Daijirin defines よってくだんのごとし (rendering the first bit in kanji as 因って, not as 依って) simply as "therefore; as aforementioned," making no reference to any mythical creature.

Moreover, he found that くだん is a phonetically altered form of くだり (件), which means "chapter; article; paragraph; aforementioned." 

As to where he sees things differently from Rubin, Lutlam noted, "I don't really count よって件のごとし or 件のごとし as legalese. I would probably write or say it when I'd like to sound solemn or majestic. The lexical definition also said at the end that the phrase is used at the end of a letter or a deed, where a letter isn't necessarily a legal document." 

 

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