語呂合わせ Goroawase – the Art of Japanese Mnemonics

Smiling, and with the slight self-awareness that comes with starting a conversation in an otherwise empty staff room, one of the older teachers at work swung round in his chair today to speak to me about Shakespeare.

As a literature graduate who has seen that meme illustrating the heart wrenching uselessness of my degree far too many times (below) I responded with gusto. We chatted about which plays were our favourite, which actors had portrayed the characters well, and which movies we preferred. I was properly getting into the swing of it, and grabbing at all the long ago formed opinions in my memory when he seemed to lose interest. Then, looking at his shoes with his sideways grin and a minute nod to himself, he asked me if I knew his ‘born year and dead year’. I paused, eyes rotating upwards, knowing I was being tested. But blank was all that I found in the space between my eyes and the eccentric 70s etchings on the staff room ceiling.

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I admitted I couldn’t remember, and asked him if he knew, as he was smiling broadly now. “Yes I do”, he said, and with relish he added “It was 1564 through to 1616”. He nodded away at my obviously stumped face, then picked up a slip of paper and a pen, saying he would show me why he’ll never forget the date. He wrote down the years, and above them wrote the Japanese pronunciations of those numbers in katakana (the Japanese vocabulary set for foreign words). It read ヒトゴロシ イロイロ,  (hi to go ro shi i ro i ro). Check out the image below the article. With me so far? Well, from here he pointed out that this phrase translated literally means ‘killing someone variety’, but that through adding モ, (a grammar particle) between the two words, the translation becomes “various kinds of murders”, an apt coinage for Shakespeare if I ever saw one.

As it turns out, this is Goroawase (語呂合わせ), “a system of Japanese wordplay whereby homophonous words are associated with a given series of letters, numbers or symbols, in order to associate a new meaning.” It seems you can use this for humour, to create a mnemonic for remembering something, like Shakespeare’s life, or your partner’s birthday, or create a numerical representation of a word. A simple example would be Yoroshiku, the Japanese word for ‘nice to meet you’;  4 (よ yo),  6 (ろ ro),  4 (し shi), and  9 (く ku). Meaning yoroshiku can be communicated through 4649, and I’m told by my students that this is used when chatting online, but only if you’re uncool.

It also explains why my ALT friend Jack lost a few minutes of his lesson plan when he tried to have his students guess the height of Tokyo Skytree, to which they flat out correctly answered 634 metres. A fact they have memorised because the old name for the area where Skytree stands is Musashi Province, which corresponds to 6 (む mu), 3 (さ sa) and 4 (し shi). The tower was built to this measurement exactly to honour the old name, a fact well known amongst the Japanese it seems.

Over here is a ready made list of meanings for the yearly calendar, but you’ll have to use chrome to translate it in your browser. My birthday is the Day of Bees. What’s yours?

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