In trying to keep in touch with Japan and Japanese, I regularly listen to podcasts from Japanese radio. Talk shows are best for catching up with news, and for tuning back into the hymns and hums of the Japanese language. From each show I always learn something new about Japan.
And after concentrating on Japan, I see England and the English a little differently. Both countries look utterly bonkers.
For example, the other day, I heard an odd idiom involving 4 and 5. The expression 四の五の言う (to speak of 4s and 5s) apparently means to grumble. Why 4 and 5? Apparently the 4 and 5 refer to numbers on a dice. It was from the grumbling jargon of gamblers in the Edo period, betting on the outcome of dice-rolls. The atmosphere at dice dens must have been something like this:
According to Japanese Slang Uncensored by Peter Constantine, gambling was banned in Japan at the end of the Edo period. The buying and selling of dice became illegal. Persistent gamblers were even decapitated. This crusade against gambling was part of the fight to compete with western countries threatening Japan’s borders which all had far more sophisticated methods of corruption and theft.
And you can’t build an empire with dice, unless you’re playing Risk.
There are still no private bookmakers in Japan. but gambling has survived. Now there is pachinko – pinball without the pins, and state-supervised betting on bicycle races. According to my friend, these keirin bicycle races were developed for gambling purposes during the American Occupation in 1948. In other words, the sport was invented just so that people could throw their money at it. What a barmy idea!
I switch off the radio and then walk to work, passing on one narrow street 4 bookmakers all a stone’s throw from each other. All were appealing to punters to invest their earnings on 11 strangers kicking a pig’s bladder around. Utterly bonkers.
There must be an innate need for people to throw money about. If only I could catch.
NOTE: Guchiguchi and gutaguta are other ways of saying grumble in Japanese. I think the words themselves actually sound like a grumble. Or is that just my imagination?
In a similar way, the word mogomogo means something like mumble. When you can’t think of what to say, you just mogomogo mumble. Mogomogo sounds like a mumble (a goldfish mumbling maybe).
NOTE 2: I spoke to a Japanese friend about “speaking of 4s and 5s”. He said it was an old, dated expression. Then he added that it was typical of an English person to be attracted to the language of grumbling. I had a right moan at him for that.