Wordplay Isn’t Limited to Native Speakers

One experience that has stuck with me was an evening when my wife and I were getting dinner with a couple of coworkers of hers who are from Israel. The conversation turned to halva, a dessert popular in many countries, including Israel, and my wife — a fond lover of puns — mentioned that they should have a brand of halva called “Halva Nagila,” after the Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila.” They both briefly stopped and kind of stared into the middle distance before going “…OH, okay, now I get it.” Apparently, in Hebrew, the two words do not sound similar in the same way that they do in English.

At the same time, though, I’ve had plenty of experiences with this phenomenon in Japan, with English. Even back in 2005, during a study abroad program…

…the school festival that fall had the theme of “All You Need is Laugh,” which sounds obviously strange in English simply because the parts of speech don’t really work, but it’s less obviously so in Japanese, partially because the subtle distinction of why “laugh” sounds weird there isn’t intuitive (“laugh” can be a noun, but “laughter” would be more natural here), and also because the vowel sounds of “love” and “laugh” both reduce to the same equivalent sound in Japanese.

Here’s a product with a name I’m really fond of!

The Japanese word for mackerel is saba, and in Japanese, “v” sounds are generally reduced to “b” sounds because “v” isn’t a sound native to the language. The result: canned mackerel with the name “ça va?” (“how’s it going?” in Spanish).

Here’s a unique foodstuff with a unique name:

Unsurprisingly, “New Yolk” is meant as a play on “New York,” and I can’t really fault them for going with a name like that. Incidentally, I can’t let this go by without noting that the sign in the bottom right advertises “the world’s hardest-to-eat hot dog,” and the sign in the top right suggests that they may have a strong claim to the title.

This one takes advantage of different naming conventions in Japan:

In Japan, it’s very common for a business to put what kind of business it is at the beginning of the name, rather than optionally at the end, like in English (i.e. something like “Ramen Ichiro” is far more common in Japan, instead of something like “Ichiro’s Ramen” that would be more natural in English). In this case, it’s a bar with what appears to be a finance motif — a web search suggests that they have big-screen TVs inside over the bar showing some sort of data visualizations — and even though the logo is clearly a line chart, I couldn’t help but absolutely love the way the name works.

Sometimes, though, the wordplay can work just as well in both languages!

This restaurant is named for the fact that it’s run by the Iwai family, and because the restaurant specializes in hamburgers, steak, and other “American” foods, they wanted an “American-sounding” name, so they went with “E.Y.’s,” not because the letters stand for anything in particular, but because it sounds like “Iwai.”

Finally, we have one more that I’m honestly not sure about!

I love this name, but I don’t actually know if it’s meant to be a play on The Da Vinci Code or not! Is it a clever pun in English, or is it a play on the tendency of many Japanese speakers to de-voice voiced consonants at the end of some loanwords (i.e. “bed” becomes “bet,” or “bag” becomes “bak”)? Or maybe the owner just likes Leonardo da Vinci? It remains a mystery. The coats in the window looked quite nice, though.

A Surprising New Traditional Old Art Form

Japan has enough forms of traditional culture that, as an outsider, you eventually begin to simply get used to being exposed to entirely new fields you had never heard of. It’s another thing entirely to come across something that, apparently, even most Japanese people have never seen nor heard of.

Bonseki is a traditional art that I only found out about entirely by coincidence — an exhibition was being held in downtown Kyoto and I happened to walk by a rather striking display of white-on-black monochrome art.

The window display

The name bonseki literally means “tray stones,” and the name is apt — it uses lacquered trays as a base, upon which landscapes and other images are created using stones of every size, from fine sand sprinkled on and brushed around with feathers to large rocks placed by hand.

A demonstration of bonseki

According to the explanations given by the ladies present, who were showing off the art form and many examples of it, bonseki began as a way of producing drafts for Japanese rock gardens, using sand to represent raked gravel and larger rocks to represent the types of larger boulders often found in these rock gardens.

A dramatic use of larger stones for a sense of depth and realism

The techniques live on in relative obscurity — after all, how often do most of us design and plan rock gardens? — but the group continues to hold meetings with lessons like any other traditional art form, and the styles used and the works created with it have continued to evolve somewhat, though they are still ordinarily used for landscapes of various types.

Water made of sand, crashing up on rocks made of… rocks

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these works of art came when I found myself asking, out of curiosity, whether any of them were for sale. I was told that, beyond merely being hard to maintain properly, it is, in fact, considered conventional to make no attempt whatsoever to preserve bonseki art for very long; rather, the norm is to simply brush away the sand and collect the rocks, much like their apparent cousin, the sand mandala.

A more contemporary sort of image

For that moment while they’re around, though, they certainly are spectacular.

I Really Like Osaka.

Osaka is easily one of my favorite places in Japan — up until early in the 20th century, it was actually the largest city in Japan (and the bombings it experienced during World War II certainly didn’t help it). What’s perhaps more interesting than its size, though, was its traditional clout: back during the feudal era, the merchant town of Naniwa (its name at the time) was enough of an economic powerhouse that, to no small extent, the city just ignored the shogunate government in Edo (now Tokyo).

Because of its history as a city built on and around business, rather than, say, politics and governance (Edo/Tokyo or Kyoto) or culture (Kanazawa), Osaka developed a reputation for… well, for everything that a city with lots of money and nobody to really answer to would develop a reputation for. In particular, Osaka became a center for both food and entertainment, in addition to commerce.

Even today, Osaka’s place in modern Japanese culture leans heavily toward the entertainment industry. The National Bunraku Theatre, dedicated to bunraku puppetry, is located in Osaka, rather than Tokyo as one might expect of a “national” anything.

Of course, more than highbrow entertainment, Osaka is closely associated with lowbrow popular entertainment. It’s widely regarded as that place you go if you’re an aspiring comedian, and rumor has it that people will even cultivate an Osaka accent as a way to make their way into the comedy world.1 This focus on comedy and showmanship has become a fundamental part of Osaka’s character — I’ve said on numerous occasions, half-jokingly, that while your stereotypical Tokyo resident might want nothing more than to drift, ghostlike and unnoticed, from public transit to their office and back every day for forty years, then retire to the country, the stereotypical Osaka resident doesn’t so much believe as simply knows that they will one day be on TV, so it’s crucial to keep in practice every single day.

This can be seen in parts of casual Osaka culture like nori-tsukkomi, which is essentially an extension of straight man/funny man comedy duo dynamics, where, for example, someone might ask for a bottle opener to open a bottle of beer, in response to which someone might hand them, say, a wrench, and say “here you go.” The proper response to something like this in Osaka is to play along for a moment, pretending to use the wrench (or whatever) as a “bottle opener,” after which point the norm is to react in an exaggeratedly exasperated way to the fact that no, of course it’s not a bottle opener.2

One fun thing about this deep cultural emphasis on comedy is its effect on local marketing:

The tooth is basically shouting

A billboard for a dental clinic. The headline at the top reads, in a thick Osaka accent, “Do you want to get your teeth drilled, or don’t you?” The message below the picture says, “If you don’t want to get your teeth drilled, then take precautions [to prevent cavities]!”

The Osaka police also have some really great marketing as well:

“Even if you can’t transform, you can still be an ally of justice.”

“Ideal job candidate.” (The copy underneath the picture reads, “For people who want to preserve their sense of justice.”)


  1. Interestingly, so far as I’m aware, this particular phenomenon isn’t necessarily limited to Japan: I seem to recall having heard a long time ago of a comedian being given advice by a mentor, who told them to, among other things, work to develop at least a hint of a southern US accent. 
  2. This comes directly from a fantastic episode of the TV show Himitsu no Kenmin Show, a show about unique local differences in various regions of Japan that the locals are often unaware aren’t universal. The example given happened with a hidden camera at a restaurant (and actually kept going), where the waiter would bring out a bottle of beer without an opener, and bring out silly things when customers asked for an opener. Osaka has such a uniquely straightforward and showmanship-oriented culture that Kenmin Show has a segment on it practically every week, with the occasional comparison to how people in Tokyo would react to something like responding to a waitress’s “Have you decided what you’d like?” with “Your phone number” (the answer: with a terrified stony silence descending around the entire table, instead of a laugh and/or a clearly fake response like 110, Japan’s emergency number), or how casually people in Osaka ask about one another’s salary or rent (“It’s like asking someone, ‘Did you watch Kenmin Show last night? What’s your rent?’ Same feeling.”).