Sounds of the Tokyo Dome: Giants vs. Swallows


Baseball sounds the same everywhere: the crack of the bat and smack of the ball in the catcher’s mitt. Baseball fans are not so limited, and in Japan they provide constant accompaniment from pre-game warm-ups to the final pitch. There are blaring trumpets and Taiko drums; banners, towels, umbrellas and whining balloons, all brandished in the name of their beloved teams. Last weekend the two Tokyo clubs: the Giants (perennial favorites; think Yankees) and the Swallows (the underdog; think Mets), met in their first series of the season. Here is a sample minute: unedited, un-spliced, and basically unremarkable in terms of the game as a whole.

My favorite moment in this clip is when the stadium speakers momentarily butt in with the classic “clap, clap, clap-clap-clap” cheer. It doesn’t take, nor does it phase the fans in the midst of their own far more sophisticated tune. Cheering here is not orchestrated by the man in the booth choosing between the “Charge!” bugle and “We Will Rock You” stomp. It is much more organic, at least in the biological sense of being made by living things. The chants are not random or democratic; they are the product of a highly organized cheering section known as the oendan.
Most of the ruckus on the recording sounds distant, because the two teams’ oendan are concentrated in the left and right field bleachers. These seats are full up to an hour before the first pitch, giving time for a little rehearsal if necessary. When the Giants come to bat, the whole right-field section rises in mass. They sing non-stop for the half-inning, switching deftly from classic team songs to player-specific chants. When the last Giant goes down, they sit down, and the Swallows supporters, a blue square in an otherwise orange stadium, rise to cheer their team. Here are a couple of Swallow’s gems:

The oendan section makes a sharp contrast with the average sideline fan, who remains reserved throughout the game, even returning fly balls to the ushers. It is one of many necessary release valves in Japanese society, a place where students and salarymen can let loose. The tradition of organized oendan, which are a feature of both professional and amateur sports, goes back to the nineteenth century. They often have an established rank system and terms of membership, sometimes even assigned seats.

In the past, officials have attempted to restrain the use of banners and instruments, but the fans could not be stopped. Roused by victory, their musical antics will spill into the street and continue into the night. Once, after the Osaka Tigers defeated a visiting Tokyo team, the local oendan packed into the Tokyo bound train and derided their opponents at each stop. After three-and-a-half hours on the train, and seven hours of straight cheering, the mob alighted in Tokyo, sang their Tiger’s praise once more, and got on the next train back to Osaka.

Back at the Tokyo Dome, the Swallows were handily shut-out by the Giants, but whatever the players lacked in batting power was more than made up for by the fan’s vocal power. Outnumbered and surrounded, down by two runs and with a total of two hits in the game, the fans sang to the last out. The lived by the words of their team song:

Man blooms as a flower of the earth.

Baseball is a drama…it is life

Take the Tiger alive…catch the Whales,

Swallow the Dragon…pull in the Carp,

Knock down the Giant star.

Fly away Yakult Swallows.


History of Oendan from Robert Whiting’s You Gotta Have Wa, a fascinating and charming account of Japanese Baseball.


Borrowed Sounds Pt. 2: Katakana Cognates

Katakana McD'sThe modern Japanese lexicon has experienced two periods of rapid expansion. The first came in 1868, following the fall of the Shogunate and the opening of international trade. As I described in my last post on borrowed language, these new words were constructed mainly using Japanese characters and their associated Chinese sounds. The second period of began in 1945. American soldiers and civilians poured into the defeated nation, bringing their clothes, food, slang, and popular culture, along with an aggressive program of political reform. All these new arrivals found expression in the Japanese language, usually by direct borrowing of English words.

The adoption of new vocabulary at this time was so rapid that publishers began putting out catalogs of new words, including everything from adopted theoretical concepts, to idioms and popular phrases. A 1948 release got readers caught up on the meaning of jitterbug and pinup, alongside terms like alibi, casting vote, ecstasy, scandal, up-to-date, Achilles’ heel, Amen, baloney, corny, and phony. Often these borrowed sounds were worked into entirely new terms such as money-moon, a post-wedding trip for people who married purely for financial reasons. “Bestseller” was adapted into sexseller, a popular work of soft-porn.

Since World War II, foreign words have continued to enter Japanese. Like the borrowed Chinese characters and sounds, these words were put through an adaptive process to make them fit in the phonetics of the Japanese language. The results are often unrecognizable and always amusing. To Japanesify a word, it must conform to a few rules. Words are usually made of alternating consonants and vowels, ending with a vowel. There is only one sound for L and R, which is somewhere in between the two, and there is no V sound. English words don’t always adapt easily. V’s become B’s and unstressed R’s are often dropped, so the local civic center is called the “sibiku senta.” Extra vowels are inserted to break up clusters of consonants, turning McDonald’s into “Makudonarudo.”

With so many borrowed words floating around, reading directions, menus, ATM’s, and product labels should be a breeze, but if you have ever tried, you know that the Roman alphabet is not so common here. Japanese has a special alphabet called katakana that is used exclusively for foreign words. There are about fifty symbols, each one representing a paired consonant and vowel like Ki, Ta, So, and Pe. Katakana are based on shorthand kanji, but they stand out the page with their simple and blocky shapes.

Learning to read katakana is very practical, because aside from the occasional French or German word, everything they spell out is from English. Just consider this menu from McDonald’s, virtually every word is borrowed and written in katakana:

Katakana MenuThe top says: Makudoranudo Meniyu. Item #1 is a Biggumakku. You can opt for the setto or the bariyusetto (value set), which includes poteto (French fries) or sarada (salad). Number 2 is the Kuota Paunda Chizu, then the Jushi Chikin Fire (fillet), Daburu Kuota Paunda, and so on. Down at the bottom is desato, where you can get your hotto appuru pai, sofuto tuisuto, and makkusheiku.

Learning to decipher and speak Japanese English is a valuable skill. If you walk up to the counter and order (in casual American accent) “a burger n’ fries”, the attendant will probably tilt her head to the side in a typical gesture of confusion. Ask for a hanbaga bariyu setto and you just might get what you are looking for. Katakana English, although based entirely on borrowed sounds, is very much its own language.

History of katakana words from John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

Borrowed Sounds Pt 1: Compound Kanji

Languages need to constantly produce new words in order to keep up with the times. In the last two centuries, as Japan opened itself to the outside world, it has used two very different but equally curious techniques for borrowing foreign sounds to build new words. Today, the first.

A page from my Kanji study notebook
A page from my Kanji study notebook

The entire system of Japanese characters, here known as kanji, was borrowed from Chinese starting around 500 AD. This happened in two ways. First, characters along with their meaning were taken and assigned to existing Japanese words. Basic nouns and verbs are still written this way: indigenous word, borrowed image. In most cases the meanings still match, allowing Chinese speakers to at least hazard a guess at the meaning of Japanese text without actually knowing what any of the words sound like. The second method was to borrow whole words from Chinese along with their kanji. This was mostly done for new words that didn’t exist in Japanese or for more formal versions of existing words, just as English has taken on extra Latin, Greek, and French words. When this happened, Chinese sounds entered the Japanese language as well.

These two types of borrowing cause a problem: one kanji can be associated with multiple sounds. This is probably the most vexing part of the Japanese writing system. Most kanji have two basic readings, the Japanese reading and the Chinese reading, but in practice characters can indicate ten or more sounds based on different Chinese dialects or related Japanese words. The reader just has to know based on context. The system is unwieldy, but manageable to the native learner. Imagine we have an English kanji for the idea of “water.” It looks like this: 水. Now, I want to make some new words related to water. If I make the words 水-fall or 水-wheel, it is obvious to an English speaker that I am talking about waterfall and waterwheel. But, if I instead make the word 水-rium, then waterium doesn’t make sense. It must be aquarium. 水-power would be hydropower, sub-水 would be submarine, and so forth. The Japanese Kanji system works on the same principle of borrowed stems and roots, but in written form they have all been collapsed onto a single ideograph.

In 1854 four US navy ships steamed into Tokyo Bay to demand the city open itself to foreign trade, setting off an internal political struggle that ended the rule of the shoguns and with it, two centuries of isolation from the outside world. As Japan rapidly modernized, new words were coined daily for objects and concepts that had never been named before. One of my Japanese teachers described scholars literally going through dictionaries of foreign languages to find words that Japan didn’t have yet: economy, train, democracy, electricity, biology, and so on. The new words were made using the existing system of borrowed Chinese sounds. These made better word roots than the indigenous Japanese readings, because Chinese words are usually a single syllable. They made perfect building blocks for long compound words. The result was uniquely Japanese words for Western concepts made out of Chinese roots.

Most of the words in this newspaper are made of compound Kanji
Most of the words in this newspaper are made of compound Kanji

Here is an example everyone knows: rickshaw. These person-pulled carriages first became popular in Tokyo, and the English word is actually a shortened version of the Japanese word jinrikisha, written with the kanji 人力車, literally person – power – car. If you look up any of those words in an English-Japanese dictionary you will find something else entirely: person is hito, power is chikara, and car is kuruma. These words could be strung together into a not so elegant compound: hitochikarakuruma. The compact Chinese readings are more effective. In this case, Chinese uses the same kanji to write rickshaw, but the reading is different, something like ren li che (warning: I know nothing about Chinese). With some imagination, you can probably see that the Japanese sounds are related, although they have clearly been warped by time, translation, and the phonetics of the Japanese language.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, almost all new Japanese words were made using this compound kanji system. It produced some marvelous vocabulary. Japan’s much debated nuclear plants are known as 原子力発電所, original – child – power – departure – electric – place. Gastroenterologist is written 胃腸科専門医, stomach – intestine – department – dedicated – gate – doctor. Chinese has its own words for these concepts, using many but not all of the same kanji, but these terms are uniquely Japanese. The original Chinese sounds have been adjusted and arranged in novel ways that would not be intelligible to a Chinese speaker. I am reminded of the old stereotype of Japan as the great imitators of history. While Japan (like the rest of the world) has soaked up foreign cultures over the centuries, every borrowed technology, idea, and sound has become uniquely Japanese in the process.

TO BE CONTINUED in Borrowed Sounds Pt. 2: Katakana and the cutest versions of English words you have ever heard…