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5 entries from March 2012

English on the March: Lady

As she has done so often in her life, Margaret Thatcher provides the exception that proves the rule.

The rule in question: Honourable Husband's #1 Law of Denglish.  No language borrows a foreign word just to sound cool.  The language has to need it.

Let's look at The Iron Lady, the film in which Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  In German, it's Die Eiserne Lady.

While praising Streep's performance, both sides of politics seem pissed off.  Toryblatt Daily Mail gripes that the film didn't make enough of her putative political accomplishments.  On the other hand, @piercepenniless tweets that I see the new Thatcher film doesn't start with her being sorcerously belched from the steaming tar-pits of hell.  Unaccountable oversight.  Apparently, the Russian version (title unkown) pulls no punches, either.

For the moment, we'll stick to the Deutscheausgabe and focus on the title.  Why would we use the German word for Iron, but the English word for Lady

Good question.  I asked it of a number of native German speakers. 

Most agreed that Die Eiserne Dame, the literal translation, would sound old-fashioned.  Perhaps the promoters of the film wanted to sound modern, they suggested.

Mildly convincing.  But we hear the same connotation in English.  A lady is an older, somewhat fancy woman, and using the word carries a lot of baggage.  It shows respect, perhaps even admiration for her grace and dignity.  The word Dame, borrowed from the French into both German and English, does so as well.  These terms suggest maturity, and a certain worldliness. 

A little too much worldliness, perhaps.  Feminists have long pointed out that such words for women carry a sexual charge—think ladies of the night.  Or, at the very least, they make women appear weak or dependent; ladylike is a synonym for dainty or delicate.

On that note, let's switch the language of our current discussion, just for a moment.  From Denglish to Engrish

The Iron Office Lady.

In the sixties and seventies, feverish economic growth taxed the spirit of the Japanese salaryman.  Long hours, compulsory after-hours bonhomme, and the company dormitory took a toll on his private life.  Many couldn't meet enough women to find a girlfriend, let alone a wife. 

So the curious job of office lady, or OL, was born. 

She was originally called a BG, for Business Girl, but that sounded a bit seedy.   In 1963, a magazine sponsored a competition to find a new name, and our girl became a lady in an instant.

There is a native term in Japanese for these women.  Shokuba no hana, or office flower, captures the decorative nature of her job.   What does she actually do?  She helps to make everyone feel happy  Such a job description might perplex westerners, but Japanese culture places high value on emotions—even, and especially, in business culture.  The job of making everybody happy is an important one, and the calling is noble.

That doesn't remove the sexual agenda from her duties.  We see it loud and clear in the late-nineties sitcom, Office Lady Police


I have a DVD of the first season, and it is one of the most treasured souvenirs of my time in Japan.  My husband—another treasured souvenir from my time in Japan—finds it insufferable trash and refuses to watch, so I can't give you an in-depth run-down.  But I'll try.

The series opens with the Ladies conducting a sting.  We see a tall, Porsche-driving hunk showering his girlfriend with expensive gifts.  But something smells fishy to our heroines.  They corner the couple, and after a quick swipe with a cotton pad and cold cream, they reveal that the woman is—shock!—actually one of those vulgar ganguro girls, with reverse-out eye shadow that makes her look like a photographic negative.  Boyfiend is devastated, since he is kind and sensitive as well as being tall and rich and driving a Porsche.  The Ladies take him off to a special Hunky Victims Unit for counselling by candlelight, over a bottle of Moët.

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The Ladies seem to spend a lot of time rescuing each other from embarassing scrapes or fending off nerdy salaryman suitors, and it leaves little scope for fighting crime. This demands excessive over-acting from their squad sergeant as he dresses them down.  If Office Lady Police were an American sitcom from 1966, rather than a Japanese sitcom from 1999, Paul Lynde would play this role.

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The Ladies keep up their energy by eating ice-cream, and dining on Italian food al fresco.  Oh, and their squad car is not the customary Suzuki Alto, but a trendy imported model—the tricky-to-pronounce Volkswagen Golf .  

Those, my English-speaking friends, are the hallmarks of a true lady

Titled Ladies

Back to Denglish.  In the course of our chat, one of my colleagues made an intriguing point.  She asked, "If you met  Silvio Berlusconi, and wanted to address him respectfully, what would you say?"

That anyone would want to address Silvio Berlusconi respectfully is a mighty big assumption, but I played along.  "I'd say, Signor Berlusconi..."

The penny dropped.  Some of the first words we learn of a foreign language, even if we don't speak it, are titles.  You might be a hardened monoglot, but you probably know the meanings of Herr and Frau, Señor and Señora, Monsieur and Madame. We'll use these words from time to time, out of respect for another's culture, or just to add local colour to an exotic character.

Shakespeare did it.  In his numerous Italian plays, he seldom uses the word Mister, preferring Signore.

When I lived in Japan, the lingua franca of our office was English. Yet we always used the suffix -san to address each other, or to refer to someone.  I knew it was a title, but it took me a while to figure out exactly what it meant, and where it fit on the scale of respect. (-chan, -kun, -san, -sama, -sensei.)

We tend to understand these words only in their most basic sense, though.  And seldom do we know the ins-and-outs of their usage, like how to abbreviate them.    English speakers can readily decipher the meaning of Señora Franco, but might pause for a moment before understanding Sra. Franco. That's why Roger Hargreaves' Mr. Men series becomes Mister Men in German.  This maintains a certain foreign flavour, but is easy enough for children to understand.

Mr. Happy was lifted with love (and permission) from A Bavarian Sojourn.

Here, the German use of lady probably echoes a title, rather than a noun.  Lord and Lady, or Sir and Lady, get used in English often enough to be recognisable by German speakers.  The converse, however, doesn't hold.  Few know words like Grafin (Countess) or Herzog (Duke) simply because such titles cannot be used officially, nowadays.

(Here's an aside.  It rather surprises me, then, that in Oscar Wilde's Ernst sein ist AllesTo Be Earnest Is Everything—Lady Bracknell becomes Tante Augusta. Perhaps it harks back to an era when English was not heard so commonly east of the Rhine.)

As it turns out, the German language doesn't need the word lady.  The promoters tossed it in, because Mrs. Thatcher was, and still is, an Englishwoman. 

If they were searching for a British title, they might have noted that our Margaret Hilda actually has one.  She is Baroness Thatcher.   Now, the last time I checked, Baron was a German word, too. 

Mind you, I last checked at the age of six, in the third frame of a Snoopy cartoon.  Perhaps German has changed since then.

Special hat tip to Julia and Billy, for your crucial language input.

Copyright notice: Eiserne Lady poster sourced from distributor's website.  OL Police images from DVD PIBD-1027.  Image of Mr. Happy in German from A Bavarian Sojourn.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism. If you use these images, similar conditions apply.

An Exotic Cuisine


The Edeka supermarket chain proudly proclaims Wir Lieben Lebensmittel! (We Love Groceries!)   From time to time, to show their love for groceries, they scour the world for  exotic foods.  Thus, customers at the Edeka in Munich's multicultural West End enjoyed American Food Week. 

American Food Week ended some months ago, but the display remains. I suspect they still  haven't sold all the American food they had in stock.  Luckily, the art of the American chef is multi-faceted—he creates food that is not only delicious and nutritious, but durable.  It will last forever, with a minimum of maintenance.  In this, American food resembles German cars.

Among these groceries, on the top shelf to the right, we find Arm and Hammer Baking Soda. 

For locals reading this, note that Americans open the box and leave it in their refrigerators, which is surprisingly effective in removing smells.  Europeans tend not to have this problem, since we shop daily for fresh food and don't leave perishables very long.   Backpulver comes in little plastic containers that suggest it's used pretty much for baking.  This large box was a godsend, I thought, and bought one to deploy against a ripe, stinky French cheese we had stored.  The cheese won.

Ah, those French people think they know from cheese.  Pah!  American cheese not only doesn't smell, but it comes in much more convenient forms.


A couple of shelves devoted themselves to sweet sauces.  As the All-Natural Bosco Chocolate Syrup proclaims, American food is Oh So Thick, Oh So Rich!  


Another memo to you French people: put some sugar in your mustard.   There's a bottle labelled French's on the shelf—that means it's for you to study.  You're welcome. 

Speaking of American food named after European countries: One would have thought there would be no need to import Swiss Miss drinking chocolate, when Switzerland is right next door.  But it has a special taste to it, to do with the accompanying marshmallows. Marshmallows qualify as an exotic food here in Germany.


Amid the root beer, Bisquick, Mac 'n' Cheese, Jiffy-Pop, peanut-butter cups and Paul Newman's Own Salad Dressing, we find All-Vegetable Crisco.  Great for those health conscious vegetarians we have here in Europe.  Messages like this Crisco label taught generations of Americans that vegetables could be viscous, and thus Ronald Reagan's statement that ketchup is a vegetable makes much more sense.

Cue for gay men to make jokes

Of course, American style food is available elsewhere in the supermarkt.  The Golden Toast brand of bread makes items that are distinctly not German.   In fact, the English word toast gives it away—toasting bread is a habit of Anglophone cultures.  Have you tried pumpernickel toast?  I rest my case.

Golden Toast's hamburger buns—which, of course, have nothing to do with people from Hamburg—tell us what the customers expect form American food.  The Mega-Burger on the left is extragrossen (extra large) and the standard American burger bun is an extra soft recipie.

The buns sell a little better than the spray cheese, I notice.

Our Neighbour, the Cross-Dressing National Treasure

Jakuemon Ferrier
Nakamura Jakuemon IV. (Photo Steve Ferrier)

Movers hated the tricky corner by the elevator; someone's couch or shoji screen might wedge there for several hours until its owner worked out how to dislodge it.  Walk too hastily, and neighbours would collide head-on, unleashing a torrent of sumimasens and embarassed bowing.  But space in Tokyo is tight, and the Elbow (as we called it) was just one more quirk of living in a quirky city.

As I arrived home late one afternoon, it came as no surprise to see some lads making a clumsy job of getting a long object through the corridor.   Closer inspection revealed that they were paramedics, and the apparatus they had tilted on its end was a stretcher.

Behind them stood a slightly-built chap, wearing a blazer and Bing Crosby hat.  Though clearly a senior citizen, it was hard to pick his age.  His skin looked incredibly smooth and taut, but didn't bear any of the hallmarks of a facelift.  I would learn later that he had just turned eighty.

Recognising me as a neighbour, he bowed curtly and smiled, before he leapt up on to the righted stretcher.  That took some impressive athletics, since he scarcely reached five feet tall, and the stretcher rose a good distance from the floor.  He declined the offer of a footstool to help him up, but allowed the ambulancemen to remove his shoes, before he strapped himself in for the elevator ride to the ground.

A Brush with Fame

Thus went my first enounter with Japan's most famous kabuki actor, Nakamura Jakuemon IV, better known as 中村雀右衛門.    He was the theatre's foremost onnagata, a male who specialised in female roles.   By all accounts, his technique astounded audiences; a few deft gestures would seduce any observer into the belief that they were, indeed, watching a woman.  In 1991, the Japanese government declared him a Living National Treasure.

Living National Treasures get treasured awfully well.  According to my Japanese colleagues, the deal includes an ambulance to whisk you off for your annual check up.  Probably necessary for most of the elderly writers and artists who made up the legion of NTs, but not for a gent who still lifted weights in the gym from time to time.  It helped him bear those monstrously heavy kabuki robes and headpieces.

Master Right made another point.  Even if Jakuemon had needed an ambulance for an emergency, most men of his generation and stature would feel ashamed to be wheeled about in front of all and sundry.  While he didn't seem frail, it concerned us a little, in a neighbourly kind of way.

An Unhealthy Trade

Older kabuki troupers sometimes succumb to poison.  The first commerical versions of doran (the white foundation used by geisha and kabuki actors alike) contained lots of lead, zinc and mercury.  To remove it, traditionalists would use—I kid you not—nightingale droppings, which had the extra benefit of bleaching the skin underneath.  That can't be good for a fellow's system, and it certainly showed in his complexion.

Our concern heightened when a truck arrived to cart away the master's elaborate collection of costumes.  Had he packed it in?  Was the ambulance trip a harbinger of something serious? 

His housekeeper, who also must have been around eighty, seemed to stay cheerful.  (She took to giving me language lessons in the lift; it was a slow lift, you see.)  When I asked after her boss, she haltingly explained that she had dusted off the costumes and sent them to the theatre.  Jakuemon would reprise a classic role, Princess Yaegaki in the drama Jusshukô, for the 75th anniversary memorial service of his "father", Jakuemon III.   

I put the word "father" in quotes for a reason.  Jakuemon had a biological father, who was also a well known kabuki actor.  But he was "adopted" into another family as a young adult.

The Family Business

The power of identity looms large in Japanese culture—where you fit, to whom you belong, to whom you owe duty and from whom you expect reciprocation.   Names don't just represent individuals—they represent these many connections, and take on an importance beyond just saying who's who.   Business cards carry a mystique.   In such a culture, imagine the symbolism of a stage name

In the west, if we discount the artful concoctions of drag queens, stage names often serve a mundane, practical purpose.  Equity rules stipulate that no two actors share the same working name.   Michael Keaton, for example, was born Michael Douglas, but admired the actress Diane Keaton, who in turn was born Diane Hall, the name of an existing Equity member.  Michael York (nee Johnson) chose his nom de scene because "York" was already tested  in the marketplace, as a popular brand of cigarette

In Japan, stage names act a little like family names, and stage "families" construct a lineage based on a cocktail of blood-relations, relations-by-marriage, teacher/student pairs and honorifics. 

In his movie-star days

Nakamura Jakuemon IV started life as Hirotaro Otani, heir to the stage name Ôtani Tomoemon VII.   In a brief flirtation with movie acting, he actually earned a couple of credits under his real name.

He became close friends with the young man who was the blood-heir to the title of Jakuemon IV.  When his friend was killed in the war, the young man's mother asked if Otani would accept the honour of adoption, so that he may carry on the Nakamura family stage-name.  Since (I understand) Otani had brothers in the family business to carry on the Tomoemon stage-name, he saw it as an appropriate way to honour the family of his friend. 

Like so many other young men, war was a defining experience for the man who would become Jakuemon.  He learned to be a mechanic, and toyed with the idea of becoming one on his return to civilian life.  He enjoyed being high, driving a truck or riding a horse, and even considered joining the maintenance team at the newly constructed Tokyo Tower.

A Comforting View

When I read that fact online, it brought me up with a sharp jolt.  Our apartments were on the fourteenth floor of a building that looked out over what was once the highest point in Tokyo.   Ours looked north on a drab cityscape; as they say on the Gold Coast, we had the Hinterland View.  But Jakuemon's featured perhaps the city's best view of Tokyo Tower.

Tokyo Tower from our building
Why was I online, googling our former neighbour?   Alas, to confirm reports that he had passed away.  He died of pneumonia on February 23, at 91—an impressive age, even by long-lived Japanese standards.  He performed well into his 80s, treading the boards for the last time in 2010, when his frailty began to show.
Two of his sons are also kabuki actors.  One will use the Tomoemon stage name, and the other, a fellow onnagata, will carry on the Nakamura line.

"Another memory of our Tokyo days is gone," remarked Master Right.  Jakuemon's passing reminds us not just to honour living treasures while we can.  But to treasure life itself.

All photos link to source.

Photo Friday: Blaze


An odd photo for this week's Photo Friday theme: Blaze.  But anyone who's lived in Japan will know why it answers the theme.

The long sticks are ofuda, talismans bought from Shinto shrine which contain good luck messages or fortunes.  The two heads are daruma dolls; when one embarks on a major project, one blackens an eye of the doll, and one blackens the other when the project is complete. 

The first week of the new year is the most popular time to buy these—their power lasts a full twelve months.  But as the following year turns, the talismans must be replaced, and the old ones burned.  The smoke from all these burning wishes gets up the nose of the gods, and they will sneeze some luck your way.


Shrines conduct regular bonfires throughout the first weeks of the new year; these spent charms met their fate at our neighbourhood Shrine, the Atagojinja, in early 2001.  Appropriate to the theme, since the shrine is on a hill that used to serve as a fire lookout, and the main totem worshipped here is Homusubi no Mikoto, a god of fire.




Star of Head Dead

Sorry for the limp title.  It was the wittiest quip I could do on the subject of Davy Jones' death.  Someone already made the obvious joke: "I guess it's just Paul and Ringo now." Adam Avitable will publish a Dead Celebrity Interview any minute.  Sean Condon updated his facebook status with the priceless I'm a Bereaver.  There are no jokes left to crack.

Isn't that what you do on the internet when a celebrity dies? You crack jokes.  Just ask Whitney. Via a medium, of course.


So let's not crack jokes.  And let's not celebrate Jones' contribution to pop-culture, perish the thought.  The social web is all atwitter with youtubes of his 1971 appearance on The Brady Bunch as Marsha's prom date.  (He was an ex-Monkee at that stage.  Perhaps he'd been promoted to chimpanzee?)  I watched it, and ralphed.

Let's discuss the contibution of Jones, and the Monkees as a whole, to avant-garde culture in the late 1960s.

Jones' finest work came as a Dadaist.  His New York Times obituary describes the Monkees as "benignly psychedelic", but in truth, they were double-breasted Duchamps.  Singing Magrittes. Cabaret Voltaire sur Mer

We forget that by the standards of mid-century, middle-class American TV, The Monkees verged on surrealism.  If there weren't a laugh track to tell us not to take it seriously, and Mickey Dolenz mugging for the camera, the show could almost reach capital-A Absurd. 

They unzipped the laugh track for their 1968 movie Head.  Sergeant Pepper it ain't.  Head scorched the career of the band with its curious brand of Surrealism Lite—confusing their romance-hungry teenybopper fans, and failing to capture an art-house audience who knew what real surrealism was.

Head had its moments, though.   The boys got to play dandruff flakes in Victor Mature's coiff.   Annette Funicello go-go dances.  And Frank Zappa chides Davy for not practicing his music—you may recall that in the Monkees, Jones played nothing more complex than tambourine.

(Zappa was one of rock 'n' roll's most high-minded musical snobs, but he harboured great affection for the brazen fakery of the Monkees.  Click this link to see him goofing off with a clearly-stoned Mike Nesmith.  Nesmith was one of the first group members to grow tired of the  sham and pack it in.  He didn't actually need the money.  His mother, a Dallas secretary, invented Liquid Paper.  In her blender.  No, really.

This cafeteria scene from Head recalls the Monkees' early days on the Columbia lot, during their first TV season.  Legit actors, incensed at the sheer fraudulence of the group, would leave the comissary when the lads arrived.  Watch for a cameo from Jack Nicholson; Nicholson co-wrote the script with Bob Rafelson under the influence of LSD.  Of course, everyone alive in the sixties claims to have been on acid pretty much all the time.

He maintained his absurdist streak offstage, too.   Peter Tork recalls a time when the group had lunch at a diner, and Jones pulled an outrage reminiscent of that other great Dadaist, Barry Humphries

Australians will know of Humphries' famous airline barf-bag stunt. In the days before liquids were limited on aircraft, Humphries once boarded an aircraft with a concoction of fruit salad and condensed milk in a container.  He would slyly empty it into an airsickness bag, which he would noisily and theatrically pretend to use. When flight attendants responded to his distress, he would say that he felt much better, and proceed to eat the contents of the bag, with comments like "mustn't let it go to waste".  Jones later reprised it with perfect comic timing.  

I wonder if there's a connection?  After all, Humphries and Jones shared a stage.  It was the London production of Oliver!, where one played Mr. Sowerberry, and the other the Artful Dodger.  Not difficult to guess who was the master, and who the student.