Little, Big


Literally: Needle small pole big

Alternately: Something is as small as a needle, but described as a pole (as long as a person). Exaggeration. Making a mountain out of a mole-hill.

The moral: leave the poor bees alone. Yellowjackets, on the other hand, are fair game.

This perception is 針小棒大

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Creation Legend (Retold from the Ailu)

When the titan Ghan scooped out the Armhold Valley and built up the mountains around, he did so as a playpen for his three children: the twin brothers Thahn and Thahr, and their sister Eyyafel. But unknown even to the titans, who were still shaping the world as plants and animals spread across it, humanity was already living and dreaming in its homeland far to the northeast. Because the world was still taking its form and the gods had not yet created the walls within Dream, the dreams in those days were feral things, full of power and birth. From these early dreams came many creatures, and some, such as cats, escaped into the mortal world.

Among these came Mordok the Smog-Goat of Doom. The terror of this beast is beyond my knowledge, but it is said that the very air thickened and discolored in his presence; that animals and plants withdrew from him; that to gaze upon him was to look into the red eyes of the specter of Death. The titans were not of mortal stature, and were not bothered by this wayward dream – except for the trouble he caused to their creations, and except for the danger he posed to the very young, such as Eyyafel.

Knowing this, Thahn and Thahr decided to guard their sister while she played at planting forests in the valley. They could not watch the whole border, though, so Thahn wrote his sign over the river to the south and stood on the mountains to the east, while Thahr wrote his near the river-mouth in the west and stood on the mountains to the north. Thahn was calm and strong, so he made his sign to hold motionless all who saw it. But Thahr had come across the tracks of the Smog-Goat in his wanderings farther north, and was full of fear. He made his sign to kill all who looked upon it.

A week passed, and their father Ghan returned with the news that Mordok had been driven back into Dream, into its fragmented depths where he would surely hide until the last generation of titans had grown old and faded into the earth. So the brothers came down from the mountains to remove their signs.

Thahr went first, for he wanted to quickly turn north and see proof of the exiling with his own eyes. But when he came to his sign, he found that it was surrounded by piles of the dead. Birds lay fallen from the sky, and animals in their tracks, and even the fish that swam by floated and stank. Thahr was horrified at what he had done, and unwrote his sign. After that he went to live and work in the most barren places, because he feared that his fears would take even more lives. It is said that he threaded the Breathing Desert to the north with the blue sand that the nomads refine into metal.

Thahn tried to comfort his brother but, seeing that it was no use, he went to unmake his own sign. When he reached it, though, he found that it too was surrounded by death. True, there were animals held motionless and alive, but the freshly-caught were panting in fear, and many others had died from thirst. Birds flying by fell from the air, unable to move their wings, and fish in the stream were washed helplessly down to where predators or Thahr’s sign destroyed them in uncountable numbers. He unwrote his sign and sat on a nearby mountain, weeping, until a new branch of the river sprang from his tears.

Eyyafel went on to plant the great forests of the Armhold Valley, seeding them with mystery and life in infinite variety. There many wild and magical things, including perhaps some essence of Eyyafel herself, are said to hide in places still untouched by men and their dreams.

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Not All Bad

Continuing last week’s oni theme:

(Wataru seken ni oni wa nashi; “Across the world, there are no demons.”)


Nobody in the whole world is an oni – i.e. a purely malicious being. “There is kindness to be found everywhere” Alternately, not all people are evil. There is no need to distrust every single person you meet.


First is the verb 渡る (wataru; to cross; to span) – acting to modify the noun 世間 (seken; the earthly realm, human society). (ni) is a particle indicating, in this case, location (e.g. “within”). Oni is as it was last week – a malevolent mythical monster (and grammatically, a noun). Wa is our topic particle. In this case one could argue that there is a contrastive nuance – in this world there are no oni, but in the Buddhist hells or other unearthly realms there are plenty of them – but I feel that the feeling is emphatic rather than simply contrastive. Finally, 無し (nashi) is an adjective of negation in sentence-final form.


In contrast to last week’s use of oni as an exemplar of physical strength, there are quite a few kotowaza that turn on the oni‘s reputation for being malevolent to humanity, even nasty for the sake of nastiness. The creatures are, of course, used as a metaphor for people whom you wouldn’t want to meet, but here we have an optimistic affirmation of basic human goodness.

無し can be rendered in a more modern way as 無い (nai) with no change in meaning, although the feel of the formal is more deliberately archaic or formal.

A more dramatic version of the phrase goes 地獄にも鬼ばかりはいない (Jigoku ni mo oni bakari wa inai); “Even in hell it isn’t only demons.”

Example sentence:


(“Hidoi me ni atte, zetsubou shisou deshita ga, Tamura-san ni iroiro tetsudatte itadaki, hontou ni wataru seken ni oni wa nashi da to omoimashita.”)

[“Some bad stuff had happened to me, and I was about to lose hope when Tamura-san helped me out with all sorts of things. And I thought, nobody is all bad after all.”]

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The Good Life

I asked my wife what yojijukugo she liked while flipping through a book of them. She said this one just as I was looking over the page it was on. That’s the six-fingered hand of Fate right there.

* * *


Literally: Clear-sky plow rain read.

Alternately: Working outdoors in good weather, reading indoors in bad weather. The traditional ideal lifestyle (including both work and intellectual pursuits). A quiet and fulfilling retirement.

Also, a kind of shōchū

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A Flight of Words (a most podern tale)

Today I went out on the balcony just in time to see a hundred small black birds wheel through the sky above me like a living constellation. The sky struck me as being incredibly blue. Not that it really was, mind you – it was mostly clouded over, the sort of cloud cover with gaps through which visible rays of sunlight jut down and poke the Earth like a child trying to get its mother’s attention. It’s the kind of sky that’s mostly gray, but that gives you a strong impression of soft but pervasive blues and yellows. And against that phantom blue, which probably only I could see of all the people who might be looking out over the bay at such a moment, the fluid fractal of a hundred living black stars iterated, weaving together in space.

I know that there were a hundred of them exactly. This sort of thing happens to me at times. I’ll be busy busy busy all day, not really seeing anything outside of the HUD up in my head, which only gives me something like a wire-frame model (in green on black, like those old computer games) view of reality, when suddenly I’ll have a moment to myself and look around and see everything with a clarity that would stretch the boundaries of credulity if I weren’t mostly accustomed by now to this sort of episode occurring every now and then, especially when I’ve been stressed, which always seems to have the effect of compressing my senses, forcing them back deep into my head with an inexorable pressure, until finally I shift my angle of relation to the world just slightly, just enough to find the weak point in that encroaching shell of pressure, which I think of as external but which probably comes from within me as well, or rather, from the nature of the previous facing and angle at which I’d been meeting the world, that angle which by shifting just slightly allows my senses to expand almost beyond all credulity and take in what seems like the entire universe, or at least all of it that matters to us here on Earth and our ionosphere buzzing with radio and television shows, for a few moments as the pressure is released. I call that moment of release “aspara” because I imagine that if I were synaesthetic it would taste like asparagus. And it sort of sounds like Latin, which even these days carries a little extra gravity and depth.

Anyway, with the depth of aspara pulling my senses wide open, almost beyond all credulity, I knew that there were exactly one hundred birds: forty-two males and fifty-six or –seven females. I could have told you the exact number of feathers each had, too, or the name of each in the prelapsarian tongue to which they would have answered had anyone still been capable of speaking it. But I really didn’t care that much. They were pretty – no, they were so beautiful I’m still surprised my eyes didn’t start bleeding right on the spot – but I’ve never really cared that much about birds. They look nice; some make nice sounds; some poop on your laundry as it hangs out to dry, so that you need to wash it and hang it out again. I guess feeding them can alleviate some of the “guilt of affluence” we feel in our “developed” societies, as if watching a sparrow peck at a hunk of suet somehow stands in for actually shipping the hundreds of extra calories each of us consumes in a day to some starving child in the Third World. My vicarious benevolence feels more at home feeding the carp in ornamental gardens. That’s just my hang-up, I guess.

At that moment, though, it wasn’t just the birds that I couldn’t bring myself to care about. It was everything and anything else that might have the remotest hint of sentience. It was especially all the people who would never bother to look out at the mechanism of birds stirring the blue-yellow-gray sky over the sun-poked bay. It was also all the people who might look but be unable to condense and relax themselves in a moment of aspara. It was even the few other people who might feel the exact same aspara but not the exact same alienation; just then I wanted to wage sectarian war against those last few for betraying that moment, for turning aside at the last instant from the fullness of emotional disjunction I had achieved.

When you added all those groups up, it ruled out pretty much everybody, I think. Because it was alienation that I felt, an alienation so fierce and sudden and vast and unexpected (since during aspara one would usually become immersed in the world around, even to the point of risking losing one’s identity for a while, I suspect) that all the sphincter muscles in my body involuntarily clenched tighter than they ever had before. So tight I thought I wouldn’t be able to take a dump for a week. Had I been a bird, constellating and iterating and stirring the sky with my ninety-nine small black companions, I wouldn’t have been able poop no matter how much suet I pecked or how many clotheslines I flew over. But I wasn’t a bird. I wasn’t even human. I was the empty bubble hanging in the water, the bubble of steam that might look like air but is really just hyperexpanded water. I was the bird that wasn’t there.

Then I was struck by a strange thought. There are more than six billion people in the world, so even if someone like me was only one in a billion, there must have been a handful of other people like that – other birds that weren’t there – maybe slightly more than a handful, or a handful on one of those six-fingered people like the man who killed Inigo Montoya’s father; just such a handful of other people like me in the world at that very moment. What if I used my senses, expanded almost beyond all credulity as they were, to look out and find them? What if they looked out at that moment too, at their own birds coruscating darkly in the sky over their own sun-bothered bays, and saw me? If we all saw each other, would we be able to join, to become unalienable through our mutual experience and visceral understanding of alienation? Since there are only six, or slightly more than six, of us in the whole world, we probably wouldn’t all share a language, but we wouldn’t need to speak. Just that shared moment of perfect aspara would be enough, maybe even enough that together we would rediscover the lost prelapsarian tongue the birds knew. Would I be free then? Would I then be able to excuse myself and take a dump?

But I was afraid to look. What if I looked and none of the others did? I’d never be able to recover. I’d be “like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread, and having once turned round walks on, and turns no more his head; because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.” Totally. Except I’d have looked at the whole world, instead of just behind me, and the fiend would have been my own alienation, seemingly moving in on me from all sides simultaneously but probably really just from within my own head. And there’s only so much alienation you can take before you start looking for aspara, sometimes in really unbelievably silly ways.

Then I was struck by the consideration that maybe the other people like me, grouped by the six- (or slightly more than six)-fingered hand of Fate, were looking while I alone held back. Or, what if all but one or two of us entertained the same doubt that I had, and those with the courage to look were insufficient in number to form a feeling of having been brought together by Mutant Fate, and the lack of that experience, or the experience of that lack, destroyed them? I resolved myself to look. I couldn’t bear the responsibility of crushing those other people, so like myself, as a result of my own cowardly hesitation. My sphincters tried to lock up more tightly yet as an expression of my determination, and I found that as a result, I couldn’t even breathe. I was overwhelmed by a moment of sheer animal panic.

Maybe that’s what did it. Or maybe the elastic of my consciousness simply snapped back to normal, as it does, in preparation for the next cycle. My aspara was over for the time being. I was afraid at first that I’d feel guilty, or that I’d fall into despair over my loss, having missed my chance at communion, but instead of hollow I felt… washed clean, I guess. Empty but open, like your gastrointestinal tract might feel after your sphincters experience a really intense moment of what I guess you could call aspara, an aspara of their own that we humans, confused by the demands for attention from all our other body parts, can’t readily comprehend.

For a little while I couldn’t even remember my name. Fortunately, it’s written on my library card, so I went inside and checked that. Then I took in my laundry, took out the trash, cooked and ate a simple but nice dinner, watched a movie, brushed my teeth, and went to bed. Not a bad way to spend a Monday afternoon.

Thanks to Google Image Search

Go on, count; I dare you.

(From the files: a parody of postmodernism that I wrote one afternoon in Japan.)

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Strength to the Strong with a Stick

Another selection from the Iroha Karuta: I’ve found a site that has not just the Edo set, but the Kyoto and Osaka sets as well, so expect to see more of these as they catch my fancy.

鬼に金棒 (Oni ni kanabou; “[Like giving] a metal rod to an ogre”)


Making something strong even stronger. An undefeatable strength. “Gilding the lily,” perhaps, although only in terms of increasing the power of some sort of already-formidable opponent or force.

Look at that fearsome warrior! Do you want some of that? I didn't think so.

from []


No verbs in this one. Just the two nouns (oni) and 金棒 (kanabou), and the directional particle (ni), generally rendered as “to.” Kanabou comprises two parts: , “metal/gold,” and , “stick,” although it seems that the kanabou is a specific style of studded club, in use as far back as the Heian era.


Kanabou can also be written as 鉄棒, literally “iron rod,” but neither the pronunciation nor the meaning changes.

A longer version of the saying supposedly continues, ~弁慶に薙刀 (~Benkei ni naginata), referencing the historical/mythical warrior-monk Benkei. This is idle speculation on my part, but I’d guess that the oni half of the phrase has, or originally had, a negative nuance, while the Benkei half had a positive one – and that together they made a complete set, so to speak. Don’t take my word for it, though. (That means you, Tim!)

An oni (variously translatable as “demon” or “devil,” “ogre,” etc.) is a mythical monster. Sometimes horned, often but not always inimical to humans, often portrayed as red- or blue-skinned, club-carrying (whence the kotowaza), and cannibalistic – although originally they were invisible spirits of misfortune. They play a role in the springtime festival of Setsubun.

Example sentence:


(“Kotoshi, juudoubu ni sanka shinai? Chikara ga tsuyoi kara, juudou de kitaetara oni ni kanabou da. Zettai taikai de yuushou dekiru to omou.”)

[“Won't you join the judo club this year? You're strong, so if you train with judo it'll make you unbeatable. I think you could definitely take first place at tournaments.”]

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So this happened in the New York Times.

One thought: I’m obviously a fan of D&D, and I agree that the whole subculture surrounding it is immensely good for fostering and encouraging creativity. It’s nice to see one of your relatively marginalized hobbies get some positive time in the sun.

But let’s not forget that D&D is hardly the only role-playing game out there. The linked article coincides, rather suspiciously, with the launch of a new edition of D&D, and I can’t help but suspect that the article is a kind of subtle advertisement.

To balance that, let me point to some other options for anyone interested in trying RPGs for the creative inspiration they offer. For starters, innumerable clones, imitators, inspired non-clones (and multiple editions) abound for D&D itself. White Wolf has a series of games designed to capture specific moods and create interpersonal dramatic storylines. Mouse Guard is an award-winning game that comes with its own series of beautifully-illustrated comic books. Fantasy is hardly the only option, either; there are plenty of science fiction, horror, investigative horror, and universal (genre-neutral) offerings as well.

I’ll end the linkstorm with this obviously-useful Wikipedia page.

Ben Robbins’ Microscope and Kingdom come immediately to mind as games that are explicitly about group storytelling, and I really can’t recommend them enough. I like Robbins’ stuff so much that he gets his own paragraph – but there are plenty in the same genre if you look.

What it comes down to is that, if you have any enjoyable framework for getting together with some friends and creating a free-form narrative – go ahead and do it. It’s good for you and you’ll probably have a good time.  8^)

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