Serendipitous learning… about farts!

This afternoon I unexpectedly learned something new about Japanese language and culture.

In my family we’ve been making a point of watching anime together as a family, for entertainment and for Japanese practice. This isn’t just passive consumption of media, either: we regularly stop what we’re watching to discuss the plot, characters, art, direction, voice actors, and other elements, or to have The Kid practice reading if some grade-level-appropriate text has popped up on screen.

Yesterday we were watching a children’s show called Folktales from Japan (Japanese 『ふるさと再生・日本の昔ばなし』 = Furusato saisei Nihon no mukashibanashi). Each episode of the series tends to present three stories, each story animated in a different (usually very simple) style. The middle story was 「金のなる木」 (“Kane no naru ki”), “The Tree that Grows Gold.” The story goes that

…Once there was a lord was holding a dinner with his vassals when his very pregnant wife accidentally let slip a fart. (The show goes out of its way to blame this on the baby moving rather than any actual indiscretion on the woman’s part.) The lord is so humiliated that he throws her out of his household, and she flees to a remote village to raise their son on her own.

The kid is inquisitive and clever, though. When he’s nine years old, he learns this history and goes to confront his father – not directly, though. Instead he offers to sell him a “tree that grows gold”; the only catch is that it needs to be raised by a “woman who doesn’t fart.”

The lord laughs and insists that everyone, absolutely everyone farts sometimes. This is where the boy reveals that his mother was thrown out for farting, the lord (finally!) realizes the error of his ways, and the family is somehow happily reunited despite how trivial and cruel the circumstances of its initial dissolution were.

It all feels very silly. Except…

Another part of The Kid’s language study is that he’s doing some Japanese writing practice every day. He’s more or less mastered close to four hundred characters, including the first- and second-grade 教育漢字 (kyouiku kanji, the characters that the Japanese Ministry of Education has mandated to be taught in elementary schools) and a smattering of characters from higher grade levels. I’m actually keeping a spreadsheet of everything he’s officially learned as part of this practice, including a note of the date of the most recent usage, so that we can ensure repeated practice without too much time allowing any characters to fall by the wayside.

One of the characters that has dropped to the bottom of the list (and thus become a high priority for review) is 科, so I opened an online dictionary and started looking for good words using this character that might be incorporated into The Kid’s practice sentence. But what I discovered is that 科 can also be pronounced toga, in which case it takes on the meaning of “error,” “offense,” “sin,” “crime.” So a 科人 is a toganin (although this can also be written as 咎人); a “criminal.”

And a 科負い比丘尼 (toga-oi bikuni) is, essentially, a whipping-girl: a servant whose job description includes taking the blame for her mistress’ offenses. The title literally means “sin-bearing nun,” as in “bearing” a burden on your back, although note that the “nun” part is probably not literal – 比丘尼 came to be applied to a variety of female jobs, from entertainers who dressed as nuns, to prostitutes, to servants. Anyway, an alternate term for the 科負い比丘尼 is the much more direct 負い比丘尼 (he-oi bikuni), the “fart-bearing ‘nun.'”

So perhaps the folktale, despite how stupid and petty it may seem to a modern viewer, isn’t quite so distant from reality as we might have liked. And perhaps the lady’s actual “sin,” in practical terms, wasn’t that she dared be human enough to allow a fart to escape, but rather that she had failed to bring along a random servant who could be blamed (and punished!) in case of gas. The horror, the horror.

Just to show that everything is connected, keep in mind that modern Japanese toilets may have a built-in function that allows them to play music in order to cover up the sound of any bodily functions that may be going on, and that Japanese society perceives this function as being for the benefit of female users. It’s one of those little bits of “quirky Japan” trivia that a lot of people may have heard of… it’s just a surprise to discover how deep the roots of this “quirk” may actually go.

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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