Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

A Digression Upon the Japanese Word for Volcano

In kanji, the system of Chinese characters borrowed by the Japanese for their own use, the word for volcano is written


which pairs the character for fire, hi with the character for mountain, yama.

A literal-minded Westerner might imagine, then, that the word for volcano was pronounced hiyama. But it is actually kazan. Hi and yama are only the names of the characters; they are not what the characters mean. For volcano, what they mean are ka, the aboriginal Japanese word for fire, and zan, mountain, surviving in the names like Fuji-san, which is not honorable Fuji, as some would have it, but just Mount Fuji.

This is perhaps not unusual. In English we do not generally go about thinking of words as separate letters; we do not see fire and think eff-eye-are-eee. But kanji are not letters, exactly, but ideograms, representing whole words or ideas or concepts. They may be pronounced different ways in different words. Or, really, they may be different words in different words, as in our compound words with water we understand the Latin aqua and the Greek hydro to mean the same thing.

But Japanese do not see 火山 and think fire mountain. They see volcano. The ideas have dissolved into the words they construct, the fires and mountains that were already old, long before anyone thought of writing them down.

All language is fossil poetry, says Emerson.

The name of a word is not the same as the word itself.

You are absorbing this all over the dining room table at the Blue Berry, chatting with Tomoko and Satoshi, the hostel cook, who is also his wife. As ever there is some sort of electronic classical music playing, a soundtrack you are already humming as you walk, with overdubbed birdsong that keeps making you look around to see what sort of bird might be making it.

Tell me something, you ask. On two separate scraps of paper you write the characters hi and yama, and place them on the table a few feet apart. Your thought is to move them closer together, gradually, to see at what point precisely two characters make a new word between them. What does this say? you ask Tomoko. Fire. And this other one? Mountain. Or, volcano.

So much for that experiment. It does not matter, though. The meal of raw and grilled fish, pickled and salted seaweed and winter greens, has done something to lift your spirits. Or perhaps it is the conversation, even conducted as it is, in a vast no-man’s-land between two languages. Or perhaps it is just the chance to learn something.


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