Tuesday, May 24, 2011

That Makes It Official

To nobody's surprise, least of all the friends with whom I was chancing damnation by eating chocolates and sipping soju at the time (a much better combination than it sounds), the End of Days went into extra innings Saturday,  although I was instructed by my buddies (staunch agnostics all) to be sure and Facebook them if I were suddenly to be rapt up on high.

<Take good pictures, David! We're counting on you!>

<Yeah, sure, I'll give it a shot. I doubt they give you Internet down there, though...>

All of which is to say that not much else has happened this week beyond what you'd expect-- schoolwork, non-blog-worthy conversations, capricious weather.  On the other hand, my long-extended move-in process has hit another significant milestone. I've been issued a hanko-- a signature stamp with which I can, among other things, sign for packages and enter certain minor contracts.

Finally, I have a legible signature.
Technically, this is a daily-use mitome-in, a fake-ivory cylinder around the size of my ring finger, knurled on one side to indicate which side should face upwards when 'signing'. Cheap ones are available for a variety of the more common Japanese names at stationery stores nationwide, like a legally-binding version of the chintzy holographic keychains one sees ranked from "AMBER" to "ZACH" in your favorite local beach-blanket-beer-and-flip-flop emporium. Facing an influx of foreigners with weirdly-spelt names, however, AIU opted to purchase all incoming exchange students custom seals, which presented me with as close an opportunity as I'll ever get to set up a bona-fide Secret Identity--or more properly, a Secret Alternate Surname Spelling.

Blessed with an overabundance of writing systems, Japan has chosen one, the hard edged katakana, to spell onomatopoeia (but don't forget the ones for soundless concepts!), and most foreign loan-words, including the tongue-twisting names of people like me. My own name in this system is transliterated thusly, done not a little bit of phonological violence by Japanese's restricted inventory of sounds (no z, for example) and rigid moraic structure.

Or Ranjiini Debido if you please.
Each glyph here represents one syllabic sound unit or mora, yielding RA-N-JI-I-NI DE-BI-DO when read. The result is certainly workable (I continue to sign my name like this every day), but inconveniently long (certainly too long for a seal) and somewhat graceless (not to say blatantly foreign) looking when compared to the genuine article. Real Japanese names, of course, consist of one to three kanji (Sino-Japanese characters) for each surname and forename*, and thus fit conveniently on a small stamp while providing a bonus opportunity to write one's name with logographs yielding auspicious, attractive, historic, or otherwise significant meaning.** I was (and am) out of luck on this front, barring any chance at pulling a Koizumi Yakumo-- I mean Lafcadio Hearn. Most of my classmates hence admitted defeat, abbreviated their names to the first three moras and inscribed the result in katakana. I, however, had another option in mind.

Foreign words, as it happens, were not always written in katakana. Up until the late 19th century (and occasionally today), foreign words were instead written in Chinese characters lumped together for their sound value, a system called ateji. Since kanji don't rigidly follow the "one-mora-per-character rule" so rigidly, (and look cooler to boot), I was pleased when, after I asking nicely at the Hanko-Ordering Station back in April, I was able to recruit two of the sophomore Orientation Advisors to help me rerender my surname in kanji. After 15 minutes or so with our dictionaries, we hashed out the following together:

Much better.

From left to right, that's read RAN-JI-NI, using the characters for "orchid" (also an abbreviation for 'Holland', a parallel which works better than you might expect, given my ancestry), the Confucian value of benevolence, and an elaborated version of the character for the numeral 2. I'm less than satisfied with the final character, but most of the alternate choices we could find for that sound are even less attractive in terms of meaning.

And that, stamped in red ink in a consciously archaic style, is what I'll be signing for care packages with from now on.

Arbitrary? By its very nature. Slightly pretentious? Perhaps. Cool as heck? Certainly. And rest assured, I'm not going anywhere near a tattoo parlor...

*Some trendy parents these days prefer to use the swoopy, softer, and more "feminine" appearing hiragana (originally "women's script", after all) to write their daughters' given names these days-- a trend which, incidentally, irritates me because as a rule, the kanji for girls' given names are the easiest to sight-pronounce, as opposed to boys' names, which are a minefield of alternate non-standard readings.  Surnames are, to the best of my knowledge, always written in kanji.

**Or, since most everyone's ancestors chose their surnames around 1870, merely a combination of characters meaning "Village", "Rice-paddy", "Mountain", "Tree", "Stone Bridge" or the like. One quickly gets the impression that life was not particularly interesting, and education not particularly excellent, in the Bakumatsu period. But see also Wikipedia.

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