W@T’s 1N a Na+Me?

Pretty much everyone on earth has some kind of masochistic pleasure. Mine (or rather, one of them), as many of you know, is the study of Asian languages. Although it’s sort of embarrassing to admit publicly, I read Japanese grammar guides and flip through my Kenkyusha Pocket Dictionary (Which doesn’t fit in my pocket, by the way. I don’t know what sort of pockets they had in mind, but none of my jackets have them.)  for fun.

In my experience of trying to talk to non-Visualists about Visual Kei, there are several big questions that come up, the first being “Are they all women?”, and the second (and much less simple to answer) one is “Why are all Jrock bands typographically disabled?”

As many of you already know, I set out to answer the first question with my Visual Kei series. Today I will attempt to tackle the second object. This is less an explanation of why they are typographically disabled, because only they truly know, and more of a scholarly hypothesis. I was inspired to talk about this after reading a fellow blogger’s post a few weeks ago, wherein the author wrote something about how in 2009 Gackt changed the spelling of his name to the all-caps GACKT. The blogger expressed exasperation at the idol, saying something along the lines of “Doesn’t he know that changing to all caps doesn’t change the name…?”


Actually, that’s not necessarily true.

In Japanese, there are 4 aspects to the written language Romaji (romanized Japanese), Hiragana (あいうえお)and Katakana(アイウエオ), the two phonetic scripts, and Kanji(字電車)– traditional Chinese characters.

If you write something in hiragana (and katakana), you have a direct reading of the pronunciation. So if you write はな (ha na) then you read it, naturally, as “hana”, flower, and to read the characters “ha” and “na” as “ki” and “mi” would be the [English] equivalent of seeing the word “flower” and reading it as “you”. AKA senility.

However, unlike the inflexible phonetic scripts, you can have a lot of fun with kanji. Written Japanese is not an intellectual battle-royale, therefore this is not commonly done, except for in the significant case of given-names, literature, and lyrics. You could, say, write “hana” (花) which means flower, but read the character as “kimi”, (君)which means “you”. A clearer example is in a song by KOTOKO, where she uses the characters for “uchuu” (outer space) but reads them as “koko” (here), which gives the sentence “I am here with you” the implication of “I am here with you in outer space”, without the awkwardness of having to say it.

There is no English equivalent to this practice, except perhaps in the case of given names . You cannot write the sentence  “And then she floated as though on water into the vast deep-sea void of outer space” and actually have it read as “And then she flew into the sky”. In Japanese, you can do exactly that.

Well, that’s too bad– but using English words is really trendy in Japan. You see it everywhere in advertisements. Usually nonsense, but you can see why they thought the words were cool or interesting looking (one of the best Engrish T-shirts I have seen says “When [that] it has a look HAVE A CRUSH ON”). And you can see it in band names.

In Japanese band names, anime and manga titles, song titles, and album names, you see such typesetting as GACKT, The GazettE, and even more outrageous combinations of upper and lower case, numbers, and symbols I can’t even make on my keyboard.

So, to explain my theory, let’s say that at the beginning of their career, a band decides to call themselves “Taka”, and they agree that they should write it in Japanese characters. At first they agree they should write it  高 (“taka”, the character used for “high, steep, tall”), but then after their initial naivete wears off, they refine their look, maybe they cap fifteen years, and suddenly everyone’s sick of that kanji character, so the bassist says “Let’s write it this way: 鷹 (“taka” the character for ‘falcon’ or ‘hawk’)”. OR, to make things even more interesting, they could start writing their name as 朝日 (‘morning sun’). The difference between this example and the two preceding examples is that these kanji 朝日 are read as “asahi”. These kanji have nothing whatsoever to do with the pronunciation “taka,” but in kanji, you can legitimately write a word using an unrelated kanji and still pronounce it the same way. The only difference is that now the word “taka” means ‘morning sun’ instead of ‘falcon’, and that a lot of people who initially read the kanji as ‘asahi’ will be very confused.

Suddenly, without actually changing their name at all, they can completely change the feel, image, and implications of the same exact word.

Now, let’s say that our hypothetical band Taka doesn’t want to write their name in kanji. They decide that English looks much cooler, so they write it “Taka”. Then, after they cap maybe ten years, they get sick of it, and they really want a fresh new image, they start ripping off ’80s disco songs, for example… Now, suddenly they’re faced with a predicament. They can’t change the name, because then they’ll lose their renown as “Taka”, but there’s not the same flexibility at all in English as there was in Japanese. So they start writing their name “TAKA”, or “T@ka” or “T-aka”.

So what I’m getting at here is that I think it’s likely that using all-caps, symbols, and combining English and Japanese words is sort of their way of creating a similar depth of meaning, but in English. Therefore, actually, changing his name from Gackt to GACKT probably has a lot more implications than we can read into.

SHORT ANSWER: It looks cool. (which is probably the actual answer…Hah.)

Images: Brise/ ilovegackt.net, Wudang_Monk, tracyleephoto.com


10 responses to “W@T’s 1N a Na+Me?

  1. Reading your post regarding changing the name of people/bands really intrigues me and I really appreciate your analysis of the grammar and phonetics of Japanese as a written language.

    I find ironic that the pronunciation for the character 高 (aka taka) is gāo in Chinese meaning the same thing ^.^ But when you add different characters, you can completely change the meaning of the word, but the component of “tall” still resides.

    I could go on and on….but overall, I really enjoyed reading this post.


    • Well, it does make sense that the Chinese and Japanese would have carry-overs in concerns to the Kanji. Each Kanji does normally have at least one “Chinese” reading, which although not necessarily a direct correlate to the Chinese original, would at least have a fundamental relationship, pronunciation-wise. Although the reading can change, as in your example, the meaning of the character itself is almost always the same in Chinese and Japanese [at least in my understanding of it].

      Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed reading my overly-intellectual essay on the topic…I’m glad some people are responding, as it really should be more of a discussion than just a spewing of thought. ;]

      • I don’t have much experience with Chinese [minuscule actually] and practically nothing when it comes to Japanese but that seems to be right. I mean for example 天 is sky in Chinese and pronounced “tian/tien” while it is pronounced “ten” in Japanese [right? XD].

      • @Reitsu

        Right! “Ten” would be the Chinese/on-yomi reading of that character (天), and the Japanese/kun-yomi reading of it is “ame”, but in that case, it’s mostly pronounced “Ten’ even when paired with other compound characters.
        Another example would be the character 会, the on-yomi of which is “kai” and the kun-yomi “a”. When used alone, it’s read as “a[u]”, the word for “to meet”, and when used as a compound to form another word, say, 会社, it’s pronounced “Kaisha” with the Chinese reading. The word Kaisha means “company”, so you can see that although they change pronunciation based on the Japanese or Chinese reading, the meaning remains fundamentally immovable.

  2. Ah, your theory certainly makes a lot of sense! Very valid points on how Kanji can have different implications and meanings with one word where as English not so much.

    I know typography combined with pronunciation has caused problems on some sites…particularly that of Girugamesh. There’s the typography issue of “Girügmesh” but also the pronunciation of what is supposed to be “Gilgamesh”. [Which I suppose is “Girugameshu”?] …It’s all very confusing. XD

    Ah but besides the caps, the random punctuation will forever and always get me….

    alice nine.

    …I mean really? XD

    • The random punctuation is what causes the most problems for me. I try and be as typographically correct on here (within reason, that is. D’espairsRay’s upside W’s and backwards N’s are starting to rub the wrong way…), but when you’re writing about a list of bands and it goes “alice nine., Kagrra,,” it’s a headache in the making. I’m going to have to vote for the “it looks cool” line of reasoning for the random punctuation stuff. No grammatical theories for that…

      That’s a good point about the combination of misspelling+typography+pronunciation. I think girugamesh is probably the best example of that as well. They’ve perfect the irritating practice of typographical torture… I think it also confuses people a lot because it’s technically the Japanese pronunciation of “Gilgamesh”, as you said, but when Americans/Westerners talk about it, at least in my experience it shouldn’t be PRONOUNCED “Gilgamesh”…So it’s almost like it’s not even really based in logic anymore, it just is what it is.
      The name BUCK-TICK would be an opposite example, where Westerners tend to read it the way it looks, and Japanese say it “Baku-chiikku”. But in that case, it’s a Japanese word, not an English word, so it should be read with the Japanese pronunciation, and not the way it looks. Man, this can get confusing.

      What I find the most amusing is how irritating the spelling of names and song titles is at first, but once you get deep enough into Visualism, it becomes annoying to see them spelled WITHOUT the random punctuation, symbols, and silent number attached randomly to various words.

      • aahh.. Band listing. It is a big headache. I always deleted Kaggra, when I list it in the middle and re-type it again at the end. It looks better that way?

        Also when listing songs like: “ASCENDEAD MASTER, A MOTH UNDER THE SKIN, JPN PRIDE…”, the titles are weird enough, add in the unusual spelling, long titles, the all-caps and symbols thingy, plus how at times I use Japanese pronunciation of English words unintentionally, I do fear that others(non-visualists) think that my English is going down the drain or simply there’s something wrong with my head.

        It’s bad enough that some of my friends labeled my songs as black metal/gothic. ^_^;

      • @vb2936
        It is a bit funny how Visualisms and Japanese-isms start working their way into everyday conversation, isn’t it? Between inside jokes and subtle references to aspects of Jrock and VK culture, random Japanese, Korean, and Chinese fragments, and Japan-freak terminology, half the time I feel like I’m speaking a unique form of code. I’m sure everyone here could (and does) understand me perfectly (I hope so, anyway), but once I integrate with the outsiders, I start getting requests to speak English. But I was! Wasn’t I?

        It’s always a bit frustrating when non-Visualists try and come up with reference-points for our music, though, isn’t it? For me the worst association someone ever made was comparing GACKT to Ricky Martin.

      • How true that is. Lately I’m getting requests to talk properly as I have the tendency to twist my sentence structure, and this happens frequently, especially when I’m talking in my native language. I guess we spent too much time online that we starts to drag our usual Visualism terminology into everyday conversation(as it seems normal to us) XD

        And Ricky Martin. That is the worst. So far I’ve only got the GazettE is similar to L’Arc~en~Ciel and Ruki is compared to a murderer/rapist (in reference to his picture during RCE grand final). That is when I learnt to never disclose any magazines to non-Visualists. It also gets annoying when they keep asking the gender of everyone in every page in those magazines, even when I repeatedly says that those people are men.

      • @vb2936

        Haha! I’m sure should any non-Visualists read our comments they would instantly get the impression that we converse like a bunch of demented Yoda’s. “All day GACKT PVs watching I was….”

        It’s definitely a bit of an edgy business letting non-Visualists in on your scene. As you’re pointing out– one of the most common reactions is about the gender issue. I think that since we’re more or less jaded to men wearing ballgowns and so on, and for the most part can instantly tell the gender despite makeup/hair/clothing, it’s important for us to remember that for people unfamiliar with Visual Kei, they probably have never seen *anything* quite like it. And it can be a visual culture-shock just flipping through a magazine. If you remember that, it’s easier to be patient and explain things. Or if you get really irritated, just say “Yes, they’re all girls.” X]
        The same can be said for people trying to match up what they see/hear to some reference point within the music they are most familiar with. The amazing thing is that they can hear similarities between GACKT and Ricky Martin at all. To my ears, everything about musical structure, composition, rhythm, and flow is completely different from Western music at large. In my personal opinion, it’s much better to just experience something as it is, instead of trying to label it or fit it into a known category.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s