The slang of Tokyo’s underbelly (Argots, Part 4/ Taishō, Part 4)
While researching the Asakusa (浅草) district during the Taishō period (大正時代, 1912–26), I ran across acharaka (アチャラカ), a term for a particular type of satirical comedy. Miriam Silverberg discusses it thus:¹
The derivation of the word acharaka [アチャラカ] has its own irony, for, like the Cockney and language of the down-and-out in Asakusa, it makes use of wordplay. Acharaka is a vernacular abbreviation of the phrase achira kara [あちら から], which means “from over there.” And the words “over there” referred to over across the ocean, from Euro-America.
What was this “vernacular”, I wondered—a cryptolect? Was there really a corollary to Cockney rhyming slang in Asakusa? This potential dovetailing of my interests was tantalizing. The research was difficult; there were many roadblocks, such as poorly informed and -written Wikipedia articles in foreign languages. But with luck, perseverance, and quite a bit of humility, I am able to present the story of zūja-go (ズージャ語), an argot from Taishō Japan.
Just as Silverberg did, Cockney argots are frequently referenced in connection with that of Taishō Tokyo. In particular, though lacking the global reach of rhyming slang, the spread and continued use of the Japanese cryptolect were otherwise similar. Itō Junko, et al. tell us:²
An argot […] known as zuuja-go, ‘jazz language, jazzese’, is widely used in Japanese jazz circles, from where it has spread to wider parts of the entertainment industry […].
That’s right, like Takurazuka, it has somehow survived from Taishō to now. The name zūja-go itself uses the argot term for “jazz”, as I’ll explain later, plus the Japanese for “language”, (語, go). Certainly terms for musical instruments and other elements of the jazz scene are central to the argot, but the inclusion in the lexicon of terms for things like karaoke and personal computer attest to its modern usage. The scholarly article continues, discussing how zūja-go works:³
The essence of the argot formation can be understood as analyzing words in two parts and switching their order […] The point of [zūja-go], the “fun of the game,” lies in a characteristic distortion of the input through reversal and further modifications.
The operative Cockney corollary here is one called back slang. As related by Silverberg, Wada Nobuyoshi (和田信義) made something of an ethnography of the down and out in Asakusa, in which:⁴
He points out that the hawker made use of linguistic reversal as one means of forging new, secret words. (One common example is the word enkō [エンコー], which is the reversal and abbreviation of the syllables comprising kōen [公園, “park”], the insider slang for Asakusa Park. The hawker language was thus not unlike Cockney, because of its consciousness of class base, and because of its use of the back-slang terms that reversed syllables in order to make a political point. It was, of course, also Japan-specific—a product of the modern years with a Japanese linguistic and social history.
The hawker is a figure at the margin of society. They are sellers of small goods, typically at least dodgy if not actually contraband. They need a patter, a shtick, to attract notice and move merchandise, often quickly before the authorities arrive. The Cockney type is well realized in the 1998 film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels character, Bacon (Jason Statham), selling jewelry “handmade in Italy, hand stolen in Stepney”, together with a shill, only to be interrupted by the “cozzers” (police). Here’s just part of his sales banter:
It’s no good standing out there like one o’clock half-struck. […] These are not stolen, they just haven’t been paid for. And we can’t get them again—they’ve changed the bloody locks. […] It’s no good coming back later when I’ve sold out: “too late, too late!” will be the cry when the man with the bargains has passed you by. If you got no money on you now, you’ll be crying tears as big as October cabbages.
As for Cockney back slang, it essentially pronounces the phonological elements of a word in reverse. It’s similar to Pig Latin as far as the idea of reversal, but takes it further. The ludling yields results such as:
- kayfabe: be fake
- moniker: eke-name
- pennif: from finnip, five-pound note, extended to any note
- slop: from pols, police
- yob: boy
I’ll note of these that apart from moniker, which is etymologically dubious, yob, and kayfabe—an entry from American pro wrestling—none of these seems to have stuck. On the other hand, pennif and slop are noteworthy because, like some of the more impenetrable terms in rhyming slang, they layer back-slanging atop extant slang terms.
Zūja-go’s method of reversal sits somewhere between Pig Latin and back slang: it works with the syllabic nature of the language and flips those units. As with so many argots, there is a basic level that uses native Japanese words and performs a straightforward syllabic swap, as in terms like:
- bukei (ブケイ): police inspector, from keibu (警部)
- domoko (ドモコ): child, from kodomo (子供)
- gaikichi (ガイキチ): crazy, from kichigai (気狂い)
- suiya (スイヤ): cheap, from yasui (安い)
- suriku (スリク): drugs, from kusuri (薬)
Then, of course, there are words borrowed from other languages. Foreign languages during the interwar period were quite prestigious, and especially so among devotees of the modern scene. “Ain’t that the Latest!”, a song from 1930, reflects the mixture of alienation and admiration that foreign languages engendered at the time:⁵
The foreign talkie I don’t understand when I watch,
The bitterness of trying to look like I understand,
In front of the halfheartedly bobbed hair and Western clothing.
I imitate the foreigner sitting next to me a little,
The bitter laugh of one who fakes his way through.
Ain’t that the latest!
Certainly these qualities were emulated in the argot, which added a layer of both cool and obfuscation—and certainly the simple act of kanaization can make these words unfamiliar even to speakers of the languages they’re borrowed from—with terms like:
- dammo (ダンモ): modern, modan (モダン)
- hīkō (ヒーコー): coffee, kōhī (コーヒー)
- kompaso (コンパソ): personal computer, pasokon (パソコン)
- okekara (オケカラ): karaoke (カラオケ)
- shītaku (シータク): taxi, takushī (タクシー)
Note that some of these are already adding further layers because of the terms they derive from: karaoke mixes the Japanese kara (空) meaning “empty” with a shortening of English orchestra, while pasacon is an abbreviation of both of its English elements. Also in kompaso and dammo, we see a sound change occur as /n/ before a labial consonant (/b/, /m/, or /p/) shifts to /m/.
Other changes of this last type concern in vowel length, again fitting with Japanese’s typical patterns and making the argot words more wordlike, and hard consonants, a trickier one to explain: Orthographically, hard consonants are expressed by placing a character called a sokuon (促音) before the syllabic script element or kana (仮名) it affects. It is expressed as a small version of the kana tsu (つ/ ッ). As the sokuon and the subsequent kana are in different syllables, when argot terms are formed, there are essentially two options: applying it to a different consonant or simply pronouncing it as tsu. /n/ can also be a syllable on its own, and some reversals make this happen. Words evidencing each of these strategies are sampled below.
Change in vowel length:
- zūja (ズージャ): jazz, jazu (ジャズ)
- kūkya (クーキャ): audience, from kyaku (客)
- rāko (ラーコ): cola, kōra (コーラ)
- sharukoma (シャルコマ): commercial, komāsharu (コマーシャル)
- mīno (ミーノ): to drink, from nomi (飲み)
Sokuon applied to a different consonant:
- katte (カッテ): roll, from the sushi type tekka (-maki: 鉄火)
- pakka (パッカ): water imp, kappa (河童)
Sokuon read as tsu:
- kotsuya (コツヤ): guy, from yakko (奴)
- kuribitsu (クリビツ): surprised, from bikkuri (びっくり)
- patsura (パツラ): trumpet, from rappa (喇叭)
- pīhatsu (ピーハツ): happy, happī (ハッピー)
- totsuba (トツバ): bat, batto (バット)
- mpa (ンパ): bread, from Portuguese pão, pan (パン)
- mpata (ンパタ): pattern, patān (パターン)
- nto (ント): tone, tōn (トーン)
Then of course there are many that don’t fit the rules of the ludling, and therefore in effect better fitting the rules of an argot: sunite (スニテ, “tennis”), we might expect to be realized as either nisute or suteni, but the ni stays firmly in the middle. Yanopi (ヤノピ, “piano”) gains a /y/ present nowhere in English or Japanese. And bontoro (ボーントロ “trombone”) has clearly misplaced an /n/.
Shortenings, which indeed are the central matter of yet another Japanese argot, appear in terms like gishu (ギシュ, “socialist”) coming from the final syllables of shakaishugi (社会主義). Returning to acharaka, I’ve already given its derivation from achira kara, which Silverberg characterizes as an abbreviation, but we can see that it’s not that simple: the argot flips the second word’s syllables, while in the first word, ir is dropped from the middle.
The next level of metamorphosis has to do with the Chinese characters—kanji—words are often made up of. When the positions of these are altered, so are their readings. Some examples include:
- patsuichi (パツイチ): one shot, from ippatsu (一発)
- kogaku (コガック): school, from gakko (学校)
If not for the kanji readings here, we might expect patsuitsu and kogatsu. But a still more extreme case is the term for the Ueno (上野) district, already represented by the simple argot term, Noue (ノウエ), but with its kanji reversed to 野上 changes its reading to Nogami.
Finally, we have terms such as inbenshon (インベンション), meaning “piss”, which layers a translingual pun over the ludling’s transformation: shonben, the Gunma dialect (群馬弁) pronunciation of 小便, to benshon (ベンション), which, with the addition of an initial in-, resembles the kanaized English invention. As we’ve seen repeatedly in argots, puns are quite commonly employed and the attractiveness of terms I’ve already mentioned, such as suriku and kompaso, comes from their resemblance to English words “slick” and “compass”.
The one I’ll end on is eburiuīku (エブリウイーク), the kanaization of the English phrase every week, which refers to shaomai (燒賣), the delicious dumpling. To get there, we take the Japanese name of the dim sum (點心) treat, shūmai (シューマイ) and flip it to maishū (マイシュー), a homophone of which is 毎週, translating into English as “every week”. Handily, the argot term also reminds you of how often you should eat shaomai.
Read Subsequent Articles in the Taishō Series
Read Previous Articles in the Taishō Series
Read Previous Articles in the Argots Series
- Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, 2007.
- Junko Itō, Yoshihisa Kitagawa and Armin Mester, “Prosodic Faithfulness and Correspondence: Evidence from a Japanese Argot”, Journal of East Asian Linguistics, 1996.
- Silverberg, 2007. I was unable to find the original work, so we’ll have to trust her.
- Lyrics by Shochiku Kamata Music Club, Composition by Matsutake Kamata Music Club, Performance by Naoko Soga (松竹蒲田音楽部, 松竹蒲田音楽部, 曽我 直子), 「尖端的だわね」 (Sentanteki Dawane, “Ain’t that the Latest!” ), 1930.