Sunday, April 17, 2011

Two Shrinecastles and a Good Fortune Island

The name of this blog is "Shrinecastle," which is the literal English translation of Miyagi, my mother's maiden name (I named this blog after her) as well as the name of the Japanese prefecture that continues to suffer from last month's disastrous earthquake and tsunami.

Miyagi is written with two kanji:

Whenever I see the name of a business, town, or person written in kanji, I always try to figure out what the individual characters mean. I've been told by Japanese people that they don't break down words in this fashion, but it's a helpful method for me to remember kanji. 

Another Japanese place that's been in the news lately is Fukushima, home of the beleaguered nuclear power plant. 

Here is how Fukushima is written:

When I first heard that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was enduring a crisis, I found the name of the prefecture almost ironic. Fukushima means "good fortune island," and as we know, the island is experiencing anything but good fortune.

I have always found the kanji for fuku to be particularly lovely. In 2001, during my first trip to mainland Japan, I bought a teapot in Kyoto. Overwhelmed by the number of beautiful pieces from which to choose, I finally settled on this one:

First teapot. Kyoto, 2001.

"This is a good one," the shopkeeper said to me in English after I made my selection. "This is a very special character." She pointed to 福. At that point I hadn't been studying Japanese very long, and while I was proficient with hiragana and katakana, I had only basic kanji in my repertoire. Probably realizing I had no clue what 福 meant, the shopkeeper explained, "It means 'good fortune.' Very special."

It's been almost a decade since I purchased that teapot, and I still look at those characters and  hear the shopkeeper's words. I've also learned a few more kanji, and I recently found this phrase:

"Good comes out of evil."* 

Maybe Fukushima isn't an ironic name after all. Perhaps it's a sign of things to come for the prefecture and all of Japan. I wish them good fortune.

*I've also seen this phrase translated as "Fortune turns to evil," but I prefer the more positive translation.

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