Fun With Vocabulary

Thanks to Sakura Wars, I figured out why the Japanese write top to bottom, right to left. It wasn’t just a historical accident.

In one scene in the OVA, Shingūji Sakura is writing a letter in the traditional (i.e. original) way, with a brush on a scroll of paper.

Shingūji Sakura writing a letter home

This is everyday writing, not calligraphy on a banner. She’s holding the roll of paper in her left hand, and writing with her right, top to bottom, on the roll. When she gets to the bottom of the roll, she uses her left thumb to push the written-on part out to the right, exposing more paper, to the left of the line she just wrote (and leaving the wet ink in the air to dry). The sheet of paper on her right is a scratch pad where she practices a kanji before writing it. Evidently the Japanese can be just as confused by their characters as we are.

In Europe, writing was done on relatively small sheets of parchment, not rolls of paper, so things were done differently – if you didn’t want to drag your sleeve through the wet ink, and you were right handed, you wrote left-to-right/top to bottom. And among the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, until recently also known as Free Fire Zone Iraq, they did it with the cut ends of reeds on wet clay tablets, and they did it as the ox plows.

I knew there was more to anime than just fanservice.


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3 Responses to “Fun With Vocabulary”

  1. Kurt Says:

    I like careful details like this. And that, carefully done, pop culture can offer epiphanies.

    • FoundOnWeb Says:

      I don’t know if it’s attention to detail, or an ‘of course’ element of the cultural pool. It’s like the boat with all the lights in Summer Wars. It took me until just recently to realize that it’s a squidding boat. I updated the blog to note that, but I’ll bet it didn’t surprise anyone in Japan.

  2. Kurt Says:

    I asked Jordan about this last night. He said that the Japanese, as you’d expect, seldom write on scrolls anymore except to record genealogies or family histories (which is still very important in their culture). Also, the pressure to make the right hand dominant controls which way the the scroll unwinds and enforces the right to left path.

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