Crimes in Writing and Writings in Crime

Languages can be fun, but they usually take a lot of time and effort to learn. Even if you put in the hours, some seem impossible to master. I for one can’t even make it past basic-level Korean, it seems, and my efforts to try to teach foreign friends to pronounce the Dutch ‘G’ have been hilarious, but also a bit painful to hear.

The Japanese script is one of the more complex ones in existence. In the ancient past, Japan did not have its own script and therefore Japanese scholars wrote in Chinese. At the same time, a lot of Chinese loanwords entered the Japanese language. Based on the Chinese ideographs, however, the Japanese also developed its own two syllabaries, two sets of written symbols which allowed them to write ‘real’ Japanese (as it was spoken) as opposed to Chinese (which was only a written language in Japan).

Forest in three texts
Kanji, hirigana, katakana…what?

Even now, the Japanese script consists of three elements: Kanji (Chinese ideographs), hiragana (syllabary for Japanese words) and katakana (syllabary for foreign words). A lot of words can actually be written with any of these scripts: for example,  the word hayashi (forest) can written in any of these scripts. In addition, the ideograph of hayashi can also be pronounced as rin!

A normal sentence usually has a mix of these three scripts:

And this is just Japanese 101. I could go on and on like this, but let’s get back to this site’s main focus: crime! Having three scripts  (plus the Western alphabet and numerals) offers people a wide range of possibilities to write down their messages. And ever since the first original Japanese detective story, Edogawa Rampo’s “The Two-sen Copper Coin”, codes and the like have been quite popular in Japanese crime fiction. I will take a look at some of the more popular uses of the Japanese language as a sort of ‘code’ in crime fiction.

1) Double Readings

As shown in the ‘forest’ example, Japanese are used to using different kind of scripts to write things down. This is often used as a kind of code in crime fiction. I won’t spoil any stories, but for example, in real life, a popular abbreviation on the net for the Japanese yoroshiku (‘if it suits you/please’, but used in an extremely wide range of situations) is 4649. Why? Because this can be read as yottsu (four), roku (six), yottsu (four), ku (nine). Take the first syllables and what do we get? Exactly, yoroshiku.  To make it more crime-fiction-esque, a simple code like  38336 could mean miyasan miro (look at Miya!), which could be rather damning evidence if you happened to be that Miya.

A rather old, but hilarious Japanese Fanta commercial also plays with this. Coming at 1:30, the teacher comes up with an utterly impossible string of Chinese ideographs (literally, it would be something like spitting-dew-not-hunting-old-depression). However, by choosing certain readings for certain characters, it’s read as to-ro-pi-karu furu-utsu, or pronounced more fluently, tropical fruits.

It’s not uncommon to see  strings of seemingly meaningless characters in detective fiction that turn out to be hidden messages meant to be read in a different way.

A million words with the same pronounciation.
Wait, you pronounce all these the same way?
Another interesting fact about Japanese is that there are relatively few different syllables.  There are therefore a lot of homonyms in the language, words that sound exactly the same. For example, kami, could mean anything from god to a piece of paper (they are written differently though). It’s up to the listener to choose the right meaning. In Japanese crime fiction, it sometimes occurs that a listener interprets the last words of a dying man incorrectly,  because so many words are pronounced the same way.

2)  Changing Messages

A popular trope in detective fiction is the dying clue. A victim tries to convey the name of his murderer just before he dies.  The problem with Japanese ideographs is that many of them look alike. If a murderer discovers the  message before the police do, he can change its meaning with very small additions. For example, let’s suppose a dying man tries to write the family name of his murderer, Takagi.

Takagi converts to Takamoto with a single stroke
One added stroke and the murderer’s in the clear.
However, just a single stroke in the second ideograph changes the name from Takagi to the family name Takamoto! It is often very easy to either add strokes to change characters or add one or two ideographs to completely change the meaning of message. Ideographs can convey a lot in just one character, but that makes it easier for a criminal to change an existing message.

3. Too many scripts

And finally,  a very popular trope in detective fiction: not knowing what script a message is written in! For example, what does this mean?

A plethora of possible meanings.
A plethora of possibilities.

Is it the ideograph for ‘man’? Or is it an incomplete ideograph for ‘to be crowded’? Or maybe it’s not even a character, but an incomplete triangle? Or what about the Greek alphabet? With so many scripts used in Japanese, it’s often not clear  how some characters are supposed to be read.

Japanese script has always been a big part of Japanese crime fiction and I doubt it will ever change. Even though some scholars do advocate an easier Japanese script, as it is quite time-consuming to master even for native speakers, no real change seems imminent in the near future. And I certainly wouldn’t like to see these creative ways to use the Japanese script in crime fiction disappear. These wordplay is neigh on impossible to translate to English or other Western languages, but few elements in Japanese crime fiction can be considered as culturally defined as the use of the Japanese script.

Ho-Ling Wong