Blog Archive

Showing Off My Japanese With Pork Cutlets

Showing Off My Japanese With Pork Cutlets

My previous blog ended with a demonstration of my old mastery (limited but nonetheless a source of pride) of literary Japanese, offering one stanza from my translation of The Walrus and the Carpenter into rhyming Japanese in the original meter. (Readers of my Reminiscences may recall that at that moment when my career in Chinese art history was launched--just as I was receiving my Bachelor’s degree at U.C. Berkeley and wondering what to do next, and Ed Schafer showed me a notice of a fellowship in Chinese painting--at that moment my real inclination was to continue with the study of Japanese literature and become a translator, doing for Heike Monogatari what Waley had done for Genji. By now, there are five English versions of Heike, one by Helen McCullough of our Oriental Languages Dept., but at that time there was only one, not very good.) In quoting this stanza of my translation, I didn’t stop to explain why Japanese poetry doesn’t use rhymes, and why writing rhyming Japanese is both easy and pointless--too many rhymes, no fun. This blog will continue with showing off my Japanese, this time with pork cutlets.


Wait, don’t go away: really. This morning’s NYTimes has a Dining section, with a piece by their cooking columnist Melissa Clark on her discovery of the kind of Japanese pork cutlets called tonkatsu, titled “Port Cutlets With the Wisdom of Two Continents”--it ends with a recipe for making them. That in itself doesn’t interest me--I have lost any desire for serious eating in my old age. But the word tonkatsu revived old memories, which will make up the rest of this blog. (And no, you don’t have to know Japanese to enjoy what follows, as I hope you will.)


A special interest of mine, derived somewhat from Boodberg’s great teaching about loan words taken from one language into another, was how the Japanese pronounced and transcribed words they borrowed from European languages on one hand, and from Chinese on the other. Many words now common came into their language that way from the West in the Meiji period and after, when Japan was opening enthusiastically to the outside world. Their own language in its original form is phonetically simple--made up of open syllables, consonant plus vowel, only five of the latter (a, i. o. e. u), no final consonants except n. And they liked to combine halves of borrowed words to make new words. Thus modern girl and modern boy became moodan gaaru and moodan booi, shortened to moga and mobo . Building became birudengu, shortened to biru--one can see, engraved in the stone bases of big buildings in Tokyo, the name something-biru. And, a special favorite of mine: when strolling in the night-life quarters of Osaka during their flourishing hours one would see signs advertising an arusaro: a place employing as hostesses girls who were not professionals but part-time amateurs--aru shortened from arubaito, from the German Arbeit, part-time work--many Japanese academic words were taken from German, since their higher educaton system was originally modeled on the German--and saro from saron, the French salon. So, an establishment where the girls (supposedly) worked part-time while pursuing higher education. (And if you believed that, you thoroughly deserved to have your money taken, as it would be.)


I remember, way back, my student Elizabeth Fulder while in Japan calling my attention to the charming Japanese word for custard, which is purin. You can find it as that on Japanese restaurant menus. It must have been an early rendering of English pudding, but is used only for custard--other kinds are called by a longer rendering, puddengu, as in chokkoretto puddengu, chocolate pudding. Purin, short and loveable, works because the Japanese pronounce their r’s as the (linguist’s) flap-r, tongue briefly against the upper palate, as distinct from the r pronounced with both lips almost coming together. Try saying it: purin, and think of a cup or dish of good custard, caramel on top.


The recipe by the NYTimes woman includes the herb shisoo (English perilla), a favorite of mine--its taste calls up memories like Proust’s cookie dipped in tea. When, during a sabbatical year in the early 1980s, we briefly rented a house in Tsukaguchi, between Osaka and Kobe, it was growing in the garden. It is used to flavor the cucumber base in my favorite Japanese pickle, the red-purple shibazuke , for which the Yase-Ohara region north of Kyoto is famous. (I must try to find some here.)


Continuing with the pork cutlets (you were waiting?): I used to speculate about how that word tonkatsu originated. The ton must be the on-yomi or Sino-Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word for pig--the kun-yomi or Japanese pronunciation is buta--the simple word for pork in Japanese is buta-niku, pig-meat. The katsu must come from an old transcription of cutlet as katsu-retsu (remember that Japanese syllables cannot end in consonants, they have to add a vowel, usually u). And so we get tonkatsu. These used to be among my favorite things to eat in Japanese restaurants. Ask for them when you next go to one. (Special plug: when in Berkeley try Noriko no ko,  the tiny place in the brick-front building on                                                                                                                                 Telegraph Ave. south of Dwight Way , the same building that has an Ethiopian restaurant where you are supposed to eat with your fingers, a good Korean restaurant, and the very old, positively ancient, Fondu Fred’s. Noriko-no-ko has from the beginning been run by a Japanese couple, the man a cook, the woman (Noriko) the hostess. A specialty of theirs is robata-yaki: beef, shrimp, and vegetables grilled and served in a special way. Unsolicited recommendation. I have been going there from the time they first opened, and am a favorite customer)


More or less across the street from there, on Telegraph just past Dwight, east side of street, there was once a Japanese restaurant, first in Berkeley I think (before that we had to go to San Francisco for one, on one of those streets above Chinatown.) This one opened while I was an undergraduate student studying, among other things, literary Japanese; and among its attractions was a charming Japanese waitress. Their offerings included various kinds of domburi--a simple lunchtime dish made by cooking something, putting rice on top, turning it all over into a bowl so that the juices from the cooked part trickle down and flavor the rice. (Domburi is a Japanese word, and is written with a Japanese-only character, the character for well, like the tic-tac-toe design with horizontals and verticals crossing, with a dot in the middle. If you ask a Japanese why it’s written that way, he tells you: if you drop a stone into a well, the sound it makes is: DOMburi!) Different kinds of domburi, which are on the menus of most Japanese small lunch restaurants, include tempura-domburi (tempura over rice), unagi-donburi (eel over rice, my favorite), and oyako-domburi, literally parent-and-child domburi, When I asked the attractive waitress about that, she explained: because it’s made with chicken and egg, parent and child. I was so charmed by this explanation, and by her, that I composed a tanka--the old classical Japanese verse form, made up of five lines of 5 -7-5-7-7 syllables (the better-known haiku is derived from this, meaning “opening verse” and                                                                                                                                          shortened to the first three lines, 5-7-5.) I composed a tanka in old literary language and inscribed it on my chopsticks wrapper to leave for her. It went:

Ono ga ko wo


Donburi ni

Shitagaete iku

Niwatori no haha


Meaning: the poor mother chicken who, unable to protect her child, follows it into the domburi. Whether this is really, as I intended at the time (based on what I was studying just then) in good Heian poetic style, someone else with better Japanese will have to judge.


So, that’s all for this one. If only I could go out now for some pork cutlets                                                                                                                                                                                                                     --or even a good custard. But alas, no, so off to bed.


James Cahill


who cannot resist adding (this is really the end): You will also find on the lunchroom menus ta’nin domburi, Other Guy (or Outsider) domburi,                                                                                                     in which the chicken is replaced by--can you guess? Beef. Oh, I love the Japanese language!




Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...