Characters and BTRON

Supporting the Multifariousness of Culture

Dr. Ken Sakamura Interviews Mr. Hiroshi Aramata

Sakamura - How's Cho Kanji [B-right/V R2]?

Aramata - This is different (laughs). Generally, everything up to now was strange. That characters are limited for machines . . . even today, I write novels by hand; with today's word processors you can't write novels. That's because using characters, whether it's the "ryuu" ['dragon' character] in [ the name of novelist] Ryunosuke Akutagawa [that Akutagawa created] or the characters that were created in the Edo period, is an art.

Sakamura - It's all right for authors in your class such as Ryunosuke Akutagawa to create characters (laughs). Conversely, today there are also movements to create limits, such as Unicode.

Aramata - When you say limits, it sounds good, but if we describe it coarsely, it's neglect. Frequently, there appear new editions of classical literature on which it's written that [the contents] have been corrected into easy kanji [Chinese characters] for the convenience of readers, but that's a lie. That's because even if you want to use old printing type, it no longer exists. You can't do anything other than just writing it in a simple manner. That's why I was surprised at Cho Kanji. That's a language processor, to be exact. It's not just what you call a tool for using characters, but it's also a [theatrical] performance in which you play with characters as your opposite. What we call culture, it's that type of thing. And when there's this processing speed to it, it's pleasant. Because I'm now suffering doing things like reading hentaigana [anomalous cursive syllabary], I was moved to tears after learning that even hentaigana have been entered into this [operating system].

Sakamura - What do you think about kanji?

Aramata - From handwritten characters to the printing type of the present, first of all isn't the method of handling kanji completely different from age to age? A short while ago, you mentioned creating characters; okurigana [kana side readings for reading kanji] are [an] appropriate [example]. It's a case where there was the feeling that there are rules invented individual by individual. In other words, software was the priority. Today, things are headed in the direction of unification. Hardware is the priority. For example, shell and bone characters [of ancient China] are divination characters, and in the background there were fortune-telling culture and divine [-ly inspired] politics. We can't look for those feelings in today's printing type. When we constrict kanji and can't freely use them in line with their time axis, we cannot reproduce the life of olden times with form. The computer ought to be most suited for managing that type of thing. What we call culture is in a sense a collection of cultural genes with historicity, in other words, I believe it's the "folk genome." In that sense, your Cho Kanji could be called basic software that has come to allow Asian culture to be handled for the first time.

Sakamura - The last thing left is culture, isn't it. Because there's Japanese culture, there are Japanese. Global standards area talked about, but if we make everything the same, it's boring.

Aramata - The term global standard means someone ends up winning. Everyone is made to learn someone's way of doing things. However, because there is multifariousness in nature, culture also needs room. Even cultures with few people to employ them should be left [to posterity] somewhere.

Sakamura - Aren't the goblins that are your specialty one of them (laughs)?

Aramata - Ordinary language is collective, or abstract. Nevertheless, there is a huge difference between the native or concrete thing and a collection--the effort being made to try to get software like Cho Kanji to cover that difference is something that impressed me. When you're looking at Cho Kanji, you understand well the multifariousness of kanji. Are China and Japan and Korea this different, [you say to yourself].

Sakamura - The origins of kanji are shell and bone inscriptions, but in the respective countries [that use them] they have been developed differently. That point is interesting, isn't it.

Aramata - For instance, in China, one is not satisfied if the kanji do not stay inside a square, but in Japan we do as we like for that sort of thing. With hieroglyphic characters, not only is there meaning, but they are also used as an alphabet. With kanji also, there are cases when they are used in that hieroglyphic manner and cases when they are used alphabetically. In the case of Japan, hiragana and katakana become the method for employing that alphabetic part; an interest in the variety of the proper use of things like that lies at the heart of this software. Even today, while on the one hand we translate "computer" in the manner of dennoo ['electronic brain'; a Chinese expression], we also use kanji alphabetically in the manner that we call Coca-Cola k'ok'ou k'o-lo [in Chinese transliteration]. The roots of the information acceptance pattern in the kanji culture sphere are exactly thereabouts. Accordingly, if there is something like Cho Kanji, then it makes possible comparisons with such things as, for example, the processes in the way that the Chinese think about things.

Sakamura - Now we're trying to make such a database. A database of kanji that stretches into periods and regions . . . because we don't know its full particulars at present, we would like to learn them.

Aramata - I'd really like something like a kanji matrix expansion. Taking the period on the vertical axis and the region on the horizontal axis, if that matrix of the complete variety of kanji could be seen, it would interesting.

Sakamura - In that sense, I think that there are still many things where universities can contribute academically.

Aramata - There are many characters of the fish radical, but characters of other radicals also ought to exist similarly. I wonder whether what we call their composition won't come to be linked to a world view.

Sakamura - How many characters there are of which radical, looking in to their composition, there are exactly the places to make use of computers. Kanji research itself will also become interesting.

Aramata - That's right. In particular, because a type of political power participated in kanji characters, naturally it's the case that what we call the rewriting of kanji definitely takes place along with history. In the processes in that area, the direction of change is not displayed in anything other than very simple principles, as in the manner of globalization today, but they ought to have changed at a more different moment. In English, there is even an interesting example. In the 18th century, Englishmen who saw the [European] Alps and whatnot came not to use the word mountain for the mountains in their country. Since the mountains in England are all low, they all ended up becoming hills. The relationship between that type of background and the use of kanji also ought to come into view. If we go off in search of that, I have the feeling that we will learn in one shot not only the cultural problems of kanji, but also things like spheres of influence and methods by which dynasties extended their power, or political questions and natural environment questions.

Sakamura: That's because all sorts of things are all related. Culture, of course, was originally also related to politics--restricting information, for example, [in history] there are probably even those who said "those who can read kanji are persons of authority." Kanji are, in a sense, icons. They were probably created every time something cultural arose, weren't they.

Aramata: They're exactly like icons.

Sakamura: Furthermore, what's interesting is the problem of the reading and the problem of the pronunciation. For example, things like China, Korea, and Japan for some reason creating a different reading is interesting.

Aramata: That's interesting, isn't it.

Sakamura - Even in Korea, if the people write kanji for us, they can communicate with us. Today, because it is possible for the Chinese [speakers of various dialects] to engage in conversation among themselves with writing, in that sense, kanji become the common base of the Asian sphere.

Aramata - For Asia, they are something like the Latin language.

Sakamura - When we consider the world from here on, broadly dividing it, there will be the American cultural sphere, the EU cultural sphere, and the Asian cultural sphere . . . for that reason also, kanji are important. If one uses the original kanji, it is possible to converse in writing. However, when they end up becoming symbolized in the manner of simplified Chinese characters or [Korean] hangul, it becomes impossible to catch the meaning.

Aramata - On that point, civilizations with phonograms are liable to head toward confusion. The [Tower of] Babel incident [mentioned in the Bible] is also grounded in confusion about the sounds of words, for sure. For example, questions such as do we pronounce the 'W' of the alphabet as 'VU', or do we pronounce it as 'U', immediately appear. The alphabet is something in which things selected from Egyptian hieroglyphs by matching them to a number of pronunciations were turned into phonetic symbols. Because pronunciation differs according to region, they brought appropriate things from hieroglyphs again for symbols that were lacking--what arose during that repetition is the parallel of 'VU' and 'U'. Pronouncing 'K' as 'KU' and then 'K' becoming 'H', if it's French the 'H' isn't pronounced, and so forth, when we look at things individually, we have occasion to remark about what improper and self-serving things people do (laughs), but, in fact, if we trace them to their source, I believe the cause will come neatly into view. That type of thing probably exists also in East Asia. The character for 'sea' is 'HAI' in China, in Japan it's 'KAI'. Do we pronounce 'K' as 'KA' or as 'HA'; somehow there are things we can feel are in some sort of parallel with the alphabet. That type of comparison also is quite possible.

Sakamura - In order for things to become like that, whether its food or climate, there is not one cause. And then they have changed over an extraordinarily long time.

Aramata - When we gather lots of those things, I believe we will become able to make a long comparison also in language in the manner we compare from ancient times to modern times on the basis of stone axes and arrowheads in archeology.

Sakamuara - That the sound 'N' is used worldwide for a negative meaning might possibly be that there was something similar to those demons or goblins (laughs).

Aramata - Sticking out one's tongue in the manner of 'akanbe' [pulling one's bottom eyelid to expose redness] also has the meaning of an amulet worldwide. The sound 'B' seems to indicate a devil or something like it.

Sakamura - Goblins, supernatural phenomena, such things are also influencing language, aren't they.

Aramata - That's right. In the end, when you explain things that cannot be shown with things, characters and words and sounds have become a necessity.

Sakamura - When you describe it in that sense, those goblins and things similar to legends really are "super" kanji, aren't they.

Aramata - Right. Right.

Sakamura - Old kanji even have something that has become like a sentence. For example, it doesn't actually exist, but even a kanji meaning something like 'upon rising in the morning the weather is bad and it's damp' could also exist.

Aramata - They're ancient tales; if we put them in type today, we'll end up with two or three pages (laughs).

Sakamura - Kanji are great (laughs). One kanji, to put it in the extreme, becomes a book.

Aramata - That's probably possible. What's incredible about kanji is that even in one character there's a world; using that one character as parts, we then go on to create new kanji. It might even be all right to call this an incredible point of East Asia. There might even be something like that with [characters for] goblins.They are made up through sticking various parts together, such as [the characters] hebi [snake] and tora [tiger]--in the manner of the left-hand radical and the right-hand part [of a kanji]. Ordinarily, when we group characters together as parts, a word is formed, but in the case of kanji, a character also comes into existence. This is a quite interesting point. And then, when we go forward with a more TRON-like concept, Cho Kanji can also become software for creating new kanji. We can create more of various types. That might be something more inclined toward a computer.

Sakamura - By the way, talk of goblins is frequently coming up; what is this "World Goblin Association" that you have joined?

Aramata - This is just for fun, you know, because it's an association (laughs). It's something that began with Shigeru Mizuki, who created it, saying: "I have come to the understanding that I myself am a goblin. Let me hereafter gather juniors who seem likely to become goblins." Thus I'm engaged in training to become a goblin.

Sakamura - What on earth are you doing for training (laughs)?

Aramata - We endeavor not to speak very clearly, saying things like 'ge, ge, ge, ge', or 'ga, ga, ga, ga'. In spite of that, we somehow understand. What one would call a vague expression, something like 'momongaa', is very goblin-like. As much as possible, we are endeavoring to talk with vague sounds. And then, for another, we are raising a little higher the concept that culture is amusement, and we are saying that "culture is the Obon Festival dance." While we're doing the Obon Festival dance, we become disoriented, the dancing fool and the watching fool, which is true and which is false become indistinguishable (laughs).

Sakamura - You might be right. While what we call culture is mixing and receiving influence, things become indistinguishable, don't they (laughs). Dancing, both the Carnival and the Awa Dance, are dancing something or other, and thus are the same in feeling.

Aramata - Right. The greatest point the Goblin Association is raising with "culture as the Obon Festival dance" is the point that because the Obon Festival dance is originally a dance for going out to meet the dead, this is a place where the dead and the living intermingle and dance. Ancient times and modern times intermingle.

Sakamura - I see. By the way, when I look at your work--anyhow, you've done various type of vast amounts of work. It's really amazing. How was it possible for you to do this much? Because you're a goblin (laughs)?

Aramata - I am a person who likes to look at "amount." I want to become a descendant of people like Minakata Kumagusu [1] and Keichu [2], who thought they had to collect everything in order to learn one thing. It's the same as Benkei [a swordsman of the 12th century] collecting 1,000 swords. Gaining an understanding of one thing is tough; for example, if you have looked at one kanji in 30 years, will you understand them or not? If that's the case, then it's a matter in which we could say that collecting 1,000 kanji and comparing and studying them would probably be more interesting. From the start, it has been all right with me even if I made my life's theme out of the question of what goblins are. However, because one cannot understand very well just by scrutinizing goblins, I'm thinking, won't I probably indirectly get results similar to Benkei gathering 1,000 swords if I get into various things, such as the most goblin-like digital world.

Sakamura - Therefore, that fact of the matter is that doing large amounts of various types of work itself is interesting, isn't it.

Aramata - Right. The thing that led to my greatest enlightenment was the Japanese language research of Keichu. Up to that point, for example, Fujiwara no Shunzei [3] and the like had been polishing words in Japanese poetry. Although it wasn't globalization, they gathered the words that charismatic and specially selected people used and placed them under the name "taste." By saying the reason we use a particular word is because it's tasteful, they narrowed down words one by one with a charismatic eye. However, the age of Keichu came about, words ended up being made disjointedly, whether tasteful or not; there was probably some motivation attached to the establishment of certain words, both words the emperor used and words the common people used. It became a matter of research in which you would pick on something similar to the meaning for the existence of the word itself. When you do that, it becomes possible to find even words from which the taste had leaked away. It was precisely a situation in which they decided to attempt to create a word matrix. And then, they had furthermore decided to try to capture the entirety from the parts of words that people had disjointedly broken down.

Sakamura - I see.

Aramata - To use a different expression, it's the Shingon [Buddhist] sect way of doing things. In the Shingon sect, you have to put all the teachings verbatim at the beginning. On the other hand, the Tendai [Buddhist] sect conception, because everything after all has to be memorized, is that it's all right with the seven characters Na-mu Myoo-hoo Ken-ge-kyoo [Hail Lotus Sutra]. Furthermore, they have steadily decreased; in the end, only getting around the circumference of the text has gotten better, which in a sense is globalization. The Shingon sect's thing is memorizing everything. At a glance, it's silly, but in fact that's the foundation for understanding the organization of the text. If you understand the text, you surmount the text, and historical, functional--various approaches become possible. Making a large collection means you need examples of usage. That's because in the world, there are nothing other than concrete examples. We have to prepare a full set.

Sakamura - Preparing a full set is familiar to the BTRON way of thinking about characters.

Aramata - In the case of the Kojiki, Hieda no Are [4] and Ono Yasumaro [5] formed a set, and thus such a thing came into existence. However, today although there are people who mirror various things in the manner of Ono Yasumaro, there is no Hieda no Are in a gathering role. Wouldn't it be best to somehow make a computer serve as Hieda no Are? That's because if you do that, all we have to do is pick up parts we like from there and download them.

Sakamura - That's exactly right.

Aramata - Compared to that, what I do is only one several thousandths, but I want to be like Hieda no Are. Ordinary authors are Ono Yasumaro (laughs).

Sakamura - As for me, when you say natural history, I think of you; as one would expect, someone who gathers things for others, and later when he makes them public they absolutely are a great help. When we talk about people who collect things, there are also people who are not like that. As to coming in search of something, there are also people who can sniff things out, who say if I go somewhere it's probably there--it's probably in this drawer (laughs).

Aramata - A super ability is required to collect things (laughs).

Sakamura - Later, there's also a pleasurable feeling to the collecting itself, isn't there.

Aramata - There is, there is. Because collecting requires a lot of energy, you get the pleasurable feeling of a marathon runner's high. With people who do things like creating model cases resembling the inductive method, I don't know, however.

Sakamura - What kind of people are suitable for natural history? Likewise, people similar to goblins (laughs).

Aramata - For one thing, people who are not surprised by things or amounts. A person who even if he or she is told to draw 1,000 bees will draw them one by one without rationally doing something like just drawing their heads (laughs). Because people such as translators and annotators are also collectors, they too are an important data base.

Sakamura - I am now attached to a new place at the University of Tokyo called the Joohoo Gakkan [Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies] in which both the literature [i.e., humanities] faculty and the science faculty have been surmounted; natural science is very useful for a thing like a bridge between literature and science, isn't it.

Aramata - In particular, if we speak in terms of the problem of words, it is especially striking with biology and the like; if we don't set together what people have conceived and what we learn from nature, one won't understand. These things that are set together are what we mean by history. When you think about that, when we particularize things into genres such as literature and science, it comes about that we shave things off somewhere. If you end up specializing, when data are embedded into, for example, science data, the data that possessed a literary inheritance get shaved off. This is connected with the greatest reason as to why we are drawn to real things such as specimens; if a person from the science faculty looks at something, science things come to the fore, and if a person from the literature faculty looks at something, literary things come to the fore. All sorts of subject matters are things that are like that. Even mathematics is not just mathematical things, political things also appear. Character problems, such as why we use [the Greek character] sigma, appear. It is really regrettable that we ended up doing that kind of genre division for about the last 100 years. In particular, because the science and technical types are still primarily doing things in the digital word processing world of late, this is the grounds for complaints to appear. No matter how much the technical types strive, there are impossibilities with the problems of words.

Sakamura - In that sense, in TRON, we're getting together with the people in the [University of Tokyo's] Faculty of Letters and doing things. With computers, first the hardware, next the software, and then the contents and services are talked about, but we are steadily moving toward things with strong abstract concepts. And then, ultimately, I believe we will arrive at culture. What people say, that it's because only the science types are involved when we handle characters with computers, I think it's exactly like that. For the design of future computers, I believe that we'll have to create teams with people in all sorts of fields, such as natural history. Of course, with the "Obon Festival dance" people also . . . (laughs).

Aramata - There's one thing I'd definitely like ask; what's the current state of things today in the world of computers?

Sakamura - Today it's a difficult state of affairs. It's a state of affairs in which it's becoming difficult to preserve multifariousness because of a strong monopoly.

Aramata - There are the hieroglyphs of Egypt, and there are the hanzi of China; word processors premised on the non-inclusion of these two are no good. Moreover, I'm frankly of the mind just what use is something that can only accommodate a certain number of kanji, or something that cannot satisfactorily accommodate even Japanese. Who will use a personal computer that even his or her name will not appear on? At a minimum, something that Japanese can use with peace of mind has to appear.

Sakamura - For that, BTRON . . . (laughs). Even as for BTRON, I don' think it is finished with this. Since this is still the start, please by all means lend us your cooperation in the future and build it up together with us.

Aramata - Right. I'd like to convey the delightfulness of Cho Kanji.

Sakamura - Thank you for today.


[1] Minakata Kumagusu was a world genius natural historian from the Meiji era to the early Showa era. Beginning with science and literature, he endeavored to synthesize all sorts of knowledge from past and present, East and West, through self study. There are a lot of anecdotes about him, such as that from about the time he was 10, he memorized books he was shown, and then he would write them down after he returned home; or that he didn't attend classes at school, but rather devoted himself to the collection of specimens. He worked hard at his research not only in Japan, but also after going over to America and Great Britain.

[2] Keichu was a national studies scholar of the early Edo era, and a Buddhist priest of the Shingon sect. He annotated the classics beginning with the Manyoshu, and he left behind epochal results in research on historical kanazukai [(Japanese) syllabary spellings]. After collecting and analyzing examples of usage amounting to as many as 3,000 words from documents from the Nara period to the middle of the Heian period, he wrote Waji shooran shoo [Summary of the true source of Japanese characters] in which he established the principles of historical kanazukai. It was Keichu who created the "A, I. U, E. O . . . " table [of the modern Japanese syllabaries] and attached the names called the "Gojuu-on-zu."

[3] Fujiwara no Shunzei was a poet from the end of the Heian period to the beginning of the Kamakura period. He is widely known for the compilation of Senzai waka shuu [A millennial Japanese poetry anthology] for the emperor. In Senzai waka shuu, 1,288 poems have been selected. There is a strong lyrical tendency to the poetic style.

[4] Hieda no Are was a personage in the Yamato/Nara periods. He was a person close Emperor Temmu and is said to have possessed an outstanding power of recall. As the result of an imperial decree, he collected imperial annals and archaic words, and memorized them. This then became the basis for the Kojiki.

[5] Ono Yasumaro was a government official during the Nara period. Based on an imperial decree of Emperor Gemmei, he recorded imperial annals and archaic words from Hieda no Are, and then compiled the Kojiki.

 Hiroshi Aramata
Born in Tokyo in 1947, Hiroshi Aramata is an author and researcher of natural history and fantasy literature. The breadth of his other activities covers many topics. He has collected a large number of iconographs and old books, including rare books. He is also known for hitting upon the decipherment of icons with his profound knowledge, and his works are vast in number. His novel Teito Monogatari [Tale of the imperial capital] became a best seller with 3.5 million copies. In 1987, he received the 8th Nihon SF Taisho Award. At present, he is active as a commentator on television and elsewhere. In addition, he is spending busy day after busy day also as the editor of an Internet exhibition [Imupaku], which will be in operation for one year from December 31, 2000.

The above interview with Hiroshi Aramata appeared on pages 14-21 in Vol. 66 of TRONWARE. It was translated and loaded onto this Web page with the permission of Personal Media Corporation.

Copyright © 2000 Personal Media Corporation

Copyright © 2001 Sakamura Laboratory, University Museum, University of Tokyo