Tag Archives: chestnuts

More Adventures in Cross-Linguistic Nomeclature – What’s (not) in a name?

10 Oct

I’ve been way too quiet on the blogging front over the last few months.  Finding things to write about can be tricky, especially without a good camera and the time to find that perfect shot, not to mention the weather playing up – we’ve had temperatures fluctuating from hot to cold and back again, and yet another typhoon is brewing as I write this.


That low pressure cell off Hokkaido is the remains of the typhoon that just passed through, and another one is sitting just off the Philippines.

Typhoon – an interesting word.  There is a large body of people here who think that it must be a corruption of the Japanese word taifu (台風), when in fact the reverse is closer to the truth.  While the etymology of the English word is unclear –Persian, Sanskrit and Greek roots have been cited – the modern Japanese word did not appear until after exposure to the English version.


Folk etymology is one thing, but incorrect translations are another, and one that really gets my goat is the definition most Japanese give for “beetle”.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary provides us with this definition:


  • an insect of a large order distinguished by having forewings that are typically modified into hard wing cases (elytra), which cover and protect the hindwings and abdomen.

A disproportionally large number of English-Japanese dictionaries, however, give the translation as meaning “rhinoceros beetle”.  For example, I looked in my little “wordtank” electronic dictionary (I like to think of it as a “wordmoke”) under “beetle”, and it gave the definition as “rhinoceros beetle”.  I then tried Japanese to English – it gave the correct definition for “beetle”, but also gave  the meaning of “rhinoceros beetle” as “beetle”!  It’s a bit like deciding that the word for dog in one language means “golden retriever” in another! 

On English-to-Japanese mode, it gives the definiton as “rhinoceros beetle”…

… but on Japanese-to-English, defines 甲虫 (“beetle”) as…

Even the classic Volkswagen beetle is sometimes given the nickname “kabutomushi” (rhinoceros beetle) thanks to this error. 

Sorry folks, the VW beetle looks like a ladybird.  If you want something that resembles a rhinoceros beetle, I suggest you start looking at tanks!


Incidentally, the Japanese word for beetle is kochu (甲虫), and I wish more Japanese would learn it!!


It’s autumn, and that means chestnuts.  But for English speakers, the word “chestnut” is a rare find.  You see, the Japanese decided to adopt the French word marron when talking about non-traditional chestnut dishes, but think that it’s English.  I remember my early days of English teaching (I already had a firm background in Japanese at the time) and students telling me about “maron”, only to find it didn’t register.  It wasn’t in my vocabulary, it wasn’t in my Japanese-English dictionary… the closest word I knew was the name of an Australian freshwater crayfish!


Regular readers of this blog might remember that the Japanese word for chestnut is kuri (栗). 


Now it’s time to go off and teach some students the words “typhoon”, “rhinoceros beetle” and “chestnut”!

Fruits of my labours

21 Oct

Autumn is well and truly here, and the cold, cold winter is just around the corner.  Leaves are changing colour in the mountains – most noticeably the reds of the maples and the yellow ginkgos.

Ginkgo leaf – official symbol of Tokyo Metropolis

An early Chinese import, the ginkgo is a popular street tree but also enjoys special status around shrines and temples.  It is also the official tree of Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures (its leaf is part of the official Tokyo Prefectural symbol), as well as being the official tree of some 33 cities – including Tokorozawa – in addition to Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward and Nagoya’s Naka Ward, 20 towns and four villages.

I was first introduced to this tree during a high school biology field trip the Adelaide Botanical

Manhole cover in Tokorozawa showing city symbols, including ginkgo leaves

Gardens.  The Chinese maidenhair tree, as it was known to us, is a fossil tree with distinct male and female trees.

The Japanese name is icho, but it was known as ginkyo in older times.  The name icho is thought to derive from the Chinese yājiǎo (“duck foot”), a description of the shape of the leaf, while ginkyo is a possible reading of the characters (銀杏).  This can be confusing, as the name of the edible fruit kernel is, although written identically, pronounced “ginnan”.

The ginnan is indispensable in certain dishes, but obtaining them is laborious, mostly because the flesh of the ginkgo fruit, which must be removed, has a horrible smell.  So horrible that almost no animals eat it.  (The badger is said to be an exception)

“What’s that smell?” Ginkgo fruit rotting on the ground.  The flesh of the ginkgo fruit can iritate human skin, and must be removed from the nut.

Fruits that are important along the food chain include persimmons, pomegranates, chestnuts and Japanese horse chestnuts, and, of course, acorns.


Pomegranates in a garden near my house

Persimmons, or kaki (), are another early Chinese import, and are found in many suburban gardens.  My own garden boasts a sweet persimmon tree.  These were more important in days gone by and children had little access to sweets – many TV shows set in earlier times depict kids stealing from their neighbour’s persimmon tree.  A variation of this theme has the thief biting into the fruit only to discover that it is an astringentpersimmon.

Persimmons from my tree

Sweet and astringent persimmons – amagaki (甘柿) and shibugaki (渋柿) respectively – generally can be distinguished by sight – the most important sweet cultivars tend to be flat-ish and take on an almost square profile, while the most common astringent ones are more bulb-shaped.  This is only a rough guide, so beware of biting into an unidentified persimmon!  I’ve felt my tongue go numb from sinking my teeth into the wrong kind!

You may be thinking, “So why bother with astringent ones if you can’t eat them?”  Well, you can.  They can be treated with carbon dioxide, or soaked in shochu to remove the stringency.  But they are at their best as dried persimmons (hoshikaki – 干し柿).  The persimmons are peeled but the stalk left on, and hung up in a cool, dry place.  The winters of Eastern Japan are notoriously dry and quickly sap the moisture from the persimmon.  The result is a soft dried fruit with a pleasant taste.

Astringent persimmons also have uses in dyeing and paper.  The dye made from the fruit turns cloth a light brown colour, and it is also used to improve the water resistance of Japanese paper, particularly in umbrella making.

Persimmons are a favourite of birds, monkeys, deer, tanuki, wild pigs and bears.  Unfortunately, the ageing and depopulated country side means more persimmon trees are left unattended, attracting these animals into the small human settlements.  It is usually only a matter of time before a wild pig or a bear injures someone and the offending animal is killed.

The persimmon plays an important role in the children’s story The Feud of the Monkey and the Crabs.


Another seasonal favourite is the chestnut or kuri ().  This is a Japanese native, and hikers may be lucky enough to find one in the wild.  The nuts of the wild variety are small but sweet.  The husks are prickly and need to be handled with care.  Some people burn the husks to roast the nuts inside, although boiling and roasting over hot stones are the more common ways of cooking the nuts.  A popular autumn dish is kuri-gohan – chestnuts (with a few ginkgo nuts) boiled in white rice.

Unripened chestnut husks

Chestnuts with husk opening

The nuts are a favourite of wild pigs.

Chestnut in the open husk or urchin

The chestnut is one of the avenging characters in the afore-mentioned The Feud of the Monkey and the Crabs.


Next time – going nuts!

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