My epiphany with Yotsuba-to!

This was supposed to be a post about practicing your Japanese by reading Yotsuba-to! (よつばと!), a popular manga which according to this post is ideal for Japanese learners, partly because of the furigana (small hiragana letters printed next to the kanji characters, thus revealing how the kanji should be read).

I managed to find the comic both raw (meaning in Japanese) and translated into English. I’m reading them on my computer and keep the window with the English version under the raw one. It’s perfect to have a key handy!

(And don’t worry, Yotsuba-to! publisher, I will probably buy the print versions eventually, just like I did with all volumes of Loveless after having discovered the manga through filesharing. Or some merchandise.)

However, something happened as I started to read. I suddenly found myself staring at the frames at the top of this post for a long time.

First I realised that they are slightly different; they added some details on the right frame, or took them away on the left one.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that this difference made me realise just what an art it is to reduce as much as possible from a picture without losing its expression. Yes, the art of reduction! The left frame is even more expressive than the right one – you can really see that little enthusiastic girl in front of you!

So this is how you should read manga. This is their allure. Manga readers don’t see cartoons – they see real characters, created with the help of lines that the manga readers’ brains know how to parse just in the same way as the novel reader’s brain knows how to parse words and sentences expressing the same thing. It’s really just the same! And the step to expressing something with a picture instead of with words is of course smaller in Japan, since kanji actually linger somewhere in between text and drawings. After all, kanji is nothing but very reduced pictures.

This made me think of Donald Richie’s Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics. Yotsuba-to! is a perfect example of the Japanese aversion to our Western mimesis, and of the Japanese “tendency to value symbolic representation over realistic delineation,” as Richie puts it. What an art!

This might be obvious to all of you, but I actually haven’t read that many manga, except Loveless. This was my epiphany, and I will always remember it. The moment when I fell through the paper and into the manga.

23 thoughts on “My epiphany with Yotsuba-to!

  1. And while we’re at it, here is eye (me): 目

    And ear (mimi): 耳

    Replace the mouth, eyes and ears in the drawing above with these kanji, and you get a face (kao): 顔

    See how all the things that sit on a face is stuffed into that kanji? The resemblance with the girls face might not be striking – but it is there!!!

  2. the manga looks cool.

    i oculd never finish loveless.
    i lost track on the story somewhere volume 3 or 4. you?

    i am watching the rose of versailles anime series from the 80s on animebuzz.

  3. I’ve finished vol 7 so far, but it has taken time, and as I remember it, I preferred the first volumes, which the anime is based on if I remember correctly.

    It’s so fun though that Loveless isn’t a closed chapter yet! Yun Kouga plans 15 volumes in total.

    Btw I think I remember when you bought vol 4. 🙂

    I’m watching Junjou Romantica S2. Love it!

  4. Why is the english version different from the original? it seems like special version made for western eyes, I mean pre-epiphany eyes. Like when Asian (Thai) food is served in the West it is always in a subdued less spicey version.

    I like that pic in your comment above. Great!

  5. Don’t know, but I don’t think this was done because of the translation. I think it’s a scanlation actually. But the manga is so popular that it might have been polished in between different editions for reasons I have no clue of …

  6. I thought this was amazing and I thought about it for days … the way text and pictures become the same thing. I was trying to think of experiences in the west that illustrate it.

    I came up with two, both of which illustrate how different images and text are in the west. One of the two then illustrates what it could be like if they were the same, as in Japan.

    The first illustration is when a painter paints a scene, and includes actual text on signposts or above shops. The text jars. It draws the eye. It distracts. It is ugly. A proper painter would leave a blur, or random brush-strokes. The brain cannot help but regard actual text as vandalism on the painting that does not belong there. It is a completely different kind of visual stimulus.

    I assume that in Japan it does not feel like that. Certainly in the Manga you showed us it does not feel like that, where the text is virtually pictures, and the pictures are so simplified they are almost becoming text … the two are one.

    The other illustration is from driving a car.

    In Europe, most road signs are symbols: little pictures of what lies ahead, diagrams of the curve of the road, the junction, the way the lines of traffic will divide or merge.

    In the US, all the signs are text instead. Driving on the highway is like reading a novel. The signs scream at you in ugly capitals. THIS LANE FOR CITY CENTRE. THROUGH TRAFFIC TWO LEFT LANES. SHARP RIGHT BEND AHEAD. SIGNAL 300 FEET. RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT.

    It’s a real relief to get back to Europe and the calm silence of symbols, where the shape on the sign and the shape of the road merge into a single, silent, wordless experience.

    You *could* look up an official translation of the symbol into words in a book, but you don’t. You just absorb it. You just know what it means. It is part of the picture.

    Is that what it’s like, reading Japanese? Or at least, reading manga?

  7. Fantastic notion, Rimmer! I love the comparison with road signs. Maybe that’s as close as we can get to languages of symbol. Indeed a key to understand them, at least a bit.

    Of course I asked myself what I think when I see a sign for a bend. And just like you say, it surely isn’t “sharp right bend ahead”! It’s just “that”. One step is skipped on the way to my brain, which seems effective and might be one reason why traffic signs are symbols instead of text. (Illiterates being another reason.)

    Didn’t know they use text in the US.

    As for my Japanese studies, I’ve only just begun with kanji so I can just hope to get this understanding eventually. But there are two kanji that come as naturally to me as the “bend” roadsign, as you will understand by how they look:



  8. I know those two symbols by heart now, even though I saw them only once.

    Already they just mean … “that”.

    Is Japanese like Chinese, where the symbols have a meaning that can be expressed in sounds in many different ways?

    As I understand it, with written Chinese text, the meaning is the same throughout China, but the dialect means that the sounds are completely different in every place.

    This would mean that a great Chinese text could be read in a whole range of different ways, using not only different timing and intonation but different words … um … if you can have intonation in a tonal language … if the word “word” means anything … um … vowels? consonants? words? are these just culture-specific concepts? … zzzzzzb = mental fuse blowing

  9. I think the difference is between the weekly (monthly?) version in Daioh which is printed on poor quality paper and the album version which has greater detail available in the printing process. I didn’t think the artist drew two versions but it seems that way (note the pigtails).

    I can’t read the English version. I really like the Japanese version (even if I don’t get 100%) but it loses something in translation and is no longer funny to me. Odd. (I can’t watch dubbed films either, especially Ghibli, the voices, often American are just wrong.)

  10. Rimmer: Hm… No, the kanji symbols (which are Chinese but adopted into Japanese) don’t have different “sounds” in Japan. They do have different “readings”, but that doesn’t have anything to do with dialects. It just means that each kanji can be interpreted (read) in a number of ways, depending on the setting or word. (I still haven’t really grasped this, in my heart – or stomach.) Also, Japanese doesn’t use intonation to change meaning, unlike most Asian languages.

    Robert: Aha, that seems to make sense.

    Interesting comparison with dubbing. I can’t stand dubbing, but in general I don’t mind translations of books. Maybe manga is closer to movies than to novels. I look forward to the moment when my Japanese is good enough for me to try a raw manga.

  11. If I can interject.

    Japanese is a tonal language. It has two tones. (Unfortunately in some instances they aren’t fixed, and they change by region.) The classic example is はし which can mean bridge or chopstick depending on where the tone is. I think it is rarely taught to second language learners or indeed appear in dictionaries outside pronunciation dictionaries in Japan. Context usually overcomes any mistakes.

    Different readings of a single kanji. In short. Japan amazingly never developed a written language, so since China was the dominant culture they adopted the Chinese writing system. They took the “idea” of a given kanji and used it for words in Japanese that had a similar idea. They also used kanji just for sounds. These kanji developed into what is hiragana and katakana today. Lastly they adopted Chinese words in 3 waves with hundreds of years intervals, and therefore with different sounds (because the Chinese court language changed) associated with the same kanji. What we end up with is a wonderful kludge where a given symbol could have 4 and often even more readings (sounds) associated with it. やばい!

  12. Great explanation of the kanji system, Robert.

    I probably never noticed Japanese is a tonal language because Swedish is too, in pretty much the same (simple) way as Japanese it seems, using “pitch accent”. (I had to read a bit about it.)

    I remember now that my sensei told me the two different meanings of にほん, depending on stress. But are there so many other examples?

    1. Thanks, Tatsuhi. By now I’ve read the first two volumes of Yotsuba to (among other manga) in Japanese and it always makes me smile! Interesting project you’ve got going there on your site.

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