Monday August 15, 2005

Kyoto to Tokyo

A couple of weeks ago I was at a going-away party for a friend (who's going to work in Antarctica—cool!), and I ended up chatting with a guy about Japan.  The Wife and I will be spending a couple of weeks over there in September, and this guy had visited Japan as a tourist a couple of times, so we were pumping him for information.  At one point, he said, "Hey, do you know where the name Tokyo comes from?  Well, the capital of Japan was Kyoto for thousands of years, so when they moved the capital to Tokyo, they just named it after Kyoto, except backwards: to-kyo instead of kyo-to."

Like so many interesting facts, this one is clear, simple, and wrong.

At this point in the conversation, I was presented with a dilemma.  In social situations, I don't like to act like that guy—you know, the guy who has to be right all the time and rubs your face in it?  (Note that I say I don't want to "act like" him, because I am in fact that guy, but I try to keep a lid on it.)  So, on the one hand I wanted to point at him and shout, "Error!  ERROR!," but on the other hand I didn't want to be an ass about it.

In part that's because, as misconceptions go, this one is actually pretty plausible.  After all, in the standard romanization of the names of Tokyo and Kyoto [my hands keep wanting to type /toukyou/ and /kyouto/ :)], not to mention in their English pronunciations, they really do appear to be moraic anagrams like that.  In fact, I remember early on in my Japanese studies wondering if they were, and looking them up in a dictionary to find out.  Unfortunately, in Japanese Tokyo is spelled with the characters 東京 [toːkʲoː], which mean 'east capital', while Kyoto is spelled with 京都 [kʲoːto], which mean, well, 'capital capital' (both characters in isolation can be read /miyako/, which is the native-vocabulary word for 'capital, metropolis').  Not only are the meanings different, the pronunciations are too: notice that the first mora of Tokyo has a long vowel, but the second syllable of Kyoto has a short vowel.  The idea that one is the reverse of the other is only plausible if your language doesn't distinguish vowel length.

This guy's history was wrong too, by the way: Tokyo used to be named Edo (江戸), and it was the administrative capital of the Tokugawa shogunate from about 1600 AD.  The imperial capital, where the figurehead Emperor was more-or-less kept on ice, remained in Kyoto until the Meiji Restoration, when the imperial capital was moved to Edo and the city renamed Tokyo.  But Kyoto wasn't the capital of Japan for "thousands of years", it was only the capital from about 800 AD.  On top of that, it's hard to say it was the capital of Japan from that time—rather, it was the capital of the state to which modern Japan is a successor, which didn't then include northern Honshu, Hokkaido, or Okinawa.

In any case, I let him down easy.  I made my now-let-me-think-about-that face for a bit, then said, "You know, I don't think that's right.  The character for kyo is the same in both words, but not the character for to."  I didn't bother trying to explain the phonetic differences or the complex history involved.  He took it remarkably well—never knew what hit him, really.  Score one for tact.

[Aside: This anecdote is sort of, but not exactly, an instance of what Mark Liberman calls "silly talk about linguistics".  It doesn't really qualify, though, because the misconception (a) was really about Japanese, not linguistics in general, and (b) was brought up not because I mentioned I study linguistics, but rather because I mentioned we were travelling to Japan.]

[Now playing, "Clutch" by Yoko Kanno]

[Update: This post originally claimed that the characters 東京 mean 'west capital' because I'm an idiot.  (Actually, it was because I'd been reading about how Kyoto was briefly named 西京 /saikyou/ 'west capital', and I confused the two.  Sigh.)  Thanks to the nameless poster below who corrected me.]

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Tracked on Sep 10, 2005 11:20:31 AM


What are you going to Tokyo for?

Posted by: EFL Geek at Aug 15, 2005 7:28:37 PM

東京というのは”eastern capital”でしょう。

Posted by: at Aug 15, 2005 9:50:41 PM

We're going to Nagoya to see the World Expo, then to Kyoto for a few days of sightseeing, then to Tokyo for a couple of days of shopping and lazing about the hotel pool. (We're going to stay at the hotel from Lost in Translation.) It's purely a pleasure trip, except possibly for a bit of networking with some compling types at 東大.

Posted by: The Tensor at Aug 15, 2005 10:12:47 PM

You find out the most amzing stuff when ya read blogs!

Posted by: Alistair at Aug 16, 2005 3:42:07 PM

Since the full, official name of Tokyo is 東京都, you could also argue it means "East Kyoto".

: )


Posted by: Ibadairon at Aug 22, 2005 8:52:59 AM

Went to World Expo, it's horrible. You pay the equivalent of $50 per person for a one-day pass, and then you're in there with 50,000 other people, all of whom are interested in seeing much the same things you are. The queue to the most interesting pavilions is 2-3 hours. Pavilions of smaller countries have shorter queues, especially in the evening.

The whole thing is very well executed, but the crowds are just too much, especially when combined with the price. We wanted to spend 3 days there, in the end we went there once and didn't return.

This was experience was on a mid-week day in mid-August.

Posted by: denis at Sep 11, 2005 9:35:55 AM