Friday, October 14, 2005

Culture to the JETs Revisited: Hanko Making 101

Our Instructor: A Portrait of the Artist at Work

My Fifty Minute Creation in which Reckless Haste Begat Art

The above is a stylized representation of the kanji 路加 which is the original Chinese transliteration of the New Testament name Λουκας (Loukas, or Luke) subsequently adopted in the pre-war Japanese translations of the New Testament. It is still used in the Japanese name of the famous St. Luke’s Hospital in Tokyo (聖路加病院). The original Greek meaning of my name Luke is “light” or, in Japanese, hikari (光), actually used sometimes in Japan as a first name. The meaning of the kanji 路加 can be roughly given as “path of increase,” although 加 is also the kanji used for “Canada” (giving me room to argue that my name in kanji means "The Canadian Way").

It is my intention to systematically lay down in my next post the reasons why I am opposed to the modern usage of katakana in “standard” Japanese. Suffice to say here that usually when foreigners attempt to represent their names in kanji they are scorned as “wannabes” and considered ignorant of the principles of the Japanese language. Such is the power of myth. The fact is that most biblical names and a great many other “foreign” names that were introduced to Japan prior to the Pacific War already have “legitimate” transliterations in kanji. Unfortunately, my last name “Elliot” does not seem to be one of them (unless I were to accept the theory that “Elliot” is a Scottish variation of the French “Ellia” = Elijah). Elliot is nowadays invariably transliterated as “Eriotto” (エリオット) . When attempting to carry out the pre-war practice of using ateji (当て字 = kanji selected to represent a name on the basis of pronunciation/reading rather than on meaning) I am faced with a difficulty. There is only one kanji character with the reading otto (オット): 夫 = “husband.” And if I want to represent eri (エリ) with a single kanji character (since most Japanese surnames use only two kanji) my only choices are 襟 and 衿, both of which mean “collar.” Collar-husband (衿夫) is as ridiculous a name as Easy-nation-space (易国間 = ikokuma the name of the hamlet my wife and I live in, which is an Ainu name written in Japanese using ateji). If I were willing to have a three kanji surname (less common, but not a problem) I would have a great many choices open to me, but always with that awkward add-on “husband.”

So that is the long version of why I only carved my first name into my hanko. I am sorry to have made you muddle through it.

Basically I put no preparation into my hanko design. Sister #4 was visiting, and I let her do it all for me. She looked up the traditional script for路加 on the homepage of an inkan manufacturer, reversed it to加路 for a traditional right to left reading and then drew the final, compressed design by hand into the standard 21mm x 21mm square.

Finally, she even made an inverted copy on the back of the sheet of paper to represent the actual design to be carved into the stone seal, together with an encouraging note. For some reason I had it in my mind that the hanko class would introduce us to a magical method of painlessly transferring our designs onto the blank hanko stones. I was shocked to discover that I was expected to copy the design myself by freehand, and under the pressure of time (only fifty minutes in total) I completely botched the whole thing with a fine point felt marker. However, when I presented my prepped hanko stone to the instructor in the hopes that he would fix it up to look like the nice design that Sister #4 made for me, he said it was perfectly fine. I spent the next thirty minutes groaning and sighing as I made a worse and worse mess of my hanko with a little chisel that looked like a flathead screwdriver. An accidental gash here, a slip of the hand there, and I barely managed to finish the thing on time. The result has already been presented at the top of this post for the reader to judge.

Interestingly, when I took it to the front to “try it out” the instructor showed a great deal of interest in the origin and development of Sister #4’s design which I still had with me. He concluded by indicating her handiwork and saying: “if you took that design to a professional hanko maker and had it made, it would not be art. But this (indicating my sloppy imitation), this is more like art. Well, I suppose it frankly embodies the dissonance between my mind's eye and the work of my fingertips—which would, perhaps, make it a kind of representational art.

This is my inkan collection. I have made the image very small in order to discourage forgers, and I might add that I am very poor and exceptionally violent. Gradually growing more familiar with the conventions of inkan has made me an obsessive inkan collector. When I first returned to Japan a little over a year ago my contracting organization presented me with a grotesque inkan bearing only my first name, and using a transliteration that I did not grow up with and which I do not favour (ルーク). Now my (expensive) collection includes my:

Jitsuin (registered seal): bearing my full romanized signature spread over two lines
Ginkouin (banking seal): bearing only the surname portion of my signature
Mitomein (daily usage seal): bearing my first name and surname transliterated into katakana (this one was made for me when I was a young teenager, and although it uses ルカ, the transliteration of Luke that I favour and with which I grew up, the inkan maker took it upon himself to put my first name first in what he believed to be a properly “foreign” way, which I did not and do not appreciate)