During my first years in Japan, my dictionaries were my constant companions. I had a few of them. There was the Nelson, for reading kanji. I used it so much that I had many of the bushu numbers memorized. To this day I can tell you that 140 is kusakanmuri.
Then there was the Green Goddess which is what we called the huge and heavy dark green Kenkyusha dictionary.
But it was that small J-E dictionary that I lived with, traveled with, and depended on daily. In my first couple of years in Japan I used it so much that it got very worn out and the cover was torn. It warped and started to unravel. It didn’t matter because the pages were so very thin that using the dictionary and wearing it out made it easier to use as the pages lost their pristine stickiness.
My sensei friend eyed my dictionary each time I pulled it out. One day he asked if he could have it. I had some mixed feelings about that. He was a professor of English. He wanted my dictionary to goad his students into studying more. Japanese college students were notorious for using college as four years of play after passing rigorous exams to enter college and after having learned as much in high school that an American would learn in the first couple of years in college. I knew he’d hold my dictionary up in class and tell his students that they should study until their dictionary looked as worn as mine. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of guilt-tripping a bunch of college students.
I was attached to my dictionary. But I also liked the guy. So, I told him that he could have my dictionary if he’d buy me a replacement. So off we went to a honya-san.
I missed the old one, but adjusted to my new blue one, though the pages didn’t turn as quickly. I still have that blue dictionary. Even forty years later it isn’t as worn as my first dictionary because by that time I didn’t need a dictionary as much as before. But, I still smile when I pick up my blue dictionary. Physical things are always so much more precious when there’s a nice omoide attached!
- kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters, also used by the Japanese and Korean peoples.
- bushu – 部首 radical. Not that kind of radical, though. It indicates a part of the kanji that you use to find it in a dictionary.
- kusakanmuri – 草冠 the radical for “grass.” Almost any flower is going to have it used.
- Kenkyūsha – 研究社 a publishing house in Japan. They publish the huge J-E and E-J dictionaries that translators favor.
- sensei – 先生 teacher
- honya san – 本屋さん bookstore
- omoide – 思い出 memory or memories. A word that is used very often in Japan as omoide are considered very precious.