The oracle now speaks in Korean, too
Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 24, 2008
LAST YEAR, more than half a million South Koreans passed through customs at Fukuoka City in Kyushu, either at the airport or the docks at the Port of Hakata. Their numbers have risen by 100,000 every year since 2005. As we’ve seen before, the city has gone out of its way to make itself more amenable to Korean tourists—even the recorded announcements on city route buses and the information on the signs at all the bus stops are now in Korean.
(Japanese bus stop signs contain quite a bit of information, by the way. This includes complete—and accurate—schedules. The Fukuoka City bus stops also have an electronic bulletin board providing passengers with up-to-the-minute notifications on the location of the next approaching bus and the time it will take to arrive. That’s a sharp contrast to the signs in my home town in the U.S. They simply read “Bus Stop”.)
With so many tourists of any nationality running around looking for something novel and exotic to do, the locals naturally start thinking of ways to encourage the visitors to spend as much of their money as they can while they’re in town. In that spirit, the city’s tourism promotion department huddled with the Kushida Shinto shrine in Hakata Ward and came up with the idea of offering Korean-language omikuji starting this month.
Omikuji are fortunes written on slips of paper and sold at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. As with so much of Japanese culture, the practice originally began in ancient China. The traditional method for discovering one’s fate was literally the luck of the draw: A person drew at random a stick from a container, which was then exchanged for the fortune. The divinations themselves were often written with expressions lifted from the Book of Changes (I Ching). The custom has now become commercialized; omikuji are usually dispensed at an outdoor vending machine on the shrine or temple grounds.
Long ago, the Japanese used the omikuji to make up their minds about marriage or business transactions. Nowadays, it seems to be the sort of thing one does as a child once just for the sake of doing it, and perhaps again as a teenager or young adult with a serious case of the Love Jones. There are 12 different categories for differentiating what the future holds in store, ranging from Dai-Kichi, or Great Blessing, to Dai-Kyo, or Dig a Hole, Climb In, and Hope It Blows Over Soon.
Leaving nothing to chance, the Japanese also created a custom to hedge the receipt of bad news. They tie the slip of paper bearing bad tidings to a nearby tree. There’s a good reason for that. Most religious institutions have pine trees out in the yard, and the word for pine in Japanese is matsu. The word also means “to wait”, so the idea is that the dark cloud will wait next to the tree before it starts to follow you around, and perhaps finally give up and go away. (I can’t even begin to describe to people unfamiliar with the country how quintessentially Japanese the concepts behind that custom are.)
The good news you get to put in your pocket and take home with you.
The city’s tourism officials and the shrine told the Nishinippon Shimbun they thought Korean-language omikuji would be a new tourism resource and an easy way for South Koreans to learn about Japan’s shrine and temple culture. The custom of omikuji may have begun in China, but it never managed to gain a toehold on the Korean Peninsula. The officials didn’t mention that it also might turn into a low-overhead revenue source, but everyone knew that anyway.
The Kushida shrine started selling English-language fortunes in early October and are also mulling Chinese language ones, which would square the circle. Said the shrine’s chief priest, Abe Kennosuke, “In ancient times, Hakata (the old name for Fukuoka) was the gateway to Asia. We hope to expand today’s interaction with Asia through these fortunes.” Isn’t that a splendid coat of idealistic lacquer to spread over a commercial practice? The omikuji will cost 30 yen (about 31 cents U.S.) apiece, regardless of the language, and that’s cheap enough for any traveler’s budget.
Several shrines in Kyushu offer English fortunes, such as the Suwa shrine in Nagasaki City, but Kushida might be the first to sell them in the Korean language. A quick search on the web reveals that Kyoto’s famous Buddhist temple, Kinkaku-ji, has been selling Korean-, Chinese-, and English-language fortunes for 100 yen since at least June. But the monks should be embarrassed by that sign on the vending machine in Kyoto. A “hard money pay down” sounds like a shady deal in the ‘hood, not an activity associated with a religious institution. It would have been easy to ask a native-speaking teaching assistant at a local high school for some help.
Fortunately, the folks in Fukuoka used some foresight. They had native Korean speakers at Fukuoka City’s international relations department check all the translations in advance for accuracy. For example, Dai-Kichi gets translated as Risshun Dai-Kichi, or “The first day of spring great blessing.”
Sounds good to me. The only thing better than a stroke of good luck would be a stroke of good luck on a warm and sunny day!
Afterwords: The Kushida Shinto shrine is the most famous in Fukuoka City. It conducts the Hakata Gion Yamagasa Festival every August. If you’ve never seen a photo of how the festival starts, by all means take the opportunity now.
That “Hangul” on the Korean-language fortune dispenser in Kyoto is also a mistake, because the word refers to the alphabet rather than the language itself. Why the monks felt the need to put it on the sign in the Roman alphabet when the correct word is there in Korean is one of those inscrutable mysteries. The Koreans won’t be reading the sign in English.
Hangul is the word the Japanese use for the Korean language, however, but they have a reason. They call South Korea “Kankoku” (韓国) and North Korea “Kita Chosen (Joseon)” (北朝鮮). Picking a word for the language that seems to favor one of those, such as “kankoku-go” or “chosen-go“, will irritate those people in Japan of Korean ancestry allied with the other country. It’s a compromise.