Six Tanuki and Transparency

Last year I started playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons in Japanese as part of my daily practice routine. It was my first experience with the series so all the characters were new to me, though I did know ahead of time that, just like in Pokemon, Ace Attorney, and other many titles with a long history of western localization, all the characters would have completely different names between regions.

One of the first characters every player will meet is Tom Nook, or たぬきち (Tanukichi) as he’s known in Japan. In English, Tom is a racoon, but in Japan he’s a tanuki, and both of his names reflect this. I’d known about his English name for some time before starting to play, and I was actually a little let-down by how comparatively boring his Japanese name felt when I learned it.

Tom also has two apprentices, Timmy and Tommy (or まめきち and つぶきち; Mamekichi and Tsubukichi), whose names include the words “bean” and “grain”. At one point they were referred collectively as まめたち, which literally means “the group that includes Mame”, but which could be also taken as “the beans”. I thought this was adorable but didn’t dwell too much on it.

Months before any of this, I had already been exposed to this “kichi” name component from 長谷川善吉 (Hasegawa Zenkichi) in Persona 5: Scramble, but wouldn’t draw the connection until later.

About a year later, I happened to be reading 罠ガール, a manga about hunting and trapping in the remote countryside of Japan. In one chapter, a tanuki is breaking into one of the buildings at school and the protagonist is called in to help set up a trap. Once she manages to capture it, her friend decides to name it — and chooses タヌ吉. The spelling is different, but the pronunciation is exactly the same as Tom Nook’s. My first reaction was that the manga author actually did this on purpose, but seeing “kichi” written out with kanji (and thereby making the connection to P5S) gave me pause. Maybe this was just a straightforward way of turning the word “tanuki” into something that resembled an actual name?

My suspicion was confirmed just a week or two later, when the same exact thing happened in 怪物事変; a tanuki enters the scene and is immediately named たぬきち by one of the main characters. At this point I was pretty well convinced that calling a tanuki Tanukichi is similar to calling a dog Rover or Fido in English; essentially a widely-understandable shorthand that acts as a name while also signalling its nature as a dog.

Little did I know, this wasn’t the last connection I had missed originally. Just last night I started reading うちの師匠はしっぽがない, a manga about a tanuki girl who tries to become a 落語家. Her name is まめだ (Mameda) — there’s that “bean” word again! — and it’s not too far into the first chapter that she’s called a 豆狸 (mamedanuki — literally “bean tanuki”), which as it turns out is the term for a young tanuki. Mystery solved (and I didn’t even know there was a mystery to begin with!).

So what’s the deal with the word “transparency” in the title?

Transparency (in the context of language acquisition) is the property by which all information in a given piece of text is evident and understood; if something is fully transparent, there is no aspect of it which the reader does not know inside and out. However, language can still be comprehensible without being transparent; for example, the phrase “vociferous cries of protest and outrage” will likely be completely comprehensible by a native English speaker even if the word vociferous is unfamiliar.

Many Japanese learners have a fixation on total transparency of anything they read. By my diagnosis this is caused by one of two factors: first, a lack of confidence in their own ability to subconsciously process a large volume of input over time; or second, a conflation of the act of learning a language with the act of learning about a language. People in the first camp can find themselves overwhelmed by an apparently infinite amount of minutiae tangential to even the most fundamental primitives, whereas those in the second camp will often get bogged down learning arcane grammar rules and memorizing obscure linguistics terminology which are more relevant to writing dictionaries than understanding the language.

I’m personally a big fan of knowing as little as necessary in order to understand something. My overall philosophy towards things I don’t understand is “it’ll make sense eventually”, and so far that’s always been the case. Interestingly, that’s exactly what happened here — but I didn’t even know that I was missing information to begin with. This made me realize something I hadn’t really considered before:

The amount of non-transparent information in a given text is an unknown unknown.

It’s totally impossible to know how much unknown information is present in a given sentence. You can, of course, pick out some obvious ones — like an apparent new conjugation or an unfamiliar word — but the possibility of there also being unknown and invisible information is very real.

Before running into new information that led me to reevaluate “Tanukichi” and “mame”, I took them at face value. Here’s the thing though: once that new information suggested itself, it linked up immediately with my existing memories. I didn’t have to uproot my entire knowledge of Japanese in order to fit that new fact in.

I once saw someone on the Japanese learning discord server say “if I don’t understand it completely at the beginning, I’ll be building on a shaky foundation that will only get worse over time”. I don’t believe this is the case at all. Memory is plastic. When you encounter something that challenges your assumptions of how something is, those assumptions will morph and adjust to fit that new understanding.

So don’t be afraid of a little ambiguity. You’ll figure it out eventually.