15 August 2017

Wordcatcher Tales: Gomou, Togakushi, Kamoigi

We encountered a few interesting placename etymologies on our recent travels in Japan.

五毛 Gomou ‘Five Hairs’ < 胡麻生 Gomau ‘Sesame Growth’ - I spent my high school years in a dormitory atop Nagamine-dai (‘longridge-heights’) below towering Maya-san in Nada-ku (‘opensea-ward’), Kobe. The neighborhood at the base of our hillside was called Gomou, written as if it meant ‘Five Hairs’ (五毛). I never paid attention to how it got its odd name until I went back by there on this trip. According to its short Wikipedia article, the name Gomou originated as Gomau (胡麻生 ‘sesame-grow’) because the area was not suitable for paddy fields, so the farmers grew sesame instead. (The city in Gunma Prefecture called Kiryu—桐生 < kiri-u ‘Paulownia-grow’—must have got its name for similar reasons.) Over time, the pronunciation of Gomau changed to Gomou, the sesame fields disappeared under dense urban growth, and someone devised entirely new kanji, with no etymological continuity at all, to match its new pronunciation.

戸隠 Togakushi ‘door-hiding’ - In northern Nagano Prefecture, we explored the lovely mountain forests of Togakushi, site of an extensive old Shinto Shrine complex that also served as training grounds for ninja. Togakushi used to be called Togakure, using the shape of the verb kakureru ‘hide’ that appears in the name of the game kakurembo ‘hide-and-seek’. One of the many schools of ninja tradition is called Togakure-ryu. We looked for ninjas, but of course they remained well hidden. (Bears, however, had left many signs of their presence, including claw marks on tree trunks and chewed up patches of their favorite 水芭蕉 mizubashou ‘skunk cabbage’.)

神居木 Kamoigi ‘god-dwell-tree’ - While walking a woodsy stretch of the old Nakasendō (中山道 ‘Central Mountain Route’) between Magomejuku in Gifu-ken and Tsumagojuku in Nagano-ken, we came across signage about some old, famous sawara cypress trees, one of which had acquired the name 神居木 Kamoigi ‘god-dwell-tree’ because a god supposedly rested in it long ago. I wonder where the -o- came from. The morpheme written 木 ‘tree’ is pronounced -ki in Tochinoki ‘horsechestnut-POSS-tree’ but -gi in the prefecture name Tochigi ‘horsechestnut-tree’. In native Japanese placenames, the kanji 神 ‘god’ is most often pronounced either kami- as in Kamiyama 神山 ‘god-mountain’ or kan- as in Kanda 神田 ‘god-paddy’, but it is also pronounced kō- in Kōbe 神戸 ‘god-door’. The kanji 上 ‘upper’, which appears in many placenames old and new, shows similar variation, ranging from 上山 Kamiyama ‘upper-mountain’ to the ancient province names 上総 Kazusa (now Chiba Prefecture) and 上野 Kōzuke (originally 上毛野, now Gunma Prefecture). In such cases, the long -ō- replaces the earlier -am- or -an-; it does not follow after kam- or kan-. So I suspect the -o- somehow comes from the 居 i(ru) ‘reside, dwell’ (as in 居酒屋 izakaya lit. ‘dwell-sake-shop’), which is pronounced o(ru) in several regional dialects of central and southwestern Honshu. In fact, I wonder if the earlier name for the tree might have been pronounced Kami-o(ru)-gi ‘god-dwell-tree’.

13 August 2017

Hue 1968: Round 2, March 1975

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 8377-8420:
The city of Hue fell again and for good in March 1975, and Saigon followed a month later, as US helicopters scrambled to evacuate remaining American personnel and as many South Vietnamese officials as they could carry. The final images of desperate civilians clinging to the skids of American choppers as they lifted off framed the futility of the decade-long effort.

Nevertheless, in the nearly half century since, some American military historians and many American veterans have insisted that the Battle of Hue was won, and that, indeed, the entire Tet Offensive was an unqualified American victory. Westy certainly felt that way. Eight years later, in his autobiography A Soldier Reports, he was still insisting that he had not been surprised by the Tet attacks—he said he had forecast the attacks on the city but that word apparently did not reach the MACV compound in Hue. He conceded at long last that on the morning of January 31, 1968, “the MACV advisory compound was under siege and most of Hue was in enemy hands, including much of the Citadel.” Yet the battle to win back the city warranted only two pages in his 566-page book. He portrayed it in perfunctory terms, complimenting the American and South Vietnamese commanders on their excellent leadership, exaggerating enemy deaths, and underreporting the number of Americans killed by nearly a third. He lamented the destruction of the historic city, and effectively lay blame for all civilian losses on Hanoi, citing only those killed in the purges. He makes no mention of civilians killed by American and South Vietnamese bombing and shelling. If your knowledge of the Battle of Hue came from Westy alone—from his public statements at the time and from his memoir—you would view it as a thumping American victory.

You have to give the general credit for consistency. On the day after the Saigon flag was run back up the pole at Ngo Mon, he gave a long interview to reporters in Saigon, in which he again declared that the Tet Offensive had been a “military defeat” for Hanoi. He was still anticipating the big attack at Khe Sanh and did not even mention Hue. Even the fact that the enemy had surprised him (slightly) by the number of forces they deployed, to him this was not a setback but an opportunity: “In a very real sense, when he [the enemy] moved out of his jungle camps he made himself more vulnerable and gave us an opportunity to hurt him severely.” He denied that his official casualty estimates were inflated and said that the enemy’s offensive was a sign of desperation. Westy added that many NVA and VC had fought “halfheartedly.”

This was certainly not the experience of those who fought them in Hue. To a man, the American veterans I interviewed told me they had faced a disciplined, highly motivated, skilled, and determined enemy. To characterize them otherwise is to diminish the accomplishment of those who drove them out of Hue. But taking the city back qualifies as a “victory” only in a narrow sense—they achieved their objective. In any larger sense the word hardly applies. Both sides badly miscalculated. Hanoi counted on a popular uprising that didn’t come, while Washington and Saigon, blindsided, refused to believe the truth. Both sides played their roles courageously, and to terrible effect. In sum: Hanoi’s troops seized the city and were then forced at tremendous cost to relinquish it, while the city itself was leveled in the process. The status quo was upheld but greatly diminished, and it lasted for only a few more years. How is this victory? It takes a determined act of imagination for either side to make that claim. It makes more sense to consider the ways both sides lost.

If we use Westy’s favorite measure, the body count, the battle’s clearest losers were the citizens of Hue. In the city today, where memories of that nightmarish month are still bitter, it is said that there is a victim under every square meter of ground. It remains a shameful fact in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its citizens were dispatched deliberately by their “liberators.” The ruling Communist Party labors to promote national unity by remembering the conflict not as a civil war but strictly as a struggle for independence, so reprisals against its own countrymen are an inconvenient memory. The party has never named or punished those responsible, not least because they were following clear orders from above. Many of those who carried out the purges have been celebrated as heroes of the state. The official position is that while there were some excesses, some “mistakes,” the numbers have been exaggerated by Vietnam’s enemies.

Of those who perished, by far the greatest number were killed by accident, either in the cross fire or by allied shelling and bombing. Accidental deaths do not equate morally to mass execution but, as the writer Tran Thi Thu Van has pointed out, the effect is the same. Today we rightly weigh the cost in civilian lives whenever violent action is taken, but I found very little concern expressed in 1968, not in any of the official papers I reviewed, not in contemporary press accounts or the dozens of books and papers written since, and not, for that matter, in any of the interviews I conducted. Vietnamese civilians, when they do come up, are described as a nuisance, even though the battle, like the war, was ostensibly about them. Nearly every marine I interviewed recalled seeing dead civilians in the streets, inside buildings, and in bunkers underneath those buildings. The Citadel, in particular, was a confined area, where escape was all but impossible. Nearly all the civilians I interviewed who survived the battle described losing family members, most often to shells and bombs. The survivors described, without hesitation, bombardment as the most terrifying memory, even those who’d had family members executed. If Hanoi did not win many new friends by taking Hue, neither did the allies in taking it back.

Hue 1968: Winning and Losing

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 8484-8494:
Still, there is no question that the Vietnamese people lost something precious when Hanoi won the war. One young woman from Ho Chi Minh City, born decades after the war ended, told me that her generation looks at Seoul and at Tokyo and asks, “Is this what we would have been if we hadn’t chased the Americans away?” And while the Communist Party has relaxed its hold on the economy, to great effect, Vietnam remains a strictly authoritarian state, where speaking your mind, or even recounting truthful stories from your own experience, can get you in trouble. Researching the Battle of Hue was tricky. In telling the story I was revisiting a heroic chapter in the national struggle, but I was also reopening old wounds. The purges in 1968 left many citizens with profound grievances against the state that they remain frightened to voice. Many were reluctant to speak candidly to me, particularly those with sad stories.

On my first visit I worked with an independent translator and guide, Dang Hoa Ho, a former Vietnamese military officer (he is too young to have fought in the American War and served in Vietnam’s modern army), who was skilled at putting people at ease and who fully understood my desire for uncensored memories. On my second trip, against my expressed wishes, Hoa was nudged aside by Dinh Hoang Linh, deputy director of Hanoi’s Foreign Press Center, part of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Linh proved to be unfailingly helpful and charming, and a skilled translator, but his presence had a chilling effect.

12 August 2017

Hue 1968: Viet Cong Girls in the Fight

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6259-6275:
Che spoke no English, but she had been warned that when she heard the Americans shout “VeeCee,” it meant they needed to move fast, they had been spotted. She exchanged fire with the marines but never took careful aim. There were too many of them coming. When she used the rifle, she would just spray fire in the general direction of the enemy. After one skirmish she recovered a newer, more lightweight American rifle, an AR-15, which she preferred. Teams of the young people brought her ammo for it, looted from ARVN depots.

Whenever Lien fired her B-40 they would immediately run to a different trench, because it gave away their location and drew a hail of return fire. It took seven seconds for the launched grenade to explode. For some kinds of grenades it was only three seconds. For days they shot and ran, shot and ran. They moved so fast they rarely had a chance to see if they hit anything.

At the nearby Cong Market, her friend Hoang Thi No was engaged in a similar running street fight. She found the marines easy targets, because they were big and because they did not move confidently in the streets the way she and her team members could. She was very familiar with the blocks where she fought, so she knew which way to run when the shooting came close. To her, the Americans with all their heavy equipment were like men who had fallen from the sky to a strange planet. She picked them off individually, and when she found them in a group, she and her comrades threw grenades. The carnage she saw around her did not so much frighten as enrage her. Hoang resolved to fight to the death. She expected she would be wounded or killed because so many others had been. She didn’t think about it. She just fought. She was seventeen and excited and filled with pride and she did not tire easily. At night she and the others in her squad took turns sleeping for an hour or two. Four of those in her group were killed before they were finally ordered to withdraw to the forest and regroup.

Hoang’s team lasted longer than Che’s, which was in the path of Lieutenant Smith’s company. It held its own until the air and artillery bombardments started, which were unlike anything the girls had ever experienced.

Hue 1968: Sensations of Battle

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6136-6148:
Men learned firsthand how to gauge the severity and type of wounds. Shrapnel burned. It was hot metal. If you were hit by shrapnel it felt like someone touching you with fire. With a bullet the first thing you felt, after the shocking impact but before the pain, was wetness. Shrapnel cauterized the wound instantly, but bullets made you bleed. You tried not to think too hard about it. Thinking about it was tempting fate. And fear? Fear was just the air you breathed.

Most kept going. The sun would rise and they would form up and wait to be told to run across another street, climb through another wall, barge through another door, knowing each time it might be their turn to pay the price. Art Marcotte, a private from Boston, would feel sick to his stomach with fear when he was ordered to step out into a street or run across a courtyard under fire. But he went.

Hygiene was a memory. Since many had been plucked from the field and sent directly to Hue, they had not washed in weeks. At night they shared a toothbrush. All of the men gave off a pungent odor. One of Connelly’s jobs as corpsman was to find a safe spot to dig a latrine, a trench. He would find a chair and knock the seat out of it to serve as a commode. One day in his second week Fox Company passed through a wastewater treatment facility near the canal. It had large circular vats made of concrete divided into reeking pie-shaped segments where human waste settled out before the water was drained off for the next step in its purification. A rocket blast knocked three marines into one of them, and because they were loaded with gear, there was a danger they might drown. Connelly and another corpsman had to plunge in to pull them out. They hadn’t thought it possible for men to smell worse, but after that, they did.

11 August 2017

Hue 1968: The People, Trapped

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4739-4764:
NHAN DAN, THE people, had nowhere to go. Far from being liberated by the invading Communist army, they had been trapped by the Tet Offensive in a nightmare of bloodletting. For some it began on the first day, but as the battle entered its second week, it encompassed all.

At first there were enough eager converts to swell the sails of the true believers. The young commissars proclaimed the war all but won. Citizens were rising up not just in Hue, they said, but throughout South Vietnam. Independence and reunification were at hand! For Xuan, the poet propagandist, these first days were like a dream. Small red flags came out and flew from dwellings up and down the crowded streets. Even some of his old friends who had shown no enthusiasm for the revolution were now active recruits. At his political headquarters in the post office inside the Citadel, there were three lines of people waiting to sign confessions about their past sins and to enlist in the righteous cause. Some told him they had been inspired by his rhetoric, that he had spoken to their hearts.

Nguyen Van Quang, the local organizer who had smuggled arms into the city and then led troops through Chanh Tay Gate, moved in with a local family. They prepared celebratory feasts with food they had collected for the holidays and shared freely.

It felt right that the revolution in the city’s streets was being led by Hue’s own youth. After all, in China the zealous young Red Guards were upending their own society with Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.” All over the world in 1968, like some global fever, young people were challenging authority and demanding change. While in the United States and Europe “revolution” was an excuse to sell pop music, stage protests, and hold festivals, it was being played for keeps in Asia. Young people were not just challenging their elders but pushing them aside, expelling, imprisoning, and in many cases executing them, all the while extolling the young as the righteous vanguard, their very youth a badge of purity. They were, by definition, forward-thinking. And in Hue they were armed.

In stories and songs and lectures the commissars celebrated the people as the wellspring of all power and virtue, but there was, nevertheless, need for instruction and guidance. Some things would have to change. Decadent Western influences were everywhere, and not just in politics. The modish hairstyles and short skirts favored by the more fashionable girls, for instance . . . these were unseemly and un-Vietnamese, as were wealth and corrupting ideas. With an army behind them, the commissars were hastily remaking Hue in their own image.

The first priority was the city’s defense, and for this everyone able was put to work. Then there was the business of correcting errant thinking. For this there were public lectures on the seven tasks of all party members and on the slogans of Uncle Ho, which were to be memorized and shouted in unison. The Front had issued stern prohibitions on looting, but the commissars and their local militias had a different understanding. They saw strong revolutionary logic in confiscating whatever was needed—food, shelter, supplies . . . or those things that caught their eye. They took cars, scooters, and bicycles. Boys and girls in Hue were amused by the young rebels trying to ride them. There was prudent acceptance of this plunder.

Hue 1968: Vietnamese Strategy

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4314-4330:
[Viet Cong Lt. Hoang] called his strategy for resisting the coming counterattack bam vao that-lung dich (“hold on to the enemy’s belt”). It was how he hoped to overcome the Americans’ overwhelming firepower. The marines would typically hammer an enemy line with bombs and shells before advancing. By “clinging to their belt,” Hoang meant keeping his men so close to marine lines that it would be too risky for them to shell—he did not believe reports that Americans would not use heavy weapons in the city. His battalion was arrayed in two flexible and irregular defensive lines, one directly across the street from the marines and another two blocks back. During an attack the front line could bend in one place and hold in another. It would hold off an assault for as long as possible, and then fall back to the second line. If the attacking marines failed to occupy and hold the block they had just taken, as had mostly been the case so far, Hoang’s men would move back up at night, always staying directly across the street. If things worked out as he planned, this would force the marines to advance with small arms alone, evening the fight. In that kind of fight, Hoang believed his men had the advantage. Most were veterans with far more experience than the marines, and so long as their lines of supply stayed open they could resist for days, maybe even weeks, bleeding the marines for every square foot.

By necessity, military commanders are realists, and to Hoang it was already apparent that the “general uprising” part of the Tet plan was not happening. While some had rallied to the cause, and others seemed willing to follow orders to help dig and carry and cook (keeping their true feelings to themselves), there had been no swell of popular support. The citizens of Hue had either fled or dug in. What he saw were people in shock over the violent disruption of their lives. Refugees ran to the countryside, if they could get there, or huddled in places they hoped would be safe: in churches, behind his defensive lines, or behind the American ones at the compound and now the university. They were not rallying to one side or the other; they were trying to stay alive. They hung close to the front lines for the same reason that he stayed close to the marines, to escape bombardment. So Hoang had no illusions about keeping Hue permanently. But he was going to make the Americans pay to take it back.

05 August 2017

Wordcatcher Tales: AmePote, Shutsubotsu, 'Pork Wombs'

During this year’s summer visit to Japan, the Outliers once again encountered a few remarkable new words of interest.

AmePote

アメポテ Amepote ‘American potato’ - On the shelf of a conbini (convenience store) we encountered a new acronym created from the initial two syllables of a longer pair of words. The katakana label on a package of “American Potato Chips” reads Amepote ueebukatto (‘Amer. Pota. wave-cut’), comparable to Amefuto for ‘American football’. This is a very common pattern of abbreviation in Japanese, one we also encountered in a Japanese TV biography about Amekei (雨敬 < Amemiya Keijiro 雨宮敬二郎), a Meiji-era businessman who first persuaded the Japanese government to build the Chūō (中央 Central) railway line into his native Yamanashi Province to enable farmers to get their produce out to the coastal markets.

Kuma Shuppotsu Chuui

出没 shutsubotsu ‘haunt, infest, frequent’ - We were not surprised to find signs warning of bears while hiking in the forests of rural Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, but I was quite surprised to see this sign right next to the Japan Baptist Hospital in Kyoto, warning of bears in the very mountains I used to climb during my childhood there (at the foot of Mt. Hiei). The sign reads 危険 熊出没注意 Kiken: Kuma shutsubotsu chuui ‘Danger: Bear infestation alert’. Such signs are very common along Japanese mountain trails these days. When we hiked a very well-traveled section of the old Nakasendō (中山道 ‘Central Mountain Route’) we saw many such bear warnings near small brass bells that travelers were encouraged to ring to scare the bears away.

Pork wombs

蒜泥生肠 “Pork wombs marinated with hot soysauce”! - In a Chubu Airport (Nagoya) restaurant specializing in Taiwanese food, we encountered a menu item that even this experimental gastronome shied away from. It appears to be a dish unique to Singapore and Taiwan. The Chinese menu item is 蒜泥生肠 suànní shēngcháng ‘garlic-mash birth-intestine (= birth canal/fallopian tube)’. (The kanji 蒜 or 大蒜 can be used to write ninniku ‘garlic’ in Japanese.) I couldn’t find shēngcháng 生肠 in my DeFrancis (1996) ABC Chinese-English Dictionary, and whoever translated it into Japanese and Korean seems not to have known the anatomical term for ‘uterus’ (neither did I), which is 子宮 ‘child-shrine = womb’ (Ch. zǐgōng, Ko. jagung, Jp. shikyuu). So the Japanese menu label for the dish is 子袋 ko fukuro ‘child bag’ and the Korean menu label is ai kabang ‘child bag’. I don’t know how the English translator came up with “marinated in hot soysauce” except by looking at the photo.