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Beauty, Looking Back

Several years ago, a friend of mine expressed his admiration of the Japanese language: “They even have a word for a woman who looks beautiful from behind, but when she turns around is actually ugly.”

The word he was referring to was mikaeri-bijin (見返り美人). The phrase originally comes from the ukiyoe woodblock print “Beauty Looking Back” by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). If I am not mistaken, the phrase didn’t originally contain the connotation of being disappointed when being able to squarely look at a woman which is now often associated with the word.

Even after studying Japanese for over two decades, I continue to be fascinated by the language. Just this morning, when I was looking up “fall from grace”, I came upon a kanji I had never seen before: 寵 (chō).

“Fall from grace” in Japanese, by the way, is kami no onchō-o ushinau (神の恩寵を失う). Bet you won’t be using that phrase anytime soon.

The on (恩) in onchō (恩寵) is a fairly common kanji meaning “obligation, indebtedness, a debt of gratitude”. An “ungrateful” person is someone who literally “doesn’t know the debt of gratitude”: on-o shirazu (恩を知らず).

Chō (寵), on the other hand, doesn’t quite translate neatly into English. It can mean “being particularly loved or doted upon”, “blessed or favored” and so on.

Words containing (寵), include:

            寵愛 (chōai), the favor of (a king)

            寵姫 (chōki), the most loved woman of the monarch

                        This is a word I use daily, as is the next one.

            寵妾 (chōshō), the favorite concubine.

            寵児 (chōji), a darling or star (of the media or literary world)

                        Ah to be a bundan no chōji (分団の寵児)!

            寵臣 (chōshin), the favorite vassal or retainer of the lord


Funny thing about my friend, his initial interest in the Japanese language didn't developed beyond a handful of expressions, which begs the question: why is it that so many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful Westerners who have lived years, if not decades, in Japan still suck at the language?


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