Japan's Must-Read Magazine

a pissed-off string snapped! (punk-rock Japanese lessons)

I often find myself learning Japanese by analyzing punk-rock lyrics.  For example:


The above is a 49-second song on Afrirampo’s audaciously-titled "Urusa in Japan" album.  "Urusa" means "noise," and it’s an obvious play on the title of the Sex Pistols classic "Anarchy in the UK."  They can get away with the reference to such an immortal song because "Urusa in Japan" is a stone-cold punk classic if there ever was one. 

Actually, the song title is written in a combination of romaji and broken English as "Haritateno Gen Did Cut!"  The song itself, though, is all in Japanese, unless you count  the "wan tsu suri foa" intro.  In fact, the phrase above comprises almost all of the lyrics of the song, save for some unintelligible frenzied screaming in Japanese in the middle section. 

 Despite its simplicity, it took me a while to figure out exactly what the song means.  The song’s main line features two idioms and a few interesting examples of Japanese grammar–a surprisingly content-filled little sentence.  The first time I heard the song, I used to figure that it meant something like "I got pissed off and broke my string!" or maybe "I got pissed off and my string broke." Not quite!

First, hara tate comes from the idiom hara tatsu, literally "stomach stands up."   I guess that hara (the same hara as in harakiri) also has a secondary meaning of "heart" or "mind" though, so I’m not sure which nuance the word has in this phrase.  Anyway, together, hara tatsu means "to get angry."   The closest thing I can think of in English is "to turn one’s stomach," although that means more like "to be disgusted" than "to be angry."  Speaking of which, if your Japanese girlfriend says "hara tatsu wa!" then get ready to run!

So, we have hara tate no gen as the first part of the sentence.  Gen means "string," as in "guitar string," and no is fulfilling its usual grammatic role of connecting two nouns:  in this case, the noun phrase hara tate with gen.  So, very literally and clumsily, it means something like "the stomach standing-up string," or maybe "the string with its stomach standing up."But, taking the idiomatic meaning of hara tatsu, we can translate it as something like "a string that has gotten angry" = "an angry string" = (perhaps more fitting the tone of the song) "a pissed-off string."

The ga following this phrase identifies the phase as the subject of the sentence, so that’s where my original mental translation started to go wrong–it isn’t the (usually unstated) "I" who is the subject of the sentence, but rather "a pissed-off string." 

(By the way, I’m translating here with "a/an" rather than "the" because ga tends to introduce previously unknown or unmentioned subjects, in contract to wa, which introduces things that the speaker or listener both already know about.  So, the contrast between the two particles can be similar to the contrast between the English "a/an" and "the."  Apparently, Afrirampo figure that their audience was not previously familiar with this particular pissed-off string!)

Anyway, the fact that the verb kireta (from kireru) is intransitive gives us more evidence that hara tate no gen is the subject of the sentence–kireru (to break off or snap) is different from its transitive form kiru (to cut).  Kiru is something that you do to something else (example:  hara o kiru-to cut one’s stomach) while kireru is something that happens by itself:  something snaps or breaks off spontaneously.   So, basically "I" didn’t break my string, my string broke by itself. 

So now, we have "a pissed-off string ga (subject of the sentence) broke" (or broke off, snapped, whatever).   So, far, so good.  But, there is one more layer of meaning here:  in modern Japanese, kireru has taken on the meaning "to snap, lose it and basically go ballistic."  This is actually fairly similar to the extra nuance that "to snap" has taken on in English:  when someone "snaps," he or she loses control and starts screaming or goes postal or something like that.  Similarily, Japanese, especially young Japanese, like to use kireru to describe someone who loses it and becomes violent or otherwise goes crazy.

So, with that in mind, we have "a string got pissed off and snapped!"  I guess that young guitar hero Oni ("demon") was abusing her guitar, and the string got pissed off, and responded by "snapping"; spontaneously losing it and going ballistic. 

If you’ve ever seen an Afrirampo gig, all of this will sound just about par for the course.