May 07, 2005

Chiune Sugihara

Thursday night the documentary Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness was shown on television here. It is the story of Chiune Sugihara נ"ע, who as Japanese consul in Kovno (Lithuanian Kaunas) Lithuania in 1940 defied the orders of his government and issued 2,139 visas, thereby saving thousands of lives. Among those he saved were the students and teachers of the famous Mir Yeshiva. The Japanese government needed his skills (among other things, he spoke both German and Russian) and so kept him on during the war, but after the war he was forced out by the Foreign Ministry, and for most of the remainder of his life lived in poverty and disgrace. Recognition in Japan, where a monument in his honor was eventually erected in his home town of Yaotsu, came only after his death in 1986, but in 1984 he was awarded the designation of חסידי אומות העולם [xasidei umot ha-olam] Righteous Among the Nations and his name was inscribed on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

The central aspect of the story of this great hero is not linguistic, but there is a a little linguistic point that warrants elucidation. Sugihara is known by two names: Chiune Sugihara and Sempo Sugiwara. This is frequently mentioned in accounts of his life, but few seem to understand the relationship between his two names. For example, this article on the web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says:

Sugihara is sometimes also referred to as "Chiune," an earlier rendition of the Japanese character for "Sempo," part of his formal name.

This wrongly suggests that his true given name was sempo and that chiune is an erroneous pronounciation based on an older reading of the characters. (It is also incorrect in its use of the singular character. Sugihara's given name is written with two Chinese characters.)

The real story is quite different. Sugihara actually used two names. His original name was Sugihara Chiune (since in Japanese the family name precedes the given name). He used the name Sempo Sugiwara when he worked as the representative of a Japanese company in Moscow from 1960 to 1975. He is said to have used a pseudonym to prevent the Soviet government from recognizing him as the Japanese diplomat who in 1932 had outsmarted them and obtained a very good deal for Japan when it purchased the Northern Manchurian Railroad. The Soviets were so angry at what they considered his fast dealing that when the Japanese government later attempted to post him to the Soviet Union, they refused to accept him. If not for this he would not have been in Lithuania in 1940.

Sugihara's pseudonym was not arbitrarily chosen. His name is written like this: 杉原千畝. 杉原 [sugihara] Japanese cedar + field is his family name; 千畝 [chiune] one thousand + furrows is his given name.

Once upon a time, in Proto-Japanese-Ryukyuan, field, plain was pronounced [para]. It isn't entirely clear whether the [p] was still pronounced [p] in Old Japanese, but eventually non-geminate [p] in Japanese became [ɸ] (like English [f], but bilabial rather than labiodental). [ɸ] in turn developed in different ways in different positions. Word-initially it became [h] except before the vowel /u/, where it remained [ɸ]. Intervocalically it became [w], where it was then lost before all vowels other than [a].

In compounds like Sugihara there is, and has been, variation as to what counts as intervocalic position. If the components are treated as separate words, the /h/ is retained, while if they are treated as more tightly bound, it is intervocalic and becomes /w/. The family name that Sugihara used in the Soviet Union is thus a slight variant of his real family name arising from the different effects of different treatments of the compound.

Sugihara's real given name chiune and the pseudonym he used in the Soviet Union, sempo, are also versions of the same name, but the relationship between them is different. When Chinese characters are used to write Japanese, they sometimes represent native Japanese words and sometimes represent Chinese morphemes borrowed into Japanese. For example, the character 水 water may, depending on context, be pronounced /mizu/, the native Japanese word, or /sui/, the loan from Chinese. Most Chinese characters used in Japanese have both types of readings. In a fair number of cases there is more than one reading in a class. The character 生 has the Sino-Japanese readings /sei/ and /syo:/, and at least seven native Japanese readings, covering a range of meanings from give birth and live to fresh, raw.

What Sugihara did in creating his pseudonym was to use alternate readings of the Chinese characters used to write his real given name. The first character, 千 one thousand, has the native Japanese reading /chi/. Its Sino-Japanese reading is /sen/. The second character, 畝 furrow, has the native Japanese reading /une/. Its Sino-Japanese readings are /ho/ and /bo:/. When /sen/ and /ho/ come together, /ho/ becomes /po/ by a phonological rule of Japanese. The final /n/ of /sen/ then assimilates in point of articulation to the /p/, yielding /m/. Sugihara's Soviet given name was thus obtained by using the Sino-Japanese readings of the characters used to write his real given name, in which the characters have their native readings.

In sum, Sugihara's alternate name is not a mistaken reading by others. It is a pseudonym that he actually used, which he created by using alternative pronounciations of his names.

Posted by Bill Poser at May 7, 2005 04:32 PM