I enjoy digging into language. In particular, I like foreign words that are difficult to translate. There are some ideas we don’t have a word for in English and they give me an opportunity to see the world from another perspective.
Greetings are a good place to look as they often have a depth of meaning we skate over. Recently I looked into a greeting and response from Kansai, Japan:
Ogenki desu ka?
Are you well?
Hai. okagesama de.
Yes, thanks to you.
Hearing this gratitude reminds me of the many people I am thankful for in my life. What kindness! The response uses an interesting turn of phrase. A literal translation is ‘Yes, by your kage’. I was intrigued that thanks is not given for you, but your kage.
Skimming the surface
I recognised the word kage as shadow. I had been content with this translation for many years, but in hindsight I had missed some clues to its meaning along the way.
The first time I read the word was in the title of Akira Kurosawa’s film Kagemusha, usually translated as Shadow Warrior. The story featured a thief with an uncanny resemblance to a feudal lord. In secret he was taught to impersonate the warlord. As the kagemusha he became a warrior, but when he took the warlord’s place he was more than a shadow.
Later I became a fan of the popular anime Naruto. In a fantasy world of ninja, kage appears in the titles of the ninja leaders. Fire for the Hokage, wind for the Kazekage and so on. I remember wondering what the wind’s shadow might be, but let it go.
Ultimately, it wasn’t until I came across okagesama de that my understanding of kage unravelled. Reading it as ‘thanks to your shadow’ I knew something was lost in translation. It was time to dig.
An eloquent demonstration of the word’s breadth of meaning can be made with two cases. Ki no kage is the shade of a tree and tsuki kage is moonlight.
Kage can attend its source like a shadow and extend from it as a reflection. As shadow and reflection kage is both darkness and brightness. And each kage can have a life of its own. It can fade like a photograph and distort like an old memory. It can be a lie.
The moon’s reflection on a still pond is clear and bright. Reach in and the moon scatters from grasp, dancing across the ripples.
I am grateful to Charles Shirō Inouye for these examples. I highly recommend his translations of Izumi Kyōka’s work in Japanese Gothic Tales and In Light of Shadows to anyone with a taste for Japan, the gothic or ghost stories.
Lights in the dark
Sometimes I am baffled by the constant shifting and changing of this world; other times it seems to stand still. Nevertheless, there are people who resonate and stick in my mind. Perhaps it’s not the people themselves, but their kage?
Like an incidental kindness that lifted my spirits, a broad smile that dissolved a conflict, a knowing laugh with a friend, or a teacher’s words echoing in my ears much later. These moments shine in the dark, lighting the way.