On November 8th 2011, the junior high school conducted a special “Dental Heath Day”. This seemed to me like a rather arbitrary time to emphasize dental health, as important as it is. But Vice Principle Tanaka explained to me that the day hadn’t been selected completely at random. This particular date was chosen using goroawase (語呂合わせ).
Goroawase (語呂合わせ) is a form of Japanese word play in which the pronunciations of numbers are used to make homophonic words of various convenient meanings. It is essentially a vast world of number puns, and it’s very commonly used. The most prevalent use of goroawase is as a mnemonic device for handy memorization of phone numbers. Pretty much all advertisements that include a phone number utilize this type of pun-ishment.
What makes goroawase convenient is its flexibility, and this comes from the multiple pronunciations for numbers found in Japanese. Japanese contains two ways of pronouncing any particular kanji, called kun’yomi (訓読み – native Japanese reading) and on’yomi (音読み – reading borrowed from Chinese). This is the reason why learning kanji is so frustratingly difficult, but it also makes the creation of puns easier. In addition to the dual pronunciation thing, the Japanese language has also added tons of words from English in recent history, so Engurish terms can be used as well. (I say “Engurish terms” because while these are the numbers you’re familiar with, they’re usually spoken in a Japanese accent, which changes the pronunciation a bit.)
To make it easy, I’ve prepared a reading chart for you, complete with both kana and romanji:
|No.||Kun’yomi Reading||On’yomi Reading||From English|
|0||maru, ma →まる, ま||rei, re →れい,れ||o, zero, ze→オ,ゼロ,ゼ|
|1||hitotsu, hito, hi →ひとつ,ひと,ひ||ichi, i →いち,い||wan→ワン|
|2||futatsu, fu, futa →ふたつ,ふ,ふた||ni →に||tsū, tū→ツー,トゥー|
|3||mitsu, mi →みつ,み||san, sa →さん,さ||surī→スリー|
|4||yon, yo, yotsu →よん,よ,よつ||shi →し||fō→フォー|
|5||itsutsu, itsu →いすつ,いつ||go, ko →ご,こ||faibu, faivu→ファイブ|
|6||mutsu, mu →むつ,む||roku, ro →ろく,ろ||shikkusu→シックス|
|7||nana, nanatsu, na →なな,なつ,な||shichi →しち||sebun, sevun→セブン|
|8||yatsu, ya →やつ,や||hachi, ha, ba →はち,は,ば||eito→エイト|
|9||kokonotsu, ko →ここのつ,こ||kyu, ku →きゅう,く||
|10||tō →とお||ju, ji →じゅう,じ||ten→テン|
The most noticeable use of goroawase has to be “3-9”. When said as “three nine”, as opposed to “thirty-nine”, these numbers are pronounced “san kyu”. To the ear of a Japanese speaker, this sounds exactly like “thank you”.
So back to the November Dental Health Day, it breaks down like this:
November 8th → 11/8 → 1, 1, 8 → い, い, は→ いい歯→ “good teeth”, hence Dental Health Day
And there’s also this one:
June 4th → 6-4 → むし→ 虫→ “bug” or (in the context of teeth) “cavity”, another Dental Health Day
One for use at the grocery store:
The 29th of the month → 2, 9 → にく→ 肉→ “Meat Day”, meat is cheaper at the store
And another school day of note:
July 10th → 7, 10 → な とお→ 納豆→ “Natto Day”, or in my opinion, “Disappointing Lunch Day”
It’s helpful to familiarize yourself with goroawase, as it’s everywhere in Japan. Then the next time an advertisement cleverly uses this convention in their phone number, you can finally be in on the joke.