Obama … Japan!

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

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You may have heard that there’s a Japanese town called Obama. Well, it’s true! The town is in central Japan, on the island of Honshu, in Fukui Prefecture. To understand the origin of the name Obama, you need to know more about the two characters that form that word:

小浜 (Obama)     small + beach

As it turns out, Obama is “small beach,” making it one of those wonderful Japanese place names that derive entirely from nature. (We have a bunch of those in English, too, but somehow Pleasant Hill and Pine Valley seem horribly suburban and bland by comparison.)

With 小浜, you pronounce the first kanji simply as o. Normally, the second isn’t bama but rather hama. However, because of voicing, its pronunciation changes to bama when you place these two kanji together. The same hama appears in Yokohama (with its h sound intact):

横浜 (Yokohama)     side + beach

Are There Other Place Names in Japan? …

When it comes to (yoko), the first kanji in 横浜, I know what you’re thinking. Is this Yoko Ono’s Yoko? Nope!

Yoko Ono’s Yoko

We see pop up in a few other words:

浜風 (hamakaze: beach breeze)     beach + wind

This word sounds a little like kamikaze, and in fact they have in common:

神風 (kamikaze)     divine + wind

浜面 (hamazura: beach, seashore)     beach + surface

This is a rare word, but I like it, because hamazura makes me think of an azure hamlet.

The “Zura” Yomi

The kanji also shows up in these words:

浜焼き (hamayaki: (sea bream) broiled whole (at the beach))
     beach + to broil

The yaki at the end of hamayaki is the same yaki you know from teriyaki (照り焼き: to shine + to broil). The word 浜焼き has one of those wonderfully specific definitions that permeate Japanese! I suppose sea bream broiled whole at the beach is kind of like bhaji on the beach, only … not quite! Remember to keep that fish whole, or we’ll need to find a different compound.

浜辺 (hamabe: seashore)     beach + alongside a body of water

This word sounds like “Hama Bay,” so it’s appropriate that 浜辺 means “seashore”!

砂浜 (sunahama: sand beach)     sand + beach

This compound includes the very cool character (sand), which breaks down as stone () + a little (). A grain of sand is a little bit of stone!

OK, you’ve lingered long enough at the beach. Time for your Verbal Logic Quiz!

Verbal Logic Quiz …

One Response to “Obama … Japan!”

  1. avatar Eve Kushner Says:

    Hi, everyone.

    I was on the radio again today! I was happy to take part in NPR’s “Geoquiz,” which is short for “geography quiz.” The question, as NPR put it: “We’re looking for a presidential town.” Here’s where they asked that:


    And here’s where you’ll find the answer (which is where I come in, ever so briefly):


    The answer, btw, is Obama! No real surprise to you at this point, I’m sure!

    To hear the segment, you’ll need to click the button near the bottom.

    These same comments (but more of them) showed up two weeks ago in a podcast called “The World in Words”:


    They did an A-Z of the elections. The edition you’ll find at the above link covers N–Z. My segment happened at the letter O (O for Obama), 5 or 6 mins. into the podcast.

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