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In any society, a bridge is perhaps the most visible symbol of trust. And this kind of trust seldom comes into question. When most of us see a bridge, we assume it can handle the cars, trains, and gale-force winds bearing down on it.
Lately, though, people in my neck of the woods realize that they can’t take bridge safety for granted at all. In September, inspectors found a significant crack on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. (They wouldn’t have done an inspection except for a rare circumstance, so this discovery shook our confidence considerably.) Crews labored to fix the problem, only to have the repair job fail weeks later, sending 5,000 pounds of steel crashing down onto passing cars. Workers have now repaired the repair job, but they say it’s only a temporary solution and that we’ll need another repair in coming months.
On top of that, they’ve recently reconfigured the bridge, introducing a treacherous S-curve. I was nearly in an accident when the car ahead of me lost control there, careering from one side of the bridge to the other at a 90-degree angle to the rest of us. After that, a Safeway truck overturned at the S-curve, tying up traffic for hours. And just days ago, a truck carrying Asian pears plunged off the S-curve to an island below, killing the driver.
The traffic jams clear up eventually, but distrust lingers long after that. Many of us are left wondering whether we can believe the officials who deem our bridges safe. The bridge feels about as creaky as the old Japanese one in the photo.
Wisteria Bridge over the Fujikawa River, c. 1880.
Photo source: Okinawa Soba
During the latest repair job, I kept thinking, “Which brave soul will be the first to cross the new-and-improved bridge? I was therefore intrigued to find that the Japanese have a word for that … kind of:
渡り初め (watarizome: bridge-opening ceremony; first crossing of a bridge) to cross + performing an action for the first time
This isn’t ateji, because 初 can serve as the suffix -zo(me), meaning “performing an action for the first time.” Another example: 書き初め (kakizome: New Year’s writing, writing + performing an action for the first time).
The word 渡り初め is celebratory in nature, not fearful and cynical, so it doesn’t really match the state of mind I’ve described. But the high degree of specificity charms me to no end! This term also features the kanji we began examining last week:
渡 (TO, wata(ru), wata(su): to cross, extend, cover, range, span; to ferry across; build across; hand over, hand in, transfer)
I was amused—sort of!—to find this kanji in one of Breen’s sample sentences:
Hashi wa anzen desu. Kuruma de wataremasu.
The bridge is safe. You can drive across.
橋 (hashi: bridge)
安全 (anzen: safety) safe + intact
車 (kuruma: car)
石橋を叩いて渡る (ishibashi o tataite wataru: being excessively cautious (lit., knocking on a strong stone bridge before crossing it)) stone + bridge + to hit + to cross
I love stone bridges. (So does my publisher, founder of Stone Bridge Press!) But it only just occurred to me that if I were going to create a bridge, a heavy stone would be the last material I would consider using! How did someone ever take that mental leap and feel that it would be possible and even advisable to suspend a collection of stones over a river? It’s probably good that I never became a builder; I clearly don’t have the feel for it!
Changing the final hiragana produces this proverb:
Ishibashi o tataite watare.
Look before you leap.
Clearly, the English translation is not too faithful! In fact, the Japanese version advocates using a bridge, rather than leaping across a river, so in a way these sentences offer very different types of advice.
Here’s another expression in which the Japanese and English versions deviate quite a bit:
The Japanese refers to crossing a dangerous bridge, and the English is about ice, limbs, and tightropes!
Time for your Verbal Logic Quiz. It’s a fun one (but then I’m biased, because I wrote it!).