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Friday, June 26, 2015

The Rabbit that Got Away: Getting Away with It in Japanese

New diseases and immunity to them, compliance, tax exempt status, earthquake safe buildings, professional licensing—these are all topics that regularly hit the news or are at least widely discussed. But besides their topicality, what do they have in common?

免 (men) and how it is used in the Japanese language.
men: the "rabbit that got away"

What holds them all together in Japanese is the character men, 免, which is at the base of the verb manugareru 免れる or to "get away from," "be free of," "be immune to," "be rid of," "get out of." Its etymology is interesting in that it is a variation on the character for "rabbit" 兎. Originally the only difference between the two characters was the absence of the bottom right dot in 免, which absence signified a rabbit that had escaped and was free.

Let's have a look at how 免 is involved in some much talked about things.

In the wake of the increase in consumption tax to a hefty 8%, there has been a profusion recently in Tokyo of shops offering tax-free purchases. The tax-free system was expanded in October last year to cover not only clothing, electrical appliances, and the like, to include food and beverage, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Tax-free shopping is now a whole lot more attractive for visitors to Japan, especially since the savings are instant, i.e., in the form of cheaper prices, and don't involve having to apply for a refund when leaving Japan. The key word here is menzei 免税, literally "free of" + "tax." Visit Japan and that phrase will follow you everywhere, from the moment you step into the airport. 

Immunization, or vaccination, is men-eki 免疫 in Japanese, and is a huge focus of attention in today's world as new diseases like SARS and MARS appear. The scientific community does its best to respond with new drugs, at least to cure them and, ideally, to immunize against them. Vaccine-preventable diseases (VPD) that are vaccinated against as a matter of course in Japan are tuberculosis, chickenpox, rubella and measles, and the local authority generally covers the cost of vaccination. Japan is generally a very healthy environment, but as a regular precaution the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that travellers to Japan are up to date with their vaccines against measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, chickenpox (varicella), polio, and influenza.

Japan is among the world's most earthquake-prone countries, and the effects of the massive earthquake that rocked Japan in 2011 are still very evident. Earthquake-proof architecture is therefore a very big concern in Japan, expressed by the term menshin 免震 ("free of" + "quake"). Today's news reports that menshin (earthquake proofing) of Osaka's famous Tsutenkaku Tower has just been completed, having begun in October of last year.

One interesting use of men is in its appearance in the word for "licence" or "certificate": menkyo (免許) or, less commonly, menjou (免状). You might wonder what "getting away with something" has to do with being licensed; but if you think about it, it is similar to the use of "license" in English which, as in driver's license, suggests "permission," or, as in "license to kill," suggests "freedom" (albeit in the worst sense of the word.  As in most countries, the word license, menkyo, in Japan is most commonly associated with driver's license, or unten menkyo (運転免許). If you're a tourist or short-term resident in Japan, you'll need an international driving permit (IDP) or kokusai-unten-menkyo-sho (国際運転免許証) to drive a car in Japan.

Finally, for all you fans out there of the Japanese anime television series Psycho-Pass, the word menzai 免罪 (exempt) will mean something in the context of menzai-taishitsu-sha 免罪体質者, meaning the kind of immunity (in the same sense as the phrase "diplomatic immunity") that Makishima Shougo has vis-a-vis the Sibyl System and Dominator.

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