舟を編む・ふねをあむ Part 1

Reference: 舟を編む、三浦しをん、光文社、2015

I am beginning a new book, and I chose 舟を編む・ふねをあむ by 三浦しをん・みうらしをん because it deals with dictionary compiling, a world I don’t know much about but that I find interesting. The novel was adapted into an anime and a film. To learn more about the novel and the story, have a look at my previous post on the subject.

In these reading notes, I will only focus on difficult expressions and words and occasionally work on some challenging extracts. If you are learning Japanese and want to read this novel (which is not that easy), I think this notes might help you. The pagination I give refers to the reference mentioned above.


To begin with, a list of all the characters that appear in this first part.


The novel opens with Araki as a child and describes his love for words and words’ meaning. We learn how he got his very first dictionary and how he finally started to work at the publishing house 玄武消防・げんぶしょうぼう. Then, the novel pack 37 years in a line break and we meet Araki again, announcing to 松本先生, the head of the dictionary-compiling department, that he desires to go into retirement because his wife’s health is bad. He promises to find himself a successor before the date of his retirement. Their dialogue is the opening scene of the film.


I am not sure, but I think we can call Professor Matsumoto, the head of the “dictionary-compiling department”. Although of a great age, he is still working, and I think that he expected Araki to do the same.


A colleague at the dictionary compiling department. From what we learn from a reflexion of Araki page 26, he is a relaxed young man for whom accuracy and words’ meaning is definitively not a question of life and death (see how he defined the word “island”).


Majime works in the sales department of the same company. He feels very uncomfortable with people and loves dictionaries. When Araki hears about him, he thinks that Majime could well be his successor. Majime enters the dictionary-compiling department and becomes the protagonist of our novel (although, during this first part of the novel, Araki is the main character).


A female colleague at the dictionary department. She edits and classifies the 用例採集カード.



玄武書房 is the name of the company where our compilers work. 書房 can mean “bookstore” and “publishing company”. 玄武書房 is a rather big publishing company with over 500 employees (p. 14). They have a sales department (where Majime works), and we learn from Nishioka p. 18 that the employees make a round of bookshops. I assume that they go to bookshops to sell the books published by the company (in the film, we can see a scene where Majime is trying to get a bookshop owner’s attention).


The “dictionary-compiling” Department of Genbu publishers is located in an annexe building 別館・べっかん, on the 2nd floor.


A restaurant where the team is used to gathering and where they celebrate the welcome party 歓迎会・かんげいかい of Majime.

Important words


用例採集カード are cards where the compilers write down every new word or every new usage of a word they come across in their everyday life. If you have seen the film, you know how important they are in the story. Professor Matsumoto always has 用例採集カード with him, even while eating lunch he still writes down every new word that enters his ears (p.11).

Tips to understand the story

いぬ p. 5, 6

At the very beginning of the story, we see the young Araki fascinated with the meanings of the word “dog”. Other than the common meaning of “dog”, Araki learns in a film that “dog” can also mean “spy”. “Dog” really means “spy”, but it doesn’t seem to be widely used. Out of curiosity, I have checked the Japanese trailer of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, but the word mole was either translated as スパイ or even もぐら (mole). Maybe 犬 is only used in a Japanese context?

As Araki soon learns, “dog” also means “useless” 無駄・むだ, a strong contrast to the common association between “dog” and 忠犬・ちゅうけん, “faithful dog”.

ちんちん p.12

Araki and professor Matsumoto are talking about their first dictionary. Araki teases professor Matsumoto, asking if his first dictionary was 色っぽい・いろっぽい, which doesn’t mean “colourful” but “sexy”, “erotic”, “provocative”.

Araki then recalls how he, as a kid, used to search for シモガかった言葉. シモ here is 下・しも and refers to “one’s private parts”, “the genitals”. 下掛る・しもがかる means “talk about something indecent”, “talk dirty”. He then admits that he was sometimes disappointed and give the example of ちんちん. His dictionary only gave the meanings of “begging (for a dog)” and “the sound of boiling water”. As I didn’t know the other meaning of this word, I had to look it up to understand Araki’s remark. ちんちん is a children word to say “penis”, I guess you would say a willy in English.

しま p. 25

The film (and from extracts I saw, the anime) has skipped this passage. When Araki first meet Majime, he does not only ask him to define 右・みぎ but also しま. Majime then asks which しま Araki is referring to. As there were some words I didn’t know, I made some research:

  • ストライプ:written as 縞, しま means “stripe.”
  • アイランド: island, 島, the first (and only) meaning that came to mind to 西岡 (and myself).
  • 志摩・しま is a city in the Kansai region
  • よこしま means devious, getting out of the right path. さかしま means “reverse”, it’s used to translate the title “à rebours” by Huysmans.
  • 揣摩臆測・しまおくそく is a fourth character expression that means “giving one’s imagination full play without any ground”.
  • 四魔・しま are four demons of Buddhism 仏教・ぶっきょう

When trying to define the world 島・しま, Majime notes that it should take into account the meaning “ヤクザの縄張り” (やくざのなわばり) which means “Yakuza turf”. 縄張り・なわばり means “sphere of influence”, “domain”, “turf” or “territory”. To understand Majime’s remark, I had to check a Japanese dictionary myself. The word “島” is really used to refer to a ヤクザの縄張り.

土左衛門・どざえもん p.26

Nishioka defined an island as something floating on the water, and Araki asked him if a 土左衛門 was supposed to be an island too. I didn’t know this word, so I looked it up, and it means “a drowned body”.

Araki’s sarcasm is made clear, but the word in itself is so strange that I have checked its etymology. If I understand correctly, 土左衛門 is the name of a rikishi, a professional sumo wrestler, who lived in the first half of the 18th century. It is said that his name was used to describe a drowned person because of 土左衛門’s appearance… Even if I can perceive the reason of the comparison, it is still a weird association, I think…

When I searched the internet for this word, I found an article advising that one should not mix up 土左衛門 with ドラえもん, which is an even more weird association, haha.

Going from drowned bodies to sumo wrestlers to Doraemon bought me very far from the novel…

大渡海 vs 大都会 p.27

Araki asks Majime to put all his strength into だいとかい. He means the 大渡海, the new dictionary the team is about to start compiling. But, when hearing だいとかい, Majime takes it to be the song 「大都会」by the group クリスタルキング. The song was released in 1979. You have to listen to the song to understand what the 「あ~あぁ~!」 of Majime stands for!


The first part was not very long, and even if it took me some time to get into the story, it was not that difficult after all. I found the encounter between Araki and Majime hilarious in the novel (much more than the same scene in the film), but to me, the charm of the novel reveals itself only with a great amount of vocabulary search. Nonetheless, reading this book is very pleasant!