Let me continue my observations on Japan’s linguistic landscape, once more considering an aspect of the complex writing system. Today I consider two texts: the cardboard covers enclosing two six-packs of happoshu.
Happoshu (発泡酒) or “sparkling alcohol” is a category of alcoholic beverage subject to lower taxes in Japan than is beer. As I understand it, the law imposing a higher tax on beer than on other alcoholic beverages includes a specific definition of beer, which includes the percentage of malted grains in the ingredients. Like beer, happoshu is made from cereal grains, water, and hops, but unlike beer various types of happoshu contain legumes or unmalted cereals in addition to malt or are blended with distilled spirits, thereby skirting the tax law.
The cardboard container in front of me is from Sapporo Mugi to Hoppu (麦とホップ “barley and hops”). On one side of the container is a white square on which is written a Japanese word using kanji and okurigana: 雪ぐ. Below the word are pictures of two people, a young woman and a middle-aged man, each holding up a card on which is written a word in katakana:すすぐ on the young woman’s card and そそぐ on the man’s. Above the image is a question: 間違えているのはどっち? ”Who is mistaken?”
Another container of Mugi to Hoppu contains a similar image of the same man and woman, with the same question appearing above them, but with different words on their cards. The kanji reads 設える and the two katakana forms are しつらえる and かまえる.
A bit of background on Japanese orthography is necessary to understand these image/texts. Japanese is written using multiple orthographies: kanji are logographs borrowed from Chinese that indicate words or morphemes; hiragana and katakana are syllabaries that indicate sounds. Since kanji indicate meanings rather than sounds, and since Japan has borrowed words from several varieties of Chinese and also adapted kanji to Japanese words, a single kanji may be pronounced several different ways. Okurigana are hiragana characters that accompany a kanji to disambiguate it from other words written with the same character and to give some indication of pronunciation. (Okurigana also indicate inflection.)
Each cardboard container has the same image on the side opposite the riddle above, a close-up of the young woman holding a can of Mugi to Hoppu in her left hand and pointing to it with her right. In large print beside her is written the answer to the riddle: そこの君！ “That’s you!” In smaller print below that is the tag line, ビールと間違えるほどのうまさ。 “A taste (or quality) that can be mistaken for beer.”
In each case, the word written in kanji remains ambiguous despite the presence of okurigana. 雪ぐ can be read as either すすぐ (susugu) or そそぐ (sosogu), each meaning something like “to clear” or “to wash.” (According to the dictionary I consulted, sosogu is used metaphorically, as in “to clear one’s name,” but a Google search also finds uses of 名をすすぐ “to clear my reputation” with susugu written in hiragana.)
The word 設える is a bit obscure. My native-speaker informant suggested a reading different from the Mugi to Hoppu package, sonaeru, and the dictionary offers yet a fourth, koshiraeru. The base character means “to establish” or “to prepare.” All sources agree that しつらえる (shitsuraeru) is one of several possible readings. The word かまえる (kamaeru) also means “to establish,” though it is usually written 構える.
Thus in each case neither of the candidate pronunciations is clearly mistaken. Instead, it is the reader/drinker who is mistaken, first in understanding the question as a demand to choose one answer, and then “mistaking” the taste of the low-cost happoshu for pricier and more popular beer.