Divine! Divine! Open up a path! Or postal encounters of the third kind.

Shortly before my son returned home from his three years work term in Japan, he sent back a few boxes with clothes and books he accumulated over that period. He used Japan’s postal service for that and, trying to save a few bucks, he paid the surface rate, you know, the one where they stuff every other box coming this way in a container and it reaches our shores somewhere in the West Coast. A few strange things happened to their content between Osaka and the boxes being routed our way by the U.S.P.S. … Think of that part of the plot of the movie The Fly where Seth decides to test his teleportation machine himself and a housefly hitchhikes the ride with him and their DNA becomes fused.

I suppose some overzealous U.S. Customs postal inspector, with a short attention span to boot, decided to open every single box in the container, take them apart on top of one of those long tables or metal counters in a West Coast postal facility, looking for who-knows-what they usually look for in such facilities, and when the time came to put all that mess back together in the boxes, tape it again and make it look pretty, they grabbed whatever was near, with the obvious consequence that they missed a few items and added a few things that didn’t belong to the boxes. When the boxes arrived at home my son was very disappointed to miss a few clothing items he really liked. I was, however, fascinated by some of items that showed up unexpectedly. One of those items was a hand kitchen grater, of all things; another one was a glass marble; a blue shot glass; a book (more on that book in another post) and a small toy finger puppet in the image of Totoro. A Chuu Totoro, to be precise.

Version 2
A Chuu Totoro

I’ve spent a few weeks trying to figure out how to make this post, somehow, related to the Yijing. I could have written it for one of my other blogs but, well…, where’s the fun in that these days? As it usually happens, the answer was staring right at my face, literally.

The name Totoro–a made up name, according to Hayao Miyazaki, who shies away from any sort of mystical connotations imputed to him over his works–is a mispronunciation by Mei, the youngest girl in the story, of the word ‘tororu’ (トロル), which can be translated as the English noun “troll,” the equivalent of the mythical beings from Norse and Scandinavian lore. The closest nouns for troll in Mandarin, for instance, are 巨魔 (jumo), meaning “evil giant” or 巨人 (juren), meaning “giant.” There you can appreciate the obvious difference in the characters used because, in Mandarin, the characters themselves have a much more pronounced semantic weight as opposed to expressing mainly sound, as in Japanese (of course, all in general terms). As it turns out, the written Japanese language use Chinese characters, known as Kanji in Japanese, for their sound in a syllabic system. Thus, Totoro, three syllables in total, is written as卜卜口, a combination of otherwise Chinese characters that would make no sense whatsoever in actual Mandarin. Or would they…

The Chinese characters 卜 and 口 are some of the oldest written characters in existence. The character卜 represents the cracks that are formed by applying a red hot metal rod to the back of tortoise plastrons or bovine scapulae. Mind you, the selection and preparation of plastrons and scapulae was a very involved process which included the boring of semi-circular holes on the obverse, where the hot rods were applied, etc. The name of the character, its phonetic, is a close onomatopoeia of the sound the bones make when they crack: BO in Pinyin or PO in Wade-Giles transliterations. The original character, derived from the image of such cracks, became the noun for the practice of cracking bones and plastrons for divination. Alas, the Katakana origin for the Japanese character 卜 is not the obvious one but the Chinese 止/zhi, meaning ‘to stop, halt,’ ‘to prohibit,’ ‘to suppress’. However, strangely, the Japanese kept and used the phonetics of the Chinese 卜 (and the character that goes with it in their written language) for their syllabic phoneme ‘TO’, being that BO and TO sound very similar.

Pyromantic bone cracks.

The Chinese character 口, on the other hand, is derived from an abstraction of the shape of a mouth and, amongst other ancient and current meanings, it means ‘mouth,’ obviously, but also ‘openings,’ ‘hollow, empty’ and ‘to open up (a path)’. The latter meaning comes from Shuessler’s Sino-Tibetan etymological notes on the character in his Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. The Pinyin transliteration of the character is ‘KOU,’ and in Wade-Giles it is ‘K’OU’. In Japanese it stands for the syllable ‘RO’ but, curiously, even though the shape of the character is identical to the Chinese 口, its Katakana origin isn’t based on it but on the Chinese character 呂/lu3, which stands for a ‘pitch pipe’ or one of the 12 musical semitones or notes.  I’m sure I’m missing some important linguistic connections between the Chinese and Japanese but, so far, it appears irrelevant to the free associations I’m trying to make here.

So, no, there are no semantic connections between the Japanese and Chinese glyphs that make up the Japanese noun “Totoro/卜卜口”. What I like though, from a Chinese semantic point of view, is that the characters in sequence would spell something compelling like “crack, crack and open up a path.” Oddly, I find the auspicious nature of Totoro to be compatible with such an association. A long interpretive stretch but I’m being poetic here…

From a Yijing perspective, what I like is that the combination of the Chinese characters for Japanese Totoro seem to suggest a command to divine to open new paths: 卜卜口 —>> “divine! divine! [(and) or (to)] open up a path!” Curiously, using Google’s ngram tool, I found an earlier reference to the word ‘totoro’ in a novel by Pierre Loti, “The Marriage of Loti (Rarahu),” 1910. That other language–perhaps the original language where it appeared as a fully formed word–, as opposed to a literary creation, is Tahitian, and, in it, it has some very specific semantic nuances for the word. The novel refers to the expression “totoro ai po,” something Loti translates as “a mysterious banquet in the dark.” However, there’s more to it and ‘totoro’ has some interesting meanings in and by itself. Here is something from an 1851 Tahitian/English dictionary I found in Archive.org:


  • s. decrepitude.
  • v. n. to be shriveled, worn out by age.
  • v. n. to creep, or move slowly.
  • v. a. to trace by following a track, to trace a stalk or vine to the rest of a plant.
Totoro in Tahitian

By the way, that “totoroaipo” expression is translated in the dictionary as “the act of eating at home, being overtaken by darkness”, which eerily reminds me of the Judgement of hexagram 26, The Taming Power of the Great:

Perseverance furthers.
Not eating at home brings good fortune.
It furthers one to cross the great water.

If Miyazaki had any knowledge of  the Tahitian word is anybody’s guess. I’ve no clue, of course, but it is striking that some of the meanings of the word would pair both, with the character in his literary creation, and also with what I’m trying to associate it with here. Miyazaki claims that Totoro is an animal and not a spirit. I’m not one to argue with what the author has to say about his own characters, however, as a good reader, I interpret the creature to be something close to what the folklore of the place would bear, especially coming from a place so rich in it as Japan, and most people interpret Totoro to be a spiritual manifestation, a genius locus. For example, it can be associated that the spiritual nature of the creatures–that is to say, since they can be thought of as spirits of the forest and as a literary creation they inhabit the same space as the folkloric Japanese “kodama”–confers them an aged/ageless characteristic. Even the way the creatures move seems to be accurate, but, the striking part is the last meaning of the word: “to trace by following a track”

Let’s journey a bit from Japan to China and Tahiti and put all those pieces together in the jar and shake it:

  1. Mei finds and befriends a ‘tororu’ she ends up naming Totoro, which is written as “卜卜口” in Japanese.
  2. The Chinese meaning of the characters is very different from the use the Japanese give them in their Katakana. In Chinese, the translated characters appear to imply a repetition of the act of divining to open up a proper path to follow.
  3. Mei becomes lost and Totoro “helps” Satsuki to find her.
  4. In Tahitian, “totoro” has a meaning, among others, of following a thread/(vine) to its source. By extension, it is the act of following a marked path to a desired destination.
  5. That in itself can be seen as acting upon the result of divination and following its advise.

What would you, my readers, make of this whole mess? Of that, I’ve no clue. What I know is that now I’ve a Chuu Totoro sitting on my desk and I think of it as the genius locus of my office. What I also know is that he wasn’t supposed to come my way; it was never consciously intended by anyone to place it in a box that would end up at my doorstep, or, perhaps it did and followed its own path to me. Who knows, really…

The genius locus of my office

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *