Carry Your Bones

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 33 (1000×300)

This week, we’re changing things up a bit and looking at a Japanese idiom that was completely new to me; a student had written a literal translation in his diary. I didn’t understand exactly what he was getting at, so I asked him for the original Japanese: 骨を拾ってあげる。 (Hone wo hirotte ageru.) Literally, I'll pick up your bones for you; more liberally translated, I'll gather your bones and carry them for you.

My first thought was that of Sam speaking to Frodo on the slopes of Mt. Doom. Frodo is exhausted from carrying the ring and thinks he can’t go any further and Samwise Gamgee steps up with one of the greatest lines ever: "I can’t carry it (the ring) for you, but I can carry you."

I felt that Sam’s offer to carry Frodo illustrated this new idiom well - I can’t complete your task for you, but I can help you get it done.

Turns out, I was completely wrong. Using this idiom would be Sam telling Frodo something like, “I know you don’t want to carry the ring, but try anyway. If you die, I’ll carry your body back to Hobbiton.” Which, you know, is still a hell of an offer, but not quite as positive as I had thought.

So. Imagine you are a young samurai facing battle. You are equally terrified and determined and you are trying to get yourself ready to fight. Another samurai comes up to you and says, “Do your best. If you die in the fight, I will gather up your bones.” You feel no less terrified, but at least you are reassured that you will be laid to rest at your home.

There are two things that are important to understand here: one is that bodies are cremated in Japan. The deceased ashes and bones are placed into an ossuary that is, in turn, placed inside a family tomb. The second is that, depending on who you read, the spirits of the deceased can't move on (or be reincarnated) unless all their bones are gathered and placed together. Hence the ossuary and the tomb. And so, for the warrior, knowing that someone would gather up his corpse and carry it home gave him a sense of peace.

The idiom today carries a great deal of weight; my teacher explained this to me as: imagine you're in a situation at your job where you have to do something that, if done wrong, may cost the company a lot of money. You still have to carry out the task. No one can take it from you. All I can do is reassure you that I'll clean up after you should the worst happen.

She went on to say that this bit of grave reassurance made many people feel, if not better, then more resolved to do whatever it is they need to do. Even if your effort results in death, someone is there to take care of you and see you to the next life. I'm not sure I like the idiom; after talking to my teacher, I'm more resolved than ever to avoid situations where someone might feel compelled to say it to me, but it is interesting, never-the-less, and I’m hard-pressed to find an equal idiom in English.

But it does remind me of Lonesome Dove. In that story, two cowboys (played by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in the miniseries) drive a herd of cattle to Montana territory. Along the way, Gus (Duvall), is attacked and then wounded in his leg. Eventually, gangrene sets in and he is faced with the choice of having both legs amputated or dying. Gus dies, but not before making his best friend (Jones) promise to take his body back to Texas to be buried. Hone wo hirotte ageru, indeed.

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骨 ・ほね - bones

拾う・ひろう - pick up (off the ground)

てあげる・do something for you

In this phrase, the verb /pick up/ is combined with the modifier /for you/, thus literally “pick up your bones for you.” The verb combination implies that these bones will also be carried and, presumably, buried in an agreeable location. (1000×100)

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Bones Brigade:

I was never really much of a skater. I got my first skateboard when I was ten and never managed to do much besides ride it to the end of the block and back. Occasionally, I could stumble my way through a small ollie or ramp jump. But, skating (and surfing) were still a huge part of my childhood because of the brands and labels that came to us from California. One of the biggest of those was Bones Brigade. We had t-shirts, stickers, and, of course, skateboards all branded with the familiar rat logo.

In recent years, founding member of Bones Bridage, Stacy Peralta, has become a filmmaker and historian of 70s and 80s California skating. Here are some movies to watch:

Next time: Same old song and dance. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

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