Falling below the mark: １００万人割れ
With Japan being one of the most prominent birthically-challenged countries in the world, the local media has long ago made reporting on annual birth statistics an enduring year-end tradition.
2016 has already made history in this headcount: it's the first year on record that saw less than one million new babies born in Japan — without precedent in the statistical data that have been collected every year since in 1899. The final number of births in 2016 is expected be slightly above 981,000. In headlines and articles, this rather disconcerting statistic was reported as １００万人割れ, "falling below one million [babies]".
割れ is originally the noun form of the verb 割れる, which has as one its meanings "to fall below the mark", "to become smaller than the standard of reference". As a suffix, 割れ is attached to numerical expressions and adds the meaning of "under", "not reaching" the number. It's usually used when the number represents a certain standard, basis, etc., and an amount falls below this standard — just like in the case of １００万人割れ.
Up and down the year: 上半期・下半期
Two words that keep coming up in year-end stories, especially ones that summarize and analyze statistics from the passing year, are 上半期 and 下半期: the first and second half of the year, respectively.
At first sight there is nothing complicated about these words; the kanji simply mean "up/down" + "half" + "period". Nothing could be more straightforward — except for the readings! 上半期 is read かみはんき and 下半期 is しもはんき. These words not only have mixed kun-on readings, but the kun-yomi are the less common ones for 上 and 下. This time, no うえor した for you!
This is actually a good opportunity to learn what these specialized kun readings mean, once and for all. Everybody knows that うえ and した mean "up" and "down", so what do we need かみ and しも for?
This pair is not just some devilish trap that exists to prevent learners from ever pronouncing words correctly (although as far as Japanese is concerned, that's always a nice bonus). What かみ and しも mean is the upper and lower part of a contiguous stretch. In other words, かみ is the part closer to the beginning and しも is the part closer to the end.
上半期 and 下半期 are, then, classic applications of the basic meanings of かみ and しも. Another common thing that these two elements are used with is rivers: 川上 (かわかみ) means the upper reaches of a river, "up the river", "upstream", while 川下 (かわしも) is the river's lower reaches, "down the river", "downstream". If you try finding other examples with かみ and しも, you'll probably see this same pattern repeated in all of them.
Clash of the bodies: 体当たり
The festive spirit of Christmas and New Year may mean something to humans, but apparently not so much to boars. On Christmas Day, an angry female boar attacked and injured four visitors at Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture, which is one of the very few original castles left in Japan and therefore a popular tourist attraction in the area.
Besides biting its victims, the boar also hit against them with its massive body — with a weight of about 100 kilograms, a length of about 1.4 meters, and plenty of muscles to propel it onto unsuspecting people. This form of attack made 体当たり, "dashing against someone", a recurring term in media reports of the incident.
While 上半期 and 下半期, discussed above, are examples of mixed kun-on readings, 体当たり is an example of the reverse phenomenon: its reading, たいあたり, begins with an on-yomi and ends in a kun-yomi.
These two types of mixed kun-on readings actually have names in Japanese: 湯桶読み (ゆとうよみ) is the term for readings whose first element is read in kun-yomi and the second in on-yomi; 重箱読み (じゅうばこよみ) is the term for the opposite case, where the first element is in on-yomi and the second in kun-yomi.
Each of these terms contains a word (湯桶 or 重箱) that is itself an example of the kind of mixed reading it refers to. This makes the terms pretty handy as mnemonics — although for some people, a boar attack would probably be a much more memorable thing than a set of stacked food boxes!
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