Japanese onomatopoeia in Maastricht


By Sueli Brodin

I still can’t believe how wrong I got it when I first heard about Pecha Kucha Night in Maastricht.

I remember seeing the name Pecha Kucha printed in a headline in the local paper Dagblad De Limburger earlier this year but strangely enough – it does sound quite exotic and should have appealed to my curious nature- , it didn’t catch my attention.

In fact it is even possible that I thought that the name “Pecha Kucha” somehow was connected to the local dialect of Maastricht, and with the Carnival season soon approaching, it didn’t seem uncharacteristic to read and hear more dialect expressions in the media.

I confess that I didn’t dwell on the article, erroneously assuming that it described just another cultural event targeting a Dutch audience and probably inaccessible to the international community, because of the language barrier.

To my shame, I didn’t immediately recognize the word “Pecha Kucha” as being one of the onomatopoeia frequently used in Japanese. “Pecha kucha” imitates the sound of a quick conversation or “chit chat”, as in “talking pecha kucha”. Phonetically, it resembles another Japanese onomatopoeia, “mecha kucha” (used as an adverb and meaning “really very, disorderly, amusingly”) which I’m very familiar with, for often having jokingly resorted to it as a child in Japan to describe my complicated family origins.

When Japanese people would enquire about my nationality, instead of saying that I was French: “Furansu-jin” or Brazilian: “Burajiru-jin”, I would quip back: “Mecha kucha-jin” and make them burst out laughing. The word “mecha kucha” relativised the notion of country of origin, playing up rather on the boisterous energy that stems from the mixture of cultural backgrounds.

It is only when I stumbled upon a reader’s letter in the same newspaper a few months later, commenting on the fact that hardly any English-speaking expat in the entire Maastricht Region had attended the first two editions of Pecha Kucha Night, that my curiosity was aroused. The letter was written by Jean-Paul Toonen, who as I later found out was one of the three entrepreneurs who had brought the Pecha Kucha initiative to Maastricht.

The Pecha Kucha concept, Mr Toonen explained in an interview for Crossroads, was devised in 2003 by two Tokyo-based European architects, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, to offer a dynamic platform for creative people to share their ideas in a snappy format (20 images per presentation, 20 seconds per image, or a total time of 6 minutes, 40 seconds per performance). He said that Pecha Kucha Nights are a world wide phenomenon, present in almost 250 cities around the globe, and the powerful innovation added by the Maastricht team has been to record each presentation and make it available online.

It certainly sounded very intriguing and together with a few friends, I decided to get my own taste of Pecha Kucha Night in Maastricht last June.

In all the years that I’ve lived here, I hadn’t realised that there was so much creative talent in the region, because I had grown used to seeing artists from elsewhere come and perform in Maastricht. This time, it was precisely the opposite: the best regional talents seemed to have gathered at Pecha Kucha Night to present their original and creative projects not only to the audience in the room but, through the video recordings, to the rest of the world.

I enjoyed the quality and variety of the performances, the vibrant atmosphere of the evening, the strong sense of connection between artists and spectators... and because of my own Japanese origins, I couldn’t help getting a kick every time I heard everyone uttering the word Pecha Kucha that evening in Maastricht and integrating it into the city landscape.

In the meantime, my sister, who works in Paris as a Japanese-French interpreter, has told me more about the expression “mecha kucha” in Japanese.

She mentioned that onomatopeia in general and « mecha » in particular are very popular in the Kansai region of Japan, especially around the trading city of Osaka, which abounds in markets and bazaars. There, she said, the word « mecha » takes on a very positive connotation, in the sense of «good, out of the ordinary».

So let’s talk Pecha Kucha, and bring Maastricht in mecha kucha mood!

The next Pecha Kucha Night Maastricht is on October 20th, 2009 at the AINSI cultural centre.

See you there.