The History of the Kanji 止, 歩, 正 and 政 from a Footprint


In this post, I am going to discuss the four kanji 止, 歩, 正 and 政 that share the same origin of a footprint or step.

A. The kanji 止”stop” and 歩 “walk” from a footprint


(1) footprint/foot; (2) bronze ware style 止; (3) ten-style 止; and (4) kanji 止

Our feet are now molded into a shape that fits in a shoe like in image (1), but we can easily imagine that a big foot was skewed more outward to help with strenuous walking in the ancient times.

Image (2) is the bronze ware style writing for a footstep that became 止 “to halt one’s steps” or “to stop.”  It had a prominent big toe on the top right along with two other toes and the upper part of the sole.  Image (3) is ten-style writing, which became the kanji (4).


(5) bronze ware style 歩; (6) ten-style 歩; and (7) kanji 歩

In walking, one puts forward the right foot and the left foot alternately.  That is what makes up the kanji 歩 for “walk” or a “step.”  Image (5) is the bronze ware style, with a left foot at the top and a right foot at the bottom.  How can we tell which is which?  Well, where the two lines cross is the big toe.  The top and the bottom in ten-style writing (6) still maintain the mirror image of each other.  Wben they became the kanji 歩 (7) the bottom took the shape of the kanji 少. (The kanji 少 “little” came from a different origin.)

B. The kanji 正 “just” and 政 “to govern”


(8) oracle bone style 正; (9) bronze ware style 正; (10) ten-style 正; and (11) kanji 正

The kanji 正 “right/just” also contained a footprint. The oracle bone style (8) had a box shape at the top, which represented a wall surrounding a town, and a footprint at the bottom. Together they showed an army advancing into a town to conquer.  In the bronze ware style writing (9), the town wall became a big dot above a foot. In both (8) and (9), the writing meant “just” because a conqueror was always just.  Hmm… It makes one pause a little, doesn’t it.  But we need to look at ancient writing from the point of view of the people for which the writing was created.  Ancient Chinese writing started as a way for a ruler to communicate with the gods. The ten-style writing is (10) and the kanji is (11.)


(12) oracle bone style 政; (13) bronze ware style 政; (14) ten-style 政; and (15) kanji 政.

The kanji 政 means “to govern” or “politics.”  The left side is 正 ”just” and the right side is the bushu shape 攵 called bokuzukuri. The bushu bokuzukuri came from a hand holding a stick and meant “to take an action.”  In (12) on the right side, there is a stick and a hand (it looks like a cross here).  In bronze ware style (13) the stick is placed above a hand.  On the left side the line for a town wall is thicker than the rest.  In ten-style (14) the shape assumes an aesthetically pleasing balance.  When it became a kanji, it became more compact with straight lines as in (15).

According to Shirakawa (2004), the original meaning of 政 “to govern; politics” was “act of imposing a levy” because getting levies from the conquered area was just. To govern was all about taxation… Hmmm.

When the ancient writing became kanji, writing became just a means of communication. By that time the knowledge of origins of the kanji had been lost. The kanji 正 just had the meaning of “just; right” and the kanji 政 had just the meaning of “to do the right thing.” We can hope that to govern or to engage in politics is about doing the just in our times. [December 28, 2013]

References: Akai (1985); Shirakawa (2004); and Williams (2010)

[Notes on January  8, 2016] This was one of the first postings two years ago. Since then there have been a number of postings on kanji that directly reflected the image of a footprint, including six postings entitled “One Foot at a Time” and  four postings entitled “A Hand an Leg – Bushu ninnyo.” In order to view a posting that is more than 6 months old such as those, please click the Kanji Etymology – Previous Posts link, which lists all the postings in the past with the links.  Thank you very much. Noriko

The History of the Kanji Radical Shinnyoo – 進迷通逆徒


History of Kanji with Radical Shinnyoo しんにょう http:/

In this post, I am going to discuss the development of shinnyoo (or shinnyuu, previously) しんにょう “to go forward.”  In my long years of teaching I have seen that many students find the shape and meaning of a shinnyoo difficult to understand and learn. The odd shape is the product of a long history of development.

It came from two shapes that represented two meanings: a crossroad and a footprint/foot or step. When one reaches a crossroad, he has to decide which way to go, and when he steps over across the crossroad he is going forward. In oracle bone style writing (column B) either a crossroad or a footprint was often used. In bronze ware style writing (column C) both appeared, with a footprint at the bottom of the main element. In ten style writing (column D) a crossroad became three curbs and a foot moved to the left side, forming a single component having the meaning of “to go forward.”

After ancient writing became kanji, the shape that will be eventually called shinnyoo in Japan has gone through three more shapes. First, in Reisho style, the earliest style of kanji, a crossroad became three diagonal strokes. I do not have reisho style examples for each of the kanji. For the second shape, shown in column E, I am using images that were taken from The Kangxi Dictionary, originally published in 1716, with a Japanese annotation (Watanabe 1885.)   In this publication, the shinnyoo consists of two short strokes and a hooked shape with a long extended stroke underneath (1E, 2E, 3E, 4E, and 5E.)   This shape of shinnyoo is still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

ThreeShapesofShinnyooThen, In Japan, particularly after the National Language Reform in 1946, we write a shinnyoo with one short stroke, a wave-like line and a long extended stroke underneath. That is the third shape. The second shape is called kyuujitai (old style) and the third shape is called shinjitai (new style).  In 2010, the Japanese government guideline revived the second shape in some kanji with a shinnyoo as “permissible.”

Now, back to the first table above, did you notice something odd about the kanji 徒 (5F) ?  The two elements in this kanji for “on foot” — crossroad and step — did not merge into a shinnyoo.  So, I got curious and looked up the Kangxi Dictionary. It noted that the shape in (5E), which had a shinnyoo, was  the older form of 徒 (5F).  This tells us that the modern kanji form 徒 went back to ten style (5D), skipping over the reisho style (5E.)  Another twist in our shinnyoo story.

In the long history of ancient writing of Chinese characters to the present-day Japanese kanji, some shapes disappeared and some did not.  When ancient creators of writing came up with the idea of combining existing shapes that had their own meanings into a new shape with a new meaning, it became possible to form an enormous number of new writing.  For that reason, a majority of the old written forms disappeared, except in dictionaries, and what survived are what we use in the modern writing.

Notes: A bushu shinnyoo is discussed further in the later posts (The kanji 進達返退迷逃近 and The Kanji 迎逆連軍運過速束込入.)  [December 28, 2015]

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Where did the kanji 集 come from?


The kanji 集, like any other kanji, has 3,300 years of history. Their ancient writings over thousand years tell us their history.

History of the kanji集The left-most one — a bird, possibly flying, over a tree — is in an oracle bone style writing (甲骨文 /kookotsubun/), the oldest style of ancient Chinese character precursors. The second one — a bird perching on a treetop– is a bronze ware style (金文 /kinbun/). The third one is also a bronze ware style, but the shape of a bird became a linear drawing. You can see the birth of writing (文字 /mo’ji/) at that point. The shape became more formalized in the fourth and the fifth images, which are in ten official seal style (篆文 /tenbun/.) The last one is the kanji as we write now.

The kanji 集 is used in words such as 集まる atsuma’ru “to gather, congregate,” 集める atsume’ru “to collect,”集い tsudo’i “gathering of people,” 集合 shuugoo “assembly,” 集中 shuuchuu “concentration” and 編集 henshuu “editing (of a book).”

A few notes that I would like to make here:

(1) A flock of birds perched on a treetop gave the meaning “to gather.” It is like the English phrase “birds of feathers flock together.” In one of the ten style images, there were even three birds together — that would be difficult to write as kanji.

(2) The shape of a bird in the top of 集 is called hurutori ふるとり in Japanese. It appears in the old style 舊 of the current kanji 旧 huru’i “old.”

(3) Hurutori is a kanji bushu (radical) that appears in many kanji. I will discuss this my later posts.

References: Kiyomi Akai 1985; Shizuka Shirakawa 2004; Noriko Kurosawa Williams 2010. (The reference information will be added on the About Pages shortly.)

Keio University Old Library Plaque 慶応大学旧図書館の篆額


A group of us who just attended a meeting of the JSL Kanji Study Group (JSL漢字学習研究会) held at Keio University in Tokyo were walking toward a side gate, which Keio people would affectionately call 幻の門 Maboroshi-no-mon “Invisible Gate.”  A young Japanese lecturer who teaches at Keio stopped and said,


Keio University Old Library

“Isn’t that also ancient Chinese writing up there?”

We turned our heads toward where he was pointing.  It was the familiar red-brick university library building.

Up on the archway of the entrance, there it was the name of the library 慶應義塾圖書館 “Keio Gijuku Library” inscribed in the ten-style (official seal style).

Earlier that afternoon I had just discussed how we could utilize the intrinsic relationship between shape and meaning seen in ancient Chinese writing to teach kanji and how the last style of ancient writing style called 篆文 ten style is still appreciated in the modern life of Japan.  I had shown some photos of the stone steles that I had taken in Kamakura as examples.


Ten-style Plaque of keio University Old Library

Then, right at my own alma mater, there it was – – the ten style plaque – – and I did not know that. To us who are not calligraphers the ten-style is something ornamental, and we would not take the time to make out everything writing in it.  But this time I came from a totally different direction. I spent several years examining ancient Chinese writing to find a way to convert it to something useful for a student who studied Japanese outside Japan.  I felt like a mole that had just come out to see the light after burrowing a long tunnel.

This library building was completed in the last year of the Meiji era (1912) and is one of the treasured structures of the oldest private Japanese university.  To us students this old building represented something scholarly that we came here for. The hushed quiet reading room was our haven from the noises, distraction and temptation on the campus.  I spent two summer vacations on a long paper and thesis but never paid any attention to the plaque.

A little yorimichi on a red-brick building in Japan(寄り道 /yorimichi/ “wayside walk”)東京駅ドーム3

Red brick buildings (赤煉瓦-あかレンガ) were built in the Meiji and Taisho eras and we associate them as something early modern Japan, thus “old.”  Because they are old and facing demolition, recently there have been efforts to preserve them.  Tokyo Station, originally built in 1914, completed its restoration/renovation.  Inside the domes is magnificent (my photo in 2013) and my time spent waiting for my friend to show up was a well-spent enjoyable time.  In Yokohama there is an area called 赤レンガ倉庫 (/akarenga so’oko/) that is a venue for public events and a tourist attraction.

Now back to my library plaque story.

As I gazed at the tengaku (ten-style plaque), I began seeing a memory under the intense summer sun — a young female student, in a navy blue cool linen dress that her mother had made for her, intently disappearing into the building.  A few decades later she would return and re-discover what she had not seen.

Antoniomarco, a young Italian researcher from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, who was standing next to me, said,

“Ancient writing on a modern building!  What an interesting match it is.”

That brought me back from my daydreaming.

Ah, to an Italian who is used to really old structures of hundreds years ago, this treasured building of ours doesn’t even come close to the word “old.”   We proudly say that the old library is ゴシック建築 (/goshikku-ke’nchiku/”Gothic style structure”), but to our Italian friend Antoniomarco there is nothing old or Gothic about it.

P. S. If you are interested in kanji education, I recommend joining  JSL 漢字学習研究会 (the link is in the article.)   Their bi-monthly meetings are inspiring and you meet people who share the same interest, or even passion, in kanji education as you do, which does not happen too often in the United States.

Japanese Kanji Radicals (漢字部首の入門)


This video was prepared to introduce the kanji radical study video clip collection called “Bushu: The Kanji Makers – From Meanings to Shapes” on the American University iTunes U.  It explains how the 90 video clips of kanji radical in the collection are organized.  Learning kanji radical is an effective way to study kanji but unfortunately it is rarely taught in a Japanese classroom for various reasons.  So I have made the entire video clip collection open to the pubic.  I am planning to discuss more about this collection later on.  This particular link was made to YouTube.  Also please read the About Kanji Video Clips on iTunes U Page. (December 2013)