The Kanji Radical 辰 (2): Tilling Tool-農辱


This is part 2 of the kanji radical 辰 discussion.

Just a week ago or so on the Asahi Digital and Yomiuri Shinbun Online, I came across short newspaper articles that reported that an archeological excavation group had unearthed 38 pieces of bivalve shells in a 20,000 to 30,000 years old stratum in Okinawa, the southern most prefecture. Some bivalve shells had been chipped into the shape of a knife. They are called 貝器 (“shell tool” /ba’iki/.)  When I read about this finding, the origin of the kanji 農 came to my mind. This is what I wrote in The Key to Kanji:

K2K_A846農イラストThe top came from 田 ‘rice paddies,” and the bottom 辰 depicted a clam extending a fleshy foot.  Sharp pieces of shell were attached to a wood stick to make a tool to till the soil or for weeding. The kanji 農 means ”farming” or “agriculture/ (Williams The Key to Kanji 2010: 248)

HIstory農Since then other reference materials (Akai 1985 and 2010) have come to my attention. The ancient writing on the left may give us a fuller picture of how the kanji 農 came about. In oracle bone style, (a), the top had trees, suggesting a wooded area and the bottom had a shell, which is the same shape as the oracle bone style for 辰 that we have seen in part 1.  In bronze ware style, (b) and (c), the top was rice paddies, the bottom was a shell, and (b) had two hands next to the shell.  In ten-style, (d), two hands were placed around the rice paddies at the top.

Unlike the four kanji we saw in part 1, 辰 was used to mean a tool to till the field, as given by my 2010 explanation. The kanji 農 meant “to till the field using a tilling tool to which hard shells are attached.” The kanji 農 by itself is not used in Japanese, nor does it have any kun-reading. It is used in words such as 農業 (“agriculture work; farming” /no’ogyoo/), 農村 (“agrarian village,” /nooson/) and 農民 (“farmer, peasant” /noomin/.)  The on-reading is /no’o/ and does not take the sound from 辰 as other kanji in part 1 did. Instead, 辰 contributed to its new meaning directly. This way of forming a new kanji (that is, two components equally contributing to a new meaning without adding a sound) is called 会意文字 (“semantic composite writing” /ka’ii-moji or kaii-mo’ji/), which literally means “two meanings meet (to form a new meaning).”

辱HistorySBy adding the bushu 寸, “hand,” to the clam shell, 辰, we get another kanji, 辱.  It originally meant working in the field, with a hand using a tool.  The on-reading is /jo’ku/.  The two components 辰 and 寸 created a new meaning without using the sound of /shi’n/.  So, this too must be a semantic composite.  That would be our thinking.

However, as it turns out, this kanji has a totally different meaning. It means “to humiliate; insult” in words such as 侮辱する (“to insult” /bujoku-suru/) and 屈辱的な (“humiliating” /kutsujokuteki-na/.)  The kun-reading is 辱める (“to humiliate” /hazukashime’ru/.)  Very potent words!  How did it come to mean that?  The answer is, “We do not know.” Sorry. Even ancient kanji scholars scratched their heads.

For that sort of kanji, the compiler of the most important first kanji dictionary called 『説文解字』 (/setsumon-ka’iji/, Shuowen Jiezi in Chinese) made a category called 仮借文字 (“borrowed writing” /kashaku-mo’ji/.) The literal meaning of kashaku is “temporary borrowing.”  Only a few of thousands of kanji belong to this category. Among the familiar kanji, 彼, 我 and 東 come to my mind.

So, now we have seen three types of kanji formation, 形声文字 “semantic-phonetic composite writing,” 会意文字 “semantic composite writing,” and 仮借 “borrowed writing.”  In the classification of 六書 (/ri’kusho/, Liushu in Chinese) in Setsumon-kaiji, in addition to those three categories, the compiler gave three more categories. They are 象形文字 (“ideographic writing” /shookee-mo’ji/ such as 日、象 and 雨; 指事文字 (“ indicative writing“ /shiji-mo’ji/) such as 二, 上 and 下;  and 転注 (/tenchuu-mo’ji/, No one is sure what it means nor is there a specific kanji.)  For more information on Setsumon-kaiji, please refer to Chapter 2 Kanji Formation Types and Dictionary Section Headers in Williams (2010: 15-18.)

辰StrokeOrder2Before I end my two-part discussion on the bushu 辰, I am going to add the stroke order information just in case you are wondering. [2-24-2014]

The Kanji Radical 辰 (1)To Shake-辰震唇娠


I am going to discuss about a peculiar looking kanji radical 辰 and a few kanji that contain it (震,振、唇 and 娠.)  Even though it is used in a person’s name and in the old sordiac time, 辰 /tatsu/ as kanji is not included on the Joyo Kanji list, but it is an important component of many kanji.


Surprisingly, the shape of the kanji 辰 came from an image of an opened bivalve or clam with its inside showing. In the oracle bone style, as in (a), and in bronze ware style, (b) & (c), the soft body and its ligaments were still attached to the two hard shells. According to Shirakawa (2004) 辰 was the original form of 蜃. The kanji 蜃 is not an every day kanji at all, but if we see it in a word like 蜃気楼 /shinki’roo/ “mirage,” a displaced image that is created by mixture of moisture and light. A clam, or other kinds of bivalve, spouting water up into the air and causing a mirage above the sea was thought to have magical power. It makes me think that the size of the shells must have been impressive to be noticed by ancient people — not like the size that we eat in spagetti vongole!  A soft fleshy body trembles and that gave 辰 the meaning of “to shake” and “something active.” The on-reading is /shi’n/.

Now we take a look at four kanji that contain it as a bushu. (The writings on the left side of each paragraph are official seal style and kanji in kyokasho style.)

震HistorySIn 震, the top 雨 by itself is the kanji /a’mr/ “rain.” When used as a bushu, it means “something falling in the sky.” Something that falls from the sky that shakes things on the ground is thunder (雷 /kamina’ri/). The kanji 震 described trembling or shaking caused by thunder.  地震 (“earthquake” /jishin/) is the shaking of the ground. 震える (”to tremble, shake” /hurueru/) and 身震い (“shudder, shiver” /mibu’rui/) are the kun-reading.

History of the kanji  振By adding a tehen, “hand,” on the left side we get the kanji 振 “to shake; wave; swing.” The kanji 振 is in words such as  手を振る (“wave a hand” /te’ o huru/), 旗を振る (“wave a flag” /hata’ o huru/), and (彼女に) 振られる (“to get jilted (by her or girlfriend)” /(ka’nojo ni) hurareru/). Those are in kun-reading. It also means “to be very active” in words such as 産業を振興させる  “to promote industry” in on-reading /shi’n/.

History of the kanji 唇By adding 口, “mouth,” we get the kanji 唇 ”lip.” By itself, it is 唇 (“lips”/kuchibiru/) in kun-reading. The on-reading is in the word 唇音 (“labial sound” /shin-on/), which is a sound that is created using a lip or lips such as /p, b, f. m/. A very specialized word for a linguist.

History of the kanji 娠By adding an onna-hen, “woman; feminine,” we get the kanji 娠 in 妊娠 (”pregnancy” /ninshin/) which describes the faint movements of a foetus. The on-reading is again /shi’n/ and it does not have any kun-reading.

形声文字 “semantic-phonetic composite writing”

All these kanji share the on-reading shin. The other components of the four kanji, such as amekanmuri, tehen, kuchihen, and onnahen gave the primary meaning. These four kanji are 形声文字 (“semantic-phonetic composite writing”/keesee-mo’ji/.)  Often times, people say,

“A majority of kanji is keisei-moji. Only the sound, not the meaning, matters in keisei-moji. So, knowing the origin does not take you too far.”

I have a very different view on this. It is true that a large number of kanji are keisei-moji, but in reality the component that represents sound was chosen for having semantic connection, not by a random choice. To me that is the secret key to understand each kanji.

By the way, I found a cute video clip that shows three small clams on a beach. I imagine that the ancient people had much larger shells in their minds, but even these small clams demonstrate translucent flesh trembling and spouting water. They make me smile.   蛤の潮吹きのビデオ

 [This topic was prompted by an earlier comment from a reader about the kanji 唇 and its relationship with its component 辰 a week ago.  Thank you very much for your comment, Marco from Venezuela.]. [2-26-2014]

Hand-copied Japanese Kanji Precursors

Hand-copied Kanji Precursors Screen Shot (2)

Hand-copied Kanji Precursors – Screen Shot (2)

This is sort of re-posting of my December 10, 2013, posting, which got deleted due to my clumsy handling of a new iPad this weekend.  By way of apology to our readers who have already read my earlier post, I am posting this with a different screen shot.  It covers from the kanji 次 (ジ) through 受 (ジュ) in the 50-on syllabary order.  I hope you will find some interesting shapes that get you thinking about how close the relationship between the shape and meaning of a kanji was in ancient times, and to some extent still is now too. [February 16, 2016]

This is what I wrote two months ago. . .

A couple of days ago I finally finished hand-copying in pen the various styles of kanji precursors (漢字の古代文字) for 1100 kanji and made them into over 2000 individual jpeg files. This photo is a screen shot of some of the files on my Mac desktop.

The dictionary that I used for this particular work was Tenrei Jiten (Dictionary of Official-seal Style and Rei Style Chinese Characters) compiled by Kiyomi Akai in 1985 (「篆隸字典」赤井清美.)  This book contains 1400 pages of ancient writing that Akai organized photos of various artifacts according to the order of kanji radical. It includes official seal style (篆文 /ten-bun/, from Setsumon Kaiji), oracle bone style (甲骨文 /kookotsubun/) and bronze ware style (金文 /kinbun/).

I recreated the images in pen, and they are now ready for me to use in the kanji teaching web site that I am planning to start next year, that is, in 2014. [December 10, 2013]

The Gold Seal of the Ancient Japanese King 漢委奴国王印


[I am reposting this slightly modified article, which I inadvertently deleted a few weeks ago.]

Gold Seal of Ancient Japanese King (57 AD)

The image on the left is a picture of the famous gold seal of the Japanese King of Na that was given by a Chinese Han emperor in 57 A.D.  It is the oldest record of kanji writing that is related to Japan.  The image on the right is an impression on wax.  It reads, from the right to the left, Kan no Wa no Na no kokuoo 漢の委の奴の国王 “(Seal of) Japanese King of Na given by Han Emperor.”


The red image on the left is an impression of a rubber stamp of the replica. It is easier for us to see the writing.  I would like to draw your attention to ancient writing in the center of the bottom row. Its kanji form is 奴. The left side (女) is a woman sitting with her hands crossed in front. The right side (又) is another radical shape called yoo or mata, and it pertains to a hand or an act that one does using a hand.

Kanji Radial 又The two ancient forms for 又 are shown on the right.

Look closely at the area marked in a blue box on the imprint of the seal in red. By contrast to the two ancient writings on the right, which showed three fingers, do you see an extra line in the seal?  It is another finger!  The seal maker must have reverted to the original meaning of a hand with fingers. It was a delightful discovery when I obtained the replicas from the Fukuoka City Museum.

Later on the kanji 奴 developed two different phonetic letters in Japanese: The right side 又 became a katakana nu ヌ; and the cursive style writing of the kanji 奴 eventually became a hiragana nu ぬ.[February 2, 2014]