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]

5 thoughts on “The Kanji Radical 辰 (1)To Shake-辰震唇娠

  1. I am indebted for this insightful analysis of the kanji 辰. Knowing the history of that component, permits the comprehension of the following kanjis: 震 , 振 , 唇 , 娠 , 農 , 辱 , 晨 , 宸 , 耨 , 蜃 , 賑 , 溽 , 褥 ,蓐… (List is not exhaustive).

    Surprisingly, notable American scholars like William Boltz and John DeFrancis negates the existence of semantic compounds (会意文字), and even suggests that, in semantic-phonetic compounds (形声文字) the phonetic indicators have no semantic value. However, some dictionaries provide superb explanations that show the importance of the so-called “phonetic indicators”. Take for instance, the entry for 耨 in 漢字源.

    For “foreign” learners of Japanese, it is remarkably difficult to understand the written language * because the dearth of accessible (english written) kanji explanations. Thanks for improving the above situation…!

    *Casually, almost no one has passed the JLPT N1 in Venezuela.

  2. I apologize for no providing the references in the previous comment>

    1) William Boltz. The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Society. 1994 2) John DeFrancis. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. University of Hawaii Press. 1984

    • Hi, Marco. Thank you very much for your comments. Your enthusiasm is contagious — Your comment prompted me to write a two-part article on 辰, which I posted on Monday.

      During the course of writing The Key to Kanji I became keenly aware of the different schools of kanji scholarship. I am not sure that there is one “right” school. I think of them more as different approaches to the same objective — interpreting the kanji. As a teacher I had another objective — teaching the kanji in a way that is not only historically and linguistically valid, but also more likely to be understood and remembered by English-speaking students. I write in English in the hope that I may be able to convince people who learned some spoken Japanese, but were perhaps intimidated by kanji, to look again.

      My sources are mostly in Japanese publications, not from a lack of respect for other sources, but from the simple practical fact that I have better access to them when I visit in the large modern bookstores around Tokyo Station or the old books stores in the Kanda district.
      Again, thank you very much for your comments. -Noriko

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