Eyes Wide Open (3) 臣, 臨, 覧, 緊, 蔵 and 臓


How could the kanji 臣 be related to an eye? Do you wonder? I did, when I first read about it years ago. But once I realized that it was a wide open big eye in a face seen from the side, it became fun to look for kanji that contain 臣. Here are six of them.

(1) 臣 “subject; minister”

History of the Kanji 臣In oracle bone style, (1) and (2), and in bronze ware style, (3), they are all wide-open big eyes. Someone who kept a watchful eye for his master was a loyal subject. (4) is in ten-style and (5) is the kanji in kyookasho-tai “textbook style.” It meant “a subject” or “government minister” and is used in words such as 大臣 (“minister; secretary; chancellor” /da’ijin/) and 臣下 (“subject” /shi’nka/.)

The stroke order is as below. You will find it easy to write a well-balanced kanji if you follow the correct stroke order.


(2) 臨 “to look over from above; provisional”

History of the Kanji 臨The first two, (1) and (2), are in bronze ware style. The top of (1) showed an eye and a standing person. Underneath were three boxes that were connected to the eye. In ten style, (3), a person became taller to see things better. It meant someone viewing many things from a high position. Viewing things meant that he was present and ready to deal with the matter at hand. It makes up words such as 臨海公園 (“an ocean side park” /rinkaiko’oen/), ご臨席 (“attendance” by an important person /gorinseki/); and 臨時列車 (“special unscheduled trains” /rinjires’sha/). The kun-yomi 臨む (”to face“ /nozomu/) is in a phrase such as 試合に臨む (“to face a match” /shiai ni nozomu/.)

(3) 覧 “to view”

History覧In ten style it consisted of two writings 監 and 見. The top had a watchful eye, and a person looking at his reflection in water that was contained in a flat bowl. It meant “to observe” and eventually became the kanji 監 “to observe; to watch carefully.” The bottom 見 is a person with the eye emphasized. So many references to “seeing” in this kanji 覧 “to view”!  Just as 臨席 was an honorific form, ご覧になる is also an honorific verb “to look.” This is because seeing is done from a high position. 覧 is also used in 展覧会 (“exhibition” /tenra’nkai/) and 閲覧室 (“viewing or reading room” /etsura’nshitsu.)

(4) 緊  “tight; imminent”

History of the Kanji 緊The meaning of “hard; tight” came from the top of another kanji shares (堅 “hard; solid” /ke’n; kata’i/). The bottom was threads. To tighten threads and make a tight knot signified something “tight” and “imminent.” It is used in words such as 緊急の (“extremely urgent” /kinkyuu-no/) and 緊張する (“to feel nervous and tense” /kinchoo-suru/.)

(5) 蔵 “a vault; to store securely”

History of the Kanji 蔵The top is the buxhu kusakanmuri “grass.” Tall grasses hide a person or thing well. The bottom was used for phonetic purposes, also meant “to hide.” The shape itself consisted of a bed or table with legs (here vertically placed), a watchful eye or subject (臣), and a halberd (戈), a type of weapon. Altogether they meant that one  hid something important under the place where one slept and watched out with a weapon to protect himself. From that it meant “a vault” or “to store away.” Quite cleverly constructed, I must say. By itself is the jun-yomi 蔵 (“vault; treasure storage” /kura’/) and the on-yomi is in 冷蔵庫 (“refrigerator” /reezo’oko/.)

(6) 臓 “organ”

Kanji 臓The last kanji in this post 臓 was also very cleverly constructed. If we take the kanji 蔵 and add nikuduki 月 “flesh or part of body” (it came from the kanji 肉 “flesh; meat“), we get the kanji 臓 “organ.” A part of the body that is hidden and protected inside is an organ. We get words such as 心臓 (“heart” /shinzoo/), 肝臓 (“liver” /kanzoo/) and 内臓 (”internal organs” /naizoo/.)  An ancient writing for this kanji was not available.

For our next post, I hope to be able to look into the kanji 眠・銀・限・眼 (and other, if I can.)

[Joyo kanji beyond 1,006 Educational kanji that were mentioned in this post: 監・堅・緊]  [3-31-2014]

Eyes Wide Open (2) 直, 値, 植, 置 and 徳 


In this post, I am going to discuss the five kanji 直値植置 and 徳. They all have the common component of 直 ”straight; direct.”

(1) 直 “straight; direct”

History of 直The kanji 直 also contains an eye. In oracle bone style, (1), a side-long shape of an eye had a straight vertical line above. A writing found on a stone inscription, (2), that is believed to predate ten-style had a dot on this vertical line to indicate that the line was important.  In ten style, (3), the dot for emphasis at the top turned into a straight stroke.  Being straight is a “direct” way.  So, the kanji 直 means “straight; direct.”

(2) 値  “value”

Kanji 値By adding a bushu ninben “person; an act that one does” to 直, we get the kanji 値. When one looks at something in a straight and direct way, he is assessing its value. The kanji 値 means “value; approximation, pricing.” It is used in words such as 値段 (“price” /nedan/), 価値 (“value” /ka’chi/) in on-reading as well as 値 (“value” /atai/ ) in kun-reading.

(3) 植 “to plant”

Kanji 植By adding a bushu kihen “tree; wood,” we get the kanji 植. When one plants a tree, he places the tree straight up. This is used to construct words such as 植木 (“garden plant” /ueki/) and 植物 (“plant” as contrasted to animal /shoku’butu/) in on-reading, and 植える (“to plant” /ueru/) in kun-reading. It is also used to infer colonization, as in 植民地 (“colony” /shokumi’nchi/.)

(4) 置 “to place; leave”

Kanji 置Does the top of the kanji 置 look like “an eye” to you? Well, its ten style on the left side tells us that it was a net. In order to catch birds, a net was placed straight above the area where birds gather. From that the writing meant “to place; leave; lay (something).” The kanji 置 makes up words such as 位置 (“position” /i’chi/), 放置する (“to neglect“ /ho’ochi-suru/) in on-reading as well as 置く (“to leave; place; lay” /oku/) in kun-reading.

(5) 徳 “virtue; personal grace”

History of 徳In oracle bone style, (1), we can see that the left side was the original shape of 直, having a straight line and an eye.  The right side was a right half of a crossroad, which meant “to go,” or, when applied in a person, “to conduct oneself” or “deed; act.” Together they meant “one’s conduct with his eye looking straight.” In bronze ware style, (2), a heart 心 was added and the left side of a crossroad was used. So, this writing had a straight line of sight, true heart and straightforward act all in one. Wow! That is one heavily laden meaning. Do we think of “virtue; personal grace,” which is the English translation, in this manner? In ten style, (3), the components were more stylized and the current kanji 徳, (4), lost an angle line below an eye.

In a quick look of the English meanings of these five kanji, it is not obvious that they once had something common. But the ancient writings do reveal what had been left behind along the way as they got standardized into kanji. To me the stories give me something to reflect on how people, of ancient and present times, tried or try to put an idea into visible form so that we could communicate it to others. In the next post, I will discuss a 臣 group (臣, 臨, 覧, 緊, 蔵, 臓.)    [3-25-2014]

Eyes Wide Open (1) 目, 相, 想 and 箱


Ancient creators used different images of each of the human physical features. For “eye,” it was not just 目, and a few other different images were created. We are going to look at different shapes of “eye” that are hidden in various kanji. In this post the kanji 目, 相, 想 and 箱 are discussed.

(1) 目 “eye; seeing”

The eyes in the two oracle bone style writings, (1) and (2), had a pupil and two areas of the white of an eye on each side. That is a side-long shape, which is closer to how an eye looks on the face. In ten style, (3), the eye was placed vertically. Being longer in height than in width is one of the characteristics of ten style writing. The kanji 目 has a number of meanings. Here are only some of them. Kun-yomi /me/ examples include 目 (“eye; ability to see” /me’/), 〜に目がない (“to like very much without reservation” /x ni me’ga na’i/), 目方(“weight” /mekata/) and 四人目 (”fourth person” /yoninme’/).   /Ma/ in 目の当たりにする (“to see in one’s own eyes” /manoa‘tari-ni-suru/) is another kun-yomi. On-yomi examples are 注目する (“to pay attention to” /chuumoku-suru/), 目的 (“purpose” /mokuteki/), and 課目 (“subject matter” /kamoku/.)

(2) 相 “(facing) each other”

Kanji 相 HistoryThe kanji 相 consists of a bushu kihen 木 “tree” and 目 “eye.” If a person faces and looks at a tree, it means the tree faces and looks at the person at the same time. From that the kanji 相 means “facing each other; mutual; government minister (from someone who watches the governmental matter); phase.” In the image on the left, the first two, (1) and (2), are in oracle bone style, and they had a tree above or below an eye. In bronze ware style, (3), a tree and an eye were placed side by side. The eye had a shape that would survive as 臣 “loyal subject” from a watchful eye in several kanji as we will discuss in our third post on eye. In ten style, (4), the two elements are more controlled shapes and closer to kanji, (5), as we use now. Its kun-yomi is /a’i/, as in words such as 相手 (“partner/opponent” /aite’/). The on-yomi words include 相談する (“to talk over with” /soodan-suru/), 首相 (“prime minister” /shushoo/) and 相思相愛 (“(two people) in love with each other” /so’oshi sooai/.)

(3) 想 “think; contemplate”

By adding a heart (心) to 相 “facing each other” we got the kanji 想 “to contemplate.” (The writing on the left is ten-style and the right one is the kanji.) When a person entertains a thought, memory, or idea in his heart, he and the object of thinking are facing other. From that, this kanji tends to have something to reflect on or visualize such as 想像する (“to imagine; visualize” /soozoo-suru/), 感想 (“impression” /kansoo/, 理想 “an ideal” /risoo/.)

(4) 箱  “box”

The top is a bushu takekanmuri “bamboo.”  Once rooted well, bamboo grows strongly and propagates quickly. It provides light-weight materials that are easy to make crafts. Bamboo was also used as the medium of writing before paper was invented. So, many kanji that have a takekanmuri are related to craft or writing. This kanji 箱 is one of them. The bottom 相 was used phonetically for /so’o/ but also gave its original meaning “facing each other.” In traveling, two bamboo boxes were hung on either side of a carriage horse.

In this blog, I am primarily discussing the kanji out of the 1,100 kanji that are included in The Key to Kanji (Williams 2010). If you look at the entire list of the new joyo-kanji, we will find other kanji that contain this common component 相. In the next post, I plan to discuss 直 and four other kanji that contain 直 (値, 植, 置 and 徳).  [3-20-2014]

Kanji as “Surreal and Poetic” Sum of Components -栄舌聞


In relation to the last short discussion on the kanji 栄 and 営, I am pleased to introduce something totally different in this post. It is an art work by a young talented artist who took his inspiration and imagination from the etymology of the kanji 榮 (栄). His name is Yutaka Houlette, and he shares his art work with viewers at his Tumblr site: http://one-piece-at-a-time.tumblr.com/post/39697880915. Please enjoy a different aspect of kanji in this artist’s conception.

聞 舌 original cartoons?Speaking of visual art, — in just the last few days, as I was preparing a new web kanji course, I came across a couple of ancient writings that I could not help smiling at. (I am working on various physical features used in bushu now.)

Please look at the ancient writings (1) and (2). Which kanji do you think they correspond to?  Writing (1) has a man, who is praying with his hands to a god. He listens to the words of the god so intently that his ear becomes big!  It meant “to listen” and it was in oracle-bone style.   The current shape 聞 consists of two closed doors over an ear. One listens to what is said behind the two closed doors.  How about the writing in (2)? It is a tongue moving in and out, showing two tongues. This is the original flip-book cartoon, or a primitive animation, isn’t it? The kanji became 舌 (/shita’/ “tongue”.)

Ancient creators of writing had to be master artists as well. Otherwise, they could not help their rulers communicate with their gods. I like what Yutaka says, that the sum of the components in some kanji are “surreal and poetic.” In my work I go back and forth between this “surreal and poetic” world and the reality of being a teacher trying to find a way to show students how they can enjoy and, at the same time, learn kanji.   [3-6-2014]

A Bonfire for “Prosperity” – 栄 and 営


In our life a fire (火) has many faces that are reflected in many different kanji. It can provide us warmth (熱) by burning (燃). It cooks food (焼・煮). One could send a signal to someone near or far in darkness of night by light (灯) or in day light by smoke (煙). Fire leaves soot (点・黒) and charcoal (炭). It could create a calamity (災) by burning everything down to ashes (灰). Or its flame (炎) lights up an area at night (灯・照) to make night life safe. In this post I am going to talk about the flames of a bonfire.

Kanji栄historyBrisk, intense flames of a bonfire (篝火 /kagaribi/ in Japanese) illuminating property suggests “flourishing and prospering.” A property with lots of trees guarded by such bonfires around the property line must be a prosperous house. The kanji 榮 means “prosperous; flourishing.”

The bronze ware style writing for 栄 (its kyujitai 榮), (1), had two intersecting sticks holding a bonfire. The ten-style writing, (2), added two fires around the boundary of the property tree(s). The kyujitai style, (3), had two fires on top. Japanese language reform simplified this to 栄. The kanji 栄 means ”prosperity” and is used in words such as 光栄 /kooei/ “honor,” 栄える /sakae’ru/ “to prosper,” and 栄えある日 /hae’aruhi/ “a day of glory.” We no longer use fires to signify the prosperity.

Kanji 営 HistoryBy replacing a tree with two conjoined rooms or buildings (呂), we get the kanji 営. This kanji too started with two fires −−as in (5) in ten-style and (6) in kyujitai style. 営 originally meant military barracks that had multiple buildings, and important activities were busily conducted there. Now it means “to conduct business; manage.” It is used in words such as 営業中/eegyoochuu/ “Open (for business),” 経営 /keeee/ “management” and (店を)営む /itona’mu/ “to run a store.”

Even though the tops of these kanji got simplified into the same shape as the tops of the kanji 学 “to learn” and 覚 “to memorize,” the two pairs (栄営 and 学覚) have nothing in common. The kyujitai for 学 is 學 and that for 覚 is 覺. I will discuss these kanji at a later date.     [3/6/2014]

PS.  I would like to invite our readers to visit this Tumblr site to see an artistic interpretation of the kanji 栄 (榮) by Yutaka Houlette.  [3-7-2014]