One Foot at a Time (4) 傑燐憐隣-Two feet off the ground


1. 傑 “to stand out”

History傑In the last post, we have seen that one of the two interpretations of the origin of the kanji 乗 is that it was a man standing on a tree with each of his two feet facing outwards. Taking that interpretation, we can see that the ten style of the kanji 傑 consisted of a person on the left and two feet placed on top of a tree. A person who stood on top of a tree would stand out. So the kanji 傑 meant “to stand out.” There is no kun-reading. The on-reading /ketsu/ is in 傑作 (“masterpiece” /kessaku/), 豪傑 (“strong man; bold man” /gooketsu/) and 傑出した (“outstanding” /kesshutsu-shita/).

2. 燐 “phosphoric; onibi; will-o’-the-wisp”

History燐The common component of the next three kanji (燐・憐・隣) consists of 米 and 舛. In the oracle bone style, 燐 had a person (大) with two feet who was surrounded by four small fires or flickering lights. The kun-reading for the kanji 燐 are /oni’bi or onibi/ and /kitsunebi/. Onibi or kitsunebi is a small mysterious fireball or a flickering light that people saw (or thought to have seen) in the darkness of night. A scientific explanation of that is that a decayed body in the ground may emit a gas that causes a small fireball or flickering light at night. In English it is sometimes called will-o’-the-wisp. Summer is the season in Japan in which people enjoy an evening by watching a horror film or having a scary experience in a haunted house. The word onibi or kitsunebi comes with the season or in folktale.

This component appears in a number of kanji, so 火 was added to differentiate this from other kanji. The on-reading /rin/ is in 燐酸 “phosphoric acid.” Even though the kin-reading is onibi or kitsunebi, I would write those words as 鬼火 (“lit. demon’s fire”) or 狐火 (“fox fire”), that are more scary to me. A kun-reading touches our hearts more closely than an on-reading because it is an original Japanese word.

3. 憐 “pity”

History憐For the kanji 憐 in bronze ware style it had a heart at the bottom.  In ten-style, the heart moved to the left side and became a bushu risshinben (a vertical heart). The right side was used phonetically. It meant “to pity; feel sorrow.”The kun-reading is 憐れむ (“to pity” /aware’mu/), and the on-reading /ren/ is in 憐憫 (“pity” /renbin/.)

4. 隣 “neighbor”

History隣rrOf the four kanji we are looking at in this post, the kanji 隣 is the most useful kanji for us. In a bronze ware style, the left one,(a), was the same as the bronze ware style of the kanji 燐, as we saw in 2. Another bronze ware style, (b), had a high mound of soil or steps. In ten style, (c), however, two changes happened: one is that the top of the left side became two fires; another is that the left side moved to the right and became a bushu ozato. In shinjitai, (e), the bushu ozato moved back to the left, and became a kozato-hen.

In many of our previous posts we have seen that sometimes a component shifted position and appeared somewhere else in another style or even in the same style. So we would think that appearing in a different position does not change its meaning. But not in the case of a bushu kozato-hen こざとへん(on the left) and a bushu ozato  おおざと(on the right.) A high mound of soil that formed a ladder or a boundary became a bushu kozat-hen whereas the shape that had a box and a person meant an area where people lived, that was a village, became a bush ozato. In this case, the ten style reflected the meaning of “neighbor.” Since the time of ten-style, a bushu ozato on the right 鄰 was treated as the correct form. In shinjitai, we use 隣 with a bushu kozatohen.

In this post we talked about the ancient shape that had two feet of a person pointing to right and left. That became 舛 in 舞傑燐憐隣, but not in the kanji 乗. There is another kanji that I did not discuss here, that is 磔 (“crucifixion” /haritsuke/), with the meaning of two feet on a tree and a rock (石) thrown at it. The precursors of kanji can be so descriptive that sometimes I wish I had not known the origins.

In leaving this topic, from the examples we have seen we can make a working hypothesis that 舛 meant two feet off the ground, whether they are dancing feet, feet on a tree top, or mysterious flickering light. If we come across other kanji we will revisit this hypotheses. [July 28, 2014]

One Foot at a Time (3) 無舞乗


In this post and the next two posts we are going to look at the shape 舛, which came from two downward-facing feet of the same person. If we break down the shape 舛, we get two shapes (タand ヰ) that are vertically placed in kanji such as降 that we looked at in the earlier post.

1. 無 “nothing”

History無rHave you ever wondered how strange the kanji 無 looks? You may be surprised to know that it has a pretty origin. In oracle bone style it was a person carrying a branch of a tree or feathers in each of his or her two hands, dancing. Dancing usually means vocative dancing that was meant for the god to see, possibly praying for rain during a dry spell. As the writing progressed it became more elaborate. In earlier time the writing was borrowed to mean “nothing” for its sound /bu/. In ten style, we can recognize the origin of 亡 “to disappear” in the center. The kanji 無 means “nothing; not.” The kun-reading is 無い (“not exist”/na’i/). The on-reading /mu/ is in 無理な (“unreasonable” /mu’ri-na/), 無味乾燥な (“dry as chip; uninteresting” /mu’mi kansoo-na/), 皆無 (“absolutely none,” /ka’imu/). Another on-reading /bu/ is in 無事な (“safe” /buji-na/) and 無難な (“safe; flawless” /bunan-na/).

997st無70mmI must confess that I had been writing this kanji in the wrong stroke order for some time. One day I realized that the third stroke was the long horizontal line, then it became easier for me to write a better-shaped kanji. This is the stroke order for 無 on the left.

2. 舞 “to dance”

History舞rrrBecause the original writing for dancing had been taken away to mean “nothing,” a new writing for dancing was created by adding two downward feet. In bronze ware style, there was writing that had two feet underneath. In ten style, it was a person with a branch in either hand and two downward feet at the bottom. In kanji the right foot became the shape of a katakana タ/ta/ and the left foot became an old katakana ヰ/i/, which we no longer use. The kanji 舞 means “to dance.”

There is another kanji for “to dance” 踊る. How do we use the two kanji differently in Japanese? My instinct was that 舞 was used for more traditional art forms of dancing that had a formal choreography and that 踊る was more general. But I was not sure enough to leave it like that for our readers. So, I looked up the good old Kojien dictionary, which is like looking up the Oxford Dictionary for English. For 舞, it says, …even though the distinction between 舞 and 踊 is not clear, in 舞 (/mai/), [a dancer primarily makes] movements across a stage in ways such as suriashi “shuffling feet,” whereas in 踊り (/odori/) [he] uses rhythmic and energetic movements of hands and legs…(Kojien 1969.) The kun-reading /ma’(u)/ is in 舞いを舞う (“to dance a choreographed dance gracefully” /mai o ma’u/). The phrase repeats the words of same meaning like 歌を歌う (“to sing a song” /uta’o utau/) and 踊りを踊る (“to dance” /odori o odoru/). The on-reading /bu/ is in 舞台 (“stage” /bu’tai/), 歌舞伎 (“kabuki play” /kabuki/) and 舞踊 (“dancing” /buyoo/).

3. 乗 (乘) “to ride on”

History乗rrThe kanji 乗 does not appear to have two feet, but the history shows us that it did come from two feet too. In oracle bone style, it was a person standing on top of a tree. So it meant to climb onto the top of a tree. In bronze ware style, his two downward feet got focused and became symmetrical shapes facing two opposing directions. In ten style, the more stylized two feet were placed on top of a tree and a person 人 got separated at the top. That was how I had interpreted the three styles of ancient writing for the shinjitai 乗 and was in line with what I had written in my 2010 book.

This time the explanation by Shirakawa (2004), that the origin of 乗 was “two people climbing a tall tree,” caught my attention.  Where did “two people” come from? I was puzzled. Then, when I looked at the kyujitai, in blue, I recognized the elements of the kanji 北 “north,” which had originated from two people sitting or standing back to back. Other sources such as Kanjigen says it was “a person climbing a tree with his two feet (the right foot and the left foot).” Whichever interpretation we take, in kanji it got simplified and it is hard to see any shape of feet from those straight lines. The kun-reading 乗る “to ride” is in words such as 乗り物 (“vehicle; public transportation” /norimono/), 乗り気 (“eagerness; enthusiasm” /noriki/). The on-reading /jo’o/ is in 乗車する (“to get on a car” /joosha-suru/), 乗客 (“passenger” /jookyaku/), 便乗する(“to take advantage of” /binjoo-suru/).
549st乗70mmThe stroke order of 乗 is similar to that of 無, in which the long horizontal line is the third stroke.

The schedule for next few postings may be irregular due to lack of Internet access. I wish you a good summer. [July 20, 2014]

P.S. If your browser does not show ヰ,it is the old katakana /i/ that we do not use any longer in Japanese.

The online kanji tutorial site VISUAL KANJI open


L1_S1_Video1漢字表rI am pleased to let you know that the Visual Kanji video tutorial course is now available at its own web site.  It is

I hope that you and/or someone whom you know who is interested in studying kanji will visit the site and see how it works.  It is free and you can set your own pace to study. Thank you very much.   – Noriko Williams

[Revised on January 30, 2015] I am adding the table of the 200 kanji in the Part 1.

Visual Kanji Part 1 Kanji Table

One Foot at a Time (2) 韋衛圍(囲)違偉


The shapes that came from two footprints appear in various kanji. In this post we are going to look at the kanji that had two sideways feet facing in opposite directions and a square in the middle: 韋衛圍(囲)違偉.

1. 韋

History韋The shape 韋 is the topic of this post. In oracle bone style, it had a sideways footprint facing in the left direction (top) and another facing in the right direction (bottom) across a square (middle). It meant a wall of a town or fort being patrolled. Walking opposite directions gave the meaning “to be different.” This kanji is not Joyo kanji and the only word that I can think of is 韋駄天 (”great runner” /idaten/), which is usually used, with admiration, for a very fast runner. The Kenkyusha’s New Japanese English Dictionary (1974) gives the meaning “a swift-running heavenly runner,” a colorful translation. I would imagine that having two feet may be something to do with this use.

2. 衛 “to guard”

History衞The kanji 衛 seems to have two different streams of history, and that may explain why the current kanji shinjitai (g) is different from its immediate predecessor kyujitai (f) at the bottom of the middle. Throughout history, the outer shapes were a crossroad, which by itself became the kanji 行 “to go; conduct.” Let us focus on the middle. In oracle bone style, (a) and (b), it was a footprint or two footprints in opposite directions, and a plough in the middle. A plough became the kanji 方, and had the meaning of four directions. Footprints going in all directions meant to patrol the area. In bronze ware style, in addition to (c), which was same as (a) and (b), there was (d), having a box in the middle. They meant soldiers patrolling around the wall of a town or fort to guard it. In ten style, yet another shape appeared at the bottom of the middle, which apparently phonetically meant “to circle around.” Kyujitai generally took the shape of its ten style, and in this kanji it was also the case. Then, in kanji, the shape took the shape 韋, two feet in opposing directions. This had the predecessor (d).

The kanji 衛 does not have a kun-reading. The on-reading /ee/ is in words such as 自衛隊 (“Self-defense Forces” /jieetai/), 防衛 (“defense” /booee/), and 護衛する (“to guard” /goee-suru/), which are security related, and 衛生 (“hygiene; sanitation” /eesee/), related to guarding a life. Among the words that mean “going around” are 人工衛星 (“satellite” /jinkoo-e’esee/), which literally means “a man-made star that orbits,” and 衛星放送 (“satellite broadcasting” /eesee-ho’osoo/).

3. 囲(圍)”to surround; enclosure”

History囲圍The kanji 囲 came from the kyujitai 圍. In bronze ware style and ten style, two feet patrolling around a circle was placed in an enclosure. It meant “to surround; enclose.” It is interesting to think about how the two kanji 衛 and 圍 were related. While the kanji 衛 meant “defense” or “protect”, the kanji 圍 meant more an attack: By placing 韋 inside a closed box, which is the bushu くにがまえ, it meant to envelop what was guarded inside. The kun-reading is 囲む (/kakomu/ “to surround; enclose”), 囲う (”to enclose; fence in” /kakoo/).  The on-reading is in 包囲する (“to envelop” /ho’oi-suru/), 周囲 (“the circumference” /shu’ui/), 範囲 (“scope; sphere” /ha’n-i/ はんい), and 雰囲気 (“atmosphere; ambience” /hun-i’ki/ ふんいき.) To write a complex 10 stroke shape 韋 inside a kunigamae (囗) is not easy. I would think that that was the reason why people used 井 for its sound /i/ (kin-reading) and the meaning of a square.

4. 違 “different; to differ”

History違rFor the kanji 違, in bronze ware style in addition to 韋, the two opposing feet around a box, it had a left side of a crossroad and a footprint at the bottom. In ten style the crossroad and a footprint were placed vertically. In kanji, those two items became a bushu, shinnyoo “to go forward.” Together two feet going in different directions meant “to be different.” The kun-reading /chiga(u)/ is in words such as 間違える (“to make a mistake” /machiga’eru; machigae’ru/), すれ違う (“to pass by each other” /surechigau/), 勘違いする (“to guess wrong; make a wrong conjecture” /kanchi’gai-suru/.) The on-reading is in 交通違反 (“traffic violation” /kootsuu-i’han/), 相違ない (“certain; no doubt about it” /sooina’i/.)

5. 偉 “grand; eminent”

History偉For the kanji 偉 in ten style, a person was added to 韋. A person who is different and stands out among the ordinary people commands respect. The kanji 偉 means “great; eminent.” The kun-reading is in 偉そうに (“with a grand air” /eraso’o ni/). The word 偉い (“great; eminent” /era’i/) is also used as an expression, meaning “Good job!; Well done!” to praise an act that someone did, particularly someone junior to you. The on-reading /i/ is in 偉大な (“illustrious” /idaina/), 偉人伝 (“biography of a great figure” /iji’nden/).

In the next post, I am continuing with the shapes that came from two footsteps, 舛 in particular: 傑無舞隣燐. [July 13, 2014]

One Foot at a Time (1) 後夏降麦来



In the next few posts, we will be looking at the various shapes in kanji that came from a footprint or footmark.  Kanji differentiate two directions of walking, forward and backward/downward. We have seen a few kanji that had a forward facing footprint earlier in the kanji 止歩正 and 政. In this post we will look at a backward or downward footprint.

forwardbackwardfeetDirection of footprints:  How did ancient creators of writing in China differentiate the two directions of walking? In the table on the left, the top row shows the development of forward footprint shapes, and in the bottom row for a backward or downward footprint. I am assuming that where two lines crossed was where the toe was. Based on that assumption we can say that the kanji 止 was a left foot and the bushu chi 夂 was a right foot.

(1) The kanji 後 “behind; back; later”

History後rFor the kanji 後, the top of the first bronze ware style on the left had a crossroad (彳) and short threads (幺) and the bottom had a forward footprint (止) and a backward footprint (夂). But the forward footprint was not in the second sample nor in ten style. Short threads meant smallness. By waking in small steps one became behind and arrived later. From that the kanji 後 meant “behind; back; later; late.” In ten style, 夂 “backward foot” became 夊 “dragging foot,” but in kanji it became 夂. It seems that even though夂 “backward foot” and夊 “dragging foot” had different meanings, sometimes they were used interchangeably.

There are three different kun-readings , /ushi(ro)/, /a’to/ and /nochi’/.  They appear in words such as 後ろ (“behind” /ushi(ro)/), 後ろ前 (“with front side back” /ushiro’mae/), 後ろめたい (“to feel a guilty conscience” /ushirometa’i/);  for /a’to/, 後で  (“later; at later time” /a’to de/), 後になって (“after it happened” /a’to ni natte/), 後ずさりする (“to move backward” /atozu’sari-suru/); and for /nochi’/, 後ほど (“sometime later” [polite] /nochihodo/) and その後 (“after that” [polite/writing] /sononochi/). There are two on-readings: /go/ is in 食後 (“after meal” /shokugo), 十年後 (“ten years later” /juunengo/) and /koo/ is in 後半 (“second half” /koohan/ and 後輩 (“a junior in seniority” /koohai/).

(2) The kanji 夏 “summer”

History夏In the kanji 夏, in bronze ware style the top was the head of an official with a headdress on, which appears in many kanji related to a head, including 頭 “head” and 顔 “face.”  Below that he had some adornments in his hands and a downward foot at the bottom. He was dancing in a festival showing off fancy step work and hand movements. From a festival in summer it meant “summer.” In kanji, the two hands were dropped and fancy footwork remained. The kun-reading is in 真夏 (“midsummer” /manatsu/), 夏場 (“during summer” /natsuba/).  The on-reading /ka/ is in 立夏 (“beginning of summer on calendar”/ri’kka/).

(3) The kanji 降 “to fall in the sky; come down.”

History降rFor the kanji 降, in all of the ancient writing, the left side had a pile of dirt raised high, indicating a high place. A dirt wall served as a boundary. This bushu is called kozatohen, and it meant “ladder, boundary, high land.” The right side, in both oracle bone style and bronze ware style were two footsteps facing downward-  a right footprint (the top) and a left footprint (the bottom). In ten style, the bottom footprint was placed more sideways. This shape appears in 韋, a component of the kanji 偉, 違 and 圍 (囲), which we will look at in the next post.  So, with a kozatohen and two downward footprints coming down from the high place, the kanji 降 meant “to fall (from the sky)” and “to descend.”

There are three different kun-readings: /hu’(ru)/, /o(ri’ru)/ and /kuda(ru)./  They are in words such as 雨が降る (“it rains” /a’me ga huru/), 雪が降って来た (“It has started to snow ” /yuki’ ga hutte-kita/); 電車を降りる (“to get off a train” /densha o oriru/), 階段を降りる (“to walk down the stairs” /kaidan o ori’ru/); and ライバルチームを降す (“to win over the rival team” /raibaru-chi’imu o kudasu/). Quite often for /oriru/ and /kudasu/, a simpler kanji 下 is used. The on-reading /koo/ is in 下降する (“to decline” /kakoo-suru/), それ以降 (“since then” /sorei’koo/), 降参する (“to surrender” /koosan-suru/) and 降雨量 (“amount of rainfall” /koou’ryoo/).

Shirakawa (2004) says that a kozatohen was a ladder from which a god descended to the earth. A couple of words do contain the meaning that 降originated from the god descending from heaven. Some of our readers may be familiar with the word /amakudari/ 天降り, which meant a retiring high-ranking government official landing a lucrative job in a private industry that relies on his strong ties to the government. Just like the phrase “a revolving door” in the U. S. it is not used in a complementary context. Another word, by no means a daily word, but nonetheless in the media in the last few years, is 降嫁 (“a royal princess marrying a subject” /ko’oka/.)

(4) 麦 “barley”

History麦In the oracle bone style of the kanji 麦, the top was a barley plant, and the bottom was a downward footprint. In all the styles through the time of kyujitai before the post-war language reform, a barley plant and a downward footprint in the shape of a katakana /ta/ were recognizable. Barley plants grow early and in early spring a farmer treads on the seedlings that pushed up from the ground. In Japanese it is called 麦踏み (treading on barley) and in haiku tradition, it signifies early spring. A downward/backward walk signified that a farmer walked back and forth.

The kun-reading /mu’gi/ is also in 麦茶 (“roasted barley tea” /mugi’cha/). It is a summer drink with no caffeine (if it is pure barley.) In my childhood memory of summer every morning when I walked into the kitchen there was a huge kettle with mugicha in a cloth bag that my grandmother had set up, giving sweet, roasted smell in the air. When I drank freshly made mugicha, there was always a hint of sweetness without sugar. As the day wore on, the sweetness strangely disappeared. Nowadays in a life of convenience, mugicha comes in a prepackaged tea bag that you even do not have to boil, but the price is that it does not have the aroma from my childhood memory. The on-reading /ba’ku/ is in 麦芽 (“malt” /bakuga/).

(5) 来 “to come; upcoming”

History来Speaking of a barley plant, all three styles of ancient writing for the kanji 来 were a barley plant. If you compare with those for 麦, you would think that having downward footprints makes more sense for the meaning “to come,” because someone is coming toward you. Apparently very early on in ancient time, those two writings got mixed up and switched the use of!

The kun-reading is tricky, as any beginning Japanese student knows. The verb inflections  in Japanese are quite regular and are not difficult to learn, except 来る “to come” and する“to do.” So, there are four different kun-readings: 来る (“to come” /ku’ru/), 来ない (“not come” /ko’nai /), 来て(“come!” /ki’te/), and 来る (“upcoming” /kita’ru/) when used as adjective.  The on-reading is in 未来 (“distant future” /mi’rai/) and 将来 (“near future” /sho’orai/).

In the next post, I am continuing with a story of two footsteps in one kanji. [July 5, 2014; partially revised on December 5, 2016.]