The kanji 老孝考長張帳髪抜 “the long hair of elders”


In this post we begin with the three kanji 老孝考 that share the bushu oigashira “old,” the three kanji 長張帳 that have 長 “long” and two kanji 髪抜. They all came from “hair of an elder person.”

(1) The kanji 老 “to become old; to age; old”

History of Kanji 老In bronze ware style, the two samples (a) and (b) had the same shapes in which a man with a long hair (more like a long bang in front of his face) stood slightly stooping and holding something in his hand. The man in (a) had a walking stick whereas in (b) two lines were hanging down from his arm. This shape reminds us of the bronze ware style sample of the kanji 兄 that we saw in an earlier post [on August 20, 2014].

兄(koukotuThe two samples of the kanji 兄 are from that post. One, in oracle bone style, was praying on his knees and the one in bronze ware style had some ornaments to carry out a religious ritual. From that we concluded that the kanji 兄 meant an elder person of the family who carries out a religious ceremony – “elder person” or “older brother.” The kanji 兄 and 老 (and 考, as we are going to see next) tell us that the role of an elder was to carry out ancestral religious ceremony. I have not come across any other explanation for these two lines.

Now back to the kanji 老 — (a) and (b) meant an elderly person who carried out ancestral religious ceremony, the chief of a clan. In bronze ware style, in (c) and (d), his long hair was more emphasized at the top and the bottom had the shape 匕. The shape匕 was a person or fallen person. It appeared in the kanji 死 “death” and 化 “to change.” Together they meant “to become old; to age; old.” In kanji the long hair at the top became the shape 土 with a long slanted line.

The kun-yomi is 老いる /oi’ru/ and means “to become old; age.” The on-yomi /ro’o/ is in 老人 (“old person” /roojin/), 老化 (“aging” /rooka/) and 老後 (“one’s old age” /roogo./)

(2) The kanji 考 “to think”

History of Kanji 考In oracle bone style, (a) was basically the same shape as (a) and (b) of the kanji 老, except that he had both a walking stick and ornaments in his hand. In (b), his hair became long and bushy. In bronze ware style, (c) and (d), the bottom had a shape that signified “bent; not straight,” and had the sound /ko’o/. Together they originally meant a deceased father. The bent shape at the bottom was also suggestive of something that did not come straight. One takes time to think. So it was also used to mean “to think.”

The kun-yomi考える /kanga’eru/ means “to think” and is in 考え (“thought; idea” /kanga’e/.) The on-yomi /ko’o/ is in 思考 (“thinking” /shikoo/), 参考になる (“to provide one with useful information” /sankoo ni na’ru/) and 参考書 (“reference” /sankoosho/).

(3) The kanji 孝 “filial duty”

History of Kanji 孝In oracle bone style, only long hair at the top appeared to signify an old person, and the bottom was a child. In bronze ware style and ten style, a long-haired person was stooping over a child. Together they meant a child taking care of old parents or filial responsibility. The on-yomi of the kanji 考 and 孝 are both /ko’o/, but while the kanji 考 is a semantic-phonetic composite, the kanji 孝 is a semantic composite.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi is in 親孝行する (“to act kindly to parents” /oyako’okoo-suru/) and 親不孝者な (“undutiful (to parents)” /oyahu’koona/).

Incidentally, the bushu oigashira means “old,” and in addition to these kanji above, it also appears in the kanji 教. The left side is the kanji 孝, but it had a different origin from “old,” as discussed in an earlier post [October 18, 2015.]

(4) The kanji 長 “long; chief”

History of Kanji 長In the oracle bone style of the kanji 長, it was an old man standing with a cane. What looks like a long “top hat” was long hair. We can also spot a tiny dot under his arm in this kanji too. It meant a chief or elder person of a clan. In bronze ware style, a man standing on the ground was added on the left. In ten style the shape that became 匕in 老 was present. Together they meant “chief; long.” In ten style it was not very easy to see a long hair, but interestingly it became more visible in kanji.

The kun-yomi /naga’i/ 長い means “long. ” Another kun-yomi 長 “osa” means “chief; elder.” The kun-yomi /cho’o/ is in 身長 (”(one’s) height”/shinchoo/), 長男・長女 (“first born male child; first born female child” /cho’onan/cho’ojo/.) 市長 (“mayor” /shi’choo/), 長幼の序 (“order of senior and junior” /chooyoo-no-jo/.)

(5) The kanji 張 “to stretch; extend; paste”

History of Kanji 張The kanji 長 was used phonetically in the next two kanji 張 and 帳 for /cho’o/. In the ten style of the kanji 張 the left side was a bow (弓) – something that stretches. The right side kanji 長 /cho’o/ was used phonetically and also meant “to stretch.” Together they originally meant “to draw a bow to the full.” Then it was extended to mean “to stretch; to extend.”

The kun-yomi /haru/ means “to stretch; tighten; pitch.” It is in verbs such as 我を張る (“to assert oneself” /ga-o-haru/), 欲張る (“greedy; to make a pig of oneself” /yokuba’ru/), 頑張る (“to exert oneself” /ganba’ru/.) The on-yomi /cho’o/ is in 拡張する (“to expand” /kakuchoo-suru/) and 出張 (“business trip” /shucchoo/). Until the 2010 revision of Joyo kanji, we used to use this kanji to mean “to paste; stick to” for the kanji 貼.

 (6) The kanji 帳 “book; account”

History of Kanji 帳In the ten style of the kanji 帳, the left side was a piece of long cloth draped or folded. The right side gave the sound /choo/ that meant “long.” Together they originally meant a long surrounding drapery. Something that was long and folded or bound together was a booklet or ledger. So, it also meant “drapery; booklet; ledger.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /cho’o/ is in 手帳 (“picket book” /techoo/), 帳面 (“notebook” /cho’omen/), 几帳面な (”exact; methodical” /kicho’omenna/), 帳簿  (/choobo/ “account book”).

 (7) The kanji 髪 “hair”

History of Kanji 髪In bronze ware style it had a dog on the left side and a person’s head with hair on the right side — a very peculiar combination at a first look. In ten style, the left side was 長 “long.” On the right side the diagonal three lines meant “a beautiful shape” and at the bottom a dog was used phonetically for /ha’tsu/ to mean ”to pluck hair.” Together they meant “hair.” In kyujitai, the positions shifted a little – “long” and “beautiful” came at the top. If we look at the bottom closely, we see that it is not the kanji 友 but has a cross with a dot at the top. It reflected more a dog in ten style. In shinjitai, the bottom was replaced by the kanji 友.

The kun-yomi 髪 /kami’/ means “hair” and is in 髪型 (”hair style” /kamigata/) 黒髪  (“black hair” /kurokami/). It is also customarily used for 白髪 (“gray hair” /shiraga/). The on-yomi /ha’tsu/ is in 散髪する (“to have a hair cut” /sanpatsu-suru/) and in the phrase 間一髪 (“a narrow squeak” /ka’n ippatsu/.)

(8) The kanji 抜 “to pull out; stand out”

History of Kanji 抜In ten style, the left side had a bushu tehen “hand; an act that one does using a hand” and the right side was used phonetically for /ha’tsu/ to mean “to pluck hair; to pull out.” Pulling a person out from the group meant “outstanding; eminent.” The right side of the kyujitai was the same as the bottom of the kanji 髪. In shinjitai the right side became the kanji shape 友 with no relevance to its meaning.

The kun-yomi 抜く /nuku/ means “to pull out; to exceed” and also is in the verbs such as 引き抜く (“to pull out; headhunt” /hikinu’ku/), 追い抜く (“to come from behind” /oinu’ku/) and in 手抜きをする (“to cut corners” /tenuki o suru/). The on-yomi /ba’tsu/ is in 選抜チーム (“all-star team” /senbatsu-chi’imu/) and 抜群の (“preeminent” /batsugun-no/).

In this post, we have seen that long hair signified an elder person of a clan. According to Shirakawa, only an elder person of a clan was allowed to have long hair. For the next post, I am thinking about the kanji 心 “heart.” [January 30, 2015]

The kanji 寺 – 持待侍特時詩等 – “to hold; sustain”


The kanji 寺 “temple” appears in many frequently-used kanji as a tsukuri (旁 “the right side of a kanji”), but their meanings do not appear to be related to anything like a temple. In this post, we examine how the component 寺 came to be used in those kanji.

(1) The kanji 寺 “temple”

History of Kanji 寺The top of the kanji 寺 looks like the kanji 土 /do/ “soil; ground,” but in bronze ware style, in green, it was a footprint that would become 止 “to halt” or 之 ”to go.” Both kanji 止 and 之 came from the same image of a footstep, and the oracle bone style share the same shapes.  History of Kanji 之The development of the kanji 之 is shown on the right. (We have discussed the kanji 止 in the posts of December 28, 3013, and July 5, 2014.) Even though the kanji 之 is used in a male name, such as /yuki/, and is a frequently used kanji in any kanbun style writing, surprisingly it is not included in the revised Joyo kanji. Both 止 and 之 have the sound /shi or ji/ and played a phonetic role in many of the kanji that contain 寺.

Now, the meaning of 寺. In bronze ware style, it had a footstep and 寸, “hand” (please refer to the June 22, 2014 post.) The footstep gave the sound and probably the meaning of halting one’s step or staying in one place. The hand gave the meaning “to hold in hand.” Together the kanji 寺originally meant “to have in hand; keep; sustain.” Then in the Han dynasty it came to mean “government office; court office.” People who serve in imperial court and government offices worked using their hands. The government office that handled guests and diplomatic delegates from foreign countries was called 鴻臚寺 /kooroji/. Later on this guest house became a place for visiting Buddhist monks from the west to stay. From that the kanji 寺 came to mean a “temple.” So, the original meaning of 寺 “holding in hand; staying in one place; to sustain” changed to “government office” and further to “temple.”

The kun-yomi is 寺 /tera/ and means “temple.” The on-yomi /ji/ is in 寺院 (“temple” /ji’in/) and 東大寺 (“Todaiji temple” /to’odaiji/).

(2) The kanji 持 “to have; hold”

History of Kanji 持Now we are going to look at kanji that use 寺 as a tsukuri. Generally speaking, tsukuri indicated sound, and it was often the case that component used phonetically also kept its original meaning.

For the kanji 持, In bronze ware style, it had a footstep and a hand, which was the same as the kanji 寺, and it meant “to hold in hand.” In ten style, the left side had five fingers, which became a bushu tehen, ”hand; an act one does using a hand.” (Please refer to the June 7, 2013, post.) The right side 寺 was used phonetically and to mean “to hold in hand.” Together they meant “to hold or keep something in hand; sustain; possess.”

The kun-yomi 持つ “own; have; to hold in hand” is in 持っている (“to own; have; hold in hand” /mot’teiru), 持ってくる (“to bring” /motteku’ru/), 持ち物 (“belonging; property” /mochi’mono/). The on-yomi is in 持続する (“to last long time” /jizoku-suru/), 持参する (“to bring” [humble style] /jisan-suru/).

(3) The kanji 待 “to wait”

History of Kanji 待For the kanji 待, In bronze ware style, the left side was the left half of a crossroad, which became a bushu gyoninben “to go; conduct.” The right side had a footprint and a hand, and was used phonetically to mean “to sustain”. Holding back to crossing a crossroad meant “to wait.”

The kun-yomi 待つ /ma’tsu/ “to wait” is in 待ち合わせる”to meet up,” キャンセル待ち (“on a wait-list” /kyanserumachi/).  The on-yomi /ta’i/ is in 招待する (“to invite” /sho’otai-suru/), 待遇がいい (“to be treated well” /taiguu ga i’i/.)

(4) The kanji 侍 “vassal; attendant; retainer”

History of Kanji 侍In the ten style of the kanji 侍, the left side was a person, a bushu ninben. The right side 寺 was used phonetically for /ji/ and meant “government office; court office.” Together a person who serves someone in a high position closely meant “vassal; attendant; retainer.” Later on in Japan it was used for /samurai/ “military retainer (who serves a daimyo).”

The kun-yomi are 侍 /samurai/ (“samurai warrior”) and 侍る /habe’ru/ (“to wait upon.”)  The on-yomi /ji/ is in 侍従 (“chamberlain” /jijuu/) and 侍医 (“court physician” /ji’i/.)

(5) The kanji 特 “special; to stand out”

History of Kanji 特For the kanji 特, in ten style, the left side was a bushu ushihen “cow; bull.” The right side 寺 was used phonetically for /to’ku/ and meant “to stay in one place.” Together they meant a big mature stallion that stayed in a place and stood out in the herd. From that it meant “to stand out.” There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /to’ku/ is in 特に (“especially” /to’kuni/), 特別な (“special” /tokubetsuna/) and 特売 (“special sale” /tokubai/.)

(6) The kanji 時 “time; o’clock”

History of Kanji 時For the kanji 時, in oracle bone style, it was a footprint to signify “to sustain” at the top, and the sun at the bottom. In bronze ware style and ten style, the sun moves to the left. The right side took the shape of the kanji 寺 that had meant “to keep,” and had the sound /ji/. From “to sustain movement of the sun,” it meant “time.”

The kun-yomi /toki/ is その時 (“at that time; then” /sonoto’ki/), 時々 (“sometimes’ /tokidoki/), その時々によって (depending on the occasion /sono-toki’doki ni yotte/), 潮時 (“good timing” /shiodoki/). The on-yomi /ji/ is in 時間 (“time; duration of time” /jikan/), 何時 (“what time” /na’nji/), and 時代 (“era; period” /jidai/.)

(7) The Kanji 詩 “poetry”

History of Kanji 詩In the ten style writing of the kanji 詩, the left side was a bushu gonben, “words; language,” and the right was used phonetically for the sound /shi/ to mean “one’s own wish” (志.) The kanji 志 “aspiration” comes from “one goes (from “a footprint”) as his heart (from “a heart”) desires.” Words that express one’s own thought or idea are “poetry” and the kanji 詩 means “poetry.” There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /shi/ is in 詩 (“poetry” /shi/), 詩的な (“poetic” /shitekina/), and 詩人 (“poet” /shijin/).

 (8) The kanji 等 “equal; such things as; etc.”

History of Kanji 等For the kanji 等, in ten style the top was a bushu takekanmuri “bamboo” and the bottom 寺 was used phonetically only. Bamboo or wooden tablets were cut to an equal length to be bound to make a rolled book. It meant “equal; equivalent of.”

The kun-yomi 等しい /hitoshi’i/ means “equal.” It is also used as a plural suffix 等 /na’do or /to’o/ “such things as; etc.” and ら, as in 我等 (“we all” /wa’rera/). The on-yomi /to’o or do’o/ is in 平等 (“equality” /byoodoo/), 等分する (“to divide equaly” /toobun-suru/), 高等な (“advanced” /kootoo-na/).

We have seen eight kanji that contain 寺 in this post. The component 寺 is not a traditional bushu, but we have seen that the original meaning of “to hold; sustain” permeates the meanings of those kanji. We should remember that the meaning “temple” was added to 寺 much later well after kanji were established. That is why other kanji have no connection with the meaning “temple.”  [January 24, 2015]

Year of the Sheep 美義養祥詳善様 – 羊ひつじ(2)


We continue the story of kanji that contain 羊.

 (1) The kanji 美 “beauty; aesthetic”

History of Kanji 美Different interpretations on the origins include: (a) The combination of 羊 “sheep,” which had a pretty appearance, and 大 “a person” meant “beautiful”; (b) sheep (羊) that is mature and large (大) looked impressive, thus “beautiful”; or (c) viewing the whole as a single image of a sheep, with its head and front and hind legs, that looked pretty. The three ancient writings are shown on the left. In oracle bone style (brown), bronze ware style (green), and ten style (red.) In the Key to Kanji I took view (a) but now that I have spent some time looking at the sample photos of oracle bone style and bronze ware style, treating the image as a single image (view (c)), rather than being made up of two separate meanings, is more appealing to me.

The kun-yomi is 美しい (”beautiful” /utsukushi’i/). It is used more in literature than in conversation. The on-yomi /bi/ is in 美 (”beauty; aesthetics”/bi’/), 美人 (“beautiful woman” /bijin/), 美男子 (“handsome man” /bida’nshi/), 美術 (“fine art” /bi’jutsu/), and 美談 (“moving story” /bi’dan/.)

(2) The kanji 善 “good; virtue”

History of Kanji 善In Akai (2010) there are as many as 12 bronze ware style samples included. All except one looked very similar to the one shown, in green, on the left. It had a sheep at the top and two 言 “word; language” at the bottom. Why did it have two 言? One view is that “two” meant many, and it meant many people praising with words. Another is that “two” meant two parties in a court that would be judged which side was right, based on the behavior of a sacrificial sheep (Shirakawa). In ten style it had only one 言, but then in the orthographic style (正字), shown in gray here, two 言 returned. In shinjitai, 羊 and the top of 言 coalesced, and口 was kept at the bottom. There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /ze’n/ means “good; virtue,” and in 善良な (“good-natured” /zenryoona/), 善戦する (“to fight bravely” /zensen-suru/), 善処する (“to take the appropriate steps” /ze’nsho-suru/).

 (3) The kanji養 “to support; foster; nutrient”

History of Kanji 養In oracle bone style for the kanji 養, the left side was a sheep, and the right side was a hand holding a stick. Together it signified sheep farming. Sheep provided good meat. In ten style, the top was a sheep and the bottom was food in a bowl, which was the precursor to the kanji 食 “to eat.” In kanji, the bottom is the kanji 食, except that the top two strokes do not meet. It meant “to support (by providing food); foster.”

The kun-yomi 養う/yashina’u/ means “to support (by providing food); foster.” The on-yomi /yo’o/ is in 養分 (“nutrient; nourishment” /yo’obun/), 栄養 (“nutrition” /eeyoo/), 休養 (“rest” /kyuuyoo/) and 養子 (“adopted child” /yooshi/).

 (4) The kanji 祥 “auspicious”

History of Kanji 祥In ten style, the left side was an altar table, and the right side was used phonetically for /shoo/ to mean “a sign in divination.” The words of the gods were a good, favorable omen. From that it meant “auspicious; show of future success.” The kyujitai reflected the ten style writing. The left side示 (“to reveal; demonstrate” /shimesu/) was originally from “the god showing a sign an altar table,” so it meant “religious matter.” In shinjitai it got replaced by ネ a bushu shimesuhen, the shape that was similar to a katakana /ne/. (A katakana /ne/ was taken from the left side of the kanji 袮 from 禰).

The kanji 祥 is  in 吉祥 “good omen” and 発祥の地 (“birthplace” /hasshoo-no-chi’/) and 不祥事 (“scandal” /husho’oji/).

 (5) The kanji 詳 “detail; to clarify”

History of Kanji 詳The ten style of the kanji 詳 had a bushu gonben “word; language.” It shared the same sound /sho’o/ with the kanji祥 above that meant “auspicious.” With a gonben, it originally meant “to explain the god’s good words.” Now the religious flavor was dropped and it meant “details: to clarify.” The kun-yomi 詳しい /kuwashi’i/ means “in detail; knowledgeable.” The on-yomi /sho’o/ is in 詳細 (“details” /shoosai/).

(6) The kanji 義 “morality; significance”

History of Kanji 義In oracle bone style, a long bar in the middle had a sheep’s head, and the middle was a saw. In bronze ware style the sheep was separated at the top, and the bottom was a more elaborate halberd that had saw-like blades. Together they meant cutting a sacrificial sheep with a saw to prepare it as offering to the god. Something suitable for the god meant “morality; just.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /gi/ is in 正義 (“justice; right” /se’egi/), 義務 (“obligation” /gi’mu/), 義理 (“moral obligation; indebtedness” /giri’/), 意義ある (“significant; meaningful” /i’giaru/).

The kanji 義 made up a few more kanji. When a bushu gonben “word; to speak” was added to 義, it created the kanji 議 “to discuss what is just” or “to discuss.” When a bushu ninben “person” was added to 義, it created the kanji 儀 “protocol; propriety,” as in 礼儀 (“courtesy; etiquette” /reegi’/), When a bushu ushihen “cow; animal in general” was added, it made the kanji 犠 “sacrificial; victim,” as in 犠牲者 (“victim” /gise’esha.)

(7) The kanji 様 “appearance; manner: honorific form of address”

History of Kanji 様For the kanji 様, the left side of the ten style writing had a tree 木and the right side, the combination of 羊 and 永, was used phonetically and meant a sawtooth oak.


Ten 永

The kanji 永 “very long time” came form an image of tributaries, as shown on the right. The account in the Setsumon Kaiji was that it was an acorn of a kunugi tree “sawtooth oak.” A kunugi tree is native to the Far East. I gather from various articles that sawtooth oak trees have been spreading fast in the United States as a source of food for wild life because they mature fast and have a heavy crop of acorns. The kanji 様 meant “appearance; manner.”

Sawtooth Oak-Bark and Acorns

Sawtooth Oak: Bark and Acorns

Having seen a number of photos of kunugi trees in Japan and the U. S., two characteristics have intrigued me. First, the thick cork-like bark has deep ridges that run like the ancient writing for “tributaries” (永.)  Second, a round acorn is in a cup-shape receptacle that looks like, well, a wig, rather than a smooth surface (two photos on the right.)  Could the image, such as the one on the right, have been the reason for choosing 羊 that had many lines?  I think it is reasonable to think that in making up a new 形声文字 “semantic-phonetic composite writing,” creators of ancient writing had some sort of semantic association in mind in addition to phonetic use, rather than choosing randomly. Using your imagination based on what you know is a part of the fun in thinking about the etymology of kanji.  The kyujitai 樣, in blue, reflected the ten style writing. In shinjitai, 永 has been simplified.

The kun-yomi /sama/ means “appearance; state; manner” and is in 有様 (“state; condition” /a’risama/) and 様になる (“to start looking appropriate” in casual style /sama ni na’ru/). The on-yomi /yo’o/ is in 様子 (“appearance; look” /yoosu/), 同様に (in a similar manner” /dooyoo-ni/), 模様 (“pattern” /moyoo/). Additionally two different uses were added in Japan. One is 様 /sama/ as a polite form of addressing someone. Another use is in adverbial phrase 〜の様だ (“it appears or looks X” /X no yo’oda/).

This post ended up long again, because there are so many kanji that have 羊 and we regularly use them in daily life. With the versatile usefulness of sheep to people’s daily life as well as in religious life in ancient times, the kanji 羊 brings us all around goodness. [January 17, 2015]

Photos: (1) the bark of a kunugi tree and (2) the acorns of  a kunugi tree taken in Kanagawa Prefecture by Mr. Jugemu.

Year of the Sheep 羊洋達鮮群 – 羊 ひつじ (1)



A Happy New Year. I should have started with this greeting in the last post.  明ける /akeru/ means “a day breaks; a new dawn comes.” The word おめでとう /omedetoo/ is the polite style of the adjective めでたい /medeta’i/ “auspicious.” So the greeting /akema’shite omedetoo-gozaima’su/ that we exchange literary means, “The new year has broken and we celebrate this auspicious occasion.”

History of Kanji 未In the Chinese zodiac calendar, the year of 2015 is the year of the sheep, /hitsujidoshi/ in Japanese. The kanji for the word hitsujidoshi is 未年, not 羊年. The kanji 未 means “yet,” as in 未だやらない (“I am not doing it yet” /ma’da yaranai/). The history of the kanji 未 is shown on the right. In oracle bone style, in brown, and bronze ware style, in green, it had a tree, 木, and, an extra line, 一, at the top to indicate an emphasis on the meaning – The treetop was “yet to grow.” The ten style writing, in red, was more stylized. (We have looked at the kanji 妹, a female member of the family yet to grow, “younger sister” in the November 27, 2014, post.)

The kanji for the animal sheep 羊 is nothing to do with the kanji 未. In fact all the twelve animals for the cycle of 12 years were chosen arbitrarily. Last year was the year of the horse 馬, umadoshi (午年). In our modern life in Japan, the only occasions when most of us even think about those animals are if we discover that someone was born in the year of the same animal — it may be a conversation topic. Another occasion would be in December and January in choosing a design for a nengajo 年賀状 (“new years greeting postcard” /nenga’joo/), or buying an engimono 縁起物 “good luck charm,” such as the one on the right. By the way, Japan celebrates new years day, 正月 /shoogatsu/, by the Gregorian calendar (since 1873.) I used to feel awkward when a Chinese colleague would greet me cheerfully, “A happy new year,” in February, when I was already over the excitement of a new year. Now, what kind of year will the year of sheep be? I hope it is a very good one for everyone. We are going to see in this and next posts that the kanji that contain 羊 are all something good and desirable.

(1) The kanji 羊 “sheep”

History of Kanji 羊In oracle bone and bronze ware styles, it was an image of a sheep viewed from the front – two horns that curved down at the top, and the body. The History of Kanji 牛This image is often in contrast with the image of the kanji 牛, whose horns were upward, as shown on the right.

In the ancient times sheep had many uses. The hide was good for clothing and making a tent; wool for clothing and making yarn; the meat for nutrition; and the horns and bones for making tools, etc. Sheep were also used as sacrificial animals in religious rites. With all these good uses that sheep provided, when used as a component, the shape 羊 usually gives the meaning of goodness and desirability.

The kun-yomi 羊 /hitsuji/ means “sheep” and is in 子羊 (“lamb” /kohi’tsuji/). The on-yomi /yo’o/ is in 羊毛 (“wool” /yoomoo/) and 羊皮紙 (“parchment” /yoohi’shi/). I do not believe that parchment was used in China or Japan. The kanji 羊 is customarily used for 山羊 (“goat” /ya’gi/.)

(2) The kanji 洋 “ocean”

History of Kanji 洋The oracle bone style of the kanji 洋 had one or two sheep in flowing water. The Setsumon’s explanation was that it was the name of a river. The kanji was used to mean “ocean; abroad.” In ten style, water and sheep got separated and were placed side by side, keeping the general rule that the left side gave the meaning and the right side gave the pronunciation.

There is no kun-yomi in the Joyo kanji. The on-yomi /yo’o/ is in 東洋 (“the east; orient” /to’oyoo/), 西洋 (“the west” /se’eyoo/), 洋服 (“western-style clothes” /yoohuku/), as contrasted to 和服 (“Japanese clothing, such as kimono” /wafuku/), 洋風 (“western style” /yoohuu/) and 太平洋 (“the Pacific Ocean” /taihe’eyooo/).

(3) The kanji 達 “to attain; reach; a plural suffix for person”

History of Kanji 逹In oracle bone style, the left side was a crossroad, and the right side had a person and a footprint. Together they meant “to go; something goes without a hitch.”  In bronze ware style, the right side was a sheep to signify the scene in which a lamb was born smoothly. In ten style, the left side was the precursor to the bushu shinnyuu (a crossroad and a footprint together). From something going without a hitch, it also meant “to attain; reach; healthy; skillful.” It is also used as a plural suffix for people.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /tatsu/ is in 達成する (“to complete; reach” /tassee-suru/), 到達する (“to arrive at” /tootatsu-suru/), 達者だ (“healthy and active; skillful at” /tassha-da/), 子供達 (“children” /kodomo’tachi/) and 友達 (“friends” /tomodachi/.)

(4) The kanji 鮮 “fresh; vivid”

History of Kanji 鮮The bronze ware style of the kanji 鮮 had a sheep at the top and a fish at the bottom. Phonetically it meant “raw; fishy smell.”  Freshness of fish and meat meant “fresh.” It is also means “distinctive; clear.”

The kun-yomi 鮮やかな /aza’yaka-na/ means “vivid (color).” The on-yomi /se’n/ is in 鮮明 な (“clear and sharp” /senmee-na/, 新鮮な (“fresh” /shinsen-na/) and 鮮魚 (“fresh fish” /se’n-gyo/).

(5) The kanji 群  “to throng; crowd; swarm”

History of Kanji 群In the bronze ware style of the kanji 群, the sheep was at the bottom. The top was the origin of the kanji 君. The kanji 君 had a hand (I call this type of hand “a side-ways hand“) holding a stick (on the left), and a mouth underneath. A feudal lord governed people by word and stick. A flock of sheep is meek and easily herded. Together someone herding a flock of sheep meant a feudal load governing a lot of people. It meant “flock; throng; crowd.”

The kun-yomi 群れ /mure’/ means “flock; herd; group’ and is in 群がる (”to crowd; swarm; throng” /muraga’ru/). The on-yomi /gu’n/ is in 群衆 (“crowd; throng” /gunshuu/) and 大群 (“large group” /taigun/.)

There are many more frequently used kanji that contain 羊. We will continue with this topic in the next post. [January 11, 2015]

The Kanji 東動働重童-力 “power” (3)


In continuing the bushu 力 “power; strength”, we are going to look at the kanji 動 and 働 in this post. In the two kanji 動 and 働, the obvious starting point is the kanji 重.  When we look at ancient writing, discussing the kanji 重 further takes us to the kanji 東.

(1) The kanji 東 “east”

The kanji 東 is the kanji that we study at a very early stage (we need it for 東京 “Tokyo” /tookyoo/!). Your teacher tried very hard to make kanji meaningful to the class and may have said something like, “Can you see the sun, 日, inside a tree, 木, in this kanji?  Morning sun shines through the branches of a tree in the east.  So, the kanji 東 means ‘east.’”  Forty years ago, when I first started to teach Japanese and looked for a way to explain kanji, I also came across this explanation. Even then I felt doubtful about it. Apparently that was the explanation given in the Setsumon Kaiji, the utmost authoritative etymology source of Chinese characters.  So, it has been retold timelessly.

The history of the kanji 東(abc)The ancient writings tell us a different story. In oracle bone style, (a) in brown, and bronze ware style, (b) in green, it was a bag that was tied around a pole, with two ends tied tightly and the middle wrapped around as well.  The middles of these samples do not look anything like the sun.

History of the kanji 日

The History of the kanji 日

At the time of the oracle bone style and bronze ware style, shown on the right, the sun was a circle with a dot, long or short, in the middle, that signified that the inside was not empty.  It was only in ten style, (c) in red, when the middle dot became a line across.

What did a bag of stuff with a pole going through have to do with the direction “east”?  The answer is, “Nothing.” The writing was borrowed to mean “east.” Borrowing means it had no relevance to the meaning or sound of the original kanji. Borrowing a shape for a direction was not uncommon: the kanji 西 “west,” from a basket, 南 “south,” from a musical instrument, were borrowed. The kanji 北, “back to back,” was used phonetically for “north.”  This was just the ground work for the kanji in this post.

The kun-yomi 東 /higashi/ means “east.”  Another kun-yomi /a’zuma/ also meant “east.” The on-yomi /to’o/ is in 東京, 東海道 (“the Tokaido road” /tooka’idoo/) and 東北地方 (“northeast region” /toohokuchi’hoo/), 中東 (“Middle East” /chuutoo/).

(2) The kanji 重 “heavy; weight”

The history of the kanji 重(de)The bronze ware style sample, (d), of the kanji 重 consisted of a person on top, a bag that was tied around, and soil at the bottom. In ten style, (e), it had the shape of a person bending over at the top, and below that was the same as (c) in 東, and the dirt at the bottom. The person’s feet were connected all the way to the ground.  Together a person with a heavy bag standing on the ground meant “heavy.”

The kun-yomi is in 重い (“heavy” /omoi/), 重たい (“heavy” /omotai/), and 重み (“weight” /omomi/).  Another kun-yomi 重ねる (“to pile; lay something on the other” /kasaneru/), 重ね重ね (“repeatedly” /kasanega’sane/). The on-yomi /ju’u/ is in 二重 (“double” /nijuu/), 厳重に (“closely; strictly” /genjuuni/).

(3) The kanji 動 “to move” and the kanji 童 “young child”

The history of the kanji 動(fg)In the kanji 動, the left side 重 was just explained. If we jump to the ten style, (g), we see what we expect from the kanji 重, with the plough for 力 “power” on the right side. Together they meant applying power to move heavy stuff, or “to move.”  So far it makes sense, doesn’t it.

But what about the bronze ware style, as in (f)?  It had a large tattoo needle (辛) with a big handle, and an eye underneath at the top. (f) in bronze ware style was different from (d), 重 in bronze ware style. Why is that? Even though the ten style, (e) for 重 and (g) for 動, are closely similar, why are the bronze ware styles from which they developed so different? What a bother…, but we will not give up.  There is a reason. Ancient creators of writing used a tattoo needle in various kanji. The bushu 言 and 音 that we saw earlier were just a few of the examples. Another example of use of a tattoo needle was that a convict was tattooed as a punishment for a crime.

History of the kanji 童

History of the kanji 童

I remember that earlier I had come across a shape that was the same as (f).  It was the bronze ware style of the kanji 童, shown in (h) on the right. (f) and (h) had to be the same.  In 童, someone who had a tattoo, a convict, did a heavy manual work. (We recognize a heavy load and the soil in (h) and (i).)  The needle over an eye symbolized blindness to knowledge or not having freedom. Later on, the meaning of convict was dropped and the kanji meant someone who was ignorant. That is a young child. The kanji 童 means “young child.”

Now back to our kanji 動. The kanji 動 originally meant “to work hard” or “physical work.” The writing was later taken away to mean “to move” or “to move stuff,” which is the current use.

The kun-yomi 動く (“to move” ugo’ku/) is 身動きできない (“cannot budge; cramped” /miu’goki deki’nai/), 動き回る (“to move about” /ugokimawa’ru/).  The on-yomi /do’o/ is in 運動 (“exercise” /undoo/), 活動 (“activity” /katsudoo/) and 自動ドア (“automatic door” /jidoodo’a/).

(5) The Kanji 働 “to work; labor”

What happened to the original meaning of “working hard” that 動 had? That is where the newer kanji 働 comes in.  The kanji 働 was created in Japan to mean “to work (using one’s body).” So, there is no ancient writing existed. Logically a kokuji (国字), a kanji that was created in Japan, does not have an on-yomi. But the kanji 働 just took the on-yomi of the kanji 動 /do’o/.

The kun-yomi /hataraku/ means “to work for wages” and is in ただ働き (“work without pay” /tadaba’taraki/). The on-yomi /do’o/ is in 労働 (“labor” /roodoo/) and 稼働する (“(machine is) in operation” /kadoo-suru/).

The year 2015 is hitsujidoshi, “the year of the sheep,” written as 未年.The kanji 未 and the animal sheep have no relation, so it is just an arbitrary use. I would like to touch on the kanji 羊 to celebrate the new year in the next post. [1_6_2015]

Visual Kanji: Lessons 11 -15 available now


Part3announcement[Revised on January 30, 2015] The PART 3 of the Visual Kanji tutorials, an etymology-based kanji study course [from Lessons 11 through 15] has been uploaded in its entirety at   I am very pleased to say that we have reached the midway point of our goal.  So many young people have been helping me to realize my long-time dream of making tutorials such as these available to the public.  I would appreciate any feedback so that I can further improve the contents.  I can be reached by email at:  [Please remove two @@.]  Thank  you very much. – Noriko Williams

Below is the table of 200 kanji in the Part 3.

Visual Kanji Part 3 Kanji Table