The Kanji 負危色配巻港選(絶己) – Posture (7)


However small, every component of kanji had a role to play in its origin. The shape that looks like a truncated katakana /ku/ (ク) that we see at the top of the kanji 急, 負, 色 and 危 is no exception. History of Kanji 急 (frame)It would have been more convincing if we had a sample writing in oracle bone style or bronze ware style. Fortunately we had a full range of ancient style writings for the kanji 及. A newly joined reader may say, “The kanji 及 does not have a truncated /ku/ shape.” That is true, but in one of the earlier posts [February 7, 2015 post] we saw that in ten style 急 and 及 had shared the same shape, as shown on the right side. History of Kanji 及(frame)

The kanji 及 It is reasonable that what we see in the development of 及 can be used to understand the shape in 急負色危. For the kanji 及, in oracle bone style, in brown, and bronze ware style, in green, it  had a person standing, bending his back slightly. Then in ten style, in red, his arms stretched long and his back bent forward deeply. This shape became the kanji 及, and 急 by adding 心 “heart” at the bottom. From this we can say that the truncated /ku/ shape in those kanji meant “person” standing or crouching with his arms extended. Let us look at three kanji here.

  1. The kanji 負 “to bear; carry on one’s back”

History of Kanji 負In the ten style of the kanji 負, the top was a person with a stooped back. The bottom was a cowry that represented something valuable or money. Together a person carrying money or something on his back meant “to carry something on the back.” Carrying a burden or debt on one’s back also meant “to owe.” It was also extended to mean “loss.”

The kun-yomi 負う /ou/ means “to owe; carry on his back,” and is in 重任を負う (“to bear a heavy responsibility” /juunin-o ou/) and 背負う (“to carry on one’s back; to shoulder” /seo’u/). Another kun-yomi 負ける /makeru/ means “to lose” and is in 勝ち負け (“victory and defeat” /kachi’make/) and 根負けする (“to have one’s patience exhausted” /konmake-suru/). The on-yomi /hu/ is in 負担 (“to bear” /hutan/), 自負する (“to take pride in; flatter oneself in” /jihu-suru/). Another sound /bu/ is in 勝負 (“match; fight” /sho’obu/.)

  1. The kanji 危 “perilous; danger”

History of Kanji 危The ten style of the kanji 危 had a person crouching dangerously on top of a cliff (厂). It signified something perilous or dangerous. To emphasize danger, another person crouching was added under the cliff. From someone being scared, it meant “danger; perilous.” In kanji, however, the person changed to the shape that had some similarity to hushizukuri (卩), except that the bottom goes up. This is another shape of a “person” in other kanji, such as 犯 “to violate” and 氾 “to flood.”

There are two kun-yomi for 危. 危ない /abunai/ means “dangerous” and 危うく /ayauku/ “almost; nearly” is used when a danger is averted in the end, in the phrase such as 危うく遅刻するところだった (“I almost arrived late (but I did not)” /ayauku chikokusuru-tokoro’-datta/). The on-yomi /ki/ is in 危険物 (“dangerous article” /kike’nbutsu/), 危惧する (“to feel apprehensive about” /ki’gu-suru/), and 危機一髪で (“in the nick of time” /ki’ki ippatsu/.)

  1. The kanji 色 “color; characteristics of; lust”

History of Kanji 色In the ten style of the kanji 色, the top was a person, and the bottom was another person. Together they meant amorous affairs. The meaning of color comes from the heightened facial color. It was also used as “characteristics.” In kanji the bottom became the shape 巴 called /tomoe/. (It is not a Joyo-kanji.) In judo there is a throw called 巴投げ /tomoenage/ “somersault throw” from a crouched position. I do not know if it is an official name of 技 (“winning move” /waza’/). The kun-yomi 色 /iro’/ means “color; complexion; lust; kind,” and is in 色々な (“various” /iroirona/), 色紙 (“color folding paper for origami craft” /iro’gami/), 色事 (“amorous affairs” /irogo’to/). The on-yomi /sho’ku/ is in 特色 (“specific character” /tokushoku/). Another on-yomi /shi’ki/ is in 色素 (“pigment” /shiki’so/.)

History of Kanji 絶(frame)The kanji 絶: The kanji 色 also appears on the right side of the kanji 絶. The writing in gray is an old style given in Setsumon. It has shelves of skeins of threats.  In ten style, we can see that the top right came from a knife rather than a person, shown on the right. From “cutting (/se’tsu/ phonetically meant “to cut”) threads with a knife,” it meant “to cut; cease.” They are related in meaning in that the kanji 絶 “to cut; cease” came from “cutting beautiful color threads.” Beautiful color threads gave the meaning of “exquisitely beautiful.” Something was so exquisitely beautiful that it would not allow comparison, thus “absolutely.”

The next four kanji 配巻港 and 選 share the component 己.

History of Kanji 己(frame)The kanji 己:  The kanji 己 by itself means “self” as in 自己 (“self” /ji’ko/), 知己 (“someone who knows me well; good friend” /chi’ki/), and 利己的な (“selfish” /rikoteki-na/). The meaning “oneself’ seemingly fits well with the meaning of “person.” However, the development of 己 as kanji is unrelated to “person,” as shown on the right. The three ancient styles are generally interpreted as some sort of ruler or tool used in carpentry work. It was just borrowed to mean “self.”

  1. The kanji 配 “to hand out; deliver”

History of Kanji 配In oracle bone style and bronze ware style of the kanji 配, the left side was a rice wine cask, and the right side was a person with his hands on his knees watching the rice wine cask closely. It signified a person sitting in front of rice wine to be served or a person who stayed close by. It meant “to deliver; deal; hand out.” In ten style, the shape for the person on the right side became one continuous line, dropping the hands, and became the 己 shape in kanji.

The kun-yomi 配る /kuba’ru/ means “to distribute; arrange.” The on-yomi /hai/ is in 配達する (“to deliver (good)” /haitatsu-suru/), 配分する (“to distribute; apportion among” /haibun-suru/), 配偶者 (“spouse” /haigu’usha/). Another sound /pai/ is in 心配する (“to worry” /shinpaisuru/).

  1. The kanji 巻 “to roll”

History of Kanji 巻In the ten style of the kanji 巻, in the bottom half we see a crouched person under two hands. But what was the top half about? There are at least two different views. One view was that it was rice (米), and altogether they meant two hands making rice ball. From that it meant “to roll.” Another view was that the top was an animal paw, which signified animal hide. (An animal hide was used to write a pledge and cut in half as a stub, as in the kanji 券.) Together they meant two hands rolling an animal hide. By the time of kyujitai kanji, in blue, there was a drastic change. Before paper was invented, a record was written on bamboo or wooden tablets that were tied together and rolled up for storage. From that the kanji 巻 is also used as a volume counter for a serial.

The kun-yomi 巻く /maku/ means “to roll” and the word 海苔巻き (“seaweed sushi roll” /nori’maki/), 巻き込まれる (“to get dragged into” /makikomare’ru/). The on-yomi /ka’n/ is in 第三巻 (“third volume” /da’i sa’nkan/). Another on-yomi /ke’n/ is in 席巻する (“to sweep over” /sekken-suru/).

  1. The kanji 港 “port”

History of Kanji 港For the kanji 港, we have three different ten style samples shown on the left. Writing (a) is comprised of 共 “together” at the top, from many hands holding up something together, and the bottom 邑 “village,” from an area where many people live. Together they meant a busy place where many activities were happening. Writing (b) had two 邑 “village” on both side of 共, signifying the same as (a). These two ten style writings, (a) and (b), were shared by another kanji 巷 /chimata/. The kanji 巷 is not a Joyo-kanji but the word /chimata/ means “crowded town.” It is used in a phrase such as 巷の噂では (“according to a rumor in town” /chimata-no-uwasa-de’wa/), quoting irresponsive, most likely an unfounded, rumor. Writing (c) had water on the left side and writing (a) on the right side, and it became the kanji shape 港. Together they meant a waterfront where many people come, which is a port. The kun-yomi 港 /minato/ means “port.” The on-yomi /ko’o/ is in 空港 (“airport” /kuukoo/) and 漁港 (“fishing port” /gyokoo/.)

  1. The kanji 選 “to select”

History選It has been a while since we looked at the kanji 選 [September 26, 2014, post] in connection with the meaning of 共. Let us revisit this kanji, focusing on the two little 己 above 共 this time. In both bronze ware style and ten style, two people were putting their hands on their knees, which were bent. They also had a footprint and a cross road even though the placement was different — side by side, in bronze ware style; and at top and the bottom, in ten style. From select people doing votive dancing on a stage for the god to see, it meant “to select.”

Well, we have seen quite a lot of shapes that came from a posture that a person made using the whole body. I feel I ought to make a table of those shapes so that we can review them. It is time for us to move to another topic for now. [April 26, 2015.]

The Kanji 令命印即節迎仰昂抑 – Posture (6) ふしづくり


In the last five posts we have looked at kanji or component shapes that originated from an image of a standing person. Is there any kanji that came from a person sitting down? Yes, there are a few. In this post we focus on the shape that is known as a bushu hushizukuri ふしづくり (卩).

1. The kanji 令 “order; law”

History of Kanji 令In the oracle bone style of the kanji 令, in brown, it was a person kneeling with his hands on his knees, each facing the opposite direction. His back was rather straight up. The triangle or a letter “A” shape above him meant “to gather many things or people under one roof.” Together they signified a person or people listening to an order of the ruler or god’s oracle. It meant “order; law.” In bronze ware style, in green, his back tilted forward, demonstrating more reverence in listening. In ten style, in red, the body bent even deeper with his hands still showing and his bent legs stretched longer in a stylized shape that was characteristic of ten style. In Mincho style kanji the bottom became angular shape, which got replaced by a katakana マ in textbook style.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /re’e/ is in 命令 (“order; decree; directive” /meeree/), 法令 (“laws and ordinances” /hooree/), and 辞令 (“written notice of an appointment” /jiree/). Another on-yomi /ryo’o/ is a go-on, and is used in the old words such as 律令制度 (“legal system” in history /ritsuryoo-se’edo/).

2. The kanji 命 “life; order”

History of Kanji 命The oracle bone style writings of the kanji 命 were the same as the kanji 令. In bronze ware style, 口 “mouth; word” was added in front of the person who was kneeling down reverently. Together from a person listening to god’s words, it meant “order.” One’s life is given by the god, thus it also meant “life.” In ten style, the shape was more stylized, which became the kanji with a hushizukuri.

The kun-yomi /i’nochi/ means “life; lifetime; most important thing; order” and is in 命がけで (“desperate; risking one’s life” /inochigake-de/.) The on-yomi /me’e/ is in 命日 (“anniversary of one’s death” /me’enichi/), 使命 (“mission” /shi’mee/) and 一生懸命 (“with all of one’s might; very hard” /isshooke’nmee/) and 運命 (“lot; fate” /u’nmee/).

3. The kanji 印 “seal; stamp”

We looked at the kanji 印 almost a year ago in connection with the left side that came from “a hand from above.” This is what I wrote: The oracle bone style showed a hand from above in front of a person who knelt down. In ten style a hand came above the person who was bowing deeply as if a hand were pushing him down. (May 24, 2014).  Since a few more writing samples are available to us now, we take this up again. History of Kanji 印On the left, the two samples of oracle bone style were mirror images of each other, a hand from above and a person who knelt down being pushed down. We are seeing more and more convincingly the samples that support our hypothesis that in oracle bone style which side an image faced did not matter. We also have two samples of bronze ware style, with the position of the hand differing. The difference corresponds with how the two components are placed in ten style (on the top and the bottom) and in kanji (the left and the right). A hand pushing a person or something down from above gave the meanings “to stamp a seal; or seal.”

The kun-yomi 印 /shirushi/ means “sign; seal; symbol; emblem,” and is in 目印 (“mark; sign; landmark” /meji’rushi/). The on-yomi /i’n/ is in 印刷 (“printing” /insatsu/), 印鑑 (“stamp; seal” /inka’n/) and 印字 (“printing; printed letter” /inji/). It is also used to mean “India” for the phonetic similarity.

4. The kanji 即 (卽) “at once; immediately; to ascend to the throne”

History of Kanji 即In the oracle bone style and bronze ware style of the kanji 即, we recognize that the left side was a part of 食, which was touched in the last post. The kanji 食 came from an image of food heaped on a dish with a lid. In 即, it did not have a lid, and on the right side was a person kneeling or standing with the food in front. From a person taking a seat for celebration meal, it signified ascending to the throne. With a heap of food, it was not an ordinary mealtime, but on a special occasion. Taking a seat for meal signified acting swiftly. The kyujitai, in blue, reflected ten style, in that we see a ladle at the bottom. The right side became simplified and became a hushizukuri.

The kun-yomi 即ち /suna’wachi/ means “that is to say; namely.” Another kun-yomi 即く /tsu’ku/ is in 王位に即く (“to ascend to the throne” /o’oi-ni tsu’ku/). The on-yomi /so’ku/ is in 即座に (“immediately; right away” /so’kuza-ni/), 即位 (“enthronement” /so’kui/) and 即売 (“sale on the spot” /sokubai/).

5. The kanji 節 “section; tune; moderation; holiday; envoy”

History of Kanji 節The kanji 節 comprises of a bushu takekanmuri “bamboo” and the kanji 即, which was used phonetically for /se’tsu./ The development is shown on the left. This kanji has a number of different meanings — A bamboo joint punctuates something that is continuous [“section”; “tune” of a song], and it prevents something from becoming excessive [“moderate”]. It was the time to sit down for a feast [“holiday or occasions”]. A foreign envoy to the imperial court had a bamboo tally that proved that he was on a genuine mission [“mission; envoy”].

The kun-yomi 節 /hushi’/ means “section; tune; occasion,” and is in 節目 (“turning point” /hushime’/). The on-yomi /se’tsu/ is in 節度を持つ (“to have restrained good behavior” /se’tsudo-o motsu/), 関節 (“joint” /kansetsu/), 節電 (“energy conservation” /setsuden/) and 使節 (“mission; envoy; delegate” /shi’setsu/).

6. The kanji 迎 “to welcome; receive”

Now we are going to look at four kanji that share the same component – 迎仰昂 and 抑 on the right side. History of Kanji 迎In ten style the left side of the kanji 迎 had a crossroad and a footprint, which became a bushu shinnyuu/shinnyoo in shinjitai. The center and right side were two people facing each other – a standing person and another person kneeling down with his back arched humbly and head lowered. Together they meant “to receive or welcome (a visitor).” A clever use of two different postures.

The kun-yomi 迎える /mukaeru/ means “to welcome; receive,” and is in 迎えに行く (“to go to pick up someone” /mukae’ni iku/) and 出迎える (“to go out to meet” /demukae’ru/). The on-yomi /ge’e/ is in 歓迎 (“welcome; reception” /kangee/), 送迎バス (“courtesy bus” /soogeeba’su/), and 迎合する (“to go along with someone’s view without own opinion” /geegoo-suru/).

7. The kanji 仰 “to respect; look up”

History of Kanji 仰For the kanji 仰, the ten style sample had a person facing left on the left side, which is a bushu ninben, “matter or act that is related to a person.” The center and right side together were used phonetically, and also had the meaning of “to look up,” from a sitting person looking upward to face a standing person, as in the kanji 迎. Altogether they meant “to respect; to look up to; to look up.”

The kun-yomi 師と仰ぐ /shi’-to ao’gu/ means “to look up to as a mentor,” and is in 天を仰ぐ (“to look up in the sky” /te’n-o ao’gu/) and 仰ぎ見る (“to look up a tree” /aogimi’ru/). Another kun-yomi is 仰せになる (“to say” /oose-ni-na’ru/) in a very honorific style. Sometimes the honorific verb おっしゃる (“to say” /ossha’ru/) is also written as 仰る. The on-yomi /gyo’o/ is in 仰天する (“to be astounded” /gyooten-suru/) and 大仰な (“exaggerated” /oogyoo-na/). Another on-yomi /ko’o/ is in 信仰 (“belief; faith” /shinkoo/).

8. The kanji 昂 “to be exalted”

History of Kanji 昂For kanji 昂 in ten style the bottom left was a standing person and the bottom right was a sitting person. A sitting person looking up to face a standing person signifying “to look upward” also created the kanji 昂, by adding the sun (日). Together with the sun 日 at the top they described the sun risen high. From that it meant “to rise; exalted.” The kun-yomi 昂る /takabu‘ru/ is in 気分が昂る (“to feel exalted” /ki’bun-ga takabu’ru/). The on-yomi /ko’o/ is in 昂揚する (“to be exalted; get invigorated” /kooyoo-suru/).

9. The kanji 抑 “to restrain; press down”

History of Kanji 抑The last kanji 抑 for this post contains the shape that is common in 迎, 仰 and 昂, and yet the meaning (“to restrain; press down”) is quite opposite of those kanji. Why is that? The answer lies in its history. The oracle bone style and ten style writings shown on the left look identical or similar to the kanji 印 “seal; to stamp; sign.” Even though the two components, a kneeling person and a hand, were placed in the reverse position of the kanji 印, some scholars suggest this to be a variant of the kanji 印. So, there seem to two explanations for the kanji 抑 — one from 印, originally “a hand pushing down another person,” and another from the reverse placement of the two components that signified “to look up” — giving the meaning of a person or hand pushing down another. Both are consistent with the meaning of “to restrain; press down.”

The kun-yomi 抑える means “to press down; restrain (someone’s action.” The on-yomi /yo’ku/ is in 抑圧的 (“oppressive” /yokuatsuteki/), 抑制する (“to restrain” /yokusee-suru/) and 抑揚 (“inflection; modulation” /yokuyoo/). In Japanese pronunciation, the correct /yokuyoo/, tonal contour in this case, is very important. The name of the bushu ふしづくり must have come from the kanji 節, even though the kanji 節 belongs to the bushu takekanmuri group in the traditional classification. There are many other kanji that take this bushu shape, but we will move to other shapes in the next post. [April 18, 2015]

The Kanji 欠吹次姿資歌飲 – Posture (5) あくび


In this post we are going to look at a person with his mouth wide open, 欠, which is called bush akubi or kentsukuri.

(1) 欠 “to lack; want of”

History of Kanji 欠The current use of the kanji 欠 had two different shapes, 欠 and 缺, in its development. On the left, we have three samples of oracle bone style for 欠, in brown, – a standing person facing left, a kneeling person facing left, and another kneeling person facing right. All of them were viewed from the side and had a mouth that was open wide and was tilted slightly upward. It signified a person “exhaling or inhaling air,” and a posture that was related to singing (as in 歌) or drinking or swallowing (as in 飲). In ten style, in red, the head became three hooked lines and the bottom had arms and a torso and legs that were kneeling, which in kanji became the shape 人. How did the meaning “exhaling or inhaling air” come to be the current meaning of “lack of; want of”? The answer lies in the kyujitai 缺, which was not related to 欠 in meaning or shape. The development of 缺 is shown on the right.

History of Kanji 缺 (欠)The kyujitai 缺 for 欠: In the ten style of 缺, the left side was clayware or earthenware, which was easily chipped. The right side had a weapon at the top and a hand at the bottom and it signified “to break.” Together chipped or broken earthenware or just stuff in general meant “not complete” or “not sufficient.” The kyujitai, in blue, reflected the ten style shape. In shinjitai, however, the kanji 缺 was replaced by the phonetically same 欠, even though the two kanji 缺 and 欠 did not share the same origin. The meaning that the shape 欠 originally had, which was kept in the component of other kanji (“opening one’s mouth open to take in air, food or drink”), overlapped the meaning of “want of; to lack” that the kanji 缺 had. In shinjitai, the simpler shape must have won over, making 缺 a shape of the past.

The kun-yomi 欠く /kaku/ means “to lack; to chip; nick.” It is in phrases such as 欠くことができない (“indispensable” /kakukoto’-ga deki’nai/), 欠けている (“is chipped; lacking” /kaketeiru/). The on-yomi /ke’tsu/ is in 欠席 (“absence” /kesseki/), 欠点 (“fault; shortcoming; defect” /kette’n/) and 不可欠な (“indispensable; essential” /huka’ketsu-na/). The original meaning of 欠 is also used in 欠伸 (“yawning” /akubi/). (Please note that 欠く /kaku/ is an unaccented word whereas 書く /ka’ku/ “to write” is an accented word.)

(2) 吹 “to blow”

History of Kanji 吹This kanji has the shape 口 added to the shape 欠. In the two samples of oracle bone style, the kneeling person was placed on the left, each facing an opposite direction, and had 口 on the right side. In bronze ware style, in green, and ten style, a person and 口 were placed  in front of a person. It meant a person opening his mouth big and blowing air. That has been the traditional explanation. Shirakawa treated 口 as a prayer box throughout his books. Was the shape 口 just an emphasis of a mouth or a prayer box? Let us leave that question unsolved here. The kanji 吹 means “to blow; puff.”

The kun-yomi 吹く /hu’ku/ is used in 風が吹く(“the wind blows” /kaze-ga hu’ku/), 口笛を吹く (“to blow a whistle” /kuchibu’e-o hu’ku/) and 吹き出す (“to spout; puff; to burst into laughter” /hukida’su/). It is also used for the word 吹雪 (“snow storm; blizzard” /hu’buki/). The on-yomi /su’i/ is in 吹奏楽 (“wind instrument music” /suiso’ogaku/).

(3) 次 “next; following”

History of Kanji 次For the kanji 次, there are a couple of different interpretations. One view is that it is a person breathing out (two lines on the left signified breath) and lamenting, which signified asking the god’s will (which are in the kanji such as 諮 “to consult”). ニ was phonetically used to mean “secondary; again” and “following; next.” It meant “to lament; following; next.” Another view is that ニ was phonetically the same as 止 “to stop” and 欠 signified resting and yawning. Together they meant a traveler resting for the next move. It meant “next.” So either view seems to work all right.

The kun-yomi 次 /tsugi’/ means “next; following,” and is in 次に (“next; after this” /tsugi’-ni/), 相次いで (“one after another” /a’itsuide/), 次々に (“one after another” /tsugi’tsugi-ni/). The on-yomi /ji/ is in 次回 (“next time” /ji’kai/) and 目次 (“table of contents” /mokuji/).

(4) 姿 “appearance; figure”

History of Kanji 姿The kanji 姿 consists of two shapes 次 and 女. In ten style the top left had two lines ニ, and the bottom was 女 “woman.” The right side was 欠. Together a woman preparing herself in good order meant “figure; form; appearance.”

The kun-yomi /su’gata/ means “appearance; figure; form” and is in 晴れ姿 (“appearance in one’s shining moment” /haresu’gata/) and 後ろ姿 (“appearance from behind” /ushirosu’gata/). The on-yomi /shi/ is in 姿勢 (“attitude; posture” /shisee/) and 容姿 (“appearance” /yo’oshi/).

 (5) 資 “resources; capital”

History of Kanji 資Another kanji that contains 次 is 資. In ten style the bottom left was a cowry. A cowry came from the southern sea in a far away place. It appeared in a number of kanji signifying something valuable. History of Kanji 貝(frame)The development of the kanji 貝 “shell,” starting from an image of a cowry, is shown on the right. A cowry was not a bivalve (二枚貝 /nima’igai/) but a snail (巻貝 /maki’gai/). The image captured in oracle bone style had an opening. (Because this shape is so important to other kanji, it deserves its own posting later on.) The shape 次 was used phonetically here. The kanji 資 meant “resources; capital.”

There is no kun-yomi in the Joyo-kanji. The on-yomi /shi/ is in 資本 (“capital”/shihon/), 資格 (“qualification; license” /shikaku/) and 資料 (“data; material” /shi’ryoo/).

(6) 歌 “to sing; song”

History of Kanji 歌rIn the bronze ware style of the kanji 歌 the left side was the old form of 言 “word; language.” The right side was 可. History of Kanji 可We have a fuller picture of the history of 可, shown on the right side.

The kanji 可: The oracle bone style of 可 had a bent shape and 口. For simplicity we take 口 here as a mouth. A bent shape signified that voice did not come out straight and was forced. Singing a song was one voicing words with some effort.

Back to the left side of 歌. As the ten style writing of 歌, Setsumon showed two shapes (a) and (b). The writing (a) had “words” on the left and 哥, two 可, on the right. In (b), 哥 “forced voice” was placed on the left and the right side became 欠 – “someone opening his mouth wide open.” Together they meant “to sing.” I wonder which composite shape of (a) and (b) would represent better to mean “to sing; song.” You decide.  

The kun-yomi 歌う /utau/ means “to sing” and 歌 /uta’/ is “song.” The on-yomi /ka/ is in 歌手 (“singer” /ka’shu/), 国歌 (“national anthem” /ko’kka/), 演歌 (“enka song” /e’nka/), 歌謡曲 (“popular song” /kayo’okyoku/), and 歌曲 (“song,” usually classical song. /ka’kyoku/).

(7) 飲 “to drink; swallow”

History of Kanji 飲The last kanji we look at in this post is 飲. The kanji 飲 had humorous images of writing in the beginning. In oracle bone style, the left side had a sake or rice wine cask that had a stopper at the top, and the right side was a person drinking rice wine out of it. From the way he was leaning over the cask, he must have been enjoying drinking very much! I always like oracle bone style writing because you can have a glimpse of a real person in ancient times. In bronze ware style, the left sample only had the wine cask whereas the right side had a person with his tongue out signifying that he was not just standing next to it but drinking. The left side of the ten style writing consisted of a lid (今) at the top and rice wine cask 酉 below, and the right side was a person 欠. Together they made a good story. However, in kyujitai, the left side was replaced by a totally different shape, the old form of a bushu shokuhen.

History of Kanji 食(frame)The kanji 食: To see that the bushu shokuhen came from the origin that was totally different from 飲, I am showing the development of the kanji 食 “food; to eat” on the right side. In oracle bone style and bronze ware style, it was food heaped on a dish with a lid on top. In ten style the bottom took the shape that was the same as a person that we looked at in the last two posts. We saw that in ten style that shape had the meaning of “person; spoon; ladle.”

Now back to the kyujitai 飮, in which the bottom has two lines. I imagine that this was the remnant of the ten style writing of 食 at the bottom. In shinjitai, the bushu shokuhen has a short stroke at the end.

The kun-yomi 飲む “to drink, to swallow” is also used in 薬を飲む (“to take medicine” /kusuri o no’mu/), 飲み物 (“drink, beverage” /nomi’mono/) 飲み食い (“eating and drinking” /no’mikui/). On-yomi /i’n/ is in 飲食店 (“restaurant; eatery” /insho’kuten/), 飲酒運転 (“drunken driving” or “driving under the influence of alcohol.”) and 飲用水 (“drinking water” /in-yo’osui/).

Our exploration of kanji that originated from the posture of one’s whole body continues in the next post. [April 11, 2015]

The Kanji 北背死化花真 – Posture (4)


In the last post, we looked at kanji that had two standing people who are facing in the same direction, either to the left – 従縦, or to the right – 比皆階陛. In this post we are going to look at six kanji that contain a single 匕 in two groups: Group A 北背死 from 匕, and Group B 化花真 from 匕.

A. The component 匕 “person; ladle; short knife”

History of Kanji ヒperson; ladle; knifeThere is no kanji used in Japanese by itself. We look at it as a component here. In ten style, in red, it was a standing person who was facing right, putting his hands forward. His legs were bent a little. In bronze ware style, in green, one sample looked as if he was sitting and another looked like he was standing. In ten style, in red, it was the mirror image of the kanji 人. In kanji it became the shape of a katakana hi.  It carried the meaning “person” and also a “ladle; spoon” or a “short knife,” as in 旨.

(1) 北 “north”

History of Kanji 北In the oracle bone style and bronze ware style of the kanji 北 it was two people standing with their backs to each other. It originally meant “to turn one’s back on each other.”  From early times on, the writing was also used to mean “north.” People built a house facing south and the back faced north. Turning away from an enemy also meant a “defeat.” In ten style, the two standing people with their backs to each other became the shape that was consistent with what we saw in the last post, one of each from the ten style writing of 従 and 比. 北 meant “to be defeated; north.”

北-明朝体教科書体比較Now let us take a moment to compare how different a Mincho style 北 and a textbook style (教科書体) 北 look.  (a) is in the mincho style font that came in a Mac, and (b) is in the kyokashotai style (by Iwata). The stroke order is shown underneath. The difference in the two styles is evident in the left side. In (a) the left side looks very similar to the left side of the kanji 状, in which the vertical stroke goes straight down. In (b), the approximation of model handwriting style, the third stroke goes up touching the bottom of the second stroke. In reading or kanji study, we should be aware that there are two different styles used, one for print or online text and another for handwriting.

The kun-yomi is in 北向き (“facing north” /kitamuki/), and 北側 (“north side” /kitagawa/). The on-yomi /ho’ku/ is in 北米 (“North America” /hokubee/) and 東北地方 (“northeast region” /toohokuchi’hoo/), /-bo’ku/ is in 敗北 (“defeat” /haiboku/) and /hok-/ is in 北海道 (“Hokkaido Island” /hokka’idoo/).

(2) 背 “one’s back; to breach a trust”

History of Kanji 背In ten style of the kanji 背, it had two people with their backs to each other and underneath was “flesh.”  Because the writing 北 came to be used more for “north; defeat,” in order to mean “one’s back,” the body part component (月) was added. It meant “one’s back.” The bushu nikuzuki shared the same origin as the kanji 肉 “flesh; meat.”  One’s back is the opposite of the front. Doing something behind someone’s back also meant “breach of trust; to revolt.”

The kun-yomi /se/ is in 背中 (“one’s back” /senaka/) and 背伸びする (“to stretch up; try to do beyond one’s ability” /seno’bi-suru/). Another kun-yomi /se’e/ may be used in 背が高い (“tall in stature” /se’ga taka’i/ or /se’ega taka’i/). The kun-yomi 背く /somu’ku/ means “to revolt: violate.” The on-yomi /ha’i/ is in 背景 (“background” /haikee/) and 背信 (“betrayal” /haishin/).

(3) The kanji 死 “to die”

History of Kanji 死In the two oracle bone style samples of the kanji 死, it had a person looking over the remains of a deceased person. He was mourning. It is a touching sad scene, the mourner kneeling down with his head bending over the remains.  Shirakawa (2004) noted that in ancient times the body was left in the field until it weathered to become a skeleton and after that the bones were collected for burial. So what the person was looking at was not the body but the bones. In bronze ware style the person was standing up, and in ten style the person became the shape that we are now familiar with from the last post. The bones on the left became the bushu kabane , which appears in other kanji such as 残列例. (Kabane is the old word for a dead body.) The mourner became the shape 匕. Oddly it ended up that the mourner looks like he is showing his back to the bones. As we are about to see in B, the right side of 化 came from a dead body. But ironically the right side in the kanji 死 was not a dead person but a live person who was mourning.

The kun-yomi 死ぬ /shinu/ means “to die.” The on-yomi is also /shi/ and is in 病死 (“death due to illness” /byooshi/), 死語 (“extinct word or language” /shi’go/), 必死で (“frantically” /hisshide/).

B. The kanji component 匕 “dead person”

History of kanji 匕 (body)The component匕 (if your browser does not show it, the first stroke crosses over the second stroke) meant a dead person. The ten style sample is in the same shape as the right side of the 化 below. Some scholars interpreted this shape as a body in a sitting position as a form of burial. We do not have an earlier style sample. History of Kanji 老(frame)However, our readers may recall that the kanji 老 “old” did have earlier writing samples. [January 31, 2015]  I am copying it on the right side. In (c) and (d) we can recognize a person who fell. The kanji 老 originated from someone with a very long hair (the top) who was close to death (the bottom). In addition to these, and the oracle bone style sample for the kanji 化 below, I feel more confortable saying that 匕 was a fallen person.

(4) The kanji 化 “to change shape; transform”

History of Kanji 化In the oracle bone style and bronze ware style of the kanji 化, the left side was a standing person facing left. The right side was an image of a 180 degree turn of the left side. That was a person upside down — a person dead. I find this image a little disturbing. I used to explain to our class that the kanji 化 consisted of a person standing and then sitting and that the change of one’s posture meant “a change of state.” Then our students would respond with approving nods. But now, faced with these ancient writing samples, I have to change my explanation, disappointedly. A change was not a matter of posture, but a matter of life and death.

The kun-yomi is 化ける (“to change for” /bake’ru/), お化け (“ghost” /oba’ke/) and 文字化け (“character corruption; misconversion (on a computer)” /mojibake/).  The on-yomi /ka/ is in 化学 (“chemistry” /ka’gaku/), 文化 (“culture” /bu’nka/), 近代化 (“modernization” /kindaika/). Another on-yomi /ke/ is in 化粧する (“to put on makeup” /kesho’o-suru/).

(5) The kanji 花 “flower”

History of Kanji 華・花What about the kanji 花, then?  Again, I used to explain to our class that the kanji 花 had a neat story: The top, the bushu kusakanmuri, means plants; a flower changes its form from a bud to a full bloom and eventually withers. Now this too has turned out to be a half a story. Oh, well.

On the left side, in bronze ware style, it was a plant with lots of flowers, and in ten style it added plants at the top, which became the kyujitai 華. The kanji 華 meant “flower; gorgeous; showy.  The kanji 化 and 華 had the same sounds, and later on a new kanji 花 was created and it means “flower.”
The kun-yomi 花 (“flower” /hana’/) is in 花盛り (“flowers at their best; flowering” /hanaza’kari/), 生け花 (“flower arrangement” /ike’bana/) and 花火 (“firework” /ha’nabi/). The on-yomi /ka/ is in 開花する (“to bloom” /ka’ika-suru/.)

(6) The kanji 真 “truth”

History of Kanji 真Let us look at one more kanji that contained a fallen or dead person. The kanji 真 has the kyujitai 眞. This kanji belongs to a small group of kanji that I call humpty dumpty kanji, in which a person or building was placed upside down. (Other kanji include 逆県幸 and 厚, as discussed on our kanji study site http: in Lesson 10 Section 1). In ten style, the top was the shape匕, a fallen or dead person, and the bottom was 県.

History of Kanji 県 (frame)The kanji 県  The development of the kanji 県 from the kyujitai 縣 was a gruesome one, as shown on the right. In bronze ware style it was a tree on the left, and a rope that was attached to a head on the right side. Together they meant hanging on a tree the severed head of someone executed for a crime. The gruesome meaning was dropped and it meant “to hang up; append.” The authority that had the power to execute was in a jurisdiction. The kanji 県 means “prefecture.”  For the original meaning of “to hang on; append,” the kanji 懸 is used.

Now back to the kanji 真. The kyujitai faithfully reflected the ten style writing, but in shinjitai the top became a truncated 十 and the bottom became a straight line and a katakana ハ.  The kanji 真 meant “truth.”  How could a dead body and something upside down together mean “truth,” I wondered.  Shirakawa’s explanation is interesting. He says, “The deceased can no longer undergo any change. That is the ultimate eternal truth that he reaches.” Wow… It makes me pause for a while.

The Kadokawa dictionary has a totally different explanation, however. It takes the view that the top was a ladle or spoon (which was the meaning A above). The bottom was interpreted as a tripod pot to cook food. It meant putting food into a pot using a ladle until you are full.  Being full meant “true.”  A much lighter explanation.

The kun-yomi /ma/ is in 真面目な (“serious; earnest” /majime-na/). It is also used as an intensifying prefix in words such as 真っ白 (“completely white” /masshi’ro), 真っ先に (“first; at the very beginning” /massa’kini/). The on-yomi /shi’n/ is in 真実 (“truth” /shi’njitu/), 写真 (“photograph” /shashin/), and 真剣な (“serious” /shinken-na/).

In the next post, I hope to begin exploring kanji that came from a posture other than standing. [April 5, 2015]