The Kanji 斤匠析折逝哲誓—斤(1) “small axe; adze”


In the last post we looked at kanji that originated from a ruler’s ornate axe (王) and a warrior’s axe (士). In this post, we are going to look at another axe, 斤 “small axe; adze.” The kanji we explore with this topic this week are斤匠析折逝哲誓.

  1. The kanji 斤 “adze; unit of weight (a pound)”

history-of-kanji-%e6%96%a4For the kanji 斤, in oracle bone style, (a) in brown, it was an axe with a blade in the right angle to the handle. Unlike the origin of 王 and 士, it was not a weapon but was for cutting and shaping wood. It may be called adze. The word adze is not a familiar word to us, but may be to a craftsman. The writings in bronze ware style, (b) and (c) in green, and ten style, (d) in red, are not very easy for me to visualize, but to the best of my imagination in kanji I see the first two strokes as the blade and the second two as a handle in the right angle. An axe was also used as a weight. The kanji 質, which I hope to discuss later  among 貝 “cowry,”had two axes that were used to weigh. Incidentally, the word for an handheld axe is 斧 /o’no/ with 父 on top, which originated a hand holding an axe.



The kanji 斤 was used as a unit of weight. It is a regularly used term to have a modern easy breakfast for Japanese people. A Japanese bakery, small and large, produces a moist and flavorful loaf of bread, called 食パン /shokupan/. (How do we miss that quality, living in the U. S.!)  As a unit of weight, 一斤 “one kin” /i’kkin/ was 600 g. In baking, however, /ki’n/ is used for a pound (450 g).  食パン一斤 /shokupan i’kkin/ uses approximately a pound of flour. The photo on the right shows i’kkin.  A bakery usually bakes a longer loaf in a 3-pound baking dish (三斤 /sa’ngin/). When you go to a store to get sliced loaf of bread, the most common type is 六枚切り /rokumaigiri/ “a pound loaf of bread sliced into six slices.” It is just the right thickness to toast and spread butter on. Talking about Japanese loaf of bread makes me homesick. But, let us go back to more than 3000 years ago in China.

  1. The kanji 匠 “design; craftsman; master”

history-of-kanji-%e5%8c%a0For the kanji 匠, 斤 is inside a box or container 匚. Together they meant “to make a craft work using an axe; design” or a person who made craft work using an axe. It also included someone who excelled in his art.

The kun-yomi /takumi/ means “artisan; master craftsman.” The on-yomi /sho’o/ is in 意匠 (“design; idea” /isho’o/), 巨匠 (“great master” /kyoshoo/) and 師匠 (“teacher; master” in traditional art /shi’shoo/).

  1. The kanji 析 “to analyze”

history-of-kanji-%e6%9e%90The kanji 析 in oracle bone style had a tree on the left and an axe on the right. Together they signified “to split wood using an axe.” From that it meant “to divide or split something; analyze.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /se’ki/ is in 分析する (“to analyze” /bunseki-suru/), 解析 (“analysis, analytical reasoning” /kaiseki/) and 透析 (“dialysis” /tooseki/).

The next four kanji 折逝哲誓share the common shape 折.

  1. The kanji 折 “to break; bend; fold”

history-of-kanji-%e6%8a%98The kanji 折 has a bushu tehen “hand.” Its origin had no relation to a hand. Instead it was miscopied later on. (a) and (b) in oracle bone style had two separate plants that were placed vertically, and an axe was hitting as if it were separating or cutting the plants. They signified plants that were cut short. From that it meant “to break; bend; fold.” This component of “two separate short plants” remained throughout bronze ware style writings, (c) and (d). But in (e) in ten style the two short plants were connected and became a tehen. Setsumon also gave (f) as its ten style. (f) has two separate plants on the left side, which reflected earlier writing. The kanji 折 means “to break; bend; fold.” When a break happens, it creates a new occasion, so it also means “time; occasion.”

The kun-yomi 折る /o’ru/ means “to fold; break,” and the intransitive verb 折れる /ore’ru/ means “to bend; break; give in.” It is also in 折り(“occasion; opportunity” /ori’/), as in その折りに (“on that occasion” /sono-ori’ni/), 指折りの (“leading” /yubiori-no/) and 折り紙 (“origami folding paper” /ori’gami/). The on-yomi /se’tsu/ is in 折角 (“with much trouble; with special kindness” /sekkaku/), 屈折する (“to bend; twist” /kussetsu-suru/) and 左折禁止 (“No left turn” –a traffic sign /sasetsukinshi/).

  1. The kanji 逝 “to pass away; death”

history-of-kanji-%e9%80%9dThe kanji 逝 has a bushu shinnyoo “to move forward.” 折 was used phonetically for /se’e/. The kanji 逝 meant “to go; pass on; die.”

The kun-yomi /yuku/ means “to die; pass on.” The on-yomi /se’e/ is in 逝去 (“death; demise” /se’ekyo/), usually considered to be an honorific word. It is also in 急逝 (“sudden demise; unexpected death” /kyuusee/), which is less direct than 急死 /kyuushi/.

  1. The kanji 哲 “wisdom”

history-of-kanji-%e5%93%b2Adding口, a” mouth,” under 折 makes the kanji 哲. For this, it is explained as “decisively talking; to talk clearly,” thus “cleaver; smart.” But when we look at the bronze ware style writings, (a) and (b), we wonder whether there must have been more than speaking, because it had a 心 “heart” at the bottom. Could it be that one reflected deeply in order to see things fall into place as if they were cut decisively? In fact Setsumon also gave (d), which had a heart, rather than a mouth, as an alternative writing. The kani 哲 means “wisdom.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /tstsu/ is in 哲学 (“philosophy” /tetsu’gaku/) and 哲人 (“great thinker; philosopher” /tetsujin/).

  1. The kanji 誓 “to vow; pledge; promise”

history-of-kanji-%e8%aa%93When you add 言 “word” under 折 “to break; bend,” you get the kanji 誓 “to vow; pledge; promise.” 折 was used phonetically for /se’e/. The left side of (a) in bronze ware style was a tattooing needle and a mouth, which was the origin of 言 “word; saying”, and plants at the top. The right side was an axe. (b) contained the same components, in a different arrangement. Together they meant “to vow; pledge; promise.”

The kun-yomi 誓う /chika’u/ means “to swear; vow; pledge.” The on-yomi /se’e/ is in 誓約書 (“written pleadge; covenant” /seeyakusho/) and 選手宣誓 (“athlete’s oath of fair play” /se’nshu sensee/) at the opening of a sport event.

There are several more kanji that contain 斤, so let us continue this topic in the next post.  [November 27, 2016]

Oracle Bone Writings at Tokyo National Museum and the Kanji 王旺皇士仕


In the previous two posts, we began discussing kanji that originated from a sharp-edged object -刀 and 刂, a bushu rittoo, “knife; sword.” In this post we are going to look at kanji that came from a warrior’s axe – 王 and 士. Before our exploration I would like to start this post by sharing with our readers some of the photos of oracle bone style writing that I took a year ago at the Tokyo National Museum in the Ueno area in Tokyo (東京国立博物館 東洋館) because they support our exploration of the relevance of historical writings to modern kanji.

Oracle Bone Writings -Photo (1)

Photo 1-Oracle bone writing at Tokyo National Museum

On this display, there were fourteen pieces of animal bone or tortoise bottom shell with oracle bone writing. They were displayed in a glass case with an explanation in Japanese underneath (Photo 1). It had good lighting from the ceiling. In this section of the museum, taking a photograph is allowed as long as you do not use a flash. When I tried to take a photo, however, ceiling lights reflected on the glass, and it was not an easy job, on top of the fact that each piece was tiny. Let us look at a couple of them here.

Oracle bone writings - Photo 2

Photo 2- Oracle bone writing

Photo 2 on the left had four writings –丁亥卜王 in kanji. 丁 is said to have come from the top of a nail, thus a small square or circular shape. The small square is also interpreted as an area rather than a nail (Ochiai 2014).  亥 was a skeleton of an animal. Here the two writing 丁 and 亥 were used to indicate the name of the day on which they sought divination. The third writing, 卜, was “cracks in the bone appearing as divination,” and the fourth writing, 王, was a king’s large ceremonial axe with its blade at the bottom and the handle at the top. This piece of four writings was a fragment of a sentence and all we can tell is that it meant “on the day of 丁亥 we sought divination about the king…” This piece was from the early 12th century B. C. and was carved on an animal bone.  The person who inscribed the writing must have used a sharp narrow chisel. As I look at this piece, I feel as if his precise and decisive strokes on the bone have come alive after more than three thousands years. In every stroke we can see vividly how the sharp chisel entered, carved and was lifted.

Oracle Bone Writing Photo 3

Photos 3 – Oracle Bone Writing

The third photo that I share on the right contains many writings on the belly side of a tortoise shell. It dated back to the 11th century, B. C. Even though it is chipped at the edges it gives us a picture of what oracle bone writing was about.

It is in three sections, the top, the middle and the bottom (the yellow lines were added here). Within each section you read downward from the top left and move to the next line to the right. The display notes help us to transliterate these 3200 years old writings to our modern kanji. (The writing in parentheses were filled in by a curator):

The top section: (Left) 辛酉卜; (Center)貞王今夕; Right (亡) 囗 with 卜 inside

The middle section: (left)己未卜; (Center)貞王今夕; Right 亡and 囗 with 卜 inside

The bottom section: Left 癸丑(卜); Center 貞王(今); Right 夕亡 and 囗 with 卜 inside

Generally speaking, divination writing starts with the name of the year, such as 辛酉, 己未 and 癸丑 on this piece of tortoise shell. The third writing 卜 meant “divination,” and the fourth one 貞 also meant “divination” (originated from 卜, and 貝 a “cooking pot for a religious rite”). What was asked in divination was described in the next several writings — On the three separate days they sought to divine whether there would be a calamity to the king (王) on those nights (今夕).

Oracle bone writing being the record of divination for a ruler, the writing for “king,” 王, appeared on many pieces of oracle bone writing. We have looked at another one in a previous post. Please refer to the earlier post for another example –The Kanji 徳待役後従- ぎょうにんべん (1) on October 25, 2015.

Now that we have seen actual archaeological artifacts, let us resume our regular exploration, starting with the kanji 王.

  1. The kanji 王 “king”

history-of-kanji-%e7%8e%8bThe oracle bone style writing for 王, (a) in brown, was similar to the shape in Photo 1. In bronze ware style writing the bottom line of (b) was thicker and had a curved edge, which was the blade of a king’s ceremonial axe. The second horizontal line was closer to the top line. The same proportion remains in (d) in ten style, in red. In kanji the proportion of the three horizontal lines became even.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi 王 /o’o/ means “king.” It is in 国王 (“king” /kokuo’o/), 王国 (“kingdom” /ookoku/), 王者 (“king; champion” /o’oja/) and ローマ法王 (“the Pope” /roomahooo’o/).

  1. The kanji 旺 “vigorous”

history-of-kanji-%e6%97%bahistory-of-kanji-%e5%be%80For the kanji 旺, the bronze ware style writing had a footprint (止) at the top and a standing person with an emphasis on his legs at the bottom, together signifying “to go.” In ten style the crossroad was added, which made up 往 “to go,” as shown on the right, taken from a previous post. The sun (日) for “bright light” was added on the left side. Together light spreading intensely meant “vigorous; thriving.” In kanji, the right side became 王 only.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /o’o/ is in 旺盛な (“thriving” /oosee-na/), as in 食欲旺盛な (“having good appetite” /shoku’yoku oosee-na/).

  1. The kanji 皇 “imperial”

history-of-kanji-%e7%9a%87For the kanji 皇, in bronze ware style writing the bottom was 王, and the top was a crown with jewels in the middle. It meant “king; imperial.” In ten sstyle, the crown got separated and took the form 自, which became 白 in kanji. The kanji 皇 means “imperial.”

There is no kun-yomi in Joyo kanji. The on-yomi /ko’o/ is in 皇室 (“royal family; imperial family” /kooshitsu/), 皇后 (“empress” /koogo’o/), 皇太子 (“crown prince” /koota’ishi/), 皇族 (“members of royal family”/koozoku/). Another on-yomi /no’o/ is in 天皇 (“(Japanese) emperor” /ten-no’o/).

  1. The kanji 士 “warrior; man”

history-of-kanji-%e5%a3%abThe kanji 士 originated from a smaller axe that was placed with the blade side down. Just like the kanji 王, some bronze ware style samples had a thick bottom to indicate the blade of the weapon. The kanji 士 meant a “warrior; man.”

There is no kun-yomi in Joyo kanji. The on-yomi /shi/ is in 武士 (“warrior; samurai” /bu’shi/), 兵士 (“soldier” /he’eshi/), 士気 (“moral; fighting spirit” /shi’ki/) and 力士 (“sumo wrestler” /ri’kishi/).

  1. The kanji 仕 “to serve”

history-of-kanji-%e4%bb%95For the kanji 仕, in bronze ware style it was a warrior’s axe, which was the same as 士. In the second bronze ware style writing, a standing person was added on the right side. Together they meant “a person who serves” or “to serve.” In ten style, the two elements were switched, placing the element that was used phonetically on the right side in line with the general rule in kanji. The kanji 仕 means “to serve.” In Japanese it is also used to mean “to do.”

The kun-yomi 仕える /tsukae’ru/ means “to serve; be in personal service; work under.” It is in 仕事 (”work; job” /shigoto/), 仕分ける (“to classify; sort out” /shiwake’ru/), 奉仕活動 (“volunteer service” /hooshika’tsudoo/), 仕方 (“way of doing” /shika’ta/) and 仕方がない (“cannot be helped” /shikata-ga-na’i/).

In this post we have seen photographs of ancient oracle bone writings, the oldest evidence of the proposition on which our study is based – that kanji evolved step-by-step over a long time from events or items in real life as ancient people saw them. – Noriko  [November 13, 2016]

P.S. This week I have learned at the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library (東京中央図書館) in Minami Azabu (南麻布) that there are various collections of oracle bones in Japan. The most notable is at Kyoto University. The photos of the “rubbing” of these bones were published in 1960-1968 by Shigeki Kaizuka (貝塚茂樹), Kyoto University. Another collection is with Tokyo University. I do not know if these collections can be viewed if we make a request in advance.  I would like to try that in my next stay in Tokyo. The experience of looking at real pieces is so different from looking at the “rubbing” of the pieces in print. [January 29, 2017]

The Kanji 利別例創前愉癒輸諭喩 -りっとう “sword; knife”


In the last post we looked at kanji that contain 刀 “sword; knife; to cut.” In this post, we are going to look at its variations, a bushu rittoo (刂). The name rittoo comes from 立 “standing” and 刀.

history-of-kanji-%e5%88%b6frameThe two shapes 刀 and刂 in kanji had the same shape in ancient writing, and when the last ancient style writing became kanji that 刂 was used. Just a few months ago we had a chance to look at this change in the kanji 制 and 製 in connection with a bushu kihen. [The Kanji 未妹味昧制製果課裸菓–“tree” (2) on July 19, 2016] In the kanji 制, shown on the right, the left side was a vigorously growing tree with the top thrusting upward, and the left side was a knife. Trimming tree limbs back with a knife or shears means “to regulate.” Now we look at other kanji that have a bushu rittoo.

  1. The kanji 利 “sharp; advantageous”

history-of-kanji-%e5%88%a9For the kanji 利, in oracle bone style, in brown, the left side was a knife and the right side was a rice plant with crops. The two dots were probably grains of rice. In bronze ware style, in green, the positions of the knife and the rice plant were switched and the grains are still present. A sharp cutting tool was advantageous in harvesting rice or other crops. In kanji the knife on the right became two vertical lines and formed a bushu rittoo. The kanji 利meant “sharp” and “useful; advantageous.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /ri/ is in 鋭利な (“sharp; sharp-edged” /e’eri-na/), 利口な (“clever; bright; shrewd” /rikoo-na/), 便利な (“convenient; useful” /be’nri-na/) and 利用する (“to make good use of” /riyoo-suru/).

  1. The kanji 別 “to separate”

history-of-kanji-%e5%88%a5For the kanji 別, in oracle bone style the right side signified separated bones. Together with a knife on the left, they meant “to separate bones at the joint using a knife.” In ten style, in red, the positions of the two elements got switched. The kanji 別 meant “to separate; another.”

The kun-yomi 別れる (“to become separated” /wakare’ru/) and 別れ際 (“on parting” /wakaregiwa/). The on-yomi /betsu/ is in 別々に (“separately” /betsubetsu-ni/), 別居する (“to live separately; live apart” /bekkyo-suru/), 差別 (“discrimination” /sa’betsu/) and 特別に (“particularly; specially” /tokubetsu-ni/).

The next kanji 例 contain 列. The kanji 列 and 烈 have also been discussed previously in connection with fire. [The Kanji 焦煎烈煮庶遮蒸然燃 –“fire” (2) れっか May 28, 2016]

  1. The kanji 例 “example; custom; that

history-of-kanji-%e4%be%8bFor the kanji 例 In ten style the left side was a “person.” The middle and the right side had a beheaded head with the hair still attached and a sword, which signified “to display an enemy’s beheaded heads in a row as a show of victory after a battle,” as previously discussed. For 例, with “person” (イ) added, it signified “people neatly in line.” From that 例 meant “things in display as a model.” 例 is also used to refer to something previously known to both a speaker and a hearer, “that; usual.”

The kun-yomi 例えば /tatoeba/ means “for example.” The on-yomi /re’e/ is in 例 (“example; customes” /re’e/), 例の (“the usual; that one” /re’e-no/, as in 例の話 (“the story that was previously discussed” /re’e-no-hanashi/), and 実例 (“actual example” /jitsuree/), 恒例の行事 (“customary event” /kooree-no gyooji/).

  1. The kanji 創 “cut; to create”

history-of-kanji-%e5%89%b5For the kanji 創, the bronze ware style writing had a standing person on the left and a knife on the right. Together they meant “to be wounded; cut.” In ten style the left side was replaced by a different writing 倉 that had the same sound /so’o/. A knife was used to create something new. So, it also meant “to create.”

There is no kun-yomi in Joyo kanji. The on-yomi /so’o/ is in 創造する (“to create” /soozoo-suru/). The original meaning “wound” remains in words such as 絆創膏 (“adhesive bandage” /bansookoo/).

  1. The kanji 刺 “to sting; pierce; stab”

history-of-kanji-%e5%88%baFor the kanji 刺, the left side 朿 was “thorny twigs.” With a “knife” on the right side together, they meant “to sting; pierce; stab.”

The kun-yomi 刺す /sa’su/ means “to stab; sting,” and is in 虫刺され (“bug bite” /mushisasare/) and 刺身 (“sashimi; slices of raw fish.” The on-yomi /shi/ is in 刺激 (“stimulus; impetus” /shigeki/), 刺繍 (“embroidery” /shishuu/) and 名刺 (“name card” /meeshi/).

  1. The kanji 前 “front; before”

history-of-kanji-%e5%89%8dFor the kanji 前, In bronze ware style, the top was “a footprint,” and the bottom was a boat. It meant “to move forward.” In the three ten style writings (b) (c) and (d), the footprint looked more like the kanji 止. (d) had a knife on the bottom right that added the meaning “to cut and even up,” possibly toenails — toenails are in front of your body. The kanji 前means “front; before.” It is also used to mean “portion.” In kanji the footprint (止) was simplified to a three stroke shape.

The kun-yomi 前 /ma’e/ means “front; before,” and is in 建前 (“façade; the theory” /tatemae/) and 後ろ前 (“(to wear clothes) backwards” /ushiro’mae/), 自前 (“one’s own expense” /jimae/) and 持ち前 (“one’s nature; peculiar” /mochimae-no/. The on-yomi /ze’n/ is in 戦前 (“before war”/senzen/) and 前衛 (“avant-garde” /zen-ee/).

history-of-kanji-%e5%85%aaThe next five kanji 愉癒輸諭喩 share the same component 兪. 兪 is not a Joyo kanji but we have its ancient style writings shown on the left. Both bronze ware style writings had a boat, or a tray that was placed vertically. A boat and a tray signified “to transport” something to another place. The right side was a surgical needle with a big handle at the top and a knife. In ten style the handle became the top. Together they originally meant “to take a lesion out with a knife; heal.”

  1. The kanji 愉 “pleasure”

history-of-kanji-%e6%84%89For the kanji 愉, the bronze ware style writing was the same as that of 兪 “to take a lesion out with a knife; recover.” In ten style a heart (忄) was added on the left. Removing the source of concern from the heart meant “pleasure; joy.” In kanji the knife became a bushu rittoo shape.

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /yu/ is in 愉快 (“pleasant; delightful; cheerful” /yu’kai/).

  1. The kanji 癒 “healing; cure”

history-of-kanji-%e7%99%92The ten style writing of the kanji 癒 had a bed (爿), vertically placed for space, on the left and a horizontal line at the top of 兪, which signified a sick person. Together they mean a sick person getting healed from an illness by having lesion removed with a surgical knife. In kanji the bed and the sick person became a bushu yamaidare (疒) “sick; illness,” and a “heart” (心) was added to indicate “feeling better; healing from an illness.” The kanji 癒 meant “cure: heal.”

The kun-yomi 癒す /iya’su/ means “to cure; heal,” and its passive form 癒される /iyasare’ru/ means “therapeutic; healing.” The on-yomi /yu/ is in 治癒 (“healing; recovery” /chi’yu/).

  1. The kanji 輸 “to transport”

history-of-kanji-%e8%bc%b8For the kanji 輸, in ten style the left side was a “vehicle” (車). The right side “taking out a lesion” gave the meaning “to take something out to another place.” Together they meant “to move something; transport.”

There is no kun-yomi. The on-yomi /yu/ is in 輸出 (“export” /yushutsu), 輸入 (“import” /yunyuu/), 輸送 (“transportation; carriage” /yusoo/) and 運輸 (“transportation; conveyance” /u’n-yu/.)

  1.  The kanji 諭 “to admonish for an error; discourage”

history-of-kanji-%e8%ab%adThe ten style writing of the kanji 諭 had a bushu gonben “word; to say.” Together with 兪, they meant “to admonish someone for an error; advise,” as if one took the lesion out. The kanji 諭 means “to admonish someone for an error; counsel; discourage.”

The kun-yomi /sato’su/ means “to admonish someone for an error; advise.” The on-yomi /yu/ is in 教諭 (“teacher at elementary and high schools” /kyooyu/).

  1. The kanji 喩 “example; metaphor”

There is no ancient writing available for 喩. The left side 口 “to speak” and the right side 兪together meant “to teach something with a metaphor.”

The kun-yomi 喩え /tato’e; tato’i/ is not a Joyo kanji reading but means “example; metaphor.” The on-yomi /yu/ is in 比喩 (“metaphor” /hi’yu/).

In the next post we will look at a few more kanji 刃忍認 that are related to a knife, and then start a topic on other sharp-edged objects. [November 6, 2016]  -Noriko