Which Hand Helps? – 又右友有左 – “hand” (1)


(1) Ancient Japanese King’s Seal

The kanji and bushu shape 又 originated from a right hand that showed three fingers and a wrist. Back in February, I talked about the oldest artifact in kanji related to Japan, the gold seal of the Japanese King of Na 漢委奴國王 given by a Chinese Han emperor, in 57 A. D. [Link to the article.]  On this one inch square solid gold seal, in 又 on the right side of the third kanji 奴, we could see four fingers, instead of three fingers. Going through reference books, I still have not come across another example like that. Very intriguing. In discussing the shapes that came from a hand, I would like to start with 又  in this post.

(2) The Kanji 又 “also; or; again”

History又This shows the development of the kanji 又: Oracle bone style is in brown; bronze ware style in green; ten-style (official seal style) in red; and the last one in textbook style kanji. The bronze ware style here even suggested a thumb at the bottom (it was shorter and bending a little at the tip.) The shapes were all a right hand and meant “right side.” When one helped someone, he lent a right hand. So, this writing came to be used to mean “to help; helping hand,” and it appears in numerous kanji as a component. In the kanji, by itself, however, it lost the meaning of “right hand” and “help.” The kanji 又 /mata/ means “also; in addition to; again,” and also used in words such as 又貸し (“sublease” /matagashi/) and  又は (/mata’wa/) “or; alternatively.”  There is no on-reading.

(3) The Kanji 右 “right side”

History右Since 又 “right hand” was taken over by the meaning “to help,” a new writing was created by adding 口 “a mouth/word (to put in a word for),” as shown in bronze ware style and ten style. From a right hand that helped, it meant “right side.’ But in the kanji, the meaning “to help” disappeared, and instead, a left hand expresses that, as we will examine in (5). Shape-wise, in the kanji the middle long stroke became a horizontal line. It is used in words such as 右の方 (“the right side /migi no ho’o/) and 右手 (“a right hand” /migite/) in kin-reading, and 右折禁止 (“no right turn” /usetsukinshi/) and 右派 (“conservative faction of a political party” /u’ha/) in on-reading.

(4) The Kanji 友 “friend”

History友Here we have two right hands. The third and fourth bronze ware style had a 口 “mouth/words” underneath. They meant two (or many) people pledge to help each other. The writing meant “amicable relationship” and “friend.” It is used in words such as 友達 (“friend” /tomodachi/) in kun-reading,and 親友 (“close friend; best friend” /shinyuu/) and 友好国 (“ally (country)” /yuuko’okoku/) in on-reading.

(5) The kanji 有 “to exist; have”

History有Another kanji that shared the same oracle bone style as the kanji 又 was the kanji 有. In this case, it meant “to have.” In bronze ware style, the left sample had two short lines and the other sample had a piece of meat (月) under a right hand. The shape 月 had a few different meanings: “moon”; “a piece of meat” (think of the kanji 肉 “meat”); and a “boat.”  A right hand holding a piece of meat meant “to have” or an indication of “existence.” It is used in words such as 有る (“to exist; to have” /a’ru/) in kun-reading and 有名な (“famous” /yuumee/) and 所有物 (“possession” /shoyu’ubutsu/) in on-reading.

(6) The kanji 左 “left side”

History左The oracle bone style was a mirror image of 又. So, it must have been a left hand. It makes sense, doesn’t it?  In bronze ware style and ten style, the shape 工 was added. The kanji 工 came from a carpenter’s tool, a work table, or a craft and it means “craft.” One holds the crafted work with his left hand to work on. So, the kanji 左 meant “left.”  The kanji 左 is in 左側 (“left side” /hidarigawa/) in kin-reading, and 左右 (“both sides” /sa’yuu/) in on-reading. Because the left hand helps what the right hand does, it also meant “to help” when used as a component in some kanji, such as  佐 “to assist,” as in 補佐 (“aid; assistant” /ho’sa/).

There are several different shapes of kanji components that originated from a hand. I would like to discuss those in the next few posts. [May 4, 2014]

The Gold Seal of the Ancient Japanese King 漢委奴国王印


[I am reposting this slightly modified article, which I inadvertently deleted a few weeks ago.]

Gold Seal of Ancient Japanese King (57 AD)

The image on the left is a picture of the famous gold seal of the Japanese King of Na that was given by a Chinese Han emperor in 57 A.D.  It is the oldest record of kanji writing that is related to Japan.  The image on the right is an impression on wax.  It reads, from the right to the left, Kan no Wa no Na no kokuoo 漢の委の奴の国王 “(Seal of) Japanese King of Na given by Han Emperor.”


The red image on the left is an impression of a rubber stamp of the replica. It is easier for us to see the writing.  I would like to draw your attention to ancient writing in the center of the bottom row. Its kanji form is 奴. The left side (女) is a woman sitting with her hands crossed in front. The right side (又) is another radical shape called yoo or mata, and it pertains to a hand or an act that one does using a hand.

Kanji Radial 又The two ancient forms for 又 are shown on the right.

Look closely at the area marked in a blue box on the imprint of the seal in red. By contrast to the two ancient writings on the right, which showed three fingers, do you see an extra line in the seal?  It is another finger!  The seal maker must have reverted to the original meaning of a hand with fingers. It was a delightful discovery when I obtained the replicas from the Fukuoka City Museum.

Later on the kanji 奴 developed two different phonetic letters in Japanese: The right side 又 became a katakana nu ヌ; and the cursive style writing of the kanji 奴 eventually became a hiragana nu ぬ.[February 2, 2014]