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]

A Celestial Record Keeper’s Work – 史事吏使


A Hand Holding a Tally Container


This post is a story of the four kanji that came from the a tally container and a hand of a celestial record keeper: 史, 事, 吏 and 使.

(1) 史 “history; to chronicle”

History史It all started with the images of a container that had bamboo sticks inside used as tallies, and a hand. A calendar maker kept the records of celestial changes using these tallies. The kanji 史 meant “to chronicle; history.” Throughout the three ancient writing styles, oracle bone style, in brown, and bronze ware style, in green, and even in ten style, in red, a container and a hand were recognizable as such. In kanji, something changed. I will come back to this shortly. The kanji 史 is used in words such as 歴史 (“history” /rekishi/) and 世界史 (“world history” /sekaishi/) in on-reading. There is no kun-reading.

(2) 事 “work/job; thing; matter”

History事For the kanji 事, in oracle bone style, other than a twig shape at the top, it was the same as that of (1) 史. The twig shape was a sign where government work was done. It meant “work; job; thing; matter.” In bronze ware style, the first two writings had an additional wiggly sideway line right below the twig shape. This was a streamer to point out that it was the government office too. The third bronze ware style writing was less elaborate. In ten style, a hand that was more dominant and it intersected the vertical line that went through the bottom. In kanji, the vertical line goes up at the bottom. The kanji 事 is used in 仕事 (“work; job” /shigoto/) in kun-reading, 用事 (“errand” /yooji/) and 事件 (“incidence” /ji’ken/) in on-reading.

(3) 吏 “government worker”

History吏The kanji 吏 means “government worker.” We see that the oracle bone style writing and the bronze ware style writing were essentially identical with those of 事 in (2) — “Government work” and “a person who works” used the same writing. In ten style, however, 吏 and 事 became different in that the vertical line did not go through in 吏. Further, in kanji the vertical line became a long bent stroke, which left only a single slanted stroke. The kanji 吏 is in 官吏 (“public servant” /ka’nri/). There is no kun-reading.

吏&事DifferenceDuring the last few weeks, while I was preparing for the new kanji tutorial site videos, I was wondering how 史, 吏 and 使, our next kanji, had ended up with a bent stroke, whereas 事 had stayed with as a straight line. Here is my conjecture (the images on the left). When the vertical line in the container got connected to one of the strokes in hand, it produced the shape in 史, 吏 and 使. On the other hand, in 事 “work; job; matter” because a hand was an important aspect of doing actual work, it was made more recognizable. The vertical line in the container got extended through the hand and thus we got 事. Does it make sense to you?

(4)  使 “to use; to make someone do; send a person as a proxy”

History使In the kanji 使, a bushu ninben was added to 吏 “government worker.” A bushu ninben always added the sense of “an act that a person does.” From “to make someone do the work,” 使 meant “to use” or “to send someone as a proxy.” It is used in words such as 使う (“use” /tsukau/) in kun-reading, 使用中 (“in use; occupied” /shiyoochuu/) and 大使 (“ambassador” /ta’ishi/) in on-reading.

So, even though it started with a celestial record keeper, we do not seem to have received a visit from a space alien like we did in the posting last week. The writings were for mundane every day work and nothing fanciful. In the next post, if I can, I would like to take a break from a kanji story and touch on the topic of Japanese tonal patterns, which is very important for us to be able to speak correctly. [April 20, 2014]

Eyes Wide Open (5) 見, 現, 親, 視, 規 and 覚


Big-eyed Space Aliens Looking at Something Closely


It is almost true, isn’t it? As you have undoubtedly guessed, these are the ancient writings for 見. The left one in brown was in oracle bone style and the right one in green was in bronze ware style.

(1) 見 “to see”

History見Another sample of oracle bone style writing, in brown, is facing left.  In ten style, in red, the eye became a vertical shape and the body below the eye became the shape that we see in many kanji such as 元, 院, 光, 先, 売 and 説. This common shape at the bottom of these kanji is a bushu ninnyoo or hitoashi, and it is often interpreted as a person in motion because it looks like two legs in kanji. But judging from the ancient writings, the shapes were originally a hand and a leg. The kanji 見 means to “see.” The on-reading /ke’n/ is in words such as 発見 (“discovery” /hakken/) and 意見 (“opinion” /i’ken/) and the kun-reading is in 見方 (“how one looks at” /mika’ta; mikata’/).

(2) 現 “to appear” (no ancient writing available)

The left side came from jewels strung together, as in the kanji 玉. Grinding a precious stone reveals a shine that was not visible before. What we see is what is present. The kanji 現 means “to appear” or “present.” The kun-reading is 現れる (“to become visible; appear” /araware’ru/). Its on-reading is used in words such as 現金 (“cash” /genki’n/), 現在 (“presently; now” /ge’nzai/) and 実現する (“to become realized” /jitsugen-suru/).

(3) 親 “parent; intimate”

History親In bronze ware style, in green, the left side was a tattooing needle with an ink reservoir. In ten style, in red, a tree was added. It was used phonetically for /shin/ and also to mean the closeness of a knife (or needle). Together with 見, they meant someone who looked at you closely, and thus “parent” and “intimate; close.” A kun-reading 親しい (/shitashi’i/) means close and another kun-reading is 親 (“parent” /oya’/). The on-reading is in 両親 (“parents” /ryo’oshin) and 親切な (“kind” /shi’nsetsu-na/).

(4) 視 “to see”

History視In oracle bone style, in brown, an altar table and an eye meant looking at an altar table. In ten style, in red, the two elements were placed side by side. The left side 示 by itself is the kanji 示 (“to indicate; show”) from “a place where a god demonstrates his will.” In the current kanji 視, 示 was replaced by the shape ネ, which is a bushu shimesuhen “religious matter.” In the kanji 視, however, the religious meaning was lost and the kanji just means “to see.” The kun-reading is /mi’ru/ “to see” but is rarely used. The on-reading is found in 視力 “eyesight” /shiryoku/) and 無視する (“to ignore” /mu’shi-suru/).

(5) 規 “standard”

History規The left side was a ruler or a compass to draw a line or circle, and was used to mean “standard.” The kanji 規 does not have a kun-reading. The on-reading is in 規定 (“regulation” /kitee/) and 規則 (“rule” /ki’soku/).

(6) 覚 “to be aware; memorize” and 学 “to learn”

History学In discussing the kanji 覚, it will be helpful to look at the kanji 学 first because it has a longer history. In oracle bone style, (1), with two hands and an “x” shape, it meant a place where people mingled and helped each other. In bronze ware style, (2), a child was added. A place where children mingled while protected by the caring hands of adults is a place where the children learn — the writing meant “to learn.” The kyujitai 學, (4), was replaced by a much abbreviated form 学, (5).

History覚When the shape for child is replaced with the shape 見 for the act of seeing closely, one looks closely and becomes aware of a matter. The combined shape meant “to be aware.” The kyujitai 覺 was replaced by an abbreviated form 覚. One kun-reading is in 目が覚める (“to become awake” /me’ ga sameru/) and 目覚まし時計 (“alarm clock” /mezamashido’kee/). Another kun-reading is 覚える (“to memorize” /oboe’ru/). The on-reading is in 自覚する (“to be conscious of” /jikaku-suru/).

Well, in the last five posts (including this one) we have seen quite a few shapes that originated from a human eye. We shall revisit other eye shapes later, but for now we leave this topic. Thank you very much for reading these articles. I hope that you have had some surprises that you enjoyed and some affirmations of what you already knew. In the next post, I would like to look into four kanji that essentially came from one origin but now have different meanings: 史, 吏, 使 and 事.  [April 12, 2041]

Eyes Wide Open (4) 限, 眼, 根, 恨, 痕, 銀 and 退


In continuing our search of kanji that contain “eye,” this post is about the component 艮, which is described in dictionaries to mean “to halt,” “to go against” or “immobile.” The top of 艮 has only one line inside, instead of the two that you would expect as an “eye.” So, it is a little puzzling. Fortunately the ancient writing gives us a good clue about what it meant.

(1) 限 “to limit; restrict”

History of The Kanji  限For the kanji 限, let us look at the right side, 艮, first. In the bronze ware style writing, (1), we can unmistakably see an eye. The shape underneath the eye was a mirror image of the ancient writing for ninben or hito, 人. The ancient writing for a ninben or hito usually faced left, instead of right, signifying “backward.” So, one interpretation for the right side 艮 is that an eye and a person facing backward. An alternative interpretation that has been suggested is that a fearsome evil eye petrified a person with such fear that he became immobile or stepped back. In ten style, (2), an eye became a part of a person. In kanji, (3), two shapes became a continuous shape, with an emphasis on feet that retreat.

The left side of 限 is a bush kozato-hen, which meant a ladder on which a god descended, or a tall mound of soil that formed an earthen wall or boundary. Together the kanji 限 meant “a limit; restrict.” The kun-reading is /kagi’ru/ and it means “to limit”; and the on-reading /ge’n/ is in 制限 (“restrictions” /seege’n/) and 限定 (“limitation” /gentee/).

(2) 眼 “eye”

History of 眼While the left side 目 gave the meaning of “eye”, the right side was used for the sound /gan/ “round.” A round part of an eye is an eyeball. The kanji 眼 meant “eye; eyeball.” As we have seen in (1) 限 above, the right side 艮 contained an element of an eye or seeing but in this kanji its role was primarily phonetic. This is a semantic-phonetic composite writing, “keisei-moji (形声文字),” where one part of the kanji represented meaning and another its pronunciation. We see a good example of the fact that even if a particular component of a kanji was primarily intended to represent how it sounded, the shape was also often chosen for its original meaning as well. The kun-reading of the kanji 眼, /ma’nako/, is used as a more poetic expression than just saying /me‘/. 眼 is also used in 眼鏡 (”eye glasses” /me’gane/.) The on-reading /gan/ is in 近眼 (“near-sightedness; myopia” /kingan/).

(3) 根 “root”

Historyof根The kanji 根 had a bush kihen ‘tree.” The right side 艮 was used for the sound /kon/ but it also came with the original meaning of “immobile” or “to stay in one place.” What does not change or move with respect to a tree, regardless of the season?  The answer is Its root. So, the kanji 根 meant “root; fundamental.” By itself is the kun-reading /ne’/ and means “root.” The On-reading /ko’n/ is used in words such as 根本的な(“fundameantal” /konponteki-na.)

(4) 恨 “to resent”

History of 恨What would the combination of the shape of “a heart” (a bushu risshinben, a vertical shape of a heart, on the left side) and the shape 艮 “to stay in one place” mean? One reason why one cannot move on is because something lingers in his heart and that is “resentment” or a “grudge.” The kun-reading word 恨む (/ura’mu/) means “to resent; to have a grudge.” The on-reading /kon/ is in 悔恨 “regrettable; sorrowful.“

(5) 痕 “mark; scar”

History-of-痕In bronze ware style, (1) and (2), the left side was a bed placed vertically which became a bushu yamaidare “fatigue; ill.” A bushu yamaidade “ill” and 艮 “something that remains” together meant “a scar” or “mark.” The kun-reading 痕 /a’to/  means “scar.” The on-reading /ko’n/ is used in 血痕 (“bloodstain” /kekkon/) and 痕跡 (“trace; sign (from the past)” /konseki/).

 (6) 銀 “silver”

History of 銀In 銀, the left side a bush kanehen came from gold nuggets hidden underground. The right side was used phonetically. Together they meant “silver.” A bank, /ginkoo/, is written as 銀行, literally meaning a place to conduct business (行) in silver (銀). The name /ginza/ 銀座 was the silver foundry where the bakufu controlled the production of silver currency during the Edo period. The name Ginza was used for a lively commercial district, the most famous of which is the Ginza district in Tokyo in modern-day Tokyo.

(7) 退 “to retreat”

History of 退The last one in this post 退 had a different story. In ten style, the top of 艮 was not an eye but the sun. Below that was a foot that was facing downward or backward. With the left half of a crossroad彳, altogether they meant to go backward or to retreat. In kanji, on the right side a bushu shinnyoo, “to move on (in a forward direction),” was adopted.* It is hard for us to grasp the meaning of “to retreat” visually from the kanji shape 退. Another example where kanji shape is hiding its true meaning, and that looking into its ancient precursors is helpful to understand what the kanji really means.

Our readers may be tired of “eye” by now.  To be honest, so am I.  But there is one more important shape that we have not looked at, that is 見. I hope to discuss the kanji 見, 現, 親, 視, 規, 観 and 覚.

*Notes: The shapes for a forward footstep (止) and a backward footstep (as in the bottom of 夏) play an important role in kanji and we will certainly visit them later. In the meantime, for a discussion of a bushu shinnyoo, please refer to an earlier post entitled, The History of Kanji Radical Shinnyoo posted on December 28, 2013.   Thank you.  [April 7, 2014]

Eyes Wide Open (3) 臣, 臨, 覧, 緊, 蔵 and 臓


How could the kanji 臣 be related to an eye? Do you wonder? I did, when I first read about it years ago. But once I realized that it was a wide open big eye in a face seen from the side, it became fun to look for kanji that contain 臣. Here are six of them.

(1) 臣 “subject; minister”

History of the Kanji 臣In oracle bone style, (1) and (2), and in bronze ware style, (3), they are all wide-open big eyes. Someone who kept a watchful eye for his master was a loyal subject. (4) is in ten-style and (5) is the kanji in kyookasho-tai “textbook style.” It meant “a subject” or “government minister” and is used in words such as 大臣 (“minister; secretary; chancellor” /da’ijin/) and 臣下 (“subject” /shi’nka/.)

The stroke order is as below. You will find it easy to write a well-balanced kanji if you follow the correct stroke order.


(2) 臨 “to look over from above; provisional”

History of the Kanji 臨The first two, (1) and (2), are in bronze ware style. The top of (1) showed an eye and a standing person. Underneath were three boxes that were connected to the eye. In ten style, (3), a person became taller to see things better. It meant someone viewing many things from a high position. Viewing things meant that he was present and ready to deal with the matter at hand. It makes up words such as 臨海公園 (“an ocean side park” /rinkaiko’oen/), ご臨席 (“attendance” by an important person /gorinseki/); and 臨時列車 (“special unscheduled trains” /rinjires’sha/). The kun-yomi 臨む (”to face“ /nozomu/) is in a phrase such as 試合に臨む (“to face a match” /shiai ni nozomu/.)

(3) 覧 “to view”

History覧In ten style it consisted of two writings 監 and 見. The top had a watchful eye, and a person looking at his reflection in water that was contained in a flat bowl. It meant “to observe” and eventually became the kanji 監 “to observe; to watch carefully.” The bottom 見 is a person with the eye emphasized. So many references to “seeing” in this kanji 覧 “to view”!  Just as 臨席 was an honorific form, ご覧になる is also an honorific verb “to look.” This is because seeing is done from a high position. 覧 is also used in 展覧会 (“exhibition” /tenra’nkai/) and 閲覧室 (“viewing or reading room” /etsura’nshitsu.)

(4) 緊  “tight; imminent”

History of the Kanji 緊The meaning of “hard; tight” came from the top of another kanji shares (堅 “hard; solid” /ke’n; kata’i/). The bottom was threads. To tighten threads and make a tight knot signified something “tight” and “imminent.” It is used in words such as 緊急の (“extremely urgent” /kinkyuu-no/) and 緊張する (“to feel nervous and tense” /kinchoo-suru/.)

(5) 蔵 “a vault; to store securely”

History of the Kanji 蔵The top is the buxhu kusakanmuri “grass.” Tall grasses hide a person or thing well. The bottom was used for phonetic purposes, also meant “to hide.” The shape itself consisted of a bed or table with legs (here vertically placed), a watchful eye or subject (臣), and a halberd (戈), a type of weapon. Altogether they meant that one  hid something important under the place where one slept and watched out with a weapon to protect himself. From that it meant “a vault” or “to store away.” Quite cleverly constructed, I must say. By itself is the jun-yomi 蔵 (“vault; treasure storage” /kura’/) and the on-yomi is in 冷蔵庫 (“refrigerator” /reezo’oko/.)

(6) 臓 “organ”

Kanji 臓The last kanji in this post 臓 was also very cleverly constructed. If we take the kanji 蔵 and add nikuduki 月 “flesh or part of body” (it came from the kanji 肉 “flesh; meat“), we get the kanji 臓 “organ.” A part of the body that is hidden and protected inside is an organ. We get words such as 心臓 (“heart” /shinzoo/), 肝臓 (“liver” /kanzoo/) and 内臓 (”internal organs” /naizoo/.)  An ancient writing for this kanji was not available.

For our next post, I hope to be able to look into the kanji 眠・銀・限・眼 (and other, if I can.)

[Joyo kanji beyond 1,006 Educational kanji that were mentioned in this post: 監・堅・緊]  [3-31-2014]

Eyes Wide Open (2) 直, 値, 植, 置 and 徳 


In this post, I am going to discuss the five kanji 直値植置 and 徳. They all have the common component of 直 ”straight; direct.”

(1) 直 “straight; direct”

History of 直The kanji 直 also contains an eye. In oracle bone style, (1), a side-long shape of an eye had a straight vertical line above. A writing found on a stone inscription, (2), that is believed to predate ten-style had a dot on this vertical line to indicate that the line was important.  In ten style, (3), the dot for emphasis at the top turned into a straight stroke.  Being straight is a “direct” way.  So, the kanji 直 means “straight; direct.”

(2) 値  “value”

Kanji 値By adding a bushu ninben “person; an act that one does” to 直, we get the kanji 値. When one looks at something in a straight and direct way, he is assessing its value. The kanji 値 means “value; approximation, pricing.” It is used in words such as 値段 (“price” /nedan/), 価値 (“value” /ka’chi/) in on-reading as well as 値 (“value” /atai/ ) in kun-reading.

(3) 植 “to plant”

Kanji 植By adding a bushu kihen “tree; wood,” we get the kanji 植. When one plants a tree, he places the tree straight up. This is used to construct words such as 植木 (“garden plant” /ueki/) and 植物 (“plant” as contrasted to animal /shoku’butu/) in on-reading, and 植える (“to plant” /ueru/) in kun-reading. It is also used to infer colonization, as in 植民地 (“colony” /shokumi’nchi/.)

(4) 置 “to place; leave”

Kanji 置Does the top of the kanji 置 look like “an eye” to you? Well, its ten style on the left side tells us that it was a net. In order to catch birds, a net was placed straight above the area where birds gather. From that the writing meant “to place; leave; lay (something).” The kanji 置 makes up words such as 位置 (“position” /i’chi/), 放置する (“to neglect“ /ho’ochi-suru/) in on-reading as well as 置く (“to leave; place; lay” /oku/) in kun-reading.

(5) 徳 “virtue; personal grace”

History of 徳In oracle bone style, (1), we can see that the left side was the original shape of 直, having a straight line and an eye.  The right side was a right half of a crossroad, which meant “to go,” or, when applied in a person, “to conduct oneself” or “deed; act.” Together they meant “one’s conduct with his eye looking straight.” In bronze ware style, (2), a heart 心 was added and the left side of a crossroad was used. So, this writing had a straight line of sight, true heart and straightforward act all in one. Wow! That is one heavily laden meaning. Do we think of “virtue; personal grace,” which is the English translation, in this manner? In ten style, (3), the components were more stylized and the current kanji 徳, (4), lost an angle line below an eye.

In a quick look of the English meanings of these five kanji, it is not obvious that they once had something common. But the ancient writings do reveal what had been left behind along the way as they got standardized into kanji. To me the stories give me something to reflect on how people, of ancient and present times, tried or try to put an idea into visible form so that we could communicate it to others. In the next post, I will discuss a 臣 group (臣, 臨, 覧, 緊, 蔵, 臓.)    [3-25-2014]

Eyes Wide Open (1) 目, 相, 想 and 箱


Ancient creators used different images of each of the human physical features. For “eye,” it was not just 目, and a few other different images were created. We are going to look at different shapes of “eye” that are hidden in various kanji. In this post the kanji 目, 相, 想 and 箱 are discussed.

(1) 目 “eye; seeing”

The eyes in the two oracle bone style writings, (1) and (2), had a pupil and two areas of the white of an eye on each side. That is a side-long shape, which is closer to how an eye looks on the face. In ten style, (3), the eye was placed vertically. Being longer in height than in width is one of the characteristics of ten style writing. The kanji 目 has a number of meanings. Here are only some of them. Kun-yomi /me/ examples include 目 (“eye; ability to see” /me’/), 〜に目がない (“to like very much without reservation” /x ni me’ga na’i/), 目方(“weight” /mekata/) and 四人目 (”fourth person” /yoninme’/).   /Ma/ in 目の当たりにする (“to see in one’s own eyes” /manoa‘tari-ni-suru/) is another kun-yomi. On-yomi examples are 注目する (“to pay attention to” /chuumoku-suru/), 目的 (“purpose” /mokuteki/), and 課目 (“subject matter” /kamoku/.)

(2) 相 “(facing) each other”

Kanji 相 HistoryThe kanji 相 consists of a bushu kihen 木 “tree” and 目 “eye.” If a person faces and looks at a tree, it means the tree faces and looks at the person at the same time. From that the kanji 相 means “facing each other; mutual; government minister (from someone who watches the governmental matter); phase.” In the image on the left, the first two, (1) and (2), are in oracle bone style, and they had a tree above or below an eye. In bronze ware style, (3), a tree and an eye were placed side by side. The eye had a shape that would survive as 臣 “loyal subject” from a watchful eye in several kanji as we will discuss in our third post on eye. In ten style, (4), the two elements are more controlled shapes and closer to kanji, (5), as we use now. Its kun-yomi is /a’i/, as in words such as 相手 (“partner/opponent” /aite’/). The on-yomi words include 相談する (“to talk over with” /soodan-suru/), 首相 (“prime minister” /shushoo/) and 相思相愛 (“(two people) in love with each other” /so’oshi sooai/.)

(3) 想 “think; contemplate”

By adding a heart (心) to 相 “facing each other” we got the kanji 想 “to contemplate.” (The writing on the left is ten-style and the right one is the kanji.) When a person entertains a thought, memory, or idea in his heart, he and the object of thinking are facing other. From that, this kanji tends to have something to reflect on or visualize such as 想像する (“to imagine; visualize” /soozoo-suru/), 感想 (“impression” /kansoo/, 理想 “an ideal” /risoo/.)

(4) 箱  “box”

The top is a bushu takekanmuri “bamboo.”  Once rooted well, bamboo grows strongly and propagates quickly. It provides light-weight materials that are easy to make crafts. Bamboo was also used as the medium of writing before paper was invented. So, many kanji that have a takekanmuri are related to craft or writing. This kanji 箱 is one of them. The bottom 相 was used phonetically for /so’o/ but also gave its original meaning “facing each other.” In traveling, two bamboo boxes were hung on either side of a carriage horse.

In this blog, I am primarily discussing the kanji out of the 1,100 kanji that are included in The Key to Kanji (Williams 2010). If you look at the entire list of the new joyo-kanji, we will find other kanji that contain this common component 相. In the next post, I plan to discuss 直 and four other kanji that contain 直 (値, 植, 置 and 徳).  [3-20-2014]

A Bonfire for “Prosperity” – 栄 and 営


In our life a fire (火) has many faces that are reflected in many different kanji. It can provide us warmth (熱) by burning (燃). It cooks food (焼・煮). One could send a signal to someone near or far in darkness of night by light (灯) or in day light by smoke (煙). Fire leaves soot (点・黒) and charcoal (炭). It could create a calamity (災) by burning everything down to ashes (灰). Or its flame (炎) lights up an area at night (灯・照) to make night life safe. In this post I am going to talk about the flames of a bonfire.

Kanji栄historyBrisk, intense flames of a bonfire (篝火 /kagaribi/ in Japanese) illuminating property suggests “flourishing and prospering.” A property with lots of trees guarded by such bonfires around the property line must be a prosperous house. The kanji 榮 means “prosperous; flourishing.”

The bronze ware style writing for 栄 (its kyujitai 榮), (1), had two intersecting sticks holding a bonfire. The ten-style writing, (2), added two fires around the boundary of the property tree(s). The kyujitai style, (3), had two fires on top. Japanese language reform simplified this to 栄. The kanji 栄 means ”prosperity” and is used in words such as 光栄 /kooei/ “honor,” 栄える /sakae’ru/ “to prosper,” and 栄えある日 /hae’aruhi/ “a day of glory.” We no longer use fires to signify the prosperity.

Kanji 営 HistoryBy replacing a tree with two conjoined rooms or buildings (呂), we get the kanji 営. This kanji too started with two fires −−as in (5) in ten-style and (6) in kyujitai style. 営 originally meant military barracks that had multiple buildings, and important activities were busily conducted there. Now it means “to conduct business; manage.” It is used in words such as 営業中/eegyoochuu/ “Open (for business),” 経営 /keeee/ “management” and (店を)営む /itona’mu/ “to run a store.”

Even though the tops of these kanji got simplified into the same shape as the tops of the kanji 学 “to learn” and 覚 “to memorize,” the two pairs (栄営 and 学覚) have nothing in common. The kyujitai for 学 is 學 and that for 覚 is 覺. I will discuss these kanji at a later date.     [3/6/2014]

PS.  I would like to invite our readers to visit this Tumblr site to see an artistic interpretation of the kanji 栄 (榮) by Yutaka Houlette.  [3-7-2014]

The Kanji Radical 辰 (2): Tilling Tool-農辱


This is part 2 of the kanji radical 辰 discussion.

Just a week ago or so on the Asahi Digital and Yomiuri Shinbun Online, I came across short newspaper articles that reported that an archeological excavation group had unearthed 38 pieces of bivalve shells in a 20,000 to 30,000 years old stratum in Okinawa, the southern most prefecture. Some bivalve shells had been chipped into the shape of a knife. They are called 貝器 (“shell tool” /ba’iki/.)  When I read about this finding, the origin of the kanji 農 came to my mind. This is what I wrote in The Key to Kanji:

K2K_A846農イラストThe top came from 田 ‘rice paddies,” and the bottom 辰 depicted a clam extending a fleshy foot.  Sharp pieces of shell were attached to a wood stick to make a tool to till the soil or for weeding. The kanji 農 means ”farming” or “agriculture/ (Williams The Key to Kanji 2010: 248)

HIstory農Since then other reference materials (Akai 1985 and 2010) have come to my attention. The ancient writing on the left may give us a fuller picture of how the kanji 農 came about. In oracle bone style, (a), the top had trees, suggesting a wooded area and the bottom had a shell, which is the same shape as the oracle bone style for 辰 that we have seen in part 1.  In bronze ware style, (b) and (c), the top was rice paddies, the bottom was a shell, and (b) had two hands next to the shell.  In ten-style, (d), two hands were placed around the rice paddies at the top.

Unlike the four kanji we saw in part 1, 辰 was used to mean a tool to till the field, as given by my 2010 explanation. The kanji 農 meant “to till the field using a tilling tool to which hard shells are attached.” The kanji 農 by itself is not used in Japanese, nor does it have any kun-reading. It is used in words such as 農業 (“agriculture work; farming” /no’ogyoo/), 農村 (“agrarian village,” /nooson/) and 農民 (“farmer, peasant” /noomin/.)  The on-reading is /no’o/ and does not take the sound from 辰 as other kanji in part 1 did. Instead, 辰 contributed to its new meaning directly. This way of forming a new kanji (that is, two components equally contributing to a new meaning without adding a sound) is called 会意文字 (“semantic composite writing” /ka’ii-moji or kaii-mo’ji/), which literally means “two meanings meet (to form a new meaning).”

辱HistorySBy adding the bushu 寸, “hand,” to the clam shell, 辰, we get another kanji, 辱.  It originally meant working in the field, with a hand using a tool.  The on-reading is /jo’ku/.  The two components 辰 and 寸 created a new meaning without using the sound of /shi’n/.  So, this too must be a semantic composite.  That would be our thinking.

However, as it turns out, this kanji has a totally different meaning. It means “to humiliate; insult” in words such as 侮辱する (“to insult” /bujoku-suru/) and 屈辱的な (“humiliating” /kutsujokuteki-na/.)  The kun-reading is 辱める (“to humiliate” /hazukashime’ru/.)  Very potent words!  How did it come to mean that?  The answer is, “We do not know.” Sorry. Even ancient kanji scholars scratched their heads.

For that sort of kanji, the compiler of the most important first kanji dictionary called 『説文解字』 (/setsumon-ka’iji/, Shuowen Jiezi in Chinese) made a category called 仮借文字 (“borrowed writing” /kashaku-mo’ji/.) The literal meaning of kashaku is “temporary borrowing.”  Only a few of thousands of kanji belong to this category. Among the familiar kanji, 彼, 我 and 東 come to my mind.

So, now we have seen three types of kanji formation, 形声文字 “semantic-phonetic composite writing,” 会意文字 “semantic composite writing,” and 仮借 “borrowed writing.”  In the classification of 六書 (/ri’kusho/, Liushu in Chinese) in Setsumon-kaiji, in addition to those three categories, the compiler gave three more categories. They are 象形文字 (“ideographic writing” /shookee-mo’ji/ such as 日、象 and 雨; 指事文字 (“ indicative writing“ /shiji-mo’ji/) such as 二, 上 and 下;  and 転注 (/tenchuu-mo’ji/, No one is sure what it means nor is there a specific kanji.)  For more information on Setsumon-kaiji, please refer to Chapter 2 Kanji Formation Types and Dictionary Section Headers in Williams (2010: 15-18.)

辰StrokeOrder2Before I end my two-part discussion on the bushu 辰, I am going to add the stroke order information just in case you are wondering. [2-24-2014]

The Kanji Radical 辰 (1)To Shake-辰震唇娠


I am going to discuss about a peculiar looking kanji radical 辰 and a few kanji that contain it (震,振、唇 and 娠.)  Even though it is used in a person’s name and in the old sordiac time, 辰 /tatsu/ as kanji is not included on the Joyo Kanji list, but it is an important component of many kanji.


Surprisingly, the shape of the kanji 辰 came from an image of an opened bivalve or clam with its inside showing. In the oracle bone style, as in (a), and in bronze ware style, (b) & (c), the soft body and its ligaments were still attached to the two hard shells. According to Shirakawa (2004) 辰 was the original form of 蜃. The kanji 蜃 is not an every day kanji at all, but if we see it in a word like 蜃気楼 /shinki’roo/ “mirage,” a displaced image that is created by mixture of moisture and light. A clam, or other kinds of bivalve, spouting water up into the air and causing a mirage above the sea was thought to have magical power. It makes me think that the size of the shells must have been impressive to be noticed by ancient people — not like the size that we eat in spagetti vongole!  A soft fleshy body trembles and that gave 辰 the meaning of “to shake” and “something active.” The on-reading is /shi’n/.

Now we take a look at four kanji that contain it as a bushu. (The writings on the left side of each paragraph are official seal style and kanji in kyokasho style.)

震HistorySIn 震, the top 雨 by itself is the kanji /a’mr/ “rain.” When used as a bushu, it means “something falling in the sky.” Something that falls from the sky that shakes things on the ground is thunder (雷 /kamina’ri/). The kanji 震 described trembling or shaking caused by thunder.  地震 (“earthquake” /jishin/) is the shaking of the ground. 震える (”to tremble, shake” /hurueru/) and 身震い (“shudder, shiver” /mibu’rui/) are the kun-reading.

History of the kanji  振By adding a tehen, “hand,” on the left side we get the kanji 振 “to shake; wave; swing.” The kanji 振 is in words such as  手を振る (“wave a hand” /te’ o huru/), 旗を振る (“wave a flag” /hata’ o huru/), and (彼女に) 振られる (“to get jilted (by her or girlfriend)” /(ka’nojo ni) hurareru/). Those are in kun-reading. It also means “to be very active” in words such as 産業を振興させる  “to promote industry” in on-reading /shi’n/.

History of the kanji 唇By adding 口, “mouth,” we get the kanji 唇 ”lip.” By itself, it is 唇 (“lips”/kuchibiru/) in kun-reading. The on-reading is in the word 唇音 (“labial sound” /shin-on/), which is a sound that is created using a lip or lips such as /p, b, f. m/. A very specialized word for a linguist.

History of the kanji 娠By adding an onna-hen, “woman; feminine,” we get the kanji 娠 in 妊娠 (”pregnancy” /ninshin/) which describes the faint movements of a foetus. The on-reading is again /shi’n/ and it does not have any kun-reading.

形声文字 “semantic-phonetic composite writing”

All these kanji share the on-reading shin. The other components of the four kanji, such as amekanmuri, tehen, kuchihen, and onnahen gave the primary meaning. These four kanji are 形声文字 (“semantic-phonetic composite writing”/keesee-mo’ji/.)  Often times, people say,

“A majority of kanji is keisei-moji. Only the sound, not the meaning, matters in keisei-moji. So, knowing the origin does not take you too far.”

I have a very different view on this. It is true that a large number of kanji are keisei-moji, but in reality the component that represents sound was chosen for having semantic connection, not by a random choice. To me that is the secret key to understand each kanji.

By the way, I found a cute video clip that shows three small clams on a beach. I imagine that the ancient people had much larger shells in their minds, but even these small clams demonstrate translucent flesh trembling and spouting water. They make me smile.   蛤の潮吹きのビデオhttp://youtu.be/AjNtG1uYvm8

 [This topic was prompted by an earlier comment from a reader about the kanji 唇 and its relationship with its component 辰 a week ago.  Thank you very much for your comment, Marco from Venezuela.]. [2-26-2014]

Kanji Radical Horse 馬 – 駐験駅驚


Ancient Writing for 馬 “Horse”

History of Kanji 馬

In my last post, I showed you a photocopy of a page from Akai (2010) that showed the ancient writing for a horse. On the left is my hand-copied version. The oracle bone style writing (a) and (b) and the two bronze ware style writings (c), and possibly (d), appear to emphasize the eye, whereas (e) in bronze ware style, the official seal style (f) and the kanji (g) seem to emphasize the four legs and mane. A horse was important to transportation and battle. The shape 馬 is also used as a bushu. In this post we look at four kanji that have a horse as a bushu.

[Notes: The images shown above have been revised on August 1, 2015. I started to differentiate different writing styles by color in April, 2014.]

駐 “to stay in a place”

Ten-style 駐 For the kanji 駐, the right side 主 was an image of a burning lamp with the flame in the middle. A lamp burns in a fixed place, thus 主 meant “to stay in a place.” (主 as in 主人 /shu’jin/ “master”: A master is someone who stays in the back of a place.) Together with 馬, the kanji 駐 means “to stay in one place.” A horse as a means of transportation has been replaced by a car in the modern times. It is used in conjunction with a automobile in the words such as 駐車する /chuusha-suru/ “to park a car” and 駐車場 /chuushajoo/ “parking lot; car park.” It is also used for a person to stay in one place in the words such as 駐在員 /chuuza’iin/ ”someone who is assigned to stay” and 駐日大使 /chuunichi-ta’ishi/ “ambassador to Japan.” There is no kun-reading for this kanji.

験 (kyujitai 驗) “to examine”

Ten-style 験 For the kanji 験, the right side of the ancient writing meant “under a roof two (or many) people standing side by side.” Together with a horse on the left, it meant that people gathered horses in a place to examine and grade them. From this, the kanji 験 means “to examine.” The words that this kanji had include 試験 /shike’n/ “examination,” 実験 /jikken/ ”experiment” and 経験 /keeken/ ”experiences.” The kun-reading /shirushi/ is rarely used.

駅 (kyujitai 驛) “railway station”

Ten-style 駅 For the kanji 駅, the right side was used phonetically but also meant “continuous.” In a long journey, a messenger changed his horse at a station. In modern times, the kanji means “railway station” and is used in words like 駅 /e’ki/ “railway station,” 東京駅 /tookyo’o-eki/ “Tokyo Station”, 駅弁/ekiben/ ”a box lunch sold at a railway station that has a local flavor,” and 駅伝 /ekiden/ “long-distance relay.” The kun-reading is normally not used.

 駅伝 “long-distance relay” in January”

One of the annual sport events over the New Year’s holidays in Japan is a long-distance relay run for university students called Hakone Ekiden 箱根駅伝 /Hakone-e’kiden/ ”Hakone long-distance relay.” (This site has a good photo: http://www.hakone-ekiden.jp/) On January 2nd and 3rd every year, relay teams of 10 runners representing their universities run a little over 100 km from Tokyo to the Hakone mountains, in the south west of Tokyo, and back to Tokyo. It is close to a half-marathon distance for each runner. When the whole country is in a relaxed holiday mood, having nothing else to do other than eat, drink toso (/to’so/: new years celebration sake seasoned with spices) and watch television, the two-day race gives the public some drama.

My hometown in Japan is located along the Sagami Bay and on the Hakone Ekiden route. My father was not a long-distance runner at university, but he did row crew. When the runners would come closer to my hometown area, my father would walk to the seashore road to watch the race, standing in a blistery cold sea breeze for a long time. When he returned home he would tell us excitedly what he had seen. This year, almost a half century later, my American family and I were in Japan when another ekiden called the Hiroshima Ekiden (prefectural competition) was held. We watched the final part of the race on television, enjoying a winter event in Japan.

Now back to our horse kanji story

 驚 “to be surprised; to be startled”

Ten-style 驚 Do you see two discreet components in this kanji? The top is the kanji 敬 ”to respect; revere” and the bottom is 馬. The top 敬 was used phonetically but its sound also had the meaning “to flinch.” A horse gets startled easily. So, the kanji 驚 means “to be surprised; to be startled.” The words include 驚く /odoro’ku/ “to be surprised” in kun-reading and 驚異的な /kyooiteki-na/ “startling; amazing” in on-reading.

There are many more Joyo kanji that have a horse as a component. Many of them reflect the characteristics of a horse, such as running fast.

The five kanji above are discussed in The Key to Kanji: 馬 (No. 850), 駐 (No.742), 駅 (no. 46), 験 (No. 283) and 驚 (No. 220).

The History of the Kanji 止, 歩, 正 and 政 from a Footprint


In this post, I am going to discuss the four kanji 止, 歩, 正 and 政 that share the same origin of a footprint or step.

A. The kanji 止”stop” and 歩 “walk” from a footprint


(1) footprint/foot; (2) bronze ware style 止; (3) ten-style 止; and (4) kanji 止

Our feet are now molded into a shape that fits in a shoe like in image (1), but we can easily imagine that a big foot was skewed more outward to help with strenuous walking in the ancient times.

Image (2) is the bronze ware style writing for a footstep that became 止 “to halt one’s steps” or “to stop.”  It had a prominent big toe on the top right along with two other toes and the upper part of the sole.  Image (3) is ten-style writing, which became the kanji (4).


(5) bronze ware style 歩; (6) ten-style 歩; and (7) kanji 歩

In walking, one puts forward the right foot and the left foot alternately.  That is what makes up the kanji 歩 for “walk” or a “step.”  Image (5) is the bronze ware style, with a left foot at the top and a right foot at the bottom.  How can we tell which is which?  Well, where the two lines cross is the big toe.  The top and the bottom in ten-style writing (6) still maintain the mirror image of each other.  Wben they became the kanji 歩 (7) the bottom took the shape of the kanji 少. (The kanji 少 “little” came from a different origin.)

B. The kanji 正 “just” and 政 “to govern”


(8) oracle bone style 正; (9) bronze ware style 正; (10) ten-style 正; and (11) kanji 正

The kanji 正 “right/just” also contained a footprint. The oracle bone style (8) had a box shape at the top, which represented a wall surrounding a town, and a footprint at the bottom. Together they showed an army advancing into a town to conquer.  In the bronze ware style writing (9), the town wall became a big dot above a foot. In both (8) and (9), the writing meant “just” because a conqueror was always just.  Hmm… It makes one pause a little, doesn’t it.  But we need to look at ancient writing from the point of view of the people for which the writing was created.  Ancient Chinese writing started as a way for a ruler to communicate with the gods. The ten-style writing is (10) and the kanji is (11.)


(12) oracle bone style 政; (13) bronze ware style 政; (14) ten-style 政; and (15) kanji 政.

The kanji 政 means “to govern” or “politics.”  The left side is 正 ”just” and the right side is the bushu shape 攵 called bokuzukuri. The bushu bokuzukuri came from a hand holding a stick and meant “to take an action.”  In (12) on the right side, there is a stick and a hand (it looks like a cross here).  In bronze ware style (13) the stick is placed above a hand.  On the left side the line for a town wall is thicker than the rest.  In ten-style (14) the shape assumes an aesthetically pleasing balance.  When it became a kanji, it became more compact with straight lines as in (15).

According to Shirakawa (2004), the original meaning of 政 “to govern; politics” was “act of imposing a levy” because getting levies from the conquered area was just. To govern was all about taxation… Hmmm.

When the ancient writing became kanji, writing became just a means of communication. By that time the knowledge of origins of the kanji had been lost. The kanji 正 just had the meaning of “just; right” and the kanji 政 had just the meaning of “to do the right thing.” We can hope that to govern or to engage in politics is about doing the just in our times. [December 28, 2013]

References: Akai (1985); Shirakawa (2004); and Williams (2010)

[Notes on January  8, 2016] This was one of the first postings two years ago. Since then there have been a number of postings on kanji that directly reflected the image of a footprint, including six postings entitled “One Foot at a Time” and  four postings entitled “A Hand an Leg – Bushu ninnyo.” In order to view a posting that is more than 6 months old such as those, please click the Kanji Etymology – Previous Posts link, which lists all the postings in the past with the links.  Thank you very much. Noriko