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]

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 (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]

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]