By 200 A.D., Chinese scholars had already created the 50,000-kanji prototype for the modern written languages of China and Japan. Many Sino-Japanese characters still in use today feature components picturing objects from everyday life in ancient China, including weapons for battling other humans or confronting wild animals.
The Chinese did not discover gunpowder until 800 A.D., which helps to explain why kanji components picture weapons more primitive than bullets and guns. By a long shot, the “spear” (戈) is the most commonly used weapon-component in general-use kanji. 戈, written with four strokes, is an elaboration of the three-stroked component 弋, which pictures a “stake” seen, for example, in 代 (DAI, generation) and 式 (SHIKI, ceremony). To distinguish between 戈 and 弋, think of the former as a stake adorned with a military tassel.
戈 appears on the right side of kanji, as in 戦 (SEN, war), 賊 (ZOKU, bandit), and 裁 (saba-ku, judge). It is found in both the top-right (e.g., in 惑, mado-u, “be confused,”) and bottom-right (e.g., in 義, “righteousness,” GI) positions.
Kanji containing 戈 are often based on violent scenarios from life in ancient China. The right-hand component of 残 (ZAN, cruel) is 戈, with 二 (meaning “two”) added at the top for emphasis. The left-hand component means “bone,” and in 残 some poor victim is being hacked to death until only their bones remain.
Other components easily confused with 戈 include: 戊 (as in 茂, shige-ru, grow thick), 戉 (e.g., 越す, ko-su, surpass), and 戌 (e.g., 威, I, authority). Fortunately, component analysis kanji learning aids organize this jumble of near-clone components by attaching a distinct name to each. (See reviews at www.kanjiclinic.com).
Pictographs of “bows” (yumi, 弓) and “arrows” (ya, 矢) were also used as material for the creation of kanji. 引 (hi-ku, pull) is comprised of a bow on the left next to a vertical line representing a bow string about to be drawn. 矢 was juxtaposed with 口 (mouth) to render 知 (shi-ru, know) because a person who could speak at the speed of an arrow on a subject was thought to know it well. 矢 appears at the bottom right of 族 (ZOKU, clan, e.g., 家族 kazoku, house-clan, “family”), depicting an ancient Chinese clan mustering its arms before heading into battle. A pictograph of a streaming battle banner lies above 矢.
At least two other weapons can be found lurking in general-use kanji: “sword” (katana, 刀, which is written リ when it appears on the right-hand side of characters like 刺, sa-su, pierce) and “halberd” (hoko, 矛). A halberd is a spear with barbs attached to the end of it, and using a little imagination you can see two barbs at the top of 矛, along with a diagonal hand guard on the left. Look for 刀 in 忍 (NIN, stealth, the first character in 忍者, ninja) and 矛 perched above 木 (KI, tree) in 柔 (yawa-rakai, soft), since wooden halberds are softer than metal ones.
To be fully prepared to do battle with Japan’s 1,942 general-use characters, foreign kanji learners will want to become acquainted with the arsenal of weapon-components embedded within them.
Quiz: Identify the weapon-component in each of the following kanji (spear, bow, arrow, sword or halberd) and then match the kanji with its English meaning/pronunciation.
1. 柔 2. 刃 3. 戒 4. 強 5. 刈 6. 務 7. 短 8. 職 9. 弱 10. 侯
a. duty (MU) b. soft (yawa-rakai) c. warn (imashimeru) d. employment (SHOKU) e. strong (KYOU) f. weaken (yowa-ru) g. feudal lord (KOU) h. short (mijika-i) i. blade (ha) j. clip (ka-ru)
1. 柔 halberd/b