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Soak up a sprinkling of rain-component kanji

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

The kanji compound word for Japan’s annual rainy season — set to commence in early June — is the poetic 梅雨 (“plum rain,” baiu/tsuyu), but any resident of the archipelago whose closets have been invaded by noxious green mold during 梅雨 will appreciate why it was originally written 黴雨 (“moldy rain,” also pronounced baiu).

The second kanji in 梅雨, 雨 (rain, ame), comprises a horizontal line, representing the heavens, with clouds and four raindrops underneath. The vertical line in 雨 symbolizes “descent from the heavens.” The kanji 雨 serves in a dozen general-use characters and always occupies the celestial (top) position. Most rain-component kanji represent meteorological concepts, but there are exceptions.

In ancient, fire-lit China, 電 (DEN) meant “lightning,” but now it mostly refers to “electricity.” 電 was the first rain-component kanji my bicultural American/Japanese sons analyzed, at my urging, as second-graders. Sean saw a lightning bolt (し) running through a rice field (田) under a rainy sky. Lukas imagined Benjamin Franklin standing in a rainstorm clutching a kite (田) with a tail (し). On a recent family trip to China, we noted the simplified People’s Republic of China (PRC) character for “electricity” was missing the rain element, consisting only of Lukas’ “kite.”

Tailless 雷 (RAI/kaminari) is used today in Japan for both lightning and thunder. 雷 was originally written with three rice fields (田) at the bottom, instead of one, lending a connotation of reverberation. Together, 雷 and 電 form the compound word “thunderbolt” (雷電, raiden, thunder/electricity).

震 (SHIN, shake) originally referred to a violent storm that shook buildings and trees. Now it just means “shake.” Its bottom component, 辰, derives from a pictograph of a shell encasing a clam with protruding feelers. Clam shells were used in ancient China as cutting tools, including those swung to and fro (with a related meaning of “shaken”) at harvest time. “Earthquake” in Japanese is “ground shake” (地震, jishin).

The bottom component of 霊 (REI, spirit) once pictured a shamaness possessed by heavenly spirits, but has now evolved into a variant of 並 (nara-bu, lineup). (The two strokes at the top of 並 form a horizontal line in 霊.) Picturing a row of spirits lined up outside their tombstones on a dark rainy night makes the shape and meaning of 霊 a snap to remember. 霊園 (reien, spirit/garden), incidentally, means “cemetery.”

Inspect the lower half of 需 (JU, demand), and you will see a component derived from a pictograph of facial hair
(而), with a horizontal mustache and four-whisker beard still in evidence: When a man’s beard gets soaked with rainwater, he demands shelter.

雰 (FUN, atmosphere) pictures raindrops “divided” (分, FUN/wa-keru) into microscopic parts. 雲 (kumo, cloud) is comprised of 雨 and a variant of “meet” (会, KAI, without the “umbrella” at the top): Imagine the clouds holding a daily “rain meeting” to decide whether they will sprinkle, pour or take the day off and disappear altogether.

露 (RO/tsuyu), meaning “dew,” is a rainlike substance condensed on hard surfaces, including paved roads (路, RO, road). (Note the “legs,” 足, walking down the road in 路.) Twenty-one-stroke 露 is utilized as a one-kanji abbreviation for “Russia,” because RO is the first sound in the Japanese word for that nation (ロシア, Roshia), but the graphically simpler three-stroke katakana version of RO, ロ, is often used instead.

雪 (yuki, snow) is rain in a solid form that can be cleared away. Think of the bottom component (ヨ) as a rake for getting the job done. In the PRC, where 電 (electricity) has lost its rain component, 雪 retains it. 雪 is used to render the Chinese name for the soft drink Sprite: 雪碧 (snow/blue).

If you are a foreigner slogging through kanji-learning methods designed for Japanese children, perhaps today’s rain-based characters will inspire you to look at kanji as the sum of their parts and get on the fast track, component-analysis approach to Japanese literacy.

QUIZ

1. 雨 (rain)+ ヨ (rake)= 雪
2. 雨+ 辰 (clam shell)= 震
3. 雨+ 並 (line up)= 霊
4. 雨+ 路(road)= 露
5. 雨+ 会(meet)= 雲
6. 雨+ 而 (beard)= 需
7. 雨+ 分 (divide)= 雰
8. 雨 + kite with tail= 電
9. 雨+ 田 (rice field)= 雷

a. atmosphere (FUN)
b. lightning/thunder (RAI)
c. shake (SHIN)
d. spirit (REI)
e. demand (JU)
f. snow (yuki)
g. cloud (kumo)
h. electricity (DEN)
i. dew (tsuyu/RO)

Answers:
1=f
2=c
3=d
4=i
5=g
6=e
7=a
8=h
9=b

More than 100 Kanji Clinic columns are archived at www.kanjiclinic.com