Every year on Aug. 16, at exactly 8 p.m., the first in a series of five giant bonfires is lit on a mountainside overlooking the city of Kyoto, signaling the moment when ancestral ghosts return to the spirit world after visiting relatives on Earth during the three-day O-bon festival. The largest and most iconic blaze, on 大文字山 (Daimonjiyama, Big Letter Mountain), comprises 75 torches arranged in the shape of 大, a kanji meaning “big.”
大 (ō, dai, tai) pictures a headless stick figure with legs and arms spread wide. (Note that the kanji for “person,” 人, can be seen within 大.) In addition to its core meaning of “big,” 大 possesses a variety of related nuances and serves as a powerful building block in an unending array of kanji compound words.
Used in its literal sense of “physically large,” 大 may be found in 大陸 (tairiku large/land, continent), 大根 (daikon large/root, Japanese radish), and 粗大ゴミ (sodaigomi shabby/large/trash, large trash items). 大袈裟 (ōgesa exaggerated) is a combination of 大 and 袈裟 (kesa), an ornate stole worn by Buddhist monks. 大脳 (dainō large/brain) is the semantic no-brainer “cerebrum.” While Westerners normally associate having large testicles with “daring,” its Japanese counterpart 大胆 (daitan big/gall bladder, daring) is reminiscent of the English expression “has the gall (to do something brazen).”
With an associated meaning of “extreme,” 大 is the first kanji in 大好き (daisuki extreme/liking, love) and 大嫌い (daikirai extreme/dislike, abhorrence). 大丈夫 (daijōbu extreme/height/man, all right), traces its roots to the ancient practice of bringing along a tall man for security in threatening situations (a custom that continues elsewhere, too).
大安売り (ōyasuuri extreme/cheap/sale, bargain sale) signs are ubiquitous in Japan. Far from being considered a deadly sin, 大食い (ōgui extreme/eating, gluttony) is a national obsession, with winners of eating contests attaining hero status. 大味 (ōaji extreme/flavor) is a negative expression for food that is not subtly seasoned.
大 is also used to describe extreme (i.e., loud) noises, as in 大声 (ōgoe extreme/voice, loud voice). To inform your kids in Japanese that the television volume is too much to bear, you can holler, “音が大きい!” (Oto ga ōkii, “the sound is extreme”).
大 can also mean “important,” as in 大事 (daiji important/thing, serious matter) and 大学 (daigaku important/learning, university). 大物 (ōmono important/guy) is a generic “big shot,” while 大臣 (daijin important/retainer) is a cabinet minister and 大統領 (daitōryō big/united rule/leader) is a president. These two titles are tacked on the end of family names (i.e., オバマ大統領, Obama Daitōryō President Barack Obama). 大名 (daimyō important/name) was a feudal lord in premodern Japan, when 名(myō) referred to a person subject to taxation on his land holdings.
With a meaning of “more or less,” 大 is the first character in 大体 (daitai more or less/the body, generally) and 大雑把 (ōzappa more or less/miscellaneous/grasp, rough estimate).
While 大 is usually pronounced “ō,” and “dai” or “tai” in compound words, a few notable exceptions — or “special readings” — are 大人 (otona big/person), which means “adult,” and 大和 (Yamato big/harmony), the name for ancient Japan.
大目に見る (ōme ni miru “to look with big eyes”) means to “overlook faults,” and 針小棒大 (shinshōbōdai needle/small/pole/big) is “exaggeration.” While English speakers use “a drop in the bucket” to describe a negligible amount, the Japanese say “big ocean, one drop”: 大海一滴 (taikaiitteki).
Speaking of oceans, don’t confuse 大 with 太 (tai, futo-i), a near-clone kanji that means “huge” or “fat.” When writing大西洋 (taiseiyō big/west/ocean, Atlantic Ocean) and 太平洋 (taiheiyō huge/flat/ocean, Pacific Ocean), 大 is the first character in the former while 太 is in the latter. (太 was originally written with one 大 atop another to signify “doubly big,” but now a tiny dot stroke substitutes for the 大 at the bottom.) As a memory aid, think of the dot stroke in 太 as the tiny nation of Japan floating in the vast Pacific Ocean.
The quiz below will allow you to explore more fully the remarkable creative power of kanji.
QUIZ: Match each of the following kanji compounds containing 大 with its pronunciation and meaning.
1. 大豆 (big/bean)
2. 大口 (big/mouth)
3. 大手 (big/hand)
5. 大変 (big/abnormal)
6. 大幅 (big/width)
7. 大枚 (big/flat things)
8. 大意 (big/meaning)
a. gist (taii)
b. soybean (daizu)
c. terrible (taihen)
d. bragging (ōguchi)
e. landlord (ōya)
f. major companies (ōte)
g. large sum of money (taimai)
h. substantial (ōhaba)
More than 100 Kanji Clinic columns are archived at www.kanjiclinic.com