A mosaic carpet of autumn foliage tinted in shades of green, yellow, orange, and red is currently rolling southward through the archipelago of Japan. 紅葉 (kōyō, crimson/leaves), the Japanese word for “autumn leaves,” only hints at the splendor of this multihued natural phenomenon.
Beeches, birches, persimmons, larches and ginkgos all produce beautiful colors, but the King of Kōyō “the tree to see,” is the Japanese maple (momiji; like kōyō, it is written with the kanji compound 紅葉). The crimson, lacy-leafed momiji — whether sunlit or artificially illuminated at night — is so impressive that the Japanese refer to autumn leaf-viewing in general as momijigari (紅葉狩り, Japanese maple/hunting).
The second kanji in 紅葉, 葉 (ha, yō), has the core meaning “leaf.” Mastering the shape of 葉 is a snap if you divide it into its three top-to-bottom components — 艹 (plant-life), 世 (generation) and 木 (tree) — and memorize the phrase, “Leaves are successive generations of plant life on a tree.” (Thirty years was the norm for a generation in ancient China, which explains why you can see three “10s” (十) in 世).
The Japanese word for leaf is “ha” (e.g., daikon no ha, 大根の葉, Japanese radish leaf; and hacha, 葉茶, leaf tea), but “happa” (葉っぱ) is also used colloquially with the same meaning. Both ha and yō (the latter being the “on,” or Chinese-derived pronunciation, of 葉) are used in a variety of compound words dealing with leaves: 双葉 (futaba, identical pair/leaf) means “sprout”; 葉緑素 (yōryokuso, leaf/green/element), “chlorophyll”; and 葉巻 (hamaki, leaf/roll), as you may have surmised, “cigar.”
若葉 (wakaba, young/leaf) refers not only to new leaf growth but to a “beginner” (reminiscent of the English expression “green,” e.g., a “green rookie”). New drivers in Japan are required to display green-and-yellow 若葉マーク(wakabamāku, young/leaf/marks) on their cars for one year after obtaining their licenses as a warning of their inexperience, while drivers aged 75 and older must exhibit an orange-and-yellow teardrop-shaped version sometimes disparagingly referred to as a 枯葉マーク(karehamāku, withered/leaf/mark, “dead-leaf mark”).
Aside from leaves, 葉 also represents botanical “blades” (草の葉, kusanoha, grass/leaf, “blades of grass”) and “needles” (松葉, matsuba, pine/leaf, “pine needles”). The Japanese word for “crutches” is 松葉杖 (matsubazue, pine needle/cane), because the two sides of a crutch forking from the bottom resemble a split cluster of two pine needles.
葉 also figures in a number of family and place names in Japan. Chiba Prefecture is 千葉県 (Chiba-ken, 1,000/leaves/prefecture) and, although you won’t find a plethora of foliage there these days, Tokyo electronics mecca Akihabara translates to “Autumn Leaf Field” (秋葉原). (Note: “秋葉, akiha/akiba” may not be used as a substitute for “紅葉, kōyō“).
Beyond the world of botany, 葉 also represents “anatomical lobes,” (e.g., 肝葉, kanyō, liver lobe and 前葉, zenyō, anterior lobe) and “sheets of paper,” like the English “loose leaf” (again 前葉, zenyō, before/paper, the previous page). And 葉 also refers to a “fragment” or “piece,” which explains the construction of the kanji compound 言葉 (kotoba, meaning “word”): A word is a “speech (言) fragment (葉).”
In a similar vein, “fragments (葉) of writing (書)” are “postcards” (葉書, hagaki). Hisoka Maejima coined this kanji compound when he established the modern Japanese postal service in the 1870s. Some speculate that Maejima chose 葉 over 端 (also pronounced “ha” and meaning “fragment”) in a nod to the Tarajo holly tree (tarayō, 多羅葉, also known as hagakinoki, ハガキの木, “the postcard tree”), whose leaves were used for written communication in ancient India because letters scratched on their surface turn black.
A few 落ち葉 (ochiba, drop/leaf, “falling leaves”) floating through the chilly air signal a waning of autumn, and a soggy mass of brown 濡れ落ち葉 (nureochiba, soak/drop/leaf, “wet fallen leaves”) on the pavement spells the bitter end to this glorious season.
QUIZ: Match the following kanji compounds containing 葉 with its meaning and pronunciation.
1. 針葉樹 (needle/leaf/tree)
2. 京葉 (capital/leaf)
3. 落葉樹 (drop/leaf/tree)
4. 葉柄 (leaf/handle)
5. 一葉 (one/leaf)
6. 葉物 (leaf/thing)
7. 枝葉 (branches/leaves)
8. 押し葉 (push/leaf)
a. foliage plant (hamono)
b. stem (yōhei)
c. pressed leaf (oshiba)
d. Tokyo-Chiba (Keiyō)
e. peripheral issue/unimportant details (shiyō)
f. conifer (shinyōju)
g. deciduous tree (rakuyōju)
h. a page (ichiyō)
All previous Kanji Clinic columns are archived at www.kanjiclinic.com