Television broadcasts of last February’s political upheaval in Egypt were regularly interspersed with scenes of the pyramids at Giza. Seeing them, I was reminded that the word for pyramid in Japanese is 金字塔 (kinjitō, “a tower in the shape of the character kin [金]”). (Note the similarity, if you will.)
Usually read as kin, or kane, this character can invoke confusion at times because of the wide variety of meanings ascribed to it. It can refer to metal, specifically gold, but can also be used to refer to money, including paper money, and any type of metal in general. The word for Friday, 金曜日 (kinyōbi), is based on the 五行 (gogyō, five elements) of ancient Chinese cosmology, which are 火 (ka, fire), 土（do, earth), 金 (kin, metal) 水 (sui, water) and 木 (moku, wood). The same character is also used to write the common Korean surname Kim.
As a classifier for other kanji, kin usually appears on the left side, and is called kane-hen. It can be found in many words, including 釘 (kugi, nail), 鎧 (yoroi, armor), 銀（gin, silver), 鈴 (suzu, tin) and 鉛 (namari, lead).
Common compound words containing kin that you’re likely to encounter in daily life would be 現金(genkin, cash), 金額 (kingaku, the sum or amount of money) and 料金 (ryōkin, rate or charge). From the latter term we can also intuit that the word 無料 (muryō, without charge) means “free.”
When kin appears as a suffix in compound words it refers to the purpose of usage, such as 保証金 (hoshō-kin, guarantee money or a deposit), お見舞金 (omimai-kin, get-well money, given to an injured or sick person) and 普通預金 (futsū yokin, ordinary bank account).
To differentiate Au the element gold from money, Japanese will use 黄金 (ōgon, literally, yellow gold) or 純金 (junkin, pure gold). The ratio of an object’s gold content is indicated by preceding it with a number, such as 18 金 (jūhachi-kin, 18-karat gold). Gold plate is 金メッキ (kin-mekki) or 金張り (kin-bari).
So if kin or kane appear in compound words there’s a good chance it’s about money. But you still have to be on your guard for the other possibilities, such as 金物屋 (kanamonoya, a hardware shop), 金具 (kanagu, metal fittings) or 金髪 (kinpatsu, blonde hair).
Occasionally, words for money not using kin also crop up in contemporary speech. The word 銭湯 (sentō, public bath) goes back to before currency devaluation, when the admission price was in units of sen, or 1/100 of a yen. In old times, the smallest unit of currency was called 文 (mon), and even today, when someone is completely broke he might sigh to a sympathetic listener, 僕は一文なしだ (Boku wa ichimon nashi da, I’m penniless). And if you want to invoke the English saying “penny wise, pound foolish,” you can say 一文惜しみの百失い (Ichimon oshimi no hyakūshinai, i.e., in attempting to save just 1 mon you lose 100).
The verb meaning “to make money” is 儲かる (mōkaru), and is famous in the parlance of Osaka merchants, who will greet a colleague by inquiring 儲かりまっか(Mōkarimakka? How’s business?).
When someone enjoys an undeserved windfall, it’s common to hear the expression 濡れ手に粟 (nurete ni awa — millet that sticks to wet hands, i.e., easy money).
A person who is considerably well off is called お金持ち (okanemochi, to have money). A less polite term applied to the nouveau riche is 成金 (narikin). A war profiteer, for example would be 戦争成金 (sensō narikin).
While kanemochi is somewhat vague as to the size of a person’s fortune, an 億万長者 (okuman chōja, rich person with hundreds of millions) is unmistakably wealthy.
And if you’ve made it big enough to travel in your own private jet or make the billionaires’ list in Forbes magazine, you would be referred to as 大富豪 (daifugō, a magnate).
At the other end of the scale are some people who never seem to be able hold on to money. Such people might remark 私は金に縁がない (Watashi wa kane ni en ga nai). The first time I heard this, I thought the speaker was saying 円がない (en ga nai, I don’t have any yen), but I finally figured out that 縁がない (en ga nai) in this case means a close or long-lasting relationship is lacking.
Finally, I’ve noticed it’s become impossible to ignore a new term with kin that has entered the language: 東日本大震災義援金 (Higashi Nihon Daishinsai gienkin, the relief fund for the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and disaster). 援 (en), meaning support or assistance, is preceded by 義 (gi), which carries such nuances as “morality,” “righteousness” and “justice” and appears in such words as 義務 (gimu, duty and 義理 (giri, decency or social obligation). In other words, by helping the needy we are doing the right thing.
I will talk more about money in a future column.