Some Japanese words are written with a single kanji, but countless others are compounds comprised of two (the majority), three, or more kanji. These compound words (jukugo) are not composed randomly; a limited number of patterns govern their construction, and today we will explore one of these: two-kanji jukugo comprised of characters with opposite or contrastive meanings.
The meanings of opposite/contrastive-kanji combos are frequently transparent. In preparation for a medical exam in Japan, you may be instructed to remove 上下 (jōge, 上 top and 下 bottom; i.e., all of your clothing). Toilets in clinics are often marked 男女 (danjo, 男 men, and 女 women), meaning they are unisex.
出入 (deiri, coming and going), comprised of 出 (de, come out) and 入 (iri, go in) appears on signboards prohibiting entry to dangerous areas or private property: 出入禁止 (deirikinshi, come out/go in/prohibit); 飲食 (inshoku, 飲 drinking and 食 eating) is frowned upon on local trains and subways.
Teachers take 出欠 (shukketsu, the roll), comprised of 出 (come out, i.e., be present) and 欠 (ketsu, vacancy, i.e., be absent). Traditionally, Japanese schools referred to pupils’ guardians as 父兄 (fukei, 父 father, and 兄 older brother), based on the custom of oldest sons inheriting responsibility for the household from their fathers. But these days, 父母 (fubo, 父 father and 母 mother) or the even more inclusive 保護者 (hogosha, protect/guard/people) are the favored terms.
The Japanese word for siblings 兄弟 (kyōdai, 兄 older brother and 弟 younger brother), also offers insight into traditional gender inequality: Sisters are conspicuously absent from 兄弟, even though it refers to siblings of both genders. Sisters is 姉妹 (shimai, 姉 older sister, and 妹 younger sister).
Another familial jukugo is 親子 (oyako, 親 parent and 子 child), which can be used in reference to both humans and animals. The popular Japanese dish 親子丼 (oyakodonburi, parent/child/bowl of rice) is chicken and egg served on a bowl of hot rice.
Quiz: Match each of the following kanji compounds comprised of opposite/contrastive kanji with its meaning and pronunciation.
1. 多少 (many/few);
a. merits and demerits (chōtan);
Japanese parents can be heard admonishing their ill-behaved offspring with, “Ii kagen ni shinasai!” (「いい加減にしなさい」literally, “Tone down to a proper level!”). 加減 (kagen, adjustment) is a combination of the opposite-kanji 加 (add) and 減 (subtract).
凸凹 (dekoboko, 凸 convex and 凹 concave) means “unevenness” and is used to describe bumpy roads, rocky coastlines, etc. 始 (beginning) added to 末 (termination) yields 始末 (shimatsu, disposal; literally, “dealing with a process from beginning to end”). Japanese company employees write a 始末書 (shimatsusho, disposal/document) detailing their resolutions of work-related problems.
万一 (manichi, 万 10,000 and 一 one) is “one chance in 10,000,” similar to the English “one chance in a million.” 陰 (in, shade/negative) and 陽 (yō, sun/positive) combine to form 陰陽 (inyō, the Chinese principle of dualism, i.e., yin-yang).
The contrastive-combo 矛盾 (mujun, contradiction), made up of 矛 (halberd, a barbed spear) and 盾 (shield), derives from the ancient Chinese legend of a weapons peddler who was hawking a halberd “so sharp it could pierce any shield” and a shield “capable of repelling any halberd.” One day, someone in the crowd challenged the peddler with the query, “What would happen if your irresistible halberd struck your impenetrable shield?” forcing him to admit the contradiction in his sales pitch.
The naruhodo (a-ha!) moment — when the logic of a newly encountered compound word is grasped — is one of the most gratifying aspects of kanji-learning, and increases the chances that the word will remain etched in your long-term memory. If you are an aspirant to literacy in Japanese, I encourage you to stop memorizing lists of jukugo without knowledge of their construction patterns.
More two-kanji jukugo patterns are explained in “Kanji Breakthrough,” a 12-lesson series by Mary Sisk Noguchi, available on a free pdf at www.kanjiclinic.com/whatsnew.htm.