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Let one character lead to enlightenment and civilization

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Many of Japan’s admired historic figures were adulated for being “warrior scholars,” since they were equally adept at leading armies and composing poems. This ideal is referred to as 文武両道 (bunbu ryodō). Bun refers to writing and by extension the literary arts. Bu relates to martial or military matters. Ryodō means “both ways.”

“Bunbu ryodō” happens to be a good description of my longtime friend Marty Kuehnert, who’s both a prolific writer and an enthusiastic sportsman. Marty even used this aphorism in the title of one of his many books, 「文武両道、 日本になし- 世界の秀才アスリートと日本のど根性スポーツマン」 (“Bunbu ryodō, Nihon ni nashi — Sekai no shūsai asurīto to Nihon no konjō supōtsuman,” “No bunbu ryodō in Japan: The world’s scholar-athletes and Japan’s guts-only sportsmen”), in which he blasted Japan’s education system for its almost total lack of effort to make top athletes apply themselves academically.

As you are about to see, the simple character 文 (bun) is indeed ubiquitous enough to warrant a full column.

In the dictionary, 文 — which can also be read mon, fumi and aya — is a classifier composed of four strokes. In its ancient form, the character depicted the lapels of a robe-like garment overlapping across the chest — a pattern composed of intersecting diagonal lines.

In both spoken and written Japanese, “bun” is the more common reading. It also refers to the written form of a language, such as Japanese — 和文 (wabun); and European languages — collectively referred to as 欧文 (ōbun). And we study 文法 (bunpō, the laws of writing, i.e., grammar).

Since written language is seen as a prerequisite for civilization, bun is the key component in the word 文明 (bunmei, writing-enlightment, i.e., civilization). Following the end of national seclusion and the Meiji Restoration of 1868, such progressive scholars as 福沢諭吉 (Fukuzawa Yukichi, 1835-1901) promoted the study of Western science in a campaign that came to be called 文明開化 (bunmei kaika, opening the country to civilization and enlightenment). The old Nagasaki-based confectionery, Bunmeido (文明堂), famous for its spongy カステラ (kasutera, castella) cakes, took its corporate name from this term.

The word 文化 (bunka, culture), is made by adding 化 (ka) the English equivalent of -ization. So culture would be “litera-ization,” (a word I made up), that is, the rendering of matters in written form.

Bun figures in an impressive number of Japanese compound words. A private library is referred to as 文庫 (bunko, a literary storehouse). To shop for pens, notepads and other materials, you go to a 文房具屋 (bunbōgu-ya, a store of tools for a writer’s study, i.e., stationery shop). Then there’s 文化人 (bunkajin, a cultured person or member of the literati).

References cited at the end of a research paper or other annotated document are 引用文献 (inyō bunken, cited works) in which inyō (reference) is composed of 引く (hiku, pull) and 用いる (mochiiru, use). In order to reveal corruption or wrongdoing, whistle-blowers may arrange to leak a subversive document, referred to as a 怪文書 (kaibunsho, literally a strange document).

In addition to bun, the character 文 is also read less frequently as mon. There doesn’t seem to be any clear explanation of why one reading is picked over the other. For instance, why is literature 文学 (bungaku), when astronomy is read 天文学 (tenmongaku, study of the heavenly characters, such as galaxies)?

Maybe I should direct my question to Japan’s Ministry of Education — formerly called the 文部省 (monbusho, literally the writing department ministry), although in 2001 it consolidated with other agencies to become the 文部科学省 (Monbukagakusho, Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture, Science and Technology).

If a person is persistently negative, you might hear someone grumble, 彼はいつも文句を言ってる (kare wa itsumo monku wo itteru, he’s constantly complaining). During a disagreement, one party might demand, 文句ありますか (monku arimasu ka, any complaints?). Hey, chill out man — 文句無しだ (monku nashi da, I’ve got no complaints).

To add to the confusion, the final n gets dropped from mon in some words, such as 文字 (moji, a written character). I often encounter the expression 文字通り (moji dōri, literally or verbatim), as in 地震の直後、僕は文字通りテレビに釘付けだった (Jishin no chokugo, boku wa mojidōri terebi ni kugizuke datta, Straight after the quake, my eyes were literally glued to the TV).

Unfortunately the only way to differentiate between bun and mon (and the occasional “mo”) is by 暗記 (anki, rote memorization). But once you learn the ropes, no one is likely to remark あの人は無知文盲です (ano hito wa muchi monmō desu, that person is ignorant and unlettered).

PS: Alas, dear hearts, the old term for a romantic epistle, 恋文 (koibumi), has nearly been supplanted by the somewhat inelegant borrowing ラブ・レター (rabu retā, love letter).