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Harnessing intuition to boost kanji comprehension

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Many years ago, the manager at a hotel where I was staying in Taiwan informed me that his boss was ailing due to diabetes.

Well, that’s not exactly what he said. Dick Chang’s exact words were, “I not know how to say in English, but I think you understand: in Chinese we say, “sugar pee-pee sickness.”

The term for diabetes is the same in Chinese and Japanese and is written 糖尿病 (tōnyōbyō), composed of 糖 (to, sugar), 尿 (nyō, urine) and 病 (byō, sickness).

This may have been my first moment of 悟り (satori, enlightenment), when I realized that words expressed in kanji could convey complex meanings in a way that often made them fully comprehensible to speakers of other languages.

Of course a certain amount of 暗記 (anki, rote memorization) is required first, to reach that level. But then at some point, your 直観 (chokkan, intuition) kicks in and you find yourself understanding new words the first time you encounter them. This cognitive process can occur at the oral, visual or subliminal level, or any combination thereof.

Take this example: While ordering a snack at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Shanghai several years ago, I noticed a dispenser on the counter labeled with two characters, 吸管.

The first, 吸 (kyū) consists of kuchi-hen, the mouth classifier, at the left, followed by a phonetic 及, pronounced qi in Mandarin Chinese or kyū in Japanese. The Japanese verb is 吸う (suu, to suck). It appears in the word 吸血鬼 kyūketsuki, (“suck-blood ghost” — vampire).

The second, 管 (kan), has take-kanmuri, the bamboo classifier, at the top, beneath of which is the phonetic 官 guan (Chinese) or kan in Japanese, (which when used independently means a government official). It means a tube or pipe.

Kyūkan does not appear in the Japanese Kojien dictionary, but these random bits of data surged through my brain in perhaps 30 milliseconds and I knew I had to be looking at the Chinese word for “straw.”

Stumbles and failures at communication can also be a great learning tool, because miscommunication is often the first step in communication.

Once at a friend’s house I was discussing 臓器提供 (zōki teikyō, organ donation), organs that are harvested from accident victims who have been pronounced 脳死 (nōshi, brain dead), sometimes colloquially expressed in English as “human vegetable,” i.e., a person in a vegetative (non-responsive) state. Not knowing the Japanese term for this, I just plunged ahead with the closest English equivalent I could come up with, which was 野菜人間 (yasai ningen (vegetable human).

Fortunately my listener immediately grasped what I was trying to say from the context. Smiling, she corrected me with the proper Japanese term, 植物人間 (shokubutsu ningen, “plant human”), which is practically the same thing.

Here’s a selection of kanji terms that can be readily understood when rendered directly into English:

• 飛魚 tobiuo (“fly fish,” flying fish)

• 馬車 basha (“horse vehicle,” horse-drawn wagon)

• 花瓶 kabin (“flower bottle,” vase)

• 大陸 tairiku (“great land,” continent)

• 天使 tenshi (“heavenly messenger,” angel)

• 地図 chizu (“land diagram,” map)

• 円盤 enban (“round plate,” disc or discus)

• 今日中 kyōjū (“now day center,” within today)

• 主食 shushoku (“master food,” staple food)

• 迷彩 meisai (“confused colors,” camouflage)

Now certainly the terms won’t correspond so closely in every situation, but surprisingly often, the meanings of compound words can be discerned by combining logic and intuition. And what’s more, once you become accustomed to the process, acquisition of vocabulary becomes increasingly easier.

Of course many Japanese expressions are idiomatic and while logical in their own way, they don’t necessarily transliterate well into English. For instance 奥歯 (okuba, “deep teeth”) are recognizable as the molars, but the deepest thereof, one’s wisdom teeth, are referred to in Japanese as 親知らず (oyashirazu, not-knowing parents). This goes back to the time when human life expectancy was so short, as often as not one’s parents had already died by the time the wisdom teeth grew in, around age 20.

Once I asked a Japanese friend how to say “Peeping Tom” and he responded, with a giggle, that the word was 出歯亀 (debakame, which literally translates as “buck-toothed turtle”). The word, a fairly recent addition to the Japanese lexicon, is derived from Kametaro Ikeda, a somewhat notorious voyeur with a serious overbite problem, who made news headlines when arrested in Tokyo back in 1908 on suspicion of murder.

Kametaro (the “kame” in his name means “turtle”) Ikeda was just as notorious as Peeping Tom, a tailor in 11th-century Coventry, England, who disobeyed the proclamation to avert his eyes while the legendary Lady Godiva made her nude horseback ride through the town, and received 天罰 (tenbatsu, heavenly punishment) by being struck blind.