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Some kanji can take a lifetime to fully appreciate

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

I made my first kanji connection with the graphically unassuming character 生 in the early days of a beginners Japanese class, when I stumbled through a self-introduction using the standard 私は学生です (Watashi wa gakusei desu. I am a student.). My instructor explained that one meaning for 生 was “scholar”: I was a 学生 (gakusei, study/scholar, student) and she was a 先生 (sensei, ahead/scholar, teacher; i.e., one who has studied ahead of others).

Today, after three decades of kanji study, I find 生 to be one of the most intriguing of Japan’s 2,136 general-use characters. With an estimated 200 different pronunciations — more than any other kanji — and dozens of different meanings and nuances, there is always something new to discover about 生.

One of the most basic meanings of 生 is “life,” as expressed in the compound words 人生 (jinsei, person/life, human life) and 一生 (isshō, one/life, lifetime). 生 refers to non-human life, as well: 生物 (seibutsu, life/thing) means “organism” and 生態 (seitai, life/condition) is “ecology.” Other associated meanings concern “livelihood” (生活, seikatsu, life/activity, existence) and “health” (厚生, kōsei, enrich/health, health promotion).

生 also represents “birth,” as I realized when I first celebrated a birthday in Japan and received 誕生日(tanjōbi, be born/birth/day, birthday) cards. New Japanese acquaintances often asked where I was born, and I have become proficient with the reply: ノースカロライナ州で生まれました (Nōsukaroraina shū de umaremashita. I was born in North Carolina). I also learned that I should write my full date of birth on forms that asked for 生年月日 (seinengappi, birth/year/month/day).

The experience of giving birth, 10 years after coming to this country, enabled me to suss out the difference between 生 and 産, both of which can be pronounced “u-mu,” revolve semantically around “birth,” and are visually similar (note the component 生 at the bottom of 産). 産 is the kanji that means “give birth,” so when my mother-in-law saw me write 男の子を生んだ on a birth announcement, she kindly corrected the message to read 男の子を産んだ (Otoko no ko wo unda, I gave birth to a baby boy).

QUIZ

Match the following kanji compound words containing 生 with their English meaning and Japanese pronunciation below.

1. 芝生 (turf/grow)
2. 抗生物質 (resist/life/thing/substance)
3. 生け花(keep alive/flowers)
4. 生まれ付き (born/attached)
5. 野生 (undomesticated/life)
6. 生物 (uncooked/thing)

a. Japanese flower arranging (ikebana)
b. wild (yasei)
c. antibiotic (kōseibusshitsu)
d. perishables (namamono)
e. lawn (shibafu)
f. one’s nature (umaretsuki)

Two native habits I enthusiastically embraced from the time I first set foot on this island nation were eating fresh, raw fish (生魚, namazakana, raw/fish) and downing frosty mugs of draft beer (生ビール, namabīru). 生, when pronounced “nama,” means uncooked, fresh, unbottled, or crude. 生演奏 (namaensō) is a “live performance,” but the foreign loanword ライブ (raibu, live) is now more often used. “Fresh” (impudent) children are 生意気 (namaiki, fresh/mind), as I have learned over the years from listening to my Japanese husband scold our offspring when they talked back.

Because the origin of 生 lies in an ancient Chinese pictograph of a growing plant, it can also, unsurprisingly, mean “grow” (e.g., 実生, mishō, seed/grow, seedling) as well as “bear fruit.” When my son’s first-grade classroom mini-tomato growing project landed on our veranda at the end of the school year, he faithfully watered it and rejoiced, screaming 「生った!」(“Natta! It bore fruit!”), at the first sight of red on the vine.

When my sons sprouted their baby teeth, I learned that the verb used to describe this process is 生える (haeru, 歯が生える; ha ga haeru, 歯 meaning tooth). And when my dear husband once made an ill-fated effort to grow a mustache, 生 made yet another appearance in my life: 髭を生やす (hige wo hayasu) means to grow a beard or mustache, 髭 meaning facial hair.

My latest brush with 生 came recently, when my now-teenage son arrived home spouting the expletive chikushō;! There is nothing like hearing your own child use a word to inspire full investigation of it: While aware that chikushō! was often translated into English as “damn!” I never knew the kanji comprising it. Turns out, chikushō is written 畜生 (livestock/living thing, beast). From my perspective, “beast” is considerably less offensive than some of the four-letter words teenagers regularly use in my native United States, so I will not be doing battle with 畜生!

Answers

1.e 2.c 3.a 4.f 5.b 6.d

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