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Flipping kanji around for new meanings

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

A number of Japanese compound words can be used to form other words when the order of their kanji is reversed. Take 平和 (heiwa, peace) for example, which can be reversed to read 和平 (wahei, which also means peace, but with a slightly different usage such as in 和平交渉 (wahei kōshō, peace negotiations).

There’s also 立国 (rikkoku, the establishment of a state). Flip the order and you get 国立 (kokuritsu, national). It can also be read Kunitachi, a municipality in west Tokyo that owes its name to the fact that it is situated midway between the cities of 国分寺 (Kokubunji, with kuni in this case being the kun reading of koku) and 立川 (Tachikawa).

Then there’s 実現 (jitsugen, to realize). By reversing those two characters you get 現実 (genjitsu, reality), literally the appearance of truth.

Armed with these two characters, you can spin off an amazing variety of useful terms. Some people, for example, are in the habit of starting a sentence with 実はね… (Jitsu wa ne, actually), and it’s also fairly common for writers to begin a sentence with 実際 (jissai, actually) when they want to emphasize some point.

When I took business trips for my company I had to show receipts to get reimbursed according to 実費 (jippi, the actual amount paid), as opposed to a 日当 (nittō, per diem allowance).

Jitsu is often used to clarify a status or relationship. In packaging or advertising, the image of a product, such as in a print ad or on the side of a box may carry the words, 実物大 (jitsubutsudai, actual size). And while in normal speech it is understood that 弟 (otōto) is one’s younger brother, in the print media it’s common to see the word 実弟 (jittei, indicating a “real” younger brother who shares one or both parents). This wording often pops up in articles about people in show business where it’s common for two brothers not to use the same surname.

Likewise, in the event of marital discord, when a wife flees her husband and returns to her parents’ home, it’s common to say 実家に戻った (jikka ni modotta, she returned to her “actual” family).

At the recent Sochi Winter Olympics, Japanese figure skater Tatsuki Machida remarked to the media about how thrilled he was to be able to compete, despite not winning a medal, by saying 「オリンピックは、こうも大きい存在だったと、当たり前ですけどオリンピックという舞台に立って実感しました。」 (“Orimpikku wa kō mo ōkī sonzai datta to, atari mae desu kedo orimpikku to iu butai ni tatte jikkan shimashita,” “It may be stating the obvious to say that the Olympics is a kind of huge entity, but by standing on the Olympic stage I could get a sense of what it really feels like”). So 実感する (jikkan suru) is used to describe one’s real feelings or to experience something personally.

When used as a verb, the character 現 (gen) is read 現われる (arawareru) or 現す (arawasu) and means, respectively, to appear or materialize, or to express. At the start of compound words, gen usually conveys a sense of immediacy or “being there.” Take 現在 (genzai, the present time), which can also be used to specify a certain date. At the bottom of a statistical table or survey result you might see 2013年末現在 (Nisen jūsannen-matsu genzai), which indicates the indicated data is current up to the end of 2013).

The word 現代 (gendai, modern, current or contemporary) is widely found in proper nouns like 現代美術館 (gendai bijutsukan, museum of modern art) and in book titles. Incidentally it’s also the name of the Seoul-based business conglomerate that manufactures “Hyundai” automobiles.

Gen is widely found in the language of business. To pay in cash would be 現金払い (genkin-barai), and to discourage use of credit cards, some retailers post signs reading 現金大歓迎 (genkin daikangei, cash is especially welcome). By the same token, the act of converting a 小切手 (kogitte, bank check) or 株券 (kabuken, stock certificate) to cash would be called 現金化 (genkin-ka). Also in retail stores you often see merchandise labeled 現品限り (genpin kagiri, limited only to the actual items on display).

The word 現場 (genba, literally the actual place) has become ubiquitous in such business fields as sales and manufacturing, and has even been added to the English lexicon. It refers to on-site — on the factory floor or sales counter or where a product is being used — as opposed to the executive offices. By extension, the term 現場主義 (genba-shugi) has been coined to mean the principle of on-the-spot decision-making.

When phoning his editor, a news reporter covering a crime, accident or disaster might say 「今、現場に着いた」 (“Ima, genba ni tsuita,” “I’ve arrived on the scene”).

Another useful gen-word in the police lexicon is 現行犯 (genkōhan, during the commission of a crime), frequently used in expressions like 泥棒は現行犯で捕まった (Dorobō wa genkōhan de tsukamatta, the thief was caught red-handed).

  • ScottyP

    Good article, but the headline was misleading.