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It’s all a matter of character — but which one to choose?

by Peter Backhaus

Special To The Japan Times

Much has been made of the alleged difficulty of the Japanese language for non-native and even native speakers. My personal impression is that this view is most commonly cherished by two types of people: those who don’t know much Japanese (or any at all), and those who only know Japanese.

Regardless, it is definitely too simplistic to characterize Japanese as a language more difficult than other languages. To start with, its sound system is incredibly simple (14 consonants and five vowels, with very strict rules on their combination), and the basic grammar is so elegantly uncomplicated that it’s hard not to wonder why all other languages couldn’t be as simple. Maybe the world would be a better place.

Sound and syntax are not everything there is to it, and this brings us to an area where those who champion the difficulty of Japanese certainly have a point: the writing system, especially kanji. There are so many characters and it can be a challenge to know when to use the right one. A particularly tricky issue is the so-called ijidōkun (異字同訓, lit. “different character, same reading”) problem. These are words that can be written with more than one character depending on what meaning is intended to be communicated.

A well-known example is the term ashi, which can be written as both 足 and 脚. In the former case, it translates to “foot/feet” in English but in the latter it means “leg(s).” As there are a number of these ijidōkun terms — most of them unfortunately far less straightforward than the foot/leg distinction — the Bunka Shingei-Kai (文化審議会, Council for Cultural Affairs) published a report this spring intended to cast more light on the issue.

The report contains 133 words that have more than one semantically related character and in many cases it’s actually more than two. Even if we look at only the first few items highlighted in the report, there is agaru (上・揚・挙がる), aku (明・開・空く), ateru (当・充・宛てる), ato (後・跡・痕), and arawasu (表・現・著す), which can all be written with three possible kanji.

As to the first item, agaru and its transitive form ageru, the report specifies as follows: 上 is used when something moves up or is raised (including one’s voice), is given to someone other than oneself, and when something is finished (a piece of work, for instance) or stops (rain, hopefully soon). The same word written with 揚 refers to things that are held in a higher position, most commonly kites, national flags and deep-fried food. Finally, there is 挙, which applies to another rather mixed bag of ideas and situations: to raise a hand, produce evidence, mention or give a name, nominate a candidate, arrest a suspect and hold a wedding ceremony.

As if that weren’t enough, there can be even more than three kanji readings. In extreme cases, one has to make a choice between up to five suspects, such as for the verb kakeru (掛・懸・架・係・賭ける), which — to highly differing degrees of abstraction — means “to hang.” And the report even contains an example where six different options have to be disambiguated: the verb hakaru, which can express such disparate concepts as “to plan,” “to measure,” “to consult” and much in between, depending on whether you write it with 図, 計, 測, 量, 謀 or 諮.

But the high number of options is not the only problem. Even when there are only two kanji to choose from, and their meaning is relatively clear at that, things can still be complex when you look at the small print. To come back to our foot/leg example, the report also specifies a few cases where the character for foot (足) is used when what is referred to is in fact far more “leggy,” and thus 脚 should be expected. For example, even though you cross your legs rather than your feet, the expression ashi wo kumu is more commonly written with 足 than with 脚. And when someone is described as teashi ga nagai (手足が長い), that person has long arms and long legs, not long arms and long feet. Still you would not commonly find this compound written as 手脚.

That the wealth of possible options can give even native speakers a hard time is attested by last year’s nationwide survey on the Japanese language, which also contained a question about whether, and how frequently, someone was unsure about the right Kanji choice. Around two-thirds of the respondents admitted to having such problems, 50 percent of them said sometimes, 25 percent said frequently and less than 7 percent said they were never uncertain — they were probably stretching the truth.

As these figures show, it is not entirely unwarranted to think of Japanese as a difficult language. On the other hand, we must keep in mind that this difficulty to a large extent is a matter of character. Or characters, to be precise.

  • Kazuhisa Nakatani

    My definition of 足 and 脚 is as follows:
    足 is used when you see legs and feet as body parts, whereas 脚 is preferred when focusing on the function of the body parts.

  • Micha

    Do you have a link to the quoted report (from Bunka Shingei-Kai) ?