Many readers, I suppose, are familiar with the sports stadium in Nishinomiya city, Hyogo Prefecture, known as 甲子園球場 (Kōshien kyūjo, Koshien Stadium). In addition to being the home field of the Hanshin Tigers pro baseball team, it also hosts the spring and summer national high school baseball tournaments.
It was only recently that I stumbled upon the source of the stadium’s peculiar name, which is written with characters that appeared to mean “shell child garden.” Kōshi refers to the year 1924, which was when 阪神電鉄 (Hanshin Dentetsu, Hanshin Electric Railways Co.) opened the eponymous train station adjacent to a suburban residential development. So the station’s (and stadium’s) name actually means “1924 Garden.”
More specifically, the 甲子 (kōshi) in Kōshien refers to ki-no-e ne, the year of the “wood rat,” which happens to be the first year in the Chinese sexagenary (60-year) cycle consisting of five heavenly stems (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) and 12 earthly branches. By the same token the current year, 2015, is 乙未 (ki-no-to hitsuji, or “year of the wood sheep.” Both 甲 (kō) and 乙 (otsu) are used alternatively to symbolize wood.
When nezumi (mouse or rat) is referred to as a year, as opposed to as a rodent, it is not written as 鼠 (nezumi), but instead with the same 子 (ko) as in 子ども (kodomo, child), but in this case read as ne or nezumi. Likewise, hitsuji (sheep) is written with the character 未 (also read mi) and not with the one representing the woolly animal that bleats, which is 羊. So when making references to the 12 animals of the Asian zodiac, a separate of set of kanji are used, which include 子, 未 and 10 others.
Aside from calendar dates (and baseball stadiums), another fairly common use for these subsets is in personal names, such as 辰雄 (Tatsuo) (where the tatsu kanji represents “dragon”), 寅次郎 (Torajiro) (tora meaning “tiger”) or the surname 辰巳 (Tatsumi).
When it comes to the actual animals, however, all 12 in the Asian zodiac are written using a single kanji. And of these 12, eight of them are also used as classifiers (or radicals), which are the building blocks to form other characters. In their order of appearance in the calendar, they are the aforementioned 鼠 (nezumi, rat), 牛 (ushi, ox), 虎 (tora, tiger), 龍 (ryū, dragon — usually written 竜 but shown here in its traditional form), 馬 (uma, horse), 羊 (hitsuji, sheep), 犬 (inu, dog), and 猪 (inoshishi, wild boar), which when used as a classifier is called 豕 (inoko). Except for inoshishi, these characters belong to the category of 象形 (shōkei, pictograms), i.e., stylized images of the animals they represent, which places them among the oldest kanji.
With no disrespect intended I’m sure, the kanji used for the remaining four zodiac animals do not double as classifiers. They are 兎 (usagi, rabbit), written with the single-stroke 丿 (no) radical; 蛇 (hebi, snake), written with mushi (insect) radical; 猿 (saru, monkey), written with the kemono (dog) radical; and 鶏 (niwatori, chicken), written with the tori (bird) radical.
It is telling that unless used in reference to a specific genus or species, most animals native to Asian countries can be written with a single character. Some examples include 豹 (hyō, leopard), 熊 (kuma, bear), 鹿 (shika, deer) and 象 (zō, elephant). The farther away you move from Asia — Africa, for example — the more you’ll notice that creatures tend to be written with multiple characters, such as 獅子 (shishi, lion) or 縞馬 (shimauma, zebra).
Some animals derive their kanji names from other languages, such as 河馬 (kaba, hippopotamus), which is a direct translation from the ancient Greek meaning “river horse.” Other creatures get their names from physical resemblance to another animal. Take 駱駝 (rakuda, camel). Add “bird” to the second character in rakuda and we’ve got 駝鳥 (dachō) or “camel bird,” meaning an ostrich.
And while 水牛 (suigyū) can easily recognized as a water buffalo, 蝸牛 (kagyū, more commonly read as katatsumuri), is not a type of ruminant, but a snail. This no doubt came about because the snail’s protruding tentacles with eyes at their end were thought to resemble horns.
While Japanese tend to render foreign animals (as well as scientific names) using katakana, such is not the case for Chinese. Take カンガルー (kangarū), which in Chinese is called 袋鼠 (daishu, “pocket mouse”; these kanji can also be read as fukuro nezumi — opossum — in Japanese). A キリン (kirin, giraffe) in Chinese is called 長頸鹿 (changjing lu, long-necked deer). An owl becomes 猫頭鷹 (maotouying, “cat-head falcon”) and a platypus 鴨嘴獸 (yazuishou, literally “duck-mouth beast”). Examples such as the above serve to demonstrate how versatile and utilitarian kanji can be.
The giant panda, called パンダ (panda) in Japanese, is written in Chinese as 大熊猫 (“big bear-cat,” pronounced da-xiongmao). The origin of “panda” is uncertain. According to the China Travel website, some linguists have theorized that “panda” derives from a Nepali word, ponya, from nigalya ponya, meaning “bamboo-eating animal.”
From Pegasus to Godzilla, some animal mythology
• The Asian Pegasus 千里馬 (senrima), a mythological winged horse said to be too swift to be mounted and ridden, literally means “horse of a thousand ri.” (A ri is a unit of distance that varies from country to country. In ancient Japan it was equivalent to 3.9 km.)
• The mythological 麒麟 (kirin, unicorn), written with 鹿 (shika), the deer classifier, doubles as the word for “giraffe” in Japanese. It’s also a well-known brand of beer.
• Like Mickey Mouse and Bambi, numerous animal characters have names, like the monkey king 孫悟空 (Son Gokū) and “pig of the eight proscriptions” 猪八戒 (Cho Hakkai), both legendary superheroes in the Chinese classic tale 西遊記 (Saiyūki, “A Journey to the West”).
• The name of Toho Studio’s 1954 sci-fi film monster ゴジラ (Gojira, Godzilla) was coined by combining ゴリラ (gorira, gorilla) and 鯨 (kujira, whale).