Prime Minister Taro Aso is notorious for making insensitive off-the-cuff remarks to the media, and on more than one occasion recently, he has also raised eyebrows for mispronouncing kanji in his scripted speeches. Last month, speaking at prestigious Gakushuin University about the earthquake in May in Sichuan, China, Aso tripped over the pronunciation of the third kanji in 未曾有 (mizo-u, unprecedented), morphing it into the nonword “mizō-yū.” (YU is a possible reading for 有 in other compound words — but not 未曾有).

未曾有 (literally “not yet formerly existing”) is one of a great many Japanese double- or multiple-kanji compounds beginning with a kanji of negation, and it may be helpful to remember a distinct core meaning in English for the most commonly used of these: 未 (MI, not yet), 不 (FU, not), 無 (MU, without), and 非 (HI, is not). These powerful word builders are comparable to the English prefixes non-, un-, and in-. All have Chinese-derived pronunciations (音読み, on-yomi) and are typically paired with other on-yomi, but they may also appear with native Japanese words (e.g., 未払い, not yet/paid; mihara-i; unpaid) or foreign loanwords (e.g., 非ステロイド, is not/steroid; hisuteroido; non-steroid).

未 (MI, not yet), the first kanji in Aso’s nemesis, 未曾有, pictures a tree (木) with a short branch at the top, an indication it is still growing (i.e., not yet complete). Kanji following 未 in compounds usually represent an action. Examples are 未来 (not yet/come; mirai; the future), 未定 (not yet/decided; mitei; pending), 未婚 (not yet/married; mikon; single), and 未成年者, not yet/grown/years/person; miseinensha; minor).

不 (FU, not), the general prefix of negation, is the most frequently used of the four kanji and can be seen in a plethora of everyday words. Dispose of your nonburnable garbage in a bag marked 不燃物 (not/burn/thing; funenbutsu). At the convenience store, pay a fee to have larger 不用品 (not/used/goods; fuyōhin; unwanted articles) such as broken electrical appliances carted off by your local sanitation department. Need a real estate agency? Scope out a signboard marked 不動産 (not/mobile/property; fudōsan; real estate) in your neighborhood. In conversation, you may hear people grouch about law-breaking teenagers, disparagingly known as 不良 (not/good; furyō), and the current economic recession (不況 not/good condition; fukyō) is on everyone’s lips.

無 (MU, without) implies a lack of something and is generally followed by a kanji that is a noun. 無料 (without/fee; muryō; free of charge), as in 無料配送 (muryōhaisō, free delivery), is a compound worth knowing. In the supermarket, look for 無脂肪 (without/fat/animal fat; mushibō; nonfat) dairy and 無添加 (without/attachments/added; mutenka; additive-free) packaged food products. 無理 (without/logic; muri) means “impossible,” and a currently popular slang takeoff, 無理っぽい (impossible/like; murippoi), translates as “not likely to happen.”

非 (HI, is not) depicts bird wings spreading in opposite directions, and it usually carries a nuance of contrariety, often with strong negative overtones. 非人間的 (is not/human/like; hiningenteki) means “inhuman.” If you hear a fire alarm, head straight for the 非常口 (is not/normal/doorway; hijōguchi; emergency exit). 非常識 (is not/normal/knowledge; hijōshiki; lacking in common sense) is a word that parents frequently use when scolding their 非合理的(is not/logical/like; higōriteki; irrational), hormone-driven teenagers.

Foreign residents of Japan from non-kanji-using countries are known as 非漢字系 (is not/kanji/lineage; hikanjikei). Being 非漢字系 myself, I have had plenty of kanji-egg on my face owing to mispronunciations, so I sympathize with Mr. Aso over his kanji blunders. Maybe his speechwriters should add furigana (tiny hiragana typed over kanji to indicate their pronunciations) to the kanji that trouble him most.

Quiz: Match the following negation-kanji compound words with their English meanings and Japanese pronunciations.

1. 不満 (not/full)
2. 非常勤 (is not/normal/employment)
3. 未熟 (not yet/ripe)
4. 無職 (without/work)
5. 未亡人 (not yet/dead/person)
6. 無限 (without/limit)
7. 不可 (not/possible)
8. 無人 (without/person)
9. 不公平 (not/public/equal)
10. 非番 (is not/one’s turn)

a. unfair (fukōhei)
b. dissatisfaction (fuman)
c. a grade of “F” (fuka)
d. unemployed (mushoku)
e. infinite (mugen)
f. unmanned (mujin)
g. inexperienced (mijuku)
h. widow (mibōjin)
i. off-duty (hiban)
j. part-time work (hijōkin)

1. b
2. j
3. g
4. d
5. h
6. e
7. c
8. f
9. a
10. i

All previous Kanji Clinic columns may be accessed at www.kanjiclinic.com

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