Language | BILINGUAL

This summer, signs of setsuden will again be all around us

Now that all but one of Japan’s usable nuclear reactors have been halted as a result of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant disaster — which followed the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami — the nation’s households, small businesses and factories will once again plow forward through the hot summer following the government’s policy of 節電 (setsuden, economize/electricity, “conserving electricity”), which was first implemented last year.

Drawing on the spirit of gaman (stoicism) deeply embedded in Japanese culture, the great majority (nearly 90 percent) of Japan’s energy consumers indicate in surveys they are willing to cooperate at least to some extent in the 節電 campaign, including keeping air-conditioners at the sweltering government-recommended temperature of 28 degrees and, in some regions, rearranging their home and work lives around upcoming rolling power blackouts.

But for a nation that has long depended on nuclear reactors for approximately a third of its power, 節電 will still be a challenge. In an endless stream of public service announcements, the government is offering detailed advice on how to practice 節電. This two-kanji compound word screams out at passersby outside electrical appliance stores and on advertising flyers for power-efficient air conditioners. The agency recommends keeping your filters clean and your thermostats on a higher setting.

節電 is also prominently displayed in clothing stores. Lightweight, cool clothing in the workplace is being heavily promoted in the environmental ministry’s Super Cool Biz campaign, and traditional, loose, knee-length men’s long cotton pants, called suteteko, are enjoying a resurgence, allowing wearers to stay cool on evenings at home or strolls around the neighborhood.

Homeowners are being requested to replace incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent ones and to turn lights and heated toilets off when not in use. While businesses are staggering work schedules and vacation days in order to distribute power usage more evenly throughout the week.

Watch for 節電 announcements at train stations, too, where many trains have been slowed down and escalators turned off in the interest of conserving energy.

Let’s take a look at the components comprising the semantically complex character 節, the first character in 節電. (The meaning of the second kanji, 電 den, is much easier to get a handle on, and means “electricity.”)



Match each of the following compound words containing 節 with its English meaning. An English meaning has also been given for each kanji in the compound.

1. 節食 (sesshoku, sparingly/eat)
2. 一節 (issetsu, one/section)
3. 季節 (kisetsu, time of year/section)
4. 指の節 (yubi no fushi, finger/joint)
5. 節米 (setsumai, use sparingly/rice)
6. 晩節 (bansetsu, evening/ period)
7. 忠節 (chūsetsu, loyal/principle)
8. 節税 (setsuzei, sparingly/tax)
9. 節煙 (setsuen, limit/smoking)
10.節水 (sessui, conserve/water)

a. knuckle.
b. eat in moderation
c. tax avoidance
d. one’s later years
e. verse (songs, the Bible)
f. season
g. fidelity
h. conserving rice
i. limit tobacco use
j. limit water use

The component featured at the top of 節 represents “bamboo” and pictures two stalks topped with spiky leaves. As a kanji component in two dozen Japanese general-use characters, the vertical lines of 竹 (take, bamboo) are abbreviated so they can be written in the top position, where they are always found. The creators of kanji often chose components for their phonetic — as opposed to semantic — value, as they did in this case; the bottom component of 節 does not contribute to its meaning.

節 (setsu) can signal a rich variety of meanings and nuances; more than 20 are listed in Jack Halpern’s Kanji Learner’s Dictionary (Kodansha), including: joint, node, knot, season, paragraph, and section. Most of these meanings bring to mind well-ordered divisions of items, reminiscent of even lengths of nodes and sections of a stalk of bamboo.

Since I began my kanji studies, I have always found 節 intriguing for its — at first glance — odd-man-out meanings, such as: economize, moderate, principle, and fidelity. But in fact, these qualities represent organization of one’s life, and thus hang together semantically with the other more literal meanings.

Keep your kanji radar out and you will discover 節 all around you, often written in big crimson characters in order to grab your attention. 節 is again this year the kanji of the summer, definitely worth remembering in these sweaty times.

A wealth of information on kanji learning, plus 115 previous Kanji Clinic columns, are available at



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

Coronavirus banner