Language | BILINGUAL

For better or worse: untangling Japanese antonym pairs

by Peter Backhaus

Special To The Japan Times

Opposites attract: plus and minus, yin and yang, Mars and Venus, Lennon and McCartney. In English it sometimes happens that such opposites are combined in one expression. Just remember that bitter-sweet romance about the love-hate relationship you once saw on your grandparent’s black-and-white TV set. Compared with English, such types of bonds are far more frequent in Japanese and much easier to form. No hyphen, no “and” — all you need is two kanji characters with the opposite meaning, and that’s it.

One relatively straightforward example is the compound jōge (上下). It is composed of the characters for up (上) and down (下) and means just that. When something keeps rising and falling, such as stock prices or your weight before and after Christmas, it’s jōge shiteiru (上下している, going up and down). These two kanji frequently combine with other terms into longer compounds. Probably best-known is the expression jōge kankei (上下関係), which refers to hierarchical relationships. The water and sewerage system is called jōge suidō (上下水道), and the two legislative chambers of the Japanese Diet — another system that is just as clean as it is dirty — are summarized as jōge ryōin (上下両院), the upper and the lower house.

Jōge-sen (上下線) are the train lines that take you in and out of the city (no matter if it’s on a hill or a plain). Somewhat confusing in this respect is the term tōgekō (登下校), a phrase referring to the way children get to and from school. Only in this one case, for reasons best known to itself, the “down” character (下) betrays its common partner and appears with the character 登, though it’s almost equally antonymic — it means “climb up.”

Another pair of spatial antonyms is found in the compound zengo (前後), which brings together the front (前) and the back (後) of something. The closest English approximation, though in reversed order, would be “back and forth.” The compound is also very useful when something is only approximately known. A male suspect around 40 years old, for instance, is 40歳前後の男 (yonjūssai zengo no otoko), and the crime he is charged with might have occurred about 12 hours ago, or 12時間前後前 (jūnijikan zengo mae).

The Japanese arsenal of two-character antonyms is quite extensive. Here are a few more, and this is only the tip of a gigantic iceberg of opposites: naigai (内外, inside and outside), deiri (出入り, come and go), sayū (左右, left-right), kaihei (開閉, open and close), kyōjaku (強弱, strong and weak), kōtei (高低, high and low), nan’i (難易, difficult or easy), meian (明暗, light and dark), hinpu (貧富, the poor and the rich), asayū (朝夕, morning and evening), shōbu (勝負, win or lose), tashō (多少, more or less, i.e., a little), kyōdai (兄弟, older and younger brother; siblings), oyako (親子, parents and children), and one of the greatest opposites of all: danjo (男女), men and women.

One of the funniest antonym pairs is the term dekoboko (凸凹). A look at the two Kanji and a teaspoon of imagination should suffice to figure out what this might refer to: bumpy roads, unpolished surfaces, chiseled features and other uneven things.

But antonym pairs also occur in more abstract contexts. One of the most profound philosophical questions is encapsulated in combining the two characters for good (善) and evil (悪), which gives us zen’aku (善悪, good and evil). Similarly, there is umu (有無), which consists of the characters for existence (有) and nonexistence (無) — most likely the shortest ever summary of Prince Hamlet’s famous to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy — not to be confused with kaimu (皆無), which also has the nonexistence character in second position, but in combination with the kanji for “all” (皆, mina). The term is used to express total absence of something, such as budgetary leeway in my purse this month.

The realm of emotion is another favorable environment for antonym pairs. Someone with many likes (好) and dislikes (嫌), for instance, is called 好き嫌いの多い人 (sukikirai no ooi hito). A very emotional double antonym pair is the term kido airaku, (喜怒哀楽), which manages to marry delight (喜) with anger (怒) and sorrow (哀) with pleasure (楽). The corresponding English term “emotions” must appear somewhat dull in direct comparison.

Finally, and working totally without kanji, there is the term pinkiri (ピンキリ). This is a very convenient expression to refer to an assortment of things ranging from highest (ピン) to lowest (キリ) quality, such as used cars, cosmetic items or wedding ceremony halls. Speaking of which, we can conclude that Japanese is a very productive language when it comes to marrying things of opposite meaning. And though, as we have seen, there are sometimes infidelities, I’ve never heard of a divorce. What language has joined together, let no one put asunder.