Language | BILINGUAL

To know bamboo is to know Asia — and a whole lot of Japanese

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

In March, while preparing my taxes, I purchased a box of paper clips with the brand name “Tetonbo.” Tetonbo, or, more familiarly, 竹とんぼ (taketonbo, a “bamboo-copter” or “bamboo dragonfly”), is a gadget made to fly by spinning the shaft rapidly between the palms of your hands and quickly releasing it. Believed to have originated in China around 400 B.C., it may very well be the world’s oldest type of flying toy.

This got me to thinking about another childhood favorite with bamboo in the name, the 竹馬 (takeuma, a “bamboo horse,” meaning “stilts”).

A fast-growing plant believed native to East Asia, bamboo (derived from the Malay bambu), is written 竹, which can be read take (kun-yomi) or chiku (on-yomi). Related terms are indicated by the six-stroke classifier 竹冠 (take kanmuri), which is always positioned at the top of a character and looks like this: ⺮

Bamboo has been long recognized for its strength, flexibility and durability, and even in modern times it has found new applications. The filaments in one of the earliest incandescent light bulbs produced by American inventor Thomas Edison were made from a variety of Japanese bamboo called 真竹 (madake).

In ancient times, bamboo implements were at the cutting edge of information technology, used for recording and tallying information, as well as for keeping count. That’s why we have bamboo-derived characters like 筆 (fude, writing brush), and 箱 (hako, box). The 筒 (tsutsu, cylinder) used for 封筒 (fūtō, envelope), reminds us that messages were once rolled up, rather than folded, and transported in tubes.

Even today, housewives keep track of daily expenditures in a 家計簿 (kakeibo, a household account book). Lists of names and addresses are complied in a 名簿 (meibo, directory). Likewise, we find the take-kanmuri in the seki in 本籍 (honseki, one’s registered domicile) and 国籍 (kokuseki, nationality).

Wherever numbers are involved, another bamboo character, 算 (san, calculation), appears in such words as 算数 (sansū, arithmetic), 掛け算 (kakezan, multiplication) and 割り算 (warizan, division), as well as in 第 (dai, used for ordinal numbers, such as 第一 (daiichi, first) and so on. San is also used in 算盤 (soroban, a “calculation plate,” i.e., an abacus). The character 等 () means “class” or “rank,” as in 高等学校 (kōtōgakkō, high school) and 均等 (kintō, equal or uniform). We also see the bamboo classifier in the word 籤 (kuji, lottery).

Bamboo is not only useful, it’s edible, in the form of 筍 (takenoko, bamboo shoots). The empty hollow of bamboo sections can be used in preparing food as well as for carrying it after it’s cooked. Bamboo can also be used to make various utensils. Take 箸 (hashi, chopsticks) and 竹べら (takebera, the bamboo spatula used to scoop steamed rice), as well as 茶筅 (chasen, a bamboo whisk used in the tea ceremony).

The character 築, originally meaning a mud wall with a roof, is used in the verb 築く (kizuku, to build or to amass). It is widely found in words related to building such as 建築士 (kenchikushi, architect) and 新築 (shinchiku, a newly completed building).

Split in half and connected end to end, bamboo served from ancient times as water conduits, expressed by the character 管 (kan, a pipe or tube), found in such words as 水管 (suikan, water pipe) and 配管 (haikan, plumbing). In modern times 管理 (kanri, literally “the arrangement of pipes”) has come to mean “management.”

Another use for bamboo was in musical instruments, such as 笛 (fue, a bamboo flute) or 汽笛 (kiteki, a steam whistle), as you would find on an oceangoing vessel.

Want to celebrate a holiday or just let off steam? Try setting off a string of “exploding bamboo,” or 爆竹 (bakuchiku), as firecrackers are called in Chinese-derived Japanese.

Needless to say, bamboo is found in place names and surnames, such as 竹田 (Takeda), 植竹 (Uetake), 竹村 (Takemura), 竹本 (Takemoto), 佐竹 (Satake) and 竹倉 (Takekura), to name a few. The surname written 小竹 — “little bamboo” — can be read as both Kotake and Shino.

In Zen temples, if a person meditating nods off, the priest will awaken him or her with a measured smack from a bamboo rod called a 竹篦 (shippei). From this we get the expression 竹篦返し (shippe(i)-gaeshi, which means “retaliating” or “returning tit for tat”).

The expression 竹に雀 (take ni suzume, a sparrow in the bamboo) means “two things that go well together.” When things don’t match, well, you can say 木に竹を接いだようだ (ki ni take o tsuida yō da, “like bamboo grafted onto a tree”) — that is, to be grossly incongruous.

Some characters can also be found in which the relation to bamboo is somewhat more tenuous, such as the verb 答える (kotaeru, to reply or answer). Another is 笑う (warau, to laugh). What’s the connection between bamboo and replying, or laughing? To investigate, I consulted a 漢和辞典 (kanwa jiten, a lexicon of classical Chinese that gives the etymology of kanji).

In the former case, it was explained, replies to messages were written on pieces of bamboo. For the latter, it seems that in ancient times, the word for “laugh” happened to be a homonym for a certain type of thin bamboo.

Learning the linguistic ins and outs of bamboo might not be simple, but then again, maybe it is. After all, bamboo even finds its way into the character 簡 (kan) in 簡単 (kantan, simple).

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