It’s not news that Japan is running out of children. Though the country’s total fertility rate has recently shown some slight signs of recovery, this is unlikely to halt the overall trend of 少子化 (shōshika), which is the common term used to describe the dwindling number of kids. But no worries — despite the decrease in young citizens, the child continues to be an indispensable part of the country’s lexicon.

I’m not so much talking here about the word for children itself, 子供 (kodomo) or just 子 (ko), which we find in terms like 子育て (kosodate, child rearing), 一人っ子 (hitorikko, an only child) or お子様ランチ (okosamaranchi, child’s meal). Neither do I mean the administrative lingo with all its 子供手当て (kodomo teate, child allowance), 母子手帳 (boshi techō, maternity record book) and 母子家庭 (boshi katei, fatherless household).

What is more interesting, and just as important to the linguistic ubiquity of 子, is that the character can occur in expressions that are not — or only peripherally — related to the world of children. Take the terms 女子 (joshi) and 男子 (danshi). Though they can be translated as “girls” and “boys,” there is to my knowledge no upper age limit for the users of a 女子トイレ (joshi toire, women’s restroom) or a 男子トイレ (danshi toire, men’s restroom). Likewise, disciples of whatever age are referred to as someone’s 弟子 (deshi), just as everyone who finds themselves lost will become a 迷子 (maigo), no matter if they were born around 1900 or after 2000.

Another thing to note is that 子 is commonly associated with femininity rather than just youth. That’s why an all but uncountable number of female names end in 子, including everything from 朝子 (Asako, literally “morning child”) to 夕子 (Yūko, “child of the evening”). The fact that these names have increasingly turned from girls’ names into aunt names — virtually no 子 name has been among the top 10 for decades — suggests a growing dissociation between 子 and youth on that front, too.

But most intriguing about 子 is that it often occurs as a kind of dummy suffix in words that do not even remotely refer to persons, whatever their age, but to things. The rather common household article 椅子 (isu, chair) comes to mind. I’m sure you own a couple of these, too, but did you also know that there is a child in every piece of headgear (帽子, bōshi), every windowpane (窓硝子, mado garasu), and all things held together with at least one screw (捻子, neji)? And we also find it in more specific tools such as ladders (梯子, hashigo), levers (梃子, teko) and lattices (格子, kōshi), as well as personal seals (判子, hanko), sliding doors (障子, shōji), and scarecrows (案山子, kakashi).

It’s even part of our diet: We buy 茄子 (nasu, eggplant) and 柚子 (yuzu) at the supermarket, take 穴子 (anago, conger eel) and 数の子 (kazu no ko, herring roe) off the sushi conveyer belt, order 玉子 (tamago, egg) and 餃子 (gyōza, Chinese dumpling) with our Chinese noodles, and, for dessert, have 団子 (dango, rice dumpling) topped with 餡子 (anko, sweet bean paste) — or some other 和菓子 (wagashi, Japanese sweets), if you prefer.

Further contributing to the linguistic omnipresence of the child is its appearance in more abstract matters. In finance, for instance, there are those nasty little children of a debt known as 利子 (rishi, interest), while in music there’s 拍子 (hyōshi, beat, measure). Also originating from the domain of music is調子 (chōshi, tune, tone, pitch), usage of which can be extended to all different kinds of referents in more (調子いい, chōshi ii) and less good shape (調子悪い, chōshi warui). A related term from the 子 family is 様子 (yōsu), which refers to some “outward-apparent” state of affairs, as in 様子を見る (yōsu o miru, wait and see how things develop).

Perhaps because it represents so marvelously the idea of small individuals, 子 is also an indispensable part of scientific nomenclature. Take 分子 (bunshi), which in math refers to the numerator of a fraction. Incidentally, the denominator is called 分母 (bunbo), which uses the kanji for mother instead of that for child. In linguistics, the same metaphor is exploited to distinguish between 子音 (shiin, consonant) and 母音 (boin, vowel) sounds. It runs in the family.

Physicists and chemists use terms such as 陽子 (yōshi, proton), 電子 (denshi, electron) and 中性子 (chūseishi, neutron) to capture the smaller parts of our world and the rules according to which they form into 原子 (genshi, atom) and, on the next level, 分子 (bunshi, molecule). As for biologists, they should come across a child each single time they use the word 遺伝子 (idenshi, gene).

Which brings us back full circle to the problem of reproduction and the childless society. While it is a demographic fact that children are on the decline in present-day Japan, they are as present as can be in present-day Japanese.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.