When I was a kid — long, long ago — my friends and I used to flaunt our juvenile erudition by spelling out what was supposedly the longest word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism. (Oh wow, the MS Word software just informed me that I spelled it correctly. But don’t ask me what it means.)
Actually, I heard there’s a train station somewhere in Wales whose name is even longer. Written out, it looks like a cat did a tap dance over the keyboard.
But what about kanji? Is there one that can claim to be the longest — as measured by the number of brush strokes — and therefore the most intimidating?
Around the lunar new year, which fell on Jan. 28 this year, I happened to be in a noodle shop in my neighborhood and noticed a festive red and gold poster bearing this monster (see photo), composed of 39 strokes.
It is not a real character, but one created by artistically combining four separate characters, which in Chinese are read 招財進寶 (zhao cai jin bao), meaning “invite fortune, enter treasure.” It’s also the name of a popular slot machine.
You may already know some or all of these characters: 招く (maneku, to beckon or invite); 財 (zai or sai, wealth), as in 財布 (saifu, a wallet); 進む (susumu or shin, to advance); and 寶 (takara, simplified as 宝, treasure or the hō in 宝石 (hōseki, a precious stone and by extension, jewelry).
Remarkably, even this ungainly monster of a kanji still comes to 15 fewer components than antidisestablishmentarianism.
This whopper got me to thinking about my various misadventures over the years with difficult, nonstandard and archaic kanji, which even in the 21st century do not appear to be in any danger of being phased out. You see them on product labels, in company logos and at temples and shrines, just to name a few examples.
When Americans write out a personal check (say, for $319.26), to ensure the amount is correct they will also write out this amount as “Three hundred nineteen dollars and twenty-six cents.” The way to do this in Japan is to use a set of special kanji for the numbers one through 10. They are: 壱, 弐, 参, 肆, 伍, 陸, 漆, 捌,玖 and 拾. Zero is 零 (rei) and hundred, thousand and 10,000 are 佰,仟, and 萬. And after the full amount comes 也 (nari, only).
“Archaic” generally refers to a variety of a kanji, no longer in common use, that has since been simplified and designated a 当用漢字 (tōyō kanji, kanji for general use) as recognized by the education ministry. Or it might also be a nonstandard variation of a character no longer in use, such as the 亰 in 東亰 (Tōkyō, also read Tōkei). (Look carefully at how the second character contains an extra stroke in what is now written 京.)
Archaic kanji are still in use in Japanese surnames. People’s names have undergone several stages of reform, but it’s quite common to see some people write their names as 斉藤 (Saito) and 浜崎 (Hamazaki) while others differentiate by clinging to older forms, such as 齋藤 and 濱崎. Characters in names that frequently retain nonreformed varieties include 櫻 instead of 桜 (sakura, cherry); 國 instead of 国, (kuni, country) and 埜 instead of 野 (no, field). A Japanese-American buddy of mine, Richard Kuroki, told me that while his family wrote their surname name using 黒木 (Kuroki, black tree), his ancestor in Kyushu had formerly written it completely differently, as 興梠 (Korogi).
You can also spot archaic characters in the logos of company names, products and publications. On the front page of the Yomiuri Shimbun, for example, you’ll see 読み (yomi, read) and 売り (uri, sell) written as 讀賣, just as it was when that newspaper was founded in 1874.
Kanji simplification procedures have been somewhat inconsistent in that while the basic character may have changed, its previous variety remains in use as a classifier or phonetic component in other characters. So while 龍 (ryū or tatsu, dragon) was shortened to 竜, the older variety can still be found in its entirety in such characters as 聾 (rō, deaf) or 龔 (Gong), a Chinese surname.
That said, the process of simplifying kanji has been going on for a long time, and long before the official reforms, old and new versions of characters coexisted. The baroque 11-stroke “crowns” atop older characters like 學 (gaku or manabu, learn/study) and 覺 (kaku or oboeru, to remember/realize) were reduced to three short strokes, thusly: 学 and 覚. Likewise for the double 火 (hi, fire) at the tops of 榮 (sakae, to prosper) and 螢 (hotaru, firefly), which went from eight to three strokes, giving 栄 and 蛍.
Ichiro Okada, a fine gentleman and experienced traveler who’s well acquainted with the Chinese language, wrote to me recently about the kanji that is reputed to have the most number of strokes. It is pronounced “biang” in the second (rising) tone, and is used for a type of noodle called biang-biang mian that has been described as one of the “10 strange wonders of Shaanxi Province.”
The source of the character for biang is difficult to ascertain, as it does not appear in any dictionary, but its Wikipedia entry is worth a read anyway, at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biangbiang_noodles (in English) and ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/ビャンビャン麺 (in Japanese).
While biang is written with at least 58 strokes, it’s not really that difficult to memorize. But before you try to write it out, you might want to check that your pen has enough ink.