Language | BILINGUAL

In Japanese, finding ‘beauty’ in plump sheep and toadies

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

In addition to simple pictographs, some kanji are used to convey abstract ideas through a method referred to as 会意 (kai’i, combined ideographs). A common example — one we typically encounter at the early stage of our studies — is 明 (read numerous ways, including mei, myō or aka(rui), and meaning bright). It is formed by combining 日 (nichi or hi, sun) and 月 (getsu or tsuki, moon).

Other notable and easily comprehensible examples of kai’i characters include 安 (an or yasu, peaceful), indicating a woman sitting under a roof), and 男 (dan, nan or otoko, a man), which shows 力 (ryoku or chikara, power), supporting 田 (den or ta, a rice paddy).

The logic of these ancient characters still makes perfect sense to us moderns. In one case, however, it doesn’t: That’s the character 美 (bi, mi or utsuku(shii), beautiful), which is written by combining the character for 羊 (hitsuji, sheep) and 大 (dai, big). That’s how the dictionary of kanji origins explains it too. Several thousand years ago, it seems, a plump sheep was indeed a beautiful thing, especially if you were expecting lots of guests for dinner.

Oh, and be careful not to confuse 美 (bi) with 姜 ( or kyō, ginger), which combines “sheep” and “woman.” Long ago, it did carry the meaning of a beautiful woman, but that’s evolution for you. Now it serves mainly as a surname for Chinese (Jiang) or Koreans (Gang) and also means “ginger,” as in 生姜 (shōga, ginger root).

“Beautiful” can also be extended to things like taste and sound. Try entering “oishii” or おいしい on your keyboard and press 変換 (henkan, convert), and you’ll find yourself looking at 美味しい, meaning “beautiful taste.” You can also find ads for correspondence courses that teach you how to engage in 美しい話し方 (utsukushii hanashikata, beautiful rhetoric).

Ladies head for the 美容院 (biyōin, beauty salon) to get clipped and coiffed — but listen closely so as not to confuse this word with the palatalized byō in 病院 (byōin, hospital).

Other compound words formed with bi include 美化 (bika, beautification), 美術館 (bijutsukan, literally, “museum of fine arts”) and 美学 (bigaku, aesthetics).

Then there’s 美徳 (bitoku, virtue), as in 怒りを抑えることは一種の美徳である (Ikari o osaeru koto wa isshu no bitoku de aru, Suppressing one’s anger is a virtue).

Years ago I picked up another bi word from a hand-lettered sign in a hotel gift shop on Guam, whose management was trying to promote merchandise to hotel guests by proclaiming it was 機能美抜群! (kinōbi batsugun). Kinōbi can be translated as “functional beauty,” or perhaps “simplicity and elegance of design.” Batsugun, a useful superlative, means to stand out from the crowd, or be the best by far.

Although 人 (hito, person) is gender neutral, a 美人(bijin) usually refers to a human female; its male counterpart would be 美少年 (bishōnen, an Adonis).

One exception would be the idiom 八方美人 (happō bijin, literally, “a beauty in eight directions”), which is not gender-specific, nor does it refer to pulchritude. Rather, it’s a way of criticizing a person who tries to be all things to all men — a toady or flunky.

I recall once reading a weekly magazine reporter’s review of a キャバクラ (kyabakura, cabaret club), in which he described the hostess assigned to his table as もったいない美人 (mottainai bijin, literally, an “undeserved” beauty). I thought perhaps the writer was being self deprecatory, but on reflection I suppose he used it in the humorous sense of meaning “I really lucked out!”

As for the hostess, she may have thought her situation was more analogous to the somewhat ominous aphorism that goes 美人薄命 (bijin hakumei), which roughly translates as “Beauty and good fortune seldom go together” or “The beautiful die young.” In this case, the 薄 (haku, or usu(i), which usually means “thin”) is used to suggest a precarious 命 (inochi, mei or myō, life or fate).

Beauty crops up fairly frequently in Japanese personal names, mostly but not always for females. One example that immediately comes to mind is that of 正田美智子 (Michiko Shoda), the maiden name of Empress Michiko, the kanji for which mean “beautiful and wise child.”

The big-sheep character occasionally appears in men’s given names as well, read either mi or yoshi.

Offhand, I can recall at least two prominent individuals whose surnames contain the character for beauty: One is 美濃部亮吉 (Ryokichi Minobe), who served as governor of Tokyo from 1967 to 1979; another is 美川憲一 cross-dressing vocalist Kenichi Mikawa, although Mikawa is his stage name.

In popular literature you can enjoy the story and film titled 美女と野獣 (Bijo to Yajū, “Beauty and the Beast”). Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel about the life of a horse, “Black Beauty,” on the other hand, was translated into Japanese as 黒馬物語 (Kurouma Monogatari, literally, “The Story of a Black Horse”). Sort of loses something in translation.

To avoid getting into a big-sheep habit, you might want to try varying your expressions to include similar terms like 綺麗 (kirei, “pretty” or, alternatively, “clean”). Less common but even more complimentary is べっぴん or 別嬪 (beppin, a woman of exceptional beauty). If you really want to pile on the flattery, try saying 彼女はすごいべっぴんだ (Kanojo wa sugoi beppin da, She’s a real knockout!).

Come to think of it, you’re probably on safer ground just telling a person they are 格好いい (kakkoii, meaning “really cool,” “attractive” or “smart-looking”). It’s a perfectly acceptable word, and no one will ever accuse you of indulging in ごますり (goma suri, flattery) or 大げさ (ōgesa, exaggeration).