Get a handle on kanji in Japanese with the hand classifier

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Every now and then a Japanese animal lover asks me, in English, “Do you feed a dog?”

If I were in a sarcastic mood I suppose I could snap in reply, ワンチャンに餌をやらないと、餓死するんじゃないの? (Wanchan ni esa o yaranai to, gashi suru-n ja nai no?; If I didn’t feed the doggie, it would starve to death, no?). But that would only compound the confusion, because I was just being asked if I have a pet.

Even when asked in Japanese, however, the question is still a bit confusing, because “Inu o katte-imasu ka?” sounds almost exactly like 犬を買っていますか? (“Are you [in the act of] buying a dog?”). The listener must differentiate between the verbs 飼う (kau, to feed or raise) and 買う (kau, to buy) by the context.

Moreover, while the Japanese word for owner is 持ち主 (mochinushi, literally, “possess master”), dogs, by virtue of being animate objects, must be fed and walked and so on. So Japanese would describe a dog owner as 飼い主 (kainushi, literally, “feed master”).

This confusion could be avoided if the question was phrased as お宅に愛犬がいますか? (O-taku ni aiken ga imasu ka?, Do you have a love dog [i.e., pet dog] at your house?).

While it doesn’t work for dogs, the verb 持つ (motsu) translates variously as to own, possess, hold or carry. We often see it used with 持ち込み (mochikomi, to bring in) or 持ち出し (mochidashi, to take out), for instance on signs on buses that read 危険物持ち込み厳禁 (Kikenbutsu mochikomi genkin, Carrying dangerous objects aboard the bus is strictly prohibited). Or, in a repair garage, tools might carry the label 社外 持ち出し禁止 (Shagai mochidashi kinshi, Prohibited to remove from the workplace).

A person born into wealth who has never had to work for a living might be colorfully described as 箸より重い物を持ったことがない (Hashi yori omoi mono o motta koto ga nai, He’s never had to lift anything heavier than chopsticks).

Motsu can be used not only to indicate possession of tangible objects, but also convey feelings or emotions. A commonly heard expression is 気持ちが悪い (kimochi ga warui, bad-feeling), which can be used when reacting to something disagreeable, unpleasant or disgusting.

If you look at the embarkation/disembarkation card for travelers used by the Japanese Immigration Bureau, you’ll see it asks arrivals あなたは現在、現金をいくらくらい所持していますか? (Anata wa genzai, genkin o ikura kurai shoji shite-imasu ka?, How much cash do you currently have in your possession?).

The word 所持 is a good example of bureacratic language. If a customs inspector were to ask you the same question orally, he would almost certainly say 現金はいくらくらい持っていますか? (Genkin wa ikura kurai motte-imasu ka?, About how much have you got on you?)

[A useful grammatical point: When 所 (sho) precedes another character, it functions much like a particle to introduce the passive form of a verb or a relative clause. It can be found in such words as 所謂 (iwayuru, so-called), 所属 (shozoku, belong to), 所在 (shozai, whereabouts) and 所定 (shotei, fixed or prescribed), among others.]

Motsu, by the way, is one of 1,322 characters using the 手偏 (tehen, hand classifier), which — when tallying the 50,305 characters listed in the revised edition of Morohashi’s 大漢和辞典 (Dai Kanwa Jiten, The Great Chinese-Japanese Dictionary) — means it ranks fifth among kanji classifiers, following 艸 (kusa or kusa kanmuri, grass), with 2,173 characters; 水 (mizu) or氵 (sanzui) (water) with 1,816; 木偏 (kihen, tree) with 1,617; and 口偏 (kuchihen, mouth) with 1,475.

One aspect of kanji with tehen I find instructive is that even for words that take the same pronunciation, meanings can be nuanced. Take the English verb “take,” for example. (Come to think of it, I just did.) “Take” is used to form dozens of idioms that refer to a multitude of different activities, e.g., it takes 10 minutes to walk to the station (duration); you take (swallow) medicine three times a day; you take (ride) the Yokosuka Line to Kamakura; you take away (remove) dishes from the table; take (snap) a photograph; take (capture) someone prisoner; or take (escort) a sick child to the doctor, and so on.

The closest Japanese equivalent, toru, is most commonly written 取る; but it can be expressed by about a dozen kanji, of which at least four are written with the hand classifier. There’s 採る (toru, to pick or harvest), whose kanji is also used to take a sample of blood, as in 採血する (saiketsu suru). Then there’s 捕る (toru, to catch or capture), used in the compound word 逮捕する (taiho suru, to arrest). A camera is used for 写真を撮る (shashin o toru, to take a photograph) — although a distinction is made for more recent technologies such as video by using another toru, written 録る, meaning “to record sounds and/or images.” Yet one more toru is 摂る, as in “to take nutrition,” used in 摂食 (sesshoku, feed), as in 摂食障害 (sesshoku shogai, an eating disorder).

One can easily conclude ああ、正に手偏の漢字はバラエティに富んでる (Aa, masa ni tehen no kanji wa baraeti ni tonderu; Oh, kanji with the hand radical are brimming with variety).