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During my senior year at university I took a two-semester course in Japanese 古文 (kobun, classical literature). Our class of four students struggled over excerpts from such famous works as “竹取物語” (“Taketori Monogatari,” “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”), which was written in the late ninth or early 10th century; “源氏物語” (“Genji Monogatari,” “The Tale of Genji”), written in the early 11th century; “方丈記” (“Hōjōki,” “The Ten Foot Square Hut”), from the 13th century; and “徒然草” (“Tsurezuregusa,” “Essays in Idleness”) from the 14th century.

Among the course materials were two reference books: a 古語辞典 (kogo jiten, dictionary of ancient terms) and a 漢和辞典 (kanwa jiten, dictionary of kanji origins and idioms) that gave not only the readings and meanings of the kanji characters in use, but also their etymology.

It was my multilingual father who deserves credit for fostering my lifelong interest in such characters.

“Look, here’s how they write ‘east,'” Dad explained not long after our arrival on Okinawa in 1965, pointing to the character written “東,” which could be read as , higashi or azuma. “See? It shows the sun rising in the east, from behind a tree.”

How perfectly logical, I thought to myself. If they’re all this easy, then learning kanji is going to be a breeze. Ha!

Turning to page 539 of Benesse’s 1,300-page 漢和辞典, I found a completely different explanation for the origin of “東”.

“上下をしばったふくろの形にかたどり、もとふくろの意を表す” (“Jōge o shibatta fukuro no katachi ni katadori, moto fukuro no i o arawasu,” it symbolizes the shape of a bag tied at the top and bottom, originally meaning a bag.) Not a bag in a tree while the sun is rising, but just a bag, contents not specified. Long ago, for reasons unknown, the Chinese dropped its original meaning and bestowed it with the meaning of “east.”

Dad had been reading a book called “Pictorial Chinese-Japanese Characters” by Italian scholar Oreste Vaccari (1886-1980) and his wife, Enko Elisa Vaccari (1896-1983). I still have it, the fifth edition, and it’s the only English-language book that I’m aware of that is fully devoted to the etymology of kanji characters.

The entry for “早,” or “early,” reads suspiciously like Dad’s explanation for “東”: a sun just above a tree. When the sun is seen just above a tree at some distance from us, it is early in the morning, a fact that must have originally suggested the representation of this character.

Once again, the 漢和辞典 definition is radically different: “ムクロジの黒い実。また染料を取るはんの木の実にかたどるという。ひいて、黒い、暗い意。借りて、あけがた、「早い」の意に用いる” (“Mukuroji no kuroi mi. Mata senryō o toru han no ki no mi ni katadoru to iu. Hiite, kuroi, kurai i. Karite, akegata, ‘hayai’ no i ni mochiiru,” “The black fruit of the Indian soapberry or washnut (Sapindus mukorossi). Or, use of the fruit of the East Asian alder (Alnus japonica), from which dye is extracted. By extension, meaning black or dark. This was borrowed to use to mean dawn or ‘early’”).

Granted, Vaccari’s explanations brim with old world charm. Take “戀” (koi or ren, love), which nowadays is written in its simplified form as “恋.” Vaccari explains it thusly: “戀 (ren, koi, love, ardent affection for one of the opposite sex) — formed by ‘言’ (iu, to say, to tell), ‘糸’ (ito, a long thread, long yarn) and ‘心’ (kokoro, heart)…. The three components ‘言,’ ‘糸’ and ‘心’ clearly suggest the idea that love and affection for one of the opposite sex are expressed by telling the person we yearn for, a ‘long yarn’ unraveled from the ardent and tender feelings of our heart.”

This time the kanwa dictionary is similar, but a bit more succinct.

“心と音を表す䜌(惹かれる意)で、心が惹かれる、恋にしたう意味” (“Kokoro to oto o arawasu ren (hikareru i) de, kokoro ga hikareru, koi ni shitau imi,” “A heart and the phonetic ren (attracted), i.e., the heart is attracted, meaning to yearn for love.”)

On Japanese maps, you often see the symbol 文, which indicates a school. Read “bun” or “fumi,” the kanji appears in words such as “文化” (bunka, culture) and “文明” (bunmei, civilization), as well as “文章” (bunshō, a sentence or writing in general) and “文房具” (bunbōgu, stationery). Less commonly, “文” is read as “mo” or “mon,” as in “文字” (moji, a written character), “文句” (monku, complaint) and “文盲” (monmō, character-blind, i.e., illiterate.)

One day I sought to learn how “文” originated. Predictably, the kanwa dictionary’s description had nothing whatsoever to do with writing.

“着物をかさねて、むなもとで襟がきれいに合ったさまにかたどり、あやの意を表す”(“Kimono o kasanete, munamoto de eri ga kirei ni atta sama ni katadori, ‘aya’ no i o arawasu,” “It symbolizes the overlapping folds of a kimono across the breast, with lapels neatly aligned, to convey the meaning of a ‘pattern’”), it said.

The origins of kanji are truly fascinating, but the wisdom of the ancients doesn’t always translate into modern explanations.

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