With a recent surge of 新型コロナウイルス感染症 (shingata koronauirusu kansenshō, COVID-19 infections) setting records across Japan, the government has chosen to extend the 緊急事態 (kinkyū jitai, state of emergency) in Tokyo until the end of August. It has also declared fresh 緊急事態 in other prefectures in hopes that it will help 人流を減らす (jinryū o herasu, reduce the flow of people).

But as the streets remain crowded, some are now thinking that 緊急事態宣言は意味がない (kinkyū jitai sengen wa imi ga nai, the state of emergency declaration is meaningless).

While 意味 (imi, meaning) is probably familiar to most Japanese learners, most often in the phrase その言葉の意味はなんですか (sono kotoba no imi wa nan desu ka, What is the meaning of that word?), a similar term that we may need to learn the meaning of is 意義 (igi, meaning/significance). But what’s the difference between 意味 and 意義?

The term 意義 emphasizes the value and importance of something’s existence or execution, while 意味 focuses on the content indicated by the language — in short, a definition.

For example, if you wanted to explain why 読書 (dokusho, reading) is important, you could say: 読書の意義は幅広い知識を得られることだ (Dokusho no igi wa habahiroi chishiki o erareru koto da, the significance of reading is that it allows you to obtain a wide range of knowledge). In contrast, the 意味 of 読書 is: 本を読むこと (hon o yomu koto, to read books).

Similarly, 緊急事態宣言の意義はとにかく感染拡大を防ぐことだ (kinkyū jitai sengen no igi wa tonikaku kansen kakudai o fusegu koto da, the meaning of the state of emergency declaration is to prevent an increase in infections).

Part of the reason why 意味 and 意義 are so similar has to do with the 成り立ち (naritachi, origin/etymology) of the kanji 意 (i), which means, “mind,” “meaning” and “attention.” Look closely and you’ll notice that 意 is composed of the kanji 音 (oto, sound) and 心 (kokoro, heart). This comes from an old story about praying to God in the dark, in which the person praying hears an 音 that they interpret as God answering their prayer. But there was no way of knowing for sure what God’s answer was, so the person offering the prayer had to 推し量る (oshihakaru, guess) what was in God’s heart. So the original meaning of 意 is “to guess.”

Perhaps that’s why 意 is used in a variety of terms that relate to how you feel: 意見 (iken, opinion), 同意 (dōi, agree), 意地 (iji, pride), 意思 (ishi, intent) and 意志 (ishi, will).

Everyone has an 意見 and people don’t always see eye to eye. 緊急事態宣言に対する意見はバラバラだ (Kinkyū jitai sengen ni taisuru iken wa bara-bara da, Opinions about the state of emergency declaration vary widely).

A reporter may ask you: 緊急事態宣言についてどう思いますか (Kinkyū jitai sengen ni tsuite dō omoimasu ka, What do you think about the state of emergency declaration)? In this case, you would 意見を述べる (iken o noberu, state your opinion): 全国に緊急事態宣言を出すべきだと思う (Zenkoku ni kinkyū jitai sengen o dasu beki da to omou, I think that the state of emergency declaration should be extended nationwide).

You might try to convince the other person to change their 意見, but they might 意地を張る (iji o haru, not give in). Although 意地 means 自分の思うことを通そうとする心 (jibun no omou koto o tōsō to suru kokoro, having the heart to push through with what you think is right), the expression has negative connotations and is usually considered synonymous with 強情 (gōjō, stubbornness). Frustration might lead you to say, つまらないことで意地を張るな (Tsumaranai koto de iji o haru na, Don’t be so stubborn about something so trivial).

Sometimes being direct is the only way to 意思表示をする (ishi hyōji o suru, express one’s intentions/thoughts), but it is also important to 相手の意思を尊重する (aite no ishi o sonchō suru, respect the other person’s wishes). The key thing to remember with 意思 is that it focuses on 考えや心持ち (kangae ya kokoro mochi, one’s thoughts and feelings).

On the other hand, 意志 emphasizes 目的を達成しようとすること (mokuteki o tassei shiyō to suru koto, trying to achieve a goal). Common expressions using the term include 意志を貫く (ishi o tsuranuku, to carry out one’s will) and 意志が強い (ishi ga tsuyoi, having great willpower).

コロナ疲れを感じている人々は多いが、パンデミックを終息させるには、すべての人の強い意志が必要だ (Korona zukare o kanjite-iru hito-bito wa ōi ga, pandemikku o shūsoku saseru niwa, subete no hito no tsuyoi ishi ga hitsuyō da, A lot of people are experiencing corona fatigue, but in order to get through the pandemic we need everyone’s willpower to be strong).

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.