The humble character “的” (teki/mato) — not to be confused with 敵 (teki, enemy) — is a kanji that started out with one meaning, then evolved to another, and was eventually adopted to serve as a frequently used suffix to modify any words that precede it. If you’re looking for an English equivalent, think “-ish,” “-wise” and “-like.”
According to the 大漢和辞典 (dai kanwa jiten, great dictionary of kanji origins) the classifier on the left of 的 was originally “日” (nichi/hi, sun) but was later modified with the addition of a stroke at the top to form “白” (shiro/haku, white).
On its right side is “勺” (shaku, ladle) and appears in such characters as 酌 (shaku, a ladle or scoop for serving sake), 灼 (shaku, burn/shine) and 約 (yaku/tsuzu, a promise/approximately).
In its original meaning, 的 meant 明らか (akiraka, something that’s bright and clear, or certain). From this, it was spun off to mean a target, also pronounced “mato,” and used in words such as 的中 (tekichū, hitting the mark/being spot on) and 的場 (matoba, a target range for archery or shooting).
In this context of targets, the character finds use in both a literal and figurative sense with such phrases as 的を絞る (mato o shiboru, to narrow/home in on), 的を当てる (mato o ateru, to hit the target), 的を逸れる (mato o soreru, to miss the target) and 的外れ (mato hazure, be off the mark or irrelevant). You can also get a sense of being on target in the word 的確 (tekikaku, accurate/precise), as in 的確なアドバイス (tekikaku na adobaisu, accurate advice).
You can see the applications of 的 expanded on even further when combined with the kanji “目” (me, eye) in such words as 目的 (mokuteki) and 目的地 (mokutekichi). The former, which literally translates as “eye target,” means “aim” or “objective,” while the latter literally translates as “eye target land” and is used to mean “destination.”
As mentioned earlier, though, you’ll most likely encounter 的 as a suffix that turns whatever precedes it into an adjective or adverb. For example, take the noun 積極 (sekkyoku), which means “active,” “positive” and “progressive”: 厚生労働省から当社あてに、新型コロナウイルス感染症に係る職場における積極的な検査の実施に関する周知依頼がありました (Kōsei Rōdōshō kara tōsha-ate ni, shingata koronauirusu kansenshō ni kakawaru shokuba ni okeru sekkyoku-tekina kensa no jisshi ni kan suru shūchi irai ga arimashita, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare sent a request to our company regarding proactive implementation of testing at the workplace for new coronavirus infections).
These kinds of 的 words also work great to start off conversations. For instance, 一般的 (ippan-teki, general/popular/common) is good to use as an opener when phrased as 一般的に (ippan-teki ni, generally) or 一般的に言うと (ippan-teki ni iu to, speaking in general). Or, you may say to your accountant,
もっと具体的に説明して下さいませんか (motto gutai-teki ni setsumei shite kudasaimasen ka, couldn’t you give me a more detailed explanation?) using the word 具体的 (gutai-teki, concrete/substantial).
During a brainstorming session at the office, you could signal your agreement with a coworker’s proposal by saying, それは理想的なやり方 (sore wa risō-tekina yarikata, that would be the ideal way to do something), with 理想的 (risō-teki, ideal) acting as an adjective to やり方 (yarikata, way to do something).
Government officials and newspaper editorials frequently invoke the word 抜本的 (bappon-teki, drastic), as in, 抜本的な対策を実施すべきです (bappon-tekina taisaku o jisshi subeki desu, drastic measures should be implemented), while 本格的 (honkaku-teki, authentic) is a term often seen in advertising to emphasize that a product is not a wannabe imitation.
Some other teki words you’re likely to encounter might be 劇的 (geki-teki, dramatic/touching), 抽象的 (chūshō-teki, abstract); 決定的 (kettei-teki, definitive) and 協力的 (kyōryoku-teki, supportive).
A few terms that pop up in the news as well as business contracts are 知的財産 (chiteki zaisan, intellectual property), and the more recent 知的資産 (chiteki shisan, intellectual properties [a broader term that includes a corporation’s networks, human resources and other assets]) and 知的資産権 (chiteki shisan-ken, intellectual property rights). For example, a recent Nikkei Shimbun article started one of its pieces off with, 「企業が知的財産や無形資産の投資・活用を通じて成長することを促すため、政府がガイドライン案をまとめた」 (Kigyo ga chiteki zaisan ya mukei shisan no tōshi katsuyō o tsūjite seichō suru koto o unagasu tame, seifu ga gaidorain-an o matometa, The government has put together a draft guideline to encourage companies to grow through the investment and utilization of intellectual properties and intangible assets).
Finally, you can find the kanji 的 in the word 的屋 (tekiya), groups of itinerant merchants who set up stalls selling cheap products at shrine events and festivals. Japan’s most famous 的屋 is certainly 車寅次郎 (Kuruma Torajirō, Torajiro Kuruma), better known as “寅さん” (Tora-san), a comedic character from the long-running film series “男はつらいよ” (“Otoko wa Tsurai Yo,” “It’s Tough Being a Man”). One explanation of the film points out that, 特に第8作以降は飛躍的な大ヒット (toku ni dai-hachi saku ikō wa hiyaku-tekina dai hitto, particularly following the eighth installment [the series] rapidly became a huge hit).
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