8 July 2016

Is Heisig effective for learning kanji?

Following on from my previous post about how I learnt Kanji, I thought I'd write about the Heisig method, a popular choice for many learners of Japanese. The 'Remembering the Kanji' series of books by James Heisig have their fans, and it's easy to see why. From a absolute beginner's perspective, the books promise 'A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters'. If you work through the first book, from start to finish, you can go from never having seen a kanji before to having seen a lot of them. You'll probably also be able to write most of them, and will have a vague idea what most of them mean.

BUT! You will not be able to read Japanese. He explicitly states that you shouldn't learn the readings until you can write them. All 2000 odd of them. The second book teaches the readings, completely out of context as a list of arbitrary vocabulary.

Now, I don't think that working through the Heisig books is a waste of time. On the contrary, it's a good as way as any of familiarising yourself with Kanji. The first Heisig book is a very well defined project, in project management terms. It's got a measurable goal (number of kanji covered), a definite end (the last page) and clearly definition of success (being able to write the kanji and know one English meaning).

The problem I have with Hesig is the way he recommends going about the challenge. If you really want to extract any sort of enjoyment from learning kanji and get through it as quickly, superficially and joylessly as possible, then Heisig is as good a method as any. I've seen an estimate of about nine months to work through the books. That's nine months of no reading, only learning how to write the Joyo kanji and a single English meaning.

You don't need to know 2000+ kanji before you start to read

There's a reason that Japanese children learn the Kanji in stages: there's no point learning kanji for words you don't know. The 1000 kyoiku kanji taught in primary schools are, mostly, fairly practical kanji that you see a lot. Once you go above that, though, you need to have a fairly decent vocabulary, and  by the time you get to the end of the Joyo kanji, even Japanese people will say they've never seen the characters before. These are extreme examples, but 璽 'imperial seal' and 朕 'first person pronoun for the emperor' are not everyday words. Even in the Kyoiku kanji, do you really need to know 后, 'empress'?  I see 壺 tsubo 'jar, pot' a lot more and it's not even a Joyo kanji. Why would you need to know these when you're not yet reading the language?

Not only that, but the more kanji you know, the better you get at remembering them. It becomes easier to remember them as made up of other kanji, rather than as stories in English. By the time you get to about 500-1000 characters, you've probably outgrown the need to create a story for every new kanji. I had a look at book 3 (now out of print) for learning the 1000 kanji beyond the Joyo. I got about two pages in before it became clear that it would only be useful as a list of relatively frequent kanji. In the first couple of pages it gives the mnemonic for the element 粦 as 'shoeshine', which it states is an arbitrary name for it. Now, if you're onto your third thousand of kanji, there are at least ten better ways of remembering it, especially when you consider that you should already know the kanji 隣 very well indeed by that point.

Learning kanji without readings actually makes learning them harder

The kanji 責 is in 積 and 績, and they all have the Chinese on-reading of seki. This is not a coincidence. If you learn that 責 is read seki (in the very common word 責任 sekinin 'responsibility') then you've learnt a reading of the other two. However, when writing the kanji 積, you may remember that it has the reading seki, reinforcing the right hand side being 責. This circular logic may seem counterintuitive, but eventually it becomes clearer how the 'sound' part of kanji works, and how 青, which usually has the on-reading of sei, could give 情 the reading of jou. I have often surprised myself that I remember how to read a kanji just by looking at it, even though I don't really know the character. The brain works better if you reinforce knowledge in many different ways, and it can make connections even without you being directly aware of it happening. Admittedly, the second Heisig books tries to teach the meanings in this way, but why wait until then before you can make that connection?

Heisig only teaches one (sometimes irrelevant) meaning

Knowing the English meaning of a kanji is a good way of understanding it, but limiting yourself to a single word doesn't make sense. Many kanji have a very broad meaning to begin with, but Heisig often choses a fairly esoteric and rare meaning as his key word.

For example, in the video below, Chris Broad explains how he learnt the character 摂 using Heisig.

I have two problems with this. The main one being the key word 'surrogate'. My Kanji dictionary lists 'act as an agent' as the third meaning, and the two example words it gives with this meaning are so rare that they're not even in a medium sized Japanese dictionary. In most words, the character has the meaning 'take' or 'take hold'. The second point is that in the context of Japanese, this character doesn't need the convoluted explanation given in the video. 摂 appears in the word 摂取, sessyu 'intake (of food or nutrients)'. 取 means 'take', as it's a hand 又 taking an ear 耳, and originally meant cutting off an enemy's ear. The four dashes mean 'the above repeated twice', so it's a hand 扌taking three ears 聶, i.e. not just taking, but really taking in. So now I've learnt an example word, related it to a similar meaning kanji, have a mnemonic for how to write it and know the reading.

Even for simpler characters it doesn't make sense to only learn a single meaning. 日 can mean day, sun or Japan. These are all elementary meanings and there is no need to restrict yourself to only one of them.

You will forget some kanji however you learn them. And that's fine.

This review of Heisg seems to suggest that you will never forget Kanji learnt through Heisig's method. I say to that: rubbish. It also mentions the myth that Japanese children only learn Kanji through rote learning. Again, nonsense. Yes, they do write them out a few times when they first learn them, but after that it's practice through writing essays, reading books and seeing the characters in context. Japanese people use kanji every day of their lives, and yet still forget how to write them. Knowing Heisig's mnemonics is not going to prevent that from happening. Twenty years down the line, Kanji will feel like second nature to you, but you'll still forget exactly how to write a kanji sometimes. This is just the brain being efficient, but learning and forgetting is not the same as never having learnt in the first place.

Working through Heisig is going to give you a better understanding of Kanji than having no knowledge at all. It doesn't give a deep understanding of kanji, and it doesn't allow you to read Japanese. So while it may achieve what it sets out to do, that aim isn't to speak or understand Japanese. The only way I can see that being the best strategy is if you're not in Japan and aren't taking a holistic approach to learning the language. Even then, you're going to need a lot of patience to stick at it. It does provide a list of read-to-use mnemonics, but if you really haven't got the imagination to come up with your own, I'd recommend Henshall's 'A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters' over Heisig.

To answer the original question: is Heisig effective for learning kanji? It's effective for learning kanji in the very narrow definition of 'learn' that Heisig uses. But you'll still be a very, very long way from mastering them or even reading Japanese. Do it if you want to, rave about it if you like, but it's not magic, and it still takes a huge time commitment and a lorry load of perseverance.

6 July 2016

How to learn 2000+ kanji in a matter of years

One of the biggest hurdles Japanese learners face is the seemingly endless mountains of Kanji there are to master. Part of the problem is that it isn't actually obvious what it means to 'learn' Kanji.

A few years ago I passed Kanji Kentei level 2, which covers all Joyo Kanji approved by the Japanese government. This was before the 2010 update, so there was only a requirement to know 1945 of them (and a passing acquaintance of the Jinmei Kanji for names). That is not to say I can write out all of them off the top of my head, but I know enough to read most Japanese I come across without using a Kanji dictionary. This post is about how I did it. I hope it doesn't sound as though I'm bragging. It is an achievement I'm proud of, but that's only because it's taken a huge amount of effort. I'm not really going to impart any secrets or shortcuts, but there

I began with the 'Basic Kanji' 500 books. These are great for giving an introduction to Kanji, the vocabulary they are used with, and building up an understanding of Kanji structure. I also tried the more advanced books in this series, but my advice would be not to bother, as they're completely impenetrable.

At about the same time as doing the second book, I bought Henshall's 'A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters'. This book is brilliant because it gives the origin of the Kanji, and the story of the character itself is often a better mnemonic than anything you make up yourself. The book does include suggested mnemonics, but I didn't use them.

It had a different cover in those days

I did make up my own mnemonics, but I quickly found that it wasn't always necessary to have a clear story in my mind as to the structure of the character. For example, I knew 曜 as 'day of the week' so 濯 is 'washing' because it's got water and you can do it on any day of the week. That's a rubbish story, but as long as it sticks in your mind, that's great. I would also learn a representative word or two that it was part of. This helped understand both the meaning of the character, it's reading, and expand my vocabulary.

Henshall's book can be used as a rudimentary Kanji dictionary, but that isn't what it's designed for, so I bought Halpern's Kani Dictionary. This is by far the best Kanji dictionary out the for the student of Japanese. It's easy to use and actually pretty readable, and I found the appendices really interesting.

I can remember when all this was yellow....

I also wrote down every new word I came across in Kanji. If I heard I new word I would get somebody to write it in Kanji for me. To start with I wouldn't recognise the characters, but as time went on I would know more and more, and would eventually be able to guess what the kanji was when I heard the word. I would also try to read; anything is good reading material. Eventually I had seen enough characters enough times that I new their meanings, their readings and, with some more practice, their writings. At no point did I go in for rote memorisation of the kanji out of context of the Japanese language.

After 18 months I knew enough Japanese to pass the old JLPT level 2. Not a brilliant pace, but not bad either. Then I started on the Kanji Kentei, beginning with level 5. This is all Kyoiku kanji, those learnt by Japanese children during the first six years of school.

Now, from the start, I loved Kanji. I found it absolutely fascinating, and it probably kept me motivated when I got fed up of learning grammar or vocabulary. I thought that level 5 would be a pushover. It wasn't. It opened my eyes to how Japanese people see Kanji. For the first time I could see how you sometimes have to look at them as Chinese in order to make sense of the meaning, as many compounds follow Chinese grammar rules. Above all, though, it really expanded my vocabulary. Knowing how to write the Kanji and their individual meanings was barely ten per cent of the effort needed to pass.

From there I took one level of the Kanken every six months. Generally it took three months to master a level, and then I'd leave it for three months. It took about six months to master level two and consistently get 80% on the practice tests, so about three years from starting level 5 to passing level 2. I'll cover in a different post my strategy for passing the Kanken. I really enjoyed them as a challenge, but they also give structure to covering all the Joyo kanji thoroughly and measurably.

I couldn't pass level 2 now, but that doesn't matter. Forgetting Kanji is part of learning them, and there is a huge difference between forgetting something and never having learnt it. This is also something for a beginner to remember when they can write a Kanji a Japanese person doesn't know. You may know that specific kanji, but their knowledge goes to depths the beginner can't even imagine. I would certainly make that point to smug little me all those years ago.

28 June 2016

Gruesome Kanji - slaves and slavery

Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess.... That almost undefinable feeling that we all strive for in one way or another. Unfortunately, one gets the impression that the common people in ancient China didn't have an awful lot of it. Given its importance to the human condition, its no surprise that the concept is written using a relatively simple kanji: 幸, a pictograph of some shackles.
This isn't a phonetic borrowing and the leap from shackles to happiness is surprisingly short: if a slave was punished, chances are they would be put to death. If they were lucky, they'd just be clapped in chains. Happiness is all relative.

The original character for 'railway station' 駅 was 驛. Here you can see a beady eye 目 looking over the shackled prisoners 幸 from one to the next 睪. In the same way, a station is where you move from one horse 馬 to the next. The derivations of the meanings of kanji is often difficult for us to appreciate, but this would have been more obvious to the ancient Chinese reader as 睪 and 驛 were pronounced the same way.

辛 looks similar to 幸, but the two are not directly related. 辛 is a needle, and its modern meaning of 'hard going'  tsurai or 'spicy'  karai (both, confusingly, written 辛い) are from the sense of prickling with needles. However, 辛 does appear in characters related to people in less than fortunate circumstances for a slightly different reason.

童 means 'child', and is in words such as 児童 jidō 'child', 童話 dōwa 'children's story' and 童謡 dōyō,  'a children's song' or 'nursery rhyme'.

The original character has a needle 辛 above an eye 目 and a weight 重 at the bottom. This needle is a tattoo needle, and indicates that the person has a mark above their eye. In other words, a person with a marked forehead that carries heavy weights: a slave. From there it meant someone who was not a full person, and by extension a child. Marking slaves with a tattoo was a common practice, and was used in Japan up to the Edo period as a means of identifying criminals. The actual mark depended on the region. One method was to write the kanji for 'dog' in three stages for each crime committed 一 ナ 犬 ; the fourth punishment would be death.

The kanji 僕, which, although is used as the male first-person pronoun boku, is also read shimobe to mean slave or servant.
The original character again shows a needle 辛 marking a person's forehead, and 其, a winnowing basket. The basket is filled with grain, and then the grain is repeatedly tossed into the air as the wind carries away any chaff, the worthless part. The person also has a tail (the ↟), i.e. caught by the tail. So we have a caught, worthless, marked worker: a slave. The needle and the winnowing basked merged together into 丵 and then were replaced by 菐 which had the same sound as the original character, despite having a different meaning.

The Winnower, Jean-Francois Millet 1848

The character for people (as in 'the people of a nation') 民 comes from a pictograph of an eye being stabbed by a needle. 
A common punishment for slaves was to blind one eye. It made them easily identifiable should they try to run away, as well as being gruesomely oppressive enough. The character then became a way of referring to slaves: 'hey, you know, those people who we stab in the eye', and from there to mean 'those people', 'the people'. At first it may seem inappropriate that China includes the character in its modern name: 中華民国. But it's a reminder that, ideologically at least, the oppressed are now the ones calling the shots.

21 June 2016

Months of the Year

When first learning how to say the date in Japanese it can seem strange that the months of the year are just given numbers. In English we do that for years and days of the month, but for some reason feel that months should have their own special names, even though we often use numbers as an abbreviation. In Japanese the number is the official name so August is simply 8月 (hachi-gatsu).

However, when the Chinese lunar calendar was used in Japan each of the months had its own special name as well as the number. Most of the names are quite poetic and fit in well with the four seasons, but have dropped out of use. As the lunar calendar begins in the middle of February, they're often a month or so out of synch with the weather in the solar calendar, although a few survive in idioms and as alternatives to the more standard numbering system.

睦月 むつき Mutsuki 1月 January
There are a couple of possible explanations for this name. 睦 means 'harmonious' or 'friendly', so it was the month to be friendly, greeting people as part of the New Year. Alternatively it could be from 元月 もとつき (mototsuki, origin/base month) as it is the first month of the year, and the pronunciation changed over time from mototsuki to mutsuki.

如月 きさらぎ Kisaragi 2月 February
February is a cold month, so you need to wear another layer of clothes, hence the name 衣更着. 衣 ki(nu) is clothes or cloth, 更 sara means 'even more' and 着  is the ki of kimono, literally 'a thing for wearing'. So 'clothes and even more clothes'.

弥生 やよい Yayoi 3月 March
The month when the grass at last 弥 ya grows 生 oi again. The Yayoi period, between approximately the third century B.C. to the third century A.D., is named after an area in Tokyo called Yayoi where an earthenware pot from the era was discovered in 1884.

卯月 うづき Uzuki 4月 April
The month when 卯の花 unohana blooms.

Deutzia crenata 01.jpg

皐月 さつき Satsuki 5月 May
Satsuki is still quite widely used in idioms, although usually written as 五月.
五月晴れ Satsuki-bare Fine weather in May
五月雨 Satsuki-ame Rain in early summer
五月闇 Satsuki-yami Gloomy weather during the rainy season

This is because, as the lunar year starts a month later, 皐月 was the month of the rainy season. However, as its association with being the 5th month of the year haven't been lost, the words are often used to refer to the weather in May. The month isn't names after the rains, though, and sa is an old word for ploughing, or is short for 早苗 sanae 'early shoots'. Clearly agriculture was more of a concern than the weather!

In the film となりのトトロ (Tonari no Totoro), the two girls are called Satsuki and Mei, both named after this month.

水無月 みなづき Minazuki 6月 June
The kanji mean no water (水 + 無), but the na was originally no, so it was 'the month of water' rather than 'no water month'. The kanji for 'not' was just used for its sound. This doesn't mean rainwater, as the rainy season was the previous month in the lunar calendar. Instead, this is referring to the filling of paddy fields.

There is an alternative theory that it refers to the fact that this is the month after the rainy season in the lunar calendar, so it really is (relatively) 'without water', but given that the name of previous month isn't related to rain, as explanations go, it doesn't hold much water.

文月 ふみづき Fumizuki 7月 July
Fumi means letter or writings, and one likely explanation is that this is the month of Tanabata when people write their wishes or poems on strips of paper called 短冊 tanzaku.

葉月 はづき Hazuki 8月 August
The month of leaves (葉 ha), as it's the start of Autumn

長月 ながつき Nagatsuki 9月 September
One explanation is that this is the month when the nights start getting longer 長.

神無月 かんなづき Kannazuki 10月 October
The kanji means no gods (神 + 無). There is a folk etymology that all the gods of Japan would go to Izumo in Shimane prefecture during October, so there would be no gods anywhere else. However, as with Minazuki, the na is probably no, giving 'the gods' month'; the harvest is in so this is the month for celebration, with parades and giving thanks to the gods.

霜月 しもつき Shimozuki 11月 November
The month of frost (霜 shimo).

師走 しわす Shiwasu 12月 December
The kanji mean 師 teacher and 走 run. The end of the year is very busy for Buddhist priests. A likely origin could be 師馳す shi +hasu. Hasu or haseru in modern Japanese, means to run or hurry.

14 June 2016

It’s alive! Power over life and death with aru and iru

Aru and iru are two of the first words that students of Japanese learn. Aru is for inanimate things and iru is for animate things.
テーブルの上にペンがある。tēburu no ue ni pen ga aru There is a pen on the table.
庭にワニがいる。niwa ni wani ga iru There is a crocodile in the garden.
The pen is inanimate, so we use aru. The crocodile is animate, so we use iru.
Aru can be used with people, and in old Japanese there only was aru for everything. Even today it is perfectly acceptable grammatically to say:
あの人は子供がある。ano hito wa kodomo ga aru That person has children.
However, this is just ticking the ‘has child’ box, rather than conjure up images of living breathing children. In this case, iru is preferable, and as a non-native speaker if you use aru it may sound like a mistake. The distinction between iru and aru gets more interesting, though, when you consider what it means to be ‘animate’.

Live fish for sale in a supermarket, would use aru. They may be alive, and animate, but they’re food, first and foremost. Live bait is the same.
sūpā ni katsugyo ga aru
There are live fish (for sale) at the supermarket.
wani no ikiesa toshite tsukau usage ga kono kago no naka ni aru
The rabbits that we'll use for the crocodile's live bait are in this cage.
Lice and fleas as well can be distinguished in this way. Iru and you’re talking about a creature, aru and you’re talking about an infestation. The use of aru depersonalises them; they’re condemned.
kata no ue ni nomi ga ippki iru
There is a flea on (your) shoulder.
kono harinezumi wa nomi ga aru
This hedgehog has fleas.
On the other hand, you can use iru to give life to inanimate objects.
isoideiru toki ni kagitte, takushī ga inai
There's never a taxi when you're in a hurry.
The taxi moves about under it’s own power, so you use iru. They move around freely and independently. Trains don’t get the same treatment, though. You can’t use iru with a train, because they’re stuck to a track and a timetable. There’s no free will. In fact, just having a person associated with the car can warrant the use of iru. If you see a police car outside your house:
パトカーがいる patokā ga iru
Because you know that there’s a policeman nearby, possibly in your house and asking too many questions. But if it was parked outside a police station
パトカーがある patokā ga aru
It’s just a car.

Cuddly toys in a shop for sale would be aru. Who cares about them?
But a child’s favourite toy would be iru, because of the personal relationship between the toy and the child. In Toy story, Andy would use iru with Woody, even without seeing him move. Because to Andy, Woody is alive! In Toy Story 3, he might use aru, though. Poor Woody.
ウッディとバズがベッドの上にいる Uddi to Bazu ga beddo no ue ni iru Woody and Buzz are on the bed.
ウッディとバズがゴミ箱の中にある Uddi to Bazu ga gomibako no naka ni aru Woody and Buzz are in the bin.

The distinction is very much at the discretion of the speaker, and given the right context, almost anything could use either.

NHK has a remit to provide television that commercial channels don’t, and produce quite astounding concepts such as panel shows about washers. I don’t mean anything related to cleaning, but the small disk that goes on a bolt to help the nut stay on. As I say, NHK take their remit very seriously. The fact I was watching such a programme says more about the quality of commercial television in Japan than it does about my interest in washers. Anyway, after various explanations about the importance of washers, they wheeled on a rusty old bicycle. Do you think we can unscrew this bolt? They asked, showing just how rusted and manky the nut was. A quick spin of the spanner, and off it came. The big reveal: there was a washer there, stopping the nut from rusting to the bolt. In surprise, one of the panellists exclaimed: ワッシャーがいた!Wasshā ga ita! This wasn’t just a simple ring of metal: it was the hero of the day. By using iru, she’d granted the washer a soul.

9 June 2016

Stop thinking in English! Active, passive and causative

Japanese verb conjugations are often said to be easy, due to having so few irregular verbs. However, that doesn’t mean that they are easy to use. The causative, despite being a fairly elementary bit of Japanese, is really hard to master. It’s not used as much as other verb endings, and it feels so different from English equivalent that it doesn’t come naturally. I’m not going to cover how it’s formed; there are plenty of other places on the internet with that information.

What do I want to explain is how it logically fits in with way of thinking behind Japanese.

Let’s take a simple situation. We’ve got a queen, a crocodile and the seven dwarfs. The queen, alloyed that the dwarfs helped Snow White, sets the crocodile on them. Things don’t end well for the seven dwarfs.

There are three participants in this incident, and we can describe what it happening with each of them as the subject.

The queen makes the crocodile eat the seven dwarfs.
This sentence has two objects: the crocodile and the dwarfs. Japanese doesn’t like having two を in one sentence, so the actor, the crocodile, is marked with a ‘ni’. Now, what does the queen do? In Japanese we can drop the objects and it’s still a grammatical sentence.
She caused it, so the verb is in the causative.

With the crocodile as the subject it becomes:
The crocodile eats the seven dwarfs
What does the crocodile do?
He’s doing the main action, so his verb is in the active voice.

Finally, the poor seven dwarfs.
The seven dwarfs are eaten.
What do the seven dwarfs do?
They are the victims of this heartless attack, so the verb is in the passive.
I believe that linguists normally use the word ‘patient’, but victim is more appropriate, and this very apt for the Japanese passive that tends to have a negative sense.

You can see that the causative, active and passive voices can be used to change the focus of the narrative, even though they’re all describing the same scene.

In English and many, if not all, other Indo-European languages, it is very important to include information on who is the subject; the person, gender and number. Is the subject the person speaking, the listener, or somebody else? Are they alone, or in a group? English has mostly lost the verb inflexions that mark this, but the pronouns live on and it’s still a core part of the way of thinking behind the language.

In contrast, Japanese doesn’t really care about that. The language is far more interested in the role of the subject. Did they cause it? Did they do it? Were they affected by it? This is why Japanese doesn't really have pronouns in the same way English and other European languages do. There is such a wide variety of ways of saying 'I' and 'you' in Japanese because they're not grammatically fundamental to the language and are therefore easier to change.

The meaning translates easily into English, but not without losing the symmetry in the verb forms. Often for any given situation you only hear a single sentence describing it, so the relationship between the causative, active and passive isn’t always obvious, but knowing the relationship between them is key to understanding the internal logic of the Japanese language.

1 June 2016

Any old iron

Iron is a common element, and the kanji for iron 鉄 is taught in the third year of the Japanese education system. The modern form is actually a simplification of the far more complicated original:

Whilst it's fortunate that a 21 stroke character has been reduced to a mere 13 strokes, the new form is less than lucky.

It was first used as a military abbreviation and appeared in a list of approved kanji for weapon names in 1940. Two years later, the abbreviated form was included in a list of government approved common kanji, but with the old form after it in brackets. On 5 November 1946 the approved list of tōyō kanji, the precursor to today's jōyō kanji, was released and included both characters as alternatives. However, the very next week, the old form was removed; 鉄 would be the only approved form. The final nail in the coffin for 鐵 came in 1948, when parents were limited to the 1850 kanji in the tōyō list for naming their children. As 鉄 was the approved form, 鐵 was not permitted.

What this also meant is that company names also had to use 鉄. This wouldn't be a problem, but the new character is made up of 金 (metal or money) and 失 (to lose). お金失う?!! That's not particularly auspicious for a company that hopes to make a profit.

So, what you often find in company logos is an alternative, completely non-standard form. JR East, the railway company that serves Eastern Japan, writes its logo like this:

It's looks normal at first glance, but the 鉄 in 鉄道 is rendered as 金+矢 instead of 金+失. 矢 means arrow; apart from its resemblance to 失 it is entirely unrelated, but at least it can't be construed as having a negative meaning.

Now, JR and other companies with 鉄 in their names aren't paranoid about using the character, and will only use the non-standard form when practical. Their web site isn't filled with lots of tiny image files at every occurrence of the offending kanji.

This demonstrates two interesting features of kanji: the potential for hidden meanings, and the ease with which new forms can be made up. It's particularly ironic when the made up form only became necessary when the original was made obsolete.Kanji is a very serious word game!

The history of the character 鉄 is taken from here:

25 May 2016

Open sesame!

The tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is world famous, so it's no surprise that it's just as well known in Japan. What did surprise me, for some reason, is the translation of 'Open Sesame!'.
開けゴマ (ひらけごま)
Literally, 'Open! Sesame'. Perhaps because it's a magic word, it hadn't occurred to me that 'sesame' would be literally translated.

However, ごま lends itself to some other Japanese phrases that don't translate quite as literally.

Literally 'navel sesame', an interesting way of describing belly-button fluff. Perhaps I'm weird, but it doesn't remind me much of sesame.

Sesame and salt noise: black and white noise. A common condiment is ground black sesame with salt, and it does look quite like static noise on a television, albeit more static than static noise, which, ironically, isn't actually static. The katakana word ノイズ means specifically 'random noise' rather than loud sounds in general.

ごますり or ごまをする
Grinding sesame: idle flattery. The verb here is する 'to grind; to rub'. Not to be confused with する 'to do', it conjugates normally, so the polite form is すります, not します. The grinding is specifically with a mortar and pestle, and the ground sesame sticks to everything it comes into contact with. Therefore, and this is a stretch, it means trying to 'stick' to everybody, hence flatter. This has led to a gesture for flattery: rubbing one hand against the other as though grinding sesame.

ごまふ (胡麻斑)
'sesame freckled' is used in the names of flora and fauna to mean black spotted or speckled. The spotted seal is 胡麻斑海豹 ごまふあざらし, the kanji meaning a sesame spotted sea leopard.

To deceive. Actually, this may or may not be sesame related. When written in kanji, these days it's usually written as 誤魔化す misunderstand + magic + -ise (verb forming ending, as in socialise), but this is 'ateji', with kanji used only for their sounds. One theory is that it comes from 護摩 ごま, a Buddhist cedar stick burning ceremony, with a verb ending かす. The ashes from this would be sold, but often you'd be more likely to be getting burnt garden waste from the not-so-devout ash salesman. So 'are you cedar-sticking me?' came to mean 'deceive'. The other explanation does involve sesame. 護摩菓子 (ごまかし), is sesame flavoured sweets, in this case referring particularly to an Edo period (1603-1868) cake called 胡麻胴乱 (ごまどうらん). This was hollow inside, so looked considerably much more substantial than reality. Therefore, 'sesame-caking' was outright deception.

The more interesting etymologies have come from http://gogen-allguide.com/.

18 May 2016

Unique Japanese

Japanese is not unique. As a human natural language it shares many similarities with every other language in the world, some more than others. But Japanese is unique, as it appears to have no common relatives, sitting as it does in its own language group. There have been various theories as to where it comes from, but none has been conclusive.

Numbers often a good way of determining the origin of a language as their social importance means that they cannot radically change from one generation to the next, and Japanese numbers show some unique properties.

In modern Japanese the Sino-Japanese numbers imported from China have all but replaced the native numbers, but the latter is clinging on for dear life as generic counting words up to ten.


The older forms were:

Believe it or not, there is a hidden pattern.

Going from one (ひとつ) to two (ふたつ): hito→huta
Three (みつ) to six (むつ): mi→mu
Four (よつ) to eight (やつ): yo→ya
Numbers are doubled by changing the internal vowels.
Five (いつつ) to ten (とお) doesn't follow the rule, unless you take the stem of five to be つ, so it would be tu→to.

The first recorded person to notice this was a chap called 荻生徂徠 (1666-1728), so as far as we know, until that point nobody had realised that such a rule existed.

Finding the rule opens up new questions:
  • Why does changing the vowel lead to doubling?
  • Why don't five and ten follow the rule exactly?
  • Is the same rule seen elsewhere in the language? 
  • Are there any other languages that share the phenomenon?

The pattern is too consistent to ignore, but it is not shared by any other language that Japan has historically had ties with. Mysterious....

Actually, as unique as Japanese may be, the answers to some of these questions are more related to how similar the language is to others than how different it is. Similar phenomena can be seen in all natural languages. But it's still quite amazing that the two times table is hidden in the number system, and that hardly anybody notices.

数字とことばの不思議な話 窪薗晴夫 岩田ジュニア新書 (p.2~)
日本語 金田一 岩波新書 (上、p.51~)

11 May 2016

Fun fun fun

The kanji 楽, fun, easy, was originally written 樂 and is supposed to be derived from a pictograph of some bells hanging from a tree. It was borrowed for its sound for the modern meaning, and it appears in a few other kanji. See if you can guess what these characters mean.

  • 薬 grass + fun
  • 擽 hand + fun
  • 轢 car + fun

薬 drugs, medicine
This is a fairly basic kanji, and it's easy to remember the meaning. The other two characters are quite rare.
薬 くすり drugs, medicine

擽 to tickle
As far as I can tell, the 樂 part is only there as a phonetic guide, but the constituent parts fit the meaning so well I'm surprised this character isn't better known.
擽る くすぐ・る to tickle

轢 to run over
Car fun! Joy riding? Well, one of the words this kanji is used in is  轢死. Car fun death? In the world of kanji, the most fun you can have in your car is to run somebody over. How macabre.
轢く ひ・く to run over

As gruesome as kanji gets, nobody really thinks that running somebody over is a barrel of laughs. The kanji 楽 comes from a pictograph of a tree with a lot of chrysalises, which referred to the saw-tooth oak. The chrysalises survived as the 幺 in the old character, today simplified as four dashes. Later an acorn was added, and this now is the most prominent part 白.

Then the character was borrowed for its sound. This is a very common phenomenon in kanji; the original meaning is completely lost, as its used for a more common homonym. In this case, the word for 'pleasure' or 'comfort'. To get the meaning of saw-tooth oak, tree is added to the left side 櫟, to tell the reader 'this is the tree 樂, I'm not using it to mean "fun" here'.

轢 is using 楽 for its sound, as they had similar pronunciations in Chinese, and, by a convoluted word association: a tree with acorns → acorns → small objects → small stones, it had the meaning of crushing small stones as you drive over them.

4 May 2016


As loofahs are often used for washing in a similar manner as a sponge, many people don't release that in fact it's a vegetable. They can be eaten, but after ripening the fruit can be boiled to remove the flesh, leaving the familiar wiry form. In Japan, the source of loofahs is well known. However, the origins of the Japanese name are rather convoluted.

The fruit first arrived in Japan during the Edo period, and due to it's fibrous nature it was known as 糸瓜: thread gourd. いとうり became shortened to とうり, and this name was current for a while. The modern word is へちま, which is derived from the older form.

In order to explain how, we have to take a bit of a diversion.

In modern Japanese, the kana is ordered in あいうえお order. It's a nice, straightforward way of systematically ordering the characters. However, formerly a more poetic order was favoured.

The いろは poem uses each kana once, and at the same time including some rather esoteric Buddhist philosophy.

The important part is in the first two lines of this poem.

A loofah is とうり, a ' gourd'. is between and in いろは order. means 'space' or 'between', so へちま means between へ and ち. Therefore (?) うり is へちま. This probably started life as a riddle, but for some reason it caught on as the actual name for a loofah, to the point where とうり isn't even a word for it any more. But the original name lives on: へちま is still written in kanji as 糸瓜.

28 April 2016

Longest kanji reading

What's the longest word that can be written with a single kanji?

Chinese limits itself to a single syllable per character, but Japanese has no such limitation.

One, two and three kana-readings are fairly common.
There are not many characters that have four-kana readings, not including any okurigana word endings.
紫  むらさき murasaki [purple]
志す こころざ・す kokoroza-su [to aim to be]
快い こころよ・い kokoroyo-i [agreeable, pleasant]
There are only two five-kana readings in the Joyo kanji set.
志 こころざし kokorozashi [will, aspiration]
承る うけたまわ・る uketamawa-ru [to receive, undertake (humble)]

Outside the joyo kanji, and you find that people have got pretty creative with kanji throughout the years. As you can create new characters with new meanings, and as Japanese permits multiple syllables, one character can represent a whole sentence.

One of the longest 'accepted' readings is for the character 砅 もをかかげてみずをわたる mo o kakagete mizu o wataru or いしをふんでみずをわたる ishi o funde mizu o wataru
Which means: crossing water by stepping on stones.
That's a 12 kana reading.

It's a bit of a cheat, really, because it's more descriptive than an actual word, and the 'reading' can be written 藻を掲げて水を渡る which is easier to understand. In fact, the single character is only rolled out as an example of a very long reading.

The character also has the distinction of actually existing in the Unicode character set. Most characters with very long readings only exist in lists of characters with very long readings.

However, the candidate for the longest reading in the JIS character set, at 13 kana long is:
砉 ほねとかわとがはなれるおと hone to kawa to ga hanareru oto
'The sound of skin and bones separating'

Coincidentally, both 砅 and 砉 appear on the same page in my Kanji dictionary (漢辞海). Somewhat disappointingly, it doesn't list these long 'readings', but it shows that when you get to the outer fringes of kanji, pretty much anything goes.
More here (Japanese):

21 April 2016

Big numbers

Japanese has had the good fortune of inheriting the Chinese number system. The way of building higher numbers is so logical that a learner can pick it up very quickly, and it makes arithmetic much easier for children, because they are already well aware of the concepts of hundreds, tens and units by the time they start school.

Powers of ten, however, are not quite as logical. In fact, the usage of the higher powers are not universally agreed on in the kanji using world. There were 下数, using increments of 10; 中数 using increments of 10,000; and 上数 where each number name was the square of the previous. In Japan 中数 became standard in the 17 century, although apparently remnants of the different systems persist elsewhere.

From 1 to 10,000, each multiple of ten has its own name.
いち 1
じゅう 10
ひゃく 100
せん 1,000
まん 10,000

Then the numbers go up in multiples of 10,000.
おく 100,000,000 (108 a hundred million)
ちょう 1,000,000,000,000 (1012 a trillion)
けい 10,000,000,000,000,000 (1016 ten quadrillion)

That's about the limit as far as useful numbers go, but they do go much higher!
Even from 兆 (portent, omen) and 京 (capital city) characters are being reused. There isn't always a clear explanation as to why a particular kanji was chosen, as they are most likely phonetic borrowings.

がい 1020 The character means boundary or limit.
禾予(as one Kanji) じょ 1024 The character for this is so rare that it isn't even in the basic JIS character set. The original kanji was 秭, which means 'piling up'. When writing this, I found that I could paste the kanji in the editor, but it wouldn't display on the published post.
じょう 1028 Lush, abundant.
こう 1032 A ditch or narrow waterway.
かん 1036 A mountain stream. Two water related kanji in a row. Is there a pattern coming up? Sadly, no.
せい 1040 Usually means 'correct', but has a minor meaning of 'long' which could be why it is used.
さい 1044 Load or carry. Nothing could possibly carry anything this big! It also means write down or print, so is more likely to have the meaning 'something so large it cannot be written'.
ごく 1048 Limit, extreme. The absolute highest number ever! Hang on a minute....

After that, Buddhism was clearly a major influence.

恒河沙 ごうがしゃ 1052 恒 is a kanji transcription of the Sanskrit name for the Ganges, 河 is river and 沙 means 'sand', so the whole thing is 'the number of grains of sand on the River Ganges'. Quite poetic, really.
阿僧祇 あそぎ 1056 From the Sanskrit for 'more than can be counted'
那由他 なゆた 1060 From the Sanskrit for 'an extremely high number'
不可思議 ふかしぎ 1064 不可 is 'impossible', 思議 is 'conjecture' or 'guess'. An unimaginably large number!
無量大数 むりょうたいすう 1068 Originally two words, 無量 is 'unmeasurably huge' and 大数 is 'a big number'. So together they make an gigantastically meganormous number.


 Still quite a bit smaller than a googolplexian, and slightly less than the total number of atoms in the universe.

15 April 2016


Japanese has a relatively small number of sounds, which leads to a large number of homophones.

That's four 'niwa's all in a row.

Written in kanji, the sentence is immediately understandable:
In the garden there are two chickens.

Not quite as long, but, crossing off the first ni and the watoriga gives:
The crocodile is in the garden.

In a similar vein, but with a single kana repeated:
Plums and peaches are both types of peach
Which unfortunately isn't actually true.

Taking things a bit further:

モモ モモまた モモ  モモ色々
A peach is 'momo', thighs are also 'momo', and a hundred is also 'momo'; peaches, thighs and hundreds: various 'momo's

Try saying that with a mouth full of marbles. At least it's true, but perhaps a bit contrived!

Reading 百 as 'momo' is from the old Japanese number system, which will be the subject of a future post.

8 April 2016

Peace, harmony and all things Japanese

The character 和 has the meaning 'peace' or 'harmony' such as in words like 平和 and 和音, but it is also used to mean 'Japanese'. Do the Japanese really think of Japan as being that harmonious? Is 和食 a more peaceful cuisine than 洋食? And anybody who's ever used one will tell you that a 和式 toilet does not instil a feeling of one with the world.

In fact, this use of 和 is similar to the use of 英 for English and the UK. 英 can mean 'hero', but the UK 英国 (hero + country) is no more a heroic nation than France 仏国 (Buddha + country) is a Buddhist one. Chinese uses similar sounding characters for transliterating foreign words. So England approximates to 英吉利, and the first character is then used as a form of abbreviation.

Often Japan is represented by the character 日 from 日本. So, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was 日英同盟, using a single character to represent each country. However, a Japanese English dictionary is usually a 和英辞典.

'Wa' is what China originally called the people of Japan. It was written with the kanji 倭, and there was some controversy over possible hidden meanings. The character consists of 人 (person) with 委 (entrust, give over). 委 provides a phonetic component, but also represents a woman 女 gathering rice or grain 禾, with an extended meaning of 'bent over', as one is when harvesting by hand. In addition, it is very similar to the character 矮, meaning dwarf, and 倭 itself can also mean 'diminutive' when used in names of pygmy animals such as 'pygmy hippo'. It's arguable whether the meaning was originally derogatory, but being ambiguously offensive doesn't really make it any easier to take. So pretty early on, during the 8th century (the Heian period) the homophone 和 supplanted 倭 to mean Japan. 倭 is still used occasionally instead of 和 with no change in meaning, or implication.

The older name for the country, Yamato, became one of the kun readings of 和 and 倭, although it's more usually written as 大和.

Historically, Japan has had as much inner strife as any other country with a reasonably long history, and the use of 和 was not to indicate that Japan was more peaceful. The choice was more to avoid a possible insult, rather than cultural arrogance.

15 March 2016

Back to front

As Japanese is a subject-object-verb order language, and English is subject-verb-object, most analysis of word order between the languages only emphasises the differences between them.

However, let's have a look at a particularly complication example.
Imagine, if you will, a young boy, who has some homework to be getting on with. He'd rather be playing with his friends, but his dad makes him get on with it.
On the way to school the next day, he relates this to a friend.
'I didn't want to be made to do homework by my dad'

How could we say that in Japanese?

That's a very long verb at the end there, so we can break it down into units of meaning.

お父さんに by my dad
宿題を homework (object)
させ made to do
られ (passive) to be
く want
かった (past tense) did
(僕は) I

Reading from the bottom, the word order is exactly reversed.
You may think that splitting a word up in that way is strange, but although word order in Japanese is relatively flexible, the constituent parts of a word have a fixed order. Why have these constructions become fixed, and why in reverse order from English?

Unfortunately I haven't got any answers, but these patterns hidden within languages go to show how similarly human beings think.

日本語の教科書 畠山 雄二

3 March 2016

Special birthdays

There are some birthdays that have special names in Japanese, although the significance is more often word play (or kanji play) than a significant milestone.

還暦 かんれき is 60 years old. 還 means 'to return' and 暦 means 'calendar'. The Chinese system of naming years after twelve animals is well known, but there is a lesser known cycle of ten 'heavenly stems'. The detail of this is for a different post, but the two systems combine together to create a 60 year cycle. Therefore, after 60 years you have lived through a full cycle, and the calendar returns back to the beginning again.

古希 こき is 70 years old. 古 means 'old', but not an old person, and here means 'long ago'. 希 means 'wish' usually, but it can mean 'rare' which it does here. The original way of writing the kanji with this meaning was 稀, but 稀 is now usually abbreviated to 希. The word comes from a poem: 
酒債は尋常行く処に有り 人生七十なり
Everywhere I go, a bar tab is common thing for there to be; a man who lives to 70 is a rare thing since long ago.
Basically, the man travels a lot and just as sure as he'll run up a debt in a pub, he'll not run into a man that's over 70.

喜寿 きじゅ is 77. 寿 means '(long) life'. 喜 means 'delight', and in Japan has an abbreviate form that looks like 七十七 (7, 10 and 7: 77) arranged as one character.

傘寿 さんじゅ is 80. 傘 umbrella may seem like a strange choice, but the character can be abbreviated to 仐, which is 八 (8) and 十 (10), hence 80.

米寿 べいじゅ is 88. Why 米, rice? Again it's the character's form. The top two dashes form an inverted 八, the cross is 十 and the bottom two strokes form a second 八. 88!

卒寿 is 90. そつじゅ It's a bit late for graduating, but 卒 (most commonly seen in 卒業) can be abbreviated to 卆, which is 九 (9) and 十 (10).

白寿 はくじゅ is 99. 白, white, isn't abbreviated to anything resembling kanji numbers. If 百 is 100 and 一 is 1, removing 1 from 100 leaves 99; removing 一 from 百 leaves 白. Therefore, 白 means 99. Clearly.

There are special names for other ages as well, but these are the most common ones. One thing to remember is that the ages are normally based on the old method of counting years: a new-born baby is one at birth, and you add a year at the new year. So you're actually 米寿 at 87.