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.

1 comment:

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