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:

1 comment: