Column #106 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, November 17, 2010
"Autumn is the perfect season to view leaf-kanji"


A mosaic carpet of autumn foliage tinted in shades of green, yellow, orange, and red is currently rolling southward through the archipelago of Japan. gt (kouyou, crimson/leaves), the Japanese word for gautumn leaves,h only hints at the splendor of this multi-hued natural phenomenon.

Beeches, birches, persimmons, larches, and ginkgos all produce beautiful colors, but the King of Kouyou, gthe tree to see,h is the Japanese maple (momiji; like kouyou, it is written with the kanji compound gt). The crimson, lacy-leafed momiji-- whether sunlit or artificially illuminated at night-- is so impressive that the Japanese refer to autumn leaf-viewing in general as momijigari (gt, Japanese maple/hunting).

The second kanji in gt, t (ha, YOU), has a core meaning of gleaf.h Mastering the shape of t is a snap if you divide it into its three top-to-bottom components-- (plant-life), (generation), and (tree)--and memorize the phrase, gLeaves are successive generations of plant-life on a tree.h (Thirty years was the norm for a generation in ancient China, which explains why you can see three gtensh \ in ).

The Japanese word for leaf is ghah (e.g., daikon no ha, 卪̗t, Japanese radish leaf; and hacha, t, leaf tea), but ghappah (t) is also used colloquially with the same meaning. Both ha and YOU (the latter being the gon,h or Chinese-derived pronunciation, of t) are used in a variety of compound words dealing with leaves: ot (futaba, identical pair/leaf) means gsprouth; tΑf (youryokuso, leaf/green/element), gchlorophyllh; and t (hamaki, leaf/roll), as you may have surmised... gcigar.h

t (wakaba, young/leaf) refers not only to new leaf growth but to a gbeginnerh (reminiscent of the English expression ggreen,h e.g., a ggreen rookieh). New drivers in Japan are required to display green-and-yellow t}[N(wakabamaaku, young/leaf/marks) on their cars for one year after obtaining their licenses as a warning of their inexperience, while drivers aged 75 and older must exhibit an orange-and-yellow teardrop-shaped version sometimes disparagingly referred to as a ͗t}[N(karehamaaku, withered/leaf/mark, gdead leaf markh).

Aside from leaves, t also represents botanical gbladesh (̗t, kusanoha, grass/leaf, blades of grass) and gneedlesh (t, matsuba, pine/leaf, pine needles). The Japanese word for gcrutchesh is t (matsubazue, pine needle/cane), because the sides of a crutch forking from the bottom resemble a split cluster of two pine needles.

t also figures in a number of family and place names in Japan. Chiba Prefecture is t (Chibaken, 1,000/leaves/prefecture), and although you wonft find a plethora of foliage there these days, Tokyo electronics mecca Akihabara translates to gAutumn Leaf Fieldh (Ht). (Note: gHt, akiha/akibah may not be used as a substitute for ggt, kouyou,h the correct Japanese term for gautumn leavesh).

Beyond the world of botany, t also represents ganatomical lobes,h (e.g., ̗t, kanyou, liver/lobe) and gsheets of paper,h like the English gloose leafh (e.g., Ot, zenyou, before/paper, gthe previous pageh). And t also refers to a gfragmenth or gpiece,h which explains the puzzling construction of the Japanese kanji compound t (kotoba, meaning gwordh): A word is a gspeech () fragment (t).h

In a similar vein, gfragments (t) of writing ()h are gpostcardsh (t, hagaki). Hisoka Maejima coined this kanji compound when he established the modern Japanese postal service in the 1870s. Some kanji buffs speculate that Maejima chose t over [ (also pronounced ghah and meaning gfragmenth) in a nod to the Tarajo holly tree (tarayou, t, also known as hagakinoki, nKL̖, gthe postcard treeh), whose leaves were used for written communication in ancient India because letters scratched on their surface turn black.

A few t (ochiba, drop/leaf, gfalling leavesh) floating through the chilly air signal a waning of autumn, and a soggy mass of brown Gꗎt (nureochiba, soak/drop/leaf, wet fallen leaves) on the pavement spells the bitter end to this glorious season.

A free pdf of the 12-lesson Nihongo Journal "Kanji Breakthrough" series is now available from KanjiClinic.com. Details are here.

QUIZ
Match each of the following kanji compounds containing t with its meaning and pronunciation.

1. jt (needle/leaf/tree)@
2. t (capital/leaf)@
3. t (drop/leaf/tree)@
4. t (leaf/handle)@
5. t (one/leaf)
6. t (leaf/thing)@
7. }t (branches/leaves)
8. t (push/leaf)

a. foliage plant (hamono)
b. stem (youhei)
c.pressed leaf (oshiba)
d. Tokyo-Chiba (Keiyou)
e. peripheral issue/unimportant details (shiyou)
f. conifer (shinyouju)
g.deciduous tree (rakuyouju)
h. a page (ichiyou)

Answers: 1.f 2.d 3.g 4.b 5.h 6.a 7.e 8.c

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