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Column #10 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, October 19, 2001
"Halpern's vista offers a panoramic view of kanji meanings"

Now that the fall semester of the Japanese school year has begun, my eldest child, a first-grader in elementary school, is officially a kanji learner.

He was pleased to discover that the second character in our family name, 野口 (Noguchi) appears in the introductory kanji lesson in his kokugo ("national language," i.e. "Japanese") textbook; the graphically simple 口 (kuchi, guchi) means "mouth" or "mouthlike opening," ("gate," for example). Our name's initial character, 野, (no, "field") is more challenging and will not be presented to "Fieldgate-kun" until he reaches second grade.

My own introduction to 野 came years before I married and changed my name. Early in my Japanese studies, I had memorized 野 as part of the compound word 野菜 (yasai, "vegetables"). My textbook offered no illumination on the meaning of 野 beyond the two words "field" and "plain." Later, however, I encountered this versatile character in other compound words: 野党 (yatoo, "opposition party"), and 野蛮 (yaban, "uncivilized"), for example.

One fascinating aspect of Sino-Japanese characters is their astounding ability to be easily linked together to form compound words (jukugo). A given character can have several distinct meanings, as well as a variety of nuances. Each sense of a particular character, often subtle in difference but dramatic in importance, serves as a unique building block for producing compounds. Developing our capacity to grasp the ways in which characters are conjoined to create tens upon tens of thousands of compound words, each composed of two or more kanji, is a major challenge, but an extremely worthwhile one.

Fortunately, we have a savior in lexicographer Jack Halpern, editor in chief of Kenkyusha's "New Japanese-English Character Dictionary" and whose abridged version is Kodansha's highly portable, beginner-friendly "Kanji Learner's Dictionary." Like other comprehensive kanji dictionaries, Halpern's is an effective tool for looking up unfamiliar characters and compound words. Its primary aim, though, is to efficiently explain the differences in the intricate meanings and nuances of characters.

Instead of lumping all compounds of a single kanji together, as other dictionaries do, Halpern focuses in turn on each of the character's various meanings. These are then illustrated with sample compounds to provide us with a full panoramic view of the character. Here are some of the compounds he selects to illustrate each meaning of 野:

(1) uncultivated field, wilderness 平野 (heiya, "plains"), 野菜 (yasai, "vegetables")

(2) sphere of action 分野 (bunya, "sphere"), 視野 (shiya, "field of vision")

(3) baseball field 野球 (yakyuu, "baseball"), 内野 (naiya, "infield")

(4) undomesticated, vulgar, unrefined 野生 (yasei, "wild nature"), 野蛮な (yaban, "uncivilized")

(5) outside the government 野党 (yatoo, "the opposition party")

(6) audacious 野望 (yaboo, "ambition/treason")

After setting out the compounds, Halpern provides examples of how the character can also function independently.

Halpern's remarkable kanji vista also furnishes a list of synonyms (characters with nearly the same sense) for many of the individual meanings of characters. For example, here is the synonym list for one aspect of 野, "vulgar and unrefined":

粗 coarse; 里 rural; 俗 vulgar; 卑 mean; 蛮 barbaric

An appendix to the dictionary gathers together all the synonym groups appearing under individual entries. By browsing through this thesauruslike supplement, you can gain insight into semantic relationships among characters.

Finally, Halpern has one additional feature that helps us gaijin learners to deal with the myriad meanings of characters: He provides one keyword (sometimes two) for each character. His keyword for 野, for example, is "field." This keyword conveys the symbol's core meaning, or essence, in a single, easy to memorize "hook."

When my 6-year old recently discovered that the first kanji in his surname represented the somewhat uninspiring "field," his face fell. We turned to Halpern, however, and Sean's countenance brightened upon learning that 野 is also part of 野球 (yakyuu, "baseball,") and 野生動物 (yaseidoobutsu, "wild animals"): "That's awesome, Mom!" My hope is that as his kanji study progresses, the two of us can continue to explore together the exciting and rich world of kanji meanings.

Before you plunk down your hard-earned cash for a kanji dictionary, why not read more about them ?