Kanji Clinic #112, The Japan Times, November 28, 2011
"Some kanji can take a lifetime to fully appreciate"


I made my first kanji connection with the graphically unassuming character 生 in the early days of introductory Japanese class, when I stumbled through a self-introduction using the standard 「私は学生です」(Watashi wa gakusei desu. I am a student.). My instructor explained that one meaning for 生 was “scholar”: I was a 学生 (gakusei, study/scholar, “student”) and she was a 先生 (sensei, ahead/scholar, “teacher,” i.e., one who has studied ahead of others).

Today, after nearly three decades of kanji study, I find 生 to be one of the most intriguing of Japan’s 2,136 general-use characters. With an estimated 200 different pronunciations--more than any other kanji--and dozens of different meanings and nuances, there is always something new to discover about 生.

One of the most basic meanings of 生 is “life,” as expressed in the compound words 人生 (jinsei, person/life, human life) and 一生 (isshou, one/life, lifetime). 生 refers to non-human life, as well: 生物 (seibutsu, life/thing) means “organism” and 生態 (seitai, life/condition) is “ecology.” Associated meanings are “livelihood” (e.g., 生活, seikatsu, life/activity, “existence”) and “health” (厚生, kousei, enrich/health, “health promotion”).

生 also represents “birth,” as I realized when I celebrated my first birthday in Japan and received 誕生日(tanjoubi, be born/birth/day, birthday) cards. New Japanese acquaintances often asked where I was born, and I became proficient with the reply: 「ノースカロライナ州で生まれました」(Noosukaroraina shuu de umaremashita. I was born in North Carolina.). I also learned that I should write my full date of birth on application forms that asked for 生年月日 (seinengappi, birth/year/month/day).

The experience of giving birth, 10 years after coming to this country, enabled me to suss out the difference between 生 and 産, both of which can be pronounced “u-mu,” revolve semantically around “birth,” and are visually similar (note the component 生 at the bottom of 産). 産 is the kanji that means “give birth,” so when my mother-in-law saw me write 「男の子を生んだ」 on a birth announcement, she kindly corrected the message to read 「男の子を産んだ」(Otoko no ko o unda. I gave birth to a baby boy.).

産, incidentally, can be applied to the production of a wide variety of things, not just babies, and can be seen written on packages in supermarkets to indicate the place of origin (e.g., on bananas, フィリピン産, Firipin san, product of the Philippines).

Two native habits I enthusiastically embraced from the time I first set foot on this island nation were eating fresh, raw fish (生魚, namazakana, raw/fish) and downing frosty mugs of draft beer (生ビール, namabiiru). 生, when pronounced “nama,” means uncooked, fresh, unbottled, or crude. 生演奏 (namaensou) is a “live performance,” but the foreign loanword ライブ (raibu, live) is now more often used. “Fresh” (impudent) children are 生意気 (namaiki, fresh/mind), as I have learned over the years from listening to my Japanese husband scold our offspring when they back-talked.

Because the origin of 生 lies in an ancient Chinese pictograph of a growing plant, it can also, unsurprisingly, mean “grow” (e.g., 実生, mishou, seed/grow, seedling) as well as “bear fruit.” When my son’s first-grade classroom mini-tomato growing project landed on our veranda at the end of the school year, he faithfully watered it and rejoiced, screaming 「生った!」(Natta! It bore fruit!), at the first sight of red on the vine.

When my sons sprouted their baby teeth, I learned that the verb used to describe this process is 生える (ha-eru, 歯が生る, ha ga haeru, 歯 meaning tooth). And when my dear husband once made an ill-fated effort to grow a mustache, 生 made yet another appearance in my life: 髭を生やす (hige o ha-yasu) means to grow a beard or mustache, 髭 meaning facial hair.

My latest brush with 生 came recently, when my now-teenage son arrived home spouting the expletive chikushou! There is nothing like hearing your own child use a word to inspire full investigation of it: While aware that chikushou!was often translated into English as “Damn!” I never knew the kanji comprising it. Turns out, chikushou is written 畜生 (livestock/living thing, beast). From my perspective, “beast” is considerably less offensive than some of the four-letter words teenagers regularly use in my native United States, so I will not be doing battle with 畜生.

I look forward to future encounters with 生 in the language of my adopted land, and am indebted to Jack Halpern’s New Japanese-English Character Dictionary for efficiently laying out the differences in the intricate meanings and nuances of multi-faceted kanji such as 生. Learn about this valuable kanji learning tool if you too plan to cultivate a lifelong friendship with kanji.

QUIZ
Match each of the following kanji compound words containing 生 with its English meaning and Japanese pronunciation below.
1) 芝生 (turf/grow)
2) 抗生物質 (resist/life/thing/substance)
3) 生け花(keep alive/flowers)
4) 生まれ付き (born/attached)
5) 野生 (undomesticated/life)
6) 生物 (uncooked/thing)

a.Japanese flower arranging (ikebana)
b. wild (yasei)
c. antibiotic (kouseibusshitsu)
d. perishables (namamono)
e. lawn (shibafu)
f. one’s nature (umaretsuki)

Answers: 1.e 2.c 3.a 4.f 5.b 6.d


New to KanjiClinic.com? Start reading archived columns here. (Column #1, "Don't despair--you can put an end to kanji chaos")

Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links