Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links






Column #22 Kanji Clinic , The Japan Times, June 28, 2002
"It never rains, but it pours, so why not go with the flow?"

Japan experiences some rainy days in each of its four seasons, but daily life here becomes particularly affected by the wet stuff twice a year: in late summer during the typhoon (‘ä•—, "towering wind" taifuu) season-- when violent downpours and strong winds plague the archipelago-- and during the rainy season (”~‰J, "plum rain," pronounced tsuyu or baiu), which generally begins in early June and lasts an average of 40 days.

You have probably noticed recently--with ”~‰J in full swing--that most Japanese people like to talk about the rain. Two decades ago, when I first came here, I was amazed at the passion with which my neighbors, coworkers, and students discussed daily rain forecasts.

The language of a nation obsessed with rain naturally possesses a rich vocabulary for describing it. First, there are the charming (but initially mystifying to non-Japanese people) onomatopoeic representations of the various sounds of rainfall: zaa-zaa (one of the ways to say "raining cats and dogs"), para-para ("pitter-patter"), and potsu-potsu ("a sprinkling sound"), for example.

The Japanese language is also saturated with rain-related kanji compounds. Mark Spahn and Wolfgang Hadamitzky's "The Kanji Dictionary" (Tuttle, 1996) lists 103 compounds containing the symbol ‰J (rain, pronounced u, ame, ama-, -dare, -gure, and -same) and a search of an online Japanese dictionary revealed nearly double that number.

Besides "plum rain," the dictionary also lists ÷‰J (cherry-blossom rain, sakura-ame), —ΉJ (green-leaves-in-spring rain, ryoku-u), and ”ž‰J (wheat rain, baku-u). You can also find ‰A‰J (cloudy-skies rain, in'u), as opposed to Æ ‚è‰J(sunny-skies rain, teriame). ‘º‰J (literally, "village rain," murasame) is a passing shower, and Ž„‰J ("private rain," watakushiame) is rain that falls on a small, limited area (someone's parade, perhaps?)

On the seasonal front, there is t‰J (spring rain, harusame), H‰J (autumn rain, akisame), ŒÜŒŽ‰J(early-summer rain, samidare), and ‰Žž‰J (hatsushigure, the first winter rain).

Want to describe a soaking downpour? You could make do with the mundane compound word ‘å‰J (big rain, ooame) but why not be adventurous and try “S–C ‰J (bullet rain, teppou-ame), ‹‰J (magnificent rain, gou'u), –\‰J (violent rain, bou'u), or perhaps ”ò‰J (flying rain, hi'u)? Light precipitation forecast in today's weather report? In that case you might take a romantic walk--under a shared umbrella--through the –¶‰J(misty rain, kirisame), (¬‰Jsmall rain, kosame), or ‰Œ‰J (smoke-like rain, en'u).

Singin' in the Šì‰J (happy rain, ki'u), Œb‰J (blessed rain, kei'u), or Ž ‰J (nourishing rain, ji'u) might be pleasurable. I have no particular desire, though, to witness ‰ö‰J (strange rain, kai'u), which one kanji-to-English dictionary defines as "rainfall of a strange, dark color"--you might want to ask a Japanese friend or student to explain what that's all about!

Many of the rain-related compounds appearing in today's column are most likely to show up in written format. When you interject them into everyday conversation, you may be met by blank looks, until you use your finger to draw the characters on a palm (yours, or theirs) by way of explanation. That should get the conversational ball rolling. Come on, join the national June/July pastime: Let's talk rain!

QUIZ

Here's a Rainy Day Word Quiz to hone your kanji skills. Match each of the following kanji compounds (followed by a key word for each of the comprising characters) with its English meaning and Japanese pronunciation. Example: ‰J ‹ï (rain/tool). Answer: "rainwear," amagu.@

1. ‰Jõ‚Ý(rain/dye)
2. ‰¡‰J(sideways/rain)
3. ‰Jh‚è(rain/lodge)
4. ˆê‰J(one/rain)
5. —܉J(tears/rain)
6. ‰JŒË(rain/door)
7. ‰J—±(rain/granule)
8. ‰J³‚¯(rain/accept)
9. –Ò‰J(fierce/rain)
10. ‰õ‰J(pleasant/rain)

a."rain shutter," amado
b."refreshing rain," kai'u
c."downpour," mouame
d."a driving rain," yokoame
e. "a shower," hitoame
f."rain stains," amajimi
g."rain gutter," amauke
h."taking shelter from the rain," amayadori
i."raindrops," amatsubu
j."rain falling at a time of sorrow," namida-ame

Answers: 1.f 2.d 3.h 4.e 5.j 6.a 7.i 8.g 9.c 10.b

Have you read Reader Response for May-June?