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Column #32 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, February 3, 2003
"Helping hands? Kanji roots can cause confusion"

Before the advent of steam power and electricity, work was done, for the most part, by hand. It is therefore no surprise that the characters the Chinese began to produce some 4,000 years ago contain various, and potentially confusing, representations of the concept "hand."

One of the first characters learned by students of Japanese is the four-stroke pictograph (te, hand), as well as its three-stroke variant, , which can be found in a number of often-used characters including (mo-tsu, hold), (na-geru, throw), (hara-u, pay), and (mane-ku, invite).

When students consult sources on the origins of Sino-Japanese characters, however, they soon discover that there are other kanji components meaning "hand." The character F (TOMO, friend), for example, pictures two hands, and , joined together in mutual support. (u-keru, accept) also depicts two hands cooperating: The top hand, , is passing a baton-like item down to , the bottom hand. Adding another hand, , to this scene results in (sazu-keru, impart), the opposite of . is found in the compound (jugyou, lesson), where knowledge is imparted.

is a component in other characters such as (SAI, vegetable): A hand plucks edible vegetation from a (ki, tree) while the radical for "grass" sits overhead. Remove the grass, add another hand to the left, and you have (to-ru, pick).

The second character in the compound 푈 (sensou, war), (SOU, struggle), is also made from two components meaning "hand," but these two are anything but amicable: N is reaching down to , and the two are vying for a spear-like weapon. You can also find in (write) which includes a hand gripping a calligraphy brush.

is a component interpreted by some scholars to mean "20 legs," and by others as "two hands"--kanji experts often quibble or disagree entirely about what the creators of particular kanji had in mind. ` (katachi, shape) might depict two hands, holding a comb, attempting to give shape to the three strands of hair on the right. Y (KEI, punish) seems to present a more grisly tableau: The two hands on the left hold aloft a stick for beating a criminal, with a sword for decapitation on the right.

Variations in the written form of kanji components having the same meaning-- especially "hand"--can lead to confusion when a learner tries to re-create from memory the exact shapes of the 1,945 general-use characters: "Hmmm, now which version of hand was it plucking those vegetables...?"

Another unfortunate hitch in using the origins of characters as a guideline for remembering their shapes and meanings is the fact that, over the centuries, people have simplified and otherwise tampered with the writing of kanji. Such changes often make it impossible to utilize the logic behind the original construction of a character as a memory aid for recalling its modern version.

Foerster and Tamura's "Kanji ABC" (Tuttle) and James Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji I" (Japan Publications Trading Company) remedy this problem by providing a different English name for each and every one of the hundreds of components that make up Japan's general-use characters. Users of these books are asked to employ substitute names such as the following for "hand": "by one's side" , "claw" , "tied together" N, "broom" , and "flexible" . They can then internalize a vivid story that helps cement a kanji's components together to its core English meaning.

Scholarly works on the origins of kanji provide insights into nuances of individual characters. By all means, do become a kanji roots detective at some point in your kanji career. First, however, I recommend that you learn to write the general-use characters from memory by taking a streamlined component analysis story approach, as outlined above.

Reviews of "Kanji ABC" and "Remembering the Kanji I" may be found on this site at Book Reviews.

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