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Kanji Clinic #71, The Japan Times, May 26, 2005

"De Roo's kanji roads are bustling with human activity"

One of the most intriguing aspects of Sino-Japanese characters is the way in which their components can be pieced together to provide glimpses into the world inhabited several millennia ago by their Chinese creators.

The late Joseph R. De Roo, kanji detective extraordinaire, spent years investigating ancient Chinese history, religion, politics, architecture, and geography, uncovering links that help explain the logic behind kanji construction. De Roo realized from his own early struggles with written Japanese that kanji textbooks designed for foreign adults failed to answer the question many learners so frequently ask: gWhy is this character constructed this way?h De Roo succeeded in producing a kanji learning tool that satisfied their curiosity and enabled them to get on with the task at hand.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of De Roo's g2001 Kanjih (Bonjinsha). Today, letfs take a road trip with De Roo, looking at explanations in his book for some of the kanji containing the component meaning groad, ."

The people in De Roo's kanji world, including those encountered along its roads, come from all walks of life. Some are simply going about their daily work. In (quick, haya-i), for example, a farmer moves quickly down the groad ,h rushing towards market with a gbundle h on his back. In x (slow, oso-i), a shepherd (a gperson h with gsheep rh) proceeds down the road at a far slower pace, held back by his unwieldy charges. A woodcutter on the road in (near, chika-i), heads out with his gaxe ҁh for a day of chopping in the woods near town.

A shaman performs a ritual in the road in (chase, TAI). He holds a gbranch |h in his ghand h and is using it to sprinkle gwater h to chase away evil spirits. The gtraveling salesman h on the road in K (be fit for, TEKI) is an gold Áh hand at gbusiness .h He knows the local district well, and is thus fit to handle any situation.

gGovernment officials , h in ancient China (note their big heads and bellies, suggesting outsized egos and salaries that afforded them plenty to eat) were often required to travel the roads to perform their professional duties. The government official on the highway in (dispatch, KEN) has been dispatched to a neighboring district on an important mission, and has gifts hidden ginside h his pocket, under gcover __.h The official in (pursue, o-u) has a more strenuous assignment: He is on the road pursuing an escaped criminal. Perhaps his target is the gfugitive h seen on the road in (evade, sake-ru): A gperson h whose gmouth h utters gbitter hh words, cursing his fate, as he tries to evade the law.

Unlike common folk, rich people in ancient China did not generally travel by putting one foot in front of the other: They had themselves carried in palanquins. You can see an overhead view of their transport in the kanji , meaning gvehicleh: Two men, one at the top and one at the bottom, shoulder the box in the middle using the pole running vertically through the character. The kanji A (group, REN) reflects the fact that palanquins traveled in groups for safety: It seems their occupants feared encountering unsavory characters like the fugitive above.

Also seen along the highways of the day were gcovered h gvehicles ԁh used by the garmy Rh to transport weapons and other accessories. The kanji meaning gconvey,h ^ (hako-bu) pictures an army making its way down the road.

In those days, when news traveled slowly, rich and poor alike feared running out of food on long journeys. One might, for example, unexpectedly encounter an area where gdrought h (gvegetation h gbent ȁh by gthe sun h) had destroyed the crops. Such is the scenario pictured in (encounter difficulty, a-u), while (be in doubt, mayo-u) features grice āh (or, rather, a potential lack thereof) on the road.

De Roo's entertaining stories diverge radically at times from scholarly tomes on kanji etymology, but they are firmly rooted in the activities and beliefs of people in ancient China. If your kanji studies seem to be stalled of late, a bit of time travel with De Roo-- back to the roads, fields, homes, markets, and battlefields of ancient China-- might be just what you need to get them rolling again.

Read a review of "2001 Kanji," including information on how to order it.




In (quick, haya-i), a farmer moves quickly down the groad ,h rushing towards market with a gbundle h on his back.

In x (slow, oso-i), a shepherd (a gperson h with gsheep rh) proceeds down the road at a far slower pace, held back by his unwieldy charges.

A woodcutter on the road in (near, chika-i), heads out with his gaxe ҁh for a day of chopping in the woods near town.

A shaman performs a ritual in the road in (chase, TAI). He holds a gbranch |h in his ghand h and is using it to sprinkle gwater h to chase away evil spirits.

The gtraveling salesman h on the road in K (be fit for, TEKI) is an gold Áh hand at gbusiness .h He knows the local district well, and is thus fit to handle any situation.

The "government official on the highway in (dispatch, KEN) has been dispatched to a neighboring district on an important mission, and has gifts hidden ginside h his pocket, under gcover __.h

The "government official " in (pursue, o-u) has a more strenuous assignment: He is on the road pursuing an escaped criminal. Perhaps his target is the gfugitive h seen on the road in (evade, sake-ru): A gperson h whose gmouth h utters gbitter hh words, cursing his fate, as he tries to evade the law.

The kanji A (group, REN) reflects the fact that "palanquins " traveled in groups for safety.

gCovered h gvehicles ԁh were used by the garmy Rh to transport weapons and other accessories. The kanji meaning gconvey,h ^ (hako-bu) pictures an army making its way down the road.

In those days, when news traveled slowly, rich and poor alike feared running out of food on long journeys. One might, for example, unexpectedly encounter an area where gdrought h (gvegetation h gbent ȁh by gthe sun h) had destroyed the crops. Such is the scenario pictured in (encounter difficulty, a-u).

And (be in doubt, mayo-u) features grice āh (or, rather, a potential lack thereof) on the road.

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