Kanji Clinic #76, The Japan Times, December 20, 2005
"Discover the ancient roots of curious kanji compounds"

Developing the ability to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar kanji compound words is one of the biggest challenges facing anyone who aspires to literacy in Japanese. Because each compound word (jukugo) is made up of kanji that convey distinct meanings, the meaning of the resulting word is often self-explanatory. For example, take the following everyday jukugo seen on signs on buildings around your local neighborhood: (shika, literally tooth department) is a dentist; (yakkyoku, lit. medicine bureau) is a drugstore; and e@ (biyouin, lit. beautiful appearance institute) is a beauty salon.

A remarkably high percentage of jukugo like these remain as semantically transparent today as they were when they were first created in ancient China (or, in some cases, in Japan). The composition of other commonly used jukugo, however, such as those that have their roots in features of ancient life now extinct, can be puzzling.

For example, why does the jukugo at your local [ (bunbouguya, lit. writing chamber implements store, or gstationersh) include the kanji for gchamberh? The answer lies in the fact that the educated elite in ancient China spent much of their time cloistered in small chambers within temples and palaces. [were the implements () they used for writing () in those chambers ([). The last kanji in this jukugo, , means gstore.h

A common, informal way for a Japanese husband to refer to his wife is [ (nyoubou, woman [in my] chamber), even though today he is likely to reside with her in a 2LDK. And take a look at the remote control on your Japanese heating/air conditioning unit, where you will encounter the compound words g[ (danbou, warm chamber, or gheaterh) and [ (reibou, cool chamber, or gair conditionerh).

The common term in Japanese for gtoolh is (dougu, roadway implement), but this kanji combo originally had nothing to do with road-building. In addition to representing regular roads used for transportation, the first character in has the ethereal meaning gway of the Buddha.h originally referred to the implements used in performing Buddhist ceremonies and later took on the broader meaning we know today.

Another potential head-scratcher is the jukugo for gprostitution,h t (baishun, sell spring). Unless, that is, you know that t also means gEros.h This secondary meaning can be traced back to ancient mating festivals in China and Japan held in mid-spring, and also explains the composition of the Japanese word for gpuberty,h vt (shishunki, thinking about Eros period). Turns out teenagers with glazed-over eyes are lost in thought not about spring but about the opposite sex.


Some Japanese university students leave their family homes for the duration of their studies, moving into temporary living quarters calledh (geshuku, lowly lodge). h originally referred to cheap inns or boardinghouses where travelers, itinerant workers, and students slept together in cramped rooms. Today, students who set off for geshuku life expect their parents to fork out on hefty rents for posh single-occupancy apartments. That h is still used to describe their digs is an irony that probably escapes most students.

Although itfs still common for small plots of land to be worked by gweekendh rice farmers, the number of Japanese families involved in farming full-time has dramatically dwindled. One Japanese word for gfarmerh is S (hyakushou, 100 surnames). It reflects a time when just about everyone (in other words, gthe massesh) was involved in arduous agricultural work. S has a slightly pejorative ring to it, similar to gpeasanth in English-- with _ (nouka, agricultural professional) being the more respectful term.

Finally, pressing the button marked (rusu, gaway from home/away from the phoneh) on the home or cell phone allows the user to listen to messages. The two kanji comprising mean gstayh () and gdefendh (). Why is a character meaning gstayh part of a jukugo meaning gawayh? originally meant to stay behind and defend the castle while onefs lord was absent, but was later extended to mean gthe lordfs absence from the castle.h Eventually, evolved to refer to the absence of anyone from the home.

The likes of lords, peasants, and spring mating festivals have long since disappeared from Japanese culture, but their legacy lives on in many of the kanji compound words we use today. When you encounter a jukugo whose composition you canft readily grasp, I recommend turning to the gKanji Learnerfs Dictionaryh (Kenkyusha). Editor Jack Halpern has done considerable digging into the ancient East Asian roots of jukugo, and his concise explanations make many puzzling compound words a snap to remember.

Read a review of Halpern's dictionary here.

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