Column #90 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, April 15, 2008
"Simple kanji can prove to be a 'mouthful'"
I first encountered the kanji 口 (kuchi, “mouth”) early in my Japanese studies, nearly three decades ago. “This one is just a square; it’ll be a breeze to master,” I surmised, scrawling it out for the first time. My subsequent marriage to a Japanese man with the surname 野口 (Noguchi, field-gate) led me to a lifelong association with 口, and I have discovered there is a great deal more to this unassuming kanji than first meets the eye.
When it was first created several millennia ago, before evolving into its current shape, 口 did in fact resemble a human mouth. Although it may appear to be comprised of four strokes, the top and right-hand side of 口 are written with one stroke, for a total of three. In print, 口 resembles an equilateral box, but the handwritten version, featuring sides that bow in a bit at the bottom and a slightly rounded upper right-hand corner, is surprisingly difficult to reproduce. Even my husband-- who has, of course, been writing his name since childhood-- struggles to consistently write a perfectly balanced 口.
Besides its core meaning of “mouth,” 口 possesses a variety of related nuances, each of which serves as a building block for producing compound words (jukugo). As “mouth,” 口 comprises such commonly used jukugo as 一口 (hitokuchi, one-mouth, a mouthful), 口臭 (koushuu, mouth-stink, bad breath), 虎口 (kokou, tiger-mouth, dangerous situation),辛口 (karakuchi, spicy-mouth, spicy), and 甘口 (amakuchi, sweet-mouth, mild flavor). Look for 辛口 and 甘口 wherever the ubiquitous Japanese-style curry is sold.
口 can also mean “number of people” (i.e., mouths to feed), as in 人口 (jinkou, people-mouths, population).
With its related meaning of “talk,” 口 is utilized in compounds like 無口 (mukuchi, no-talk, taciturn), 口説く (kudo-ku, talk-persuade, seduce), 悪口 (waruguchi, bad-talk, slander), and 口止料 (kuchidomeryou, talk-stop-fee, hush money). 異口同音 (ikudouon, different-talk-same-sound) is a pithy four-character jukugo meaning “unanimous.”
Finally, 口 represents a variety of mouth-like openings, including “door” (入口, iriguchi, enter-door, entrance; 非常口, hijouguchi, not-the usual-door, emergency exit), “mouth of a river” (河口, kakou, river-mouth, estuary), and “hole” (火口, kakou, fire-hole, volcano crater; 蛇口, jaguchi, snake-hole, faucet).
Aside from existing as a kanji in its own right, 口 serves as a component in hundreds of characters related to talking, eating, and other actions involving the mouth. 味 (aji, taste) is comprised of 口 (mouth) and 未 (“incomplete,” here suggesting the idea of lingering, thus “something good lingering in the mouth”). An analysis of 問 (to-u, ask) reveals someone using their mouth (口) to make an inquiry at a gate (門). 吐 (ha-ku, vomit) pictures filth (土; literally, “dirt”) pouring forth out of a mouth. 口 added to 鳥 (bird) renders 鳴 (MEI), meaning the cry of birds, other animals, and insects. The cry a dog makes has a kanji all its own: 吠 (ho-eru, bark), comprised of Rover (犬, dog) and his mouth. Other mouth-component kanji include 吸 (su-u, breathe in), 舌 (shita, tongue), 咳 (seki, cough), 呼 (yo-bu, call), and 呪 (noro-u, cast a spell).
As a kanji enthusiast and columnist, I am sometimes asked to do the impossible: name my favorite character. Because I learned the shape and meaning of the 1,945 general-use kanji by linking their components together in vivid stories, some of my best kanji friends happen to be graphically complex characters. But the unadorned, minimalist beauty of the workhorse kanji 口 puts it near the top of my list.
Try this alone or compete with a friend. You will need a pencil and paper. Draw the kanji for 口 (“mouth”) and add only two strokes to make as many new kanji as possible. Twenty-eight possible answers, along with one pronunciation and meaning, are listed below according to grade level. Examples: 田 石
Grade 1: 田 (ta, rice field) /石 (ishi, stone)/右 (migi, right) /四 (SHI, four)/ 目 (me, eye)/ 白 (shiro, white)
Grade 2: 兄 (ani, older brother)/古 (furu-i, old)/台 (DAI, platform)
Grade 3: 号 (GOU, number)/申 (mou-su, say)/由 (YU, reason)
Grade 4:加 (kuwa-eru, add)/史 (SHI, history)/司 (SHI, administer)
Grade 5: 可 (KA, can)/旧 (KYUU, former)/句 (KU, phrase)
General-use: 甲 (koora, shell)/囚 (SHUU, prisoner)/召 (me-su, partake)/占 (urana-u, divine)
Others: 叩 (tata-ku, strike)/叶 (kana-eru, grant)/旦 (TAN, dawn)/叮 (TEI, courtesy)/叱 (shika-ru, scold)/只 (tada, only)