Feeling of Kanji Character

November 18, 2011 Juju Kurihara 0 Comments

This morning I was reading the column in Asahi online paper.  Today he talked about kanji, which caught my attention.  I always sympathize for Japanese learners who are forced to memorize kanji. Many often ask me how many kanji they actually have to know to read signs, menus or newspapers.

hieroglyphic japHm, it is said that some 50,000 kanji exist. However, many kanji are not necessarily used in daily life. The Japanese Ministry of Education designated 1,945 characters as Jouyou Kanji (常用漢字 /usual use kanji), which are the  most frequently used characters. So, it would be very helpful to learn all Jouyou Kanji. Still too many?  OK, give you a deal, the basic 1,000 characters are sufficient to read about 90% of the kanji used in a newspaper (about 60% with 500 characters). Does this give you a relief?


Some people might know it but some of Japanese kanji characters come from hieroglyph. But even kanji that aren´t from hieroglyph, some how we see them as drawings. And that is perhaps why we can even read them up side down because Japanese people are not actually reading each character but seeing pictures. There was a discussion that maybe we could only use hiragana to get rid of the complication of memorizing a lot of kanji. But at the end it hasn´t been realized. Can you imagine reading each character? It´d take much more time to read the same amount of text than the one written with kanji.



So, today´s column was about “how Japanese people see kanji” using senryu (川柳), a type of tanka (短歌). All tanka are talking about one kanji "tani" means valley in Japanese. And the character looks like below.



Asahi paper has a little section of tanka where people can contribute their little work, and this was one of them. One day, this tanka was published.

「かなしい顔している字」だと言いながら幼(お さな)は《谷》と半紙に書きたり

“Kanashii kao / shiteiru ji dato iinagara / osana wa “tani” to / hanshi ni kakitari”

“It´s a sad face kanji” saying my little kid and wrote the character, “谷” on the calligraphy paper.


I see, the kanji character of tani (谷 / valley) looks like a face with the eyebrows going down and the mouth, too as if it´s crying.

Then another reader who carries 谷 in her family name sent a tanka as a respond to the one above-mentioned.



“Kakiyou de / egao nimo naru / tani no ji wo / tsugi kite yori / shitashimite kaku”

Depends how you write, 谷 looks smiley, I like writing it more now since I got married and started carrying myself the surname with 谷.


Another woman also wrote,

幾度(いくたび)も書いているけど谷の字は大口あけて 笑っているよ

“Ikutabi mo / kaite irukedo / tani no ji wa / ooguchi akete / waratte iruyo”

I´ve been writing so many times and the letter of 谷 seems to me, it´s always laughing with the mouth big open.

cry and smile

They are saying that, depends how you see, the same character gives you different feelings. And I think it´s true, I absolutely agree with it. For me each kanji has its personality and some even give me a sort of tact. Since they are unique, I have my favorite ones and not favorite ones. Moreover, when I read a book for example, the text itself can give me a sensation.

I don´t know how to explain. Perhaps it´s close to reading a series of drawing without any dialog but gives you different feelings. I often describe kanji as if it´s an animal or a face, too. And usually my foreign friends look at me puzzled. But honestly, I see in that way. You don´t?


new hieroglyphic

I´ve found this recently, it´s like a new hieroglyph in cooking. They are using a drawing of what actually is.  But imagine this is happening inside your head whenever you read a text. Don´t you think it´s fun?

Unfortunately, if we had to write like this, it´d be a lot of work and it´d be terrible reading if someone had no sense of drawing. But at least you make it happen in your head to read Japanese a little more interesting.

Let me know when you start seeing kanji with a smiley or angry face, and tell me how you see.




More about Kanji

Kanji of the year 2013

Kanji of the year 2011

Feeling of Kanji

Zen calligraphy

History of Kanji

Family name, Tanaka

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