History of Kanji can be a little scary

September 8, 2014 Juju Kurihara 6 Comments

favicon kanji cardOne of the hardest things to learn Japanese may be Kanji (漢字). The problem of Kanji is not only its abstract form but also the reading, which usually one Kanji has more than two ways to read. Not even that, a Kanji has a Japanese way of reading (kun yomi / 訓読み) and a Chinese ways of reading (On yomi / 音読み). After clearing all these tasks, you still need to learn when you should read it in Kun yomi or in On yomi. 



I may have discouraged you to learn Japanese… I apologise. But today, I´m not talking about how difficult to remember Kanji but to see what stories behind the Kanji.





Recently I´ve found out that Kanji has its origin and history and some of them are a little scary.


This is  read as Shin (on yomi) and Ma (kun yomi). The meaning is truth, truly or really.

It sounds like a very nice character. Now let´s look at the old writing of this Kanji.







This is the same but the original way of writing. It´s not so common but still in use.

This character was originally to describe the dead body who lost the life because of the desastre. The top part “匕” was the dead body lie backward and the bottom part “県” was the hair hanging down from the body. Hmmm.






People believed that the dead people who were killed by a desastre became a vengeful spirit who has a strong spiritual power. And those spirits were needed to be enshrined to console the death.

This is why the characters, 慎(tsutsushimu / moderate) and 鎮 (shizumeru / quell) are used for the ceremonies to calm down the vengeful spirits.





Now let´s see the Kanji, 道, read as Michi (kun yomi) and Dou (on yomi) and the meaning is the way. People who practice martial arts are very familiar to this character and actually this is one of the most popular Kanji among them.

I always wondered why the way is related to 首 (neck). Now I know… Are you ready?




This Kanji was created from the form of a hand holding a head (separated from the body of course…).  

Ancient time, people used a head to purify the bad spirits who bring desastres and curses on the wasteland where there were no roads.



Are you OK for one more?


This is 取, read as Toru (kun yomi) and Shu (on yomi), meaning is to take. It sounds very normal, doesn´t it?

However, the origin is a little cruel. On the left side of this Kanji is 耳 (mimi / ears) but do you know about the right side? 又 is read as Yuu (on yomi) and Mata (kun yomi). I have learnt the meaning of this character as help but actually this means a hand.



In the ancient China, soldiers cut the left ear of the enemy they killed to see how many they killed. The Kanji, 取 comes literary from the action of “taking the ears in the hand”. I find it quite brutal.


There are more but I will introduce them to you another time. Although it´s scary, I like to know the origin of Kanji. Do you?




More about Kanji

Kanji of the year 2013

Kanji of the year 2011

Feeling of Kanji

Zen calligraphy

Family name, Tanaka


  1. Vincent Wang 5 years Reply

    Origin? Ancient China of course, specifically the Tang Dynasty. By the way the ear cutting thing only existed in the Warring states period, around 400 BC to 221 BC.

  2. Manu 8 years Reply

    Have just been talking with my Japanese husband about the kanji you mentioned in your post – we did some online research and it seems that there are a lot of different opinions out there about the background of those kanji – and therefore not necessarily true. For example “michi”: the neck part has the meaning of head which is looking forward – and following a way means going forward. Sounds quite credible (though of course I cannot prove that this is true either – seems there is not much credible information that was kept from the time when kanji were created).

    Also the kanji for “shin” has a not so dark alternative story: a sennin (hermit) evolved into a dragon – and the old version with the katakana hi stands for tranformation, the kanji for dead body – shikabane looks a little different. The two strokes on the bottom which look like the kanji for “8”, hachi also have the meaning for a means of transport – like a carriage.

    • juju.kurihara 8 years

      Thank you for the comment, Manu san.

      I have no doubt that there are many stories about the origin of Kanji. One of my favourite Kanji investigator is Shizuka Shirokawa and she says the kanji, 遊ぶ (play) comes from the picture that the God is flying away on the cloud. It´s simply interesting to know how the Kanji was made. 

      I personally think that it´s not the matter of who says true or not and my aim is those who have no idea about Kanji or who are learning Japanese but struggling can get a grip of the concept of Kanjil. If they are interested in more about knowing the language, I am happy that I shared this story. 

      I like the story about Sennin evolved into a dragon. It sounds like a perfect forklore that you can read to your children. I will keep looking for interesting stories.    

  3. Nick 8 years Reply

    According to Wiktionary (which is a pretty good reference, despite being a Wiki), the origins of 道 are more benign than that:

    “Phono-semantic compound (形聲): semantic 辵 (“walking”) + phonetic

  4. I am a Japanese national and a Japanese Language learner.The original meaning of 眞 is unknown to almost all Japanese nationals.The topics your firm picks out are always eye-opening even to Japanese nationals.

    • juju.kurihara 8 years

      Thank you Nakagawa san

      For me it was a new theory. This could be just a theory but still, it´s interesting and now I want to know more about Kanji.

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