The Japanese language is difficult enough to learn, even for people who live for years in Japan; writing it is well beyond the ability of any visitor of short duration. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be enjoyed for its great beauty and delicacy.
Japan’s language is represented visually by not one, not two, not even three, but four alphabets or symbolic systems: kanji, hiragana, katakana and romaji. The only one Western visitors will have any chance of understanding is romaji, since it is the “romanization” of Japanese into the 26-character Latin alphabet used most widely in Europe, Africa and the Americas. Visitors see romaji all over Japan – if not always when you need it.
But what most enchants visitors, even if they can’t comprehend it, is kanji, the Japanese version of the Chinese characters that were the first written language in Japan, starting in the 6th century.
A visitor sees kanjis everywhere in Japan, and often in the form of what is one of Japan’s (and China’s) greatest cultural gifts: Calligraphy. One may choose to learn to handle a brush and work on the elegant kanji forms in a class; in such a class, the kanjis below could be among those one might be asked to practice writing.
Or one may also simply try to look at them more closely when they pop up, for their meanings are often embedded in the calligraphy. Or so it may sometimes seem. Or sometimes, not. Kanji are open to much interpretation, hence their beautiful flexibility in expressing meaning.
Below are seven kanji and their meanings. See if you can discern how the shapes of the kanji subtly reflect the ideas they are meant to convey.
And be grateful that you are not a Japanese school child; just the first group of kanji that children are expected to learn in school contains 1,006 different characters. An additional 1,130 are taught in junior high and high school. There are thousands more to learn after that, putting the 26-letter Latin alphabet in context.
心 Kokoro – The Japanese practice writing kanjis not just for the beauty of the shapes, but for what their calligraphy – which is never perfect, but is always reflective of their state of mind or heart – tells them about how they are feeling. The strokes are so delicate that they can reveal the heart or spirit itself – and kokoro is, in fact, the word for “heart” or “spirit.” And like many kanji, it can mean much more: other potential meanings include soul, mind, feelings, emotion and sincerity.
幽玄 Yu-gen – This word has a complex history and meaning, starting early on, when it meant “mysterious” or “dim,” but over the centuries it has taken on broader and deeper meanings, including “subtle profundity” and even “a deep awareness of the Universe.” It also became the name of a style of poetry, and ultimately, its sense of “refined elegance” inspired the name of our restaurant.
大 Dai – Dai is a word you will hear often in Japan, for it means “great” or “large.” This kanji hovers over Kyoto on the Nyoigatake peak, and is very large indeed; it looks even larger when bonfires laid out on it are set alight during the Daimon-hi Gozan Okuribi every year on August 16, to signal the approaching end of summer.
力 Chikara – The stout form of this simple kanji seems to lend it exactly what it says it is: “Power.” Its grounded solidity combines with a sense of movement to create its strong visual chikara. In modern times it has been understandably adopted as the name and logo of a professional wrestling organization in the United States.
人 Hito – This very simple character literally refers to a character; hito means “person.” While it may seem terribly simple to write, just like kokoro, this kanji may well reveal the state of mind of the person writing it.
永 Ei – This kanji, which can seem to vibrate from within, stands for the concept of “eternity.” Late in the 18th century, it was combined with the kanji for “peaceful” to name the era called An’ei (安永) “peaceful eternity.” Needless to say, the name was perhaps too optimistic.
天 Ten – This elegant and symmetrical kanji makes sense when you know that it is the word, pronounced ten, for “heaven.” Combined with several other kanji, this character introduces the phrase 天地開闢, or Tenchikaibyaku, which literally means “the creation of heaven and earth” in Japanese mythology.