When learning how to write and memorize kanji, one common suggestion is to learn the radicals that make up a kanji. Take the kanji 「親」. Parent. The kanji was made up of three basic kanji I’d already learned: 立 木 見, to stand, tree, and to look, respectively. When someone helped me learn it, they gave me this story:
“Okay, what do you see?”
“Uhh… shoot. 見る? To see? And some funky thing to the left. Same thing that’s in 新しい, right?”
“And what’s that left part made of?”
“Uh…to stand, and…wood?”
“Wood, tree, it’s all the same.”
[Great but irrelevant conversation about the nature of all living things.]
“Getting back to it, this kanji’s meaning is ‘parents’, more or less. What do your parents do? They stand in the trees and watch you all the time to make sure you’re a good student.”
“Yeah, look.” She pointed outside, at the trees, where her parents ducked out to avoid our collective gaze. It was terrifying. “They always do that, right?”
I’ll always remember that story. Unfortunately, not all stories are great. Take the kanji for 照. When I lived in China, almost every Chinese person I came across knew the same story for this kanji, which roughly means “picture”.
“Yeah, you see,” the middle-aged business man said while spitting, “It’s a picture of a Japanese guy—that’s the little sun on the left—Japan, Land of the Rising Sun…Japanese. Do I have to spell this one out for you?”
“I think I’m getting it,” I said while spitting. There was a lot of spitting in China.
“So it’s a Japanese guy with a sword. Right, like, fifty years ago. Whenever Nanking happened. And see that mouth below the sword? That’s the gaping hole the Japanese soldier cut into the pregnant Chinese mother. Fucked up, right?”
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard the story, but this new detail made me a little queasy. “Yeah, but—”
“And of course, those four drops on the bottom?”
“Blood,” we both said at the same time. “From the victim.”
“Wow. You really know your kanji. Amazing.”
For better or for worse, it’s hard to forget kanji that’ve have such stories melded into them.
But, this isn’t about kanji-learning. There’s a lot of information, books, programs, and websites out there to help with that. This is actually about obscure advanced vocabulary learning, and seeing the connections between words. Whether or not these connections are perceived, such as the Chinese “picture” kanji above, or actually related to the etymology matters not. They’ve all helped me learn the words in question. And of course, connections between words are incredibly important in maintaining vocabulary.
The following words are semi-advanced. Regardless, they make some interesting connections to words you might’ve commonly heard.
Word: 志 （こころざし）
Meaning: Will / Intention
Origin: This word comes from 心 (heart) and 指し (to point at). To point at the heart. The heart understands your true intentions, so aim for that. If this connection feels tenuous, consider the word 目指し, which means to aim at something. Point with your eye? 心指し therefore could be to point with your heart. Given that intention is a slightly more ambiguous concept, it makes sense that you’d be using your heart to do it. In addition, 志す means to plan / aspire to.
Word: 甦る （よみがえる）
Meaning: To be resurrected
Origin: 黄泉（よみ） is the Japanese mythological “hell”, where Izanami went and ruled after she died. Apparently the entrance is in Shikoku? 帰る is, of course, “to return”. The combination then is 黄泉から帰る (to return from hell) shortened to よみがえる.
Word: 遡る （さかのぼる）
Meaning: To go back / to go upstream
Origin: 坂（さか）, a hill. 登る（のぼる）, to climb. Literally: To climb a hill. The “to go upstream” definition makes pretty obvious sense, in a Sisyphean kind of way. If you’re into history, you might also imagine ancient Japan, with the major cities in the west and the low-lying Kanto plain in the east. People were banished to the Kanto plain, so if they wanted to make their way back to the west, they could either fight an uphill battle like Yoritomo Minamoto or physically climb the natural geography to make their way back.
Word: 快い （こころよい）
Meaning: Pleasant / Agreeable
Origin: 心…良い… Do I have to spell this one out for you?
Word: 忝い （かたじけない）
Meaning: (I’m) grateful
Origin: This one’s a bit of a long shot, but… 肩, ”shoulder”. しける, “to be gloomy / to go through hard times”. Basically, “My body doesn’t ache because you helped me. I’m grateful.” If you’re wondering how to use this word, it’s exactly as I used it in that last sentence. Kinda like ありがとう. I first learned it from Rurouni Kenshin, but I’ve used it in the modern day with decent results.
Word: 跪く （ひざまずく）
Meaning: To kneel Origin: Even if this story makes no sense, it should help you remember it. 膝, “knees”. まずい, “generic word for bad things”. Maybe kneeling makes your knees bad. Could be that if your knees are clumsy, maybe you kneel a lot.
Word: 覆す （くつがえす）
Meaning: To overthrow
Origin: Okay, so this one’s a load of bull. Like, hopefully the above ones make sense. This one is just a story that helped me remember the word.
So, there was once an emperor and he couldn’t find his golden-tipped shoes.
“Oh mah gerd. Whez mai shoo?” He wasn’t terribly educated, ironically. And so he decided to order his guards to look for it. “Faind mai shoo!” Well, they all did as they were ordered, but they didn’t like it.
One guard, however, was part of an underground revolution. When he chanced upon the shoe, he knew the time was upon them. Instead of making a ruckus, he made his way to the emperor’s chambers silently. When he emperor came out, he was happy to see one of his guards holding the shoe. But his happiness was short-lived. The guard pulled out the shoe and, before anyone could do anything about it, he stabbed the emperor in the stomach with the golden point. “Here’s your shoe back.”
Okay, that’s enough for today. I’ll come back to this when I’ve assembled more words. Until then, I hope you’ve learned a new word or two. And if you didn’t, at least I learned a lot from trying to look for 忝い. I swear, I looked for a good thirty minutes. I eventually found it after googling 時代劇 言葉 and looking through some forums.
Now go watch the Rurouni Kenshin live-action movie. It’s pretty good.