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Have you ever wondered why the United States is called •Δ‘ (Beikoku, Rice Country) in Japanese? Scroll down to satisfy your curiosity.

Column #28 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, November 1, 2002
"The King of Grains-- rice as an important kanji seedbed"

Another autumn rice harvest in the neighborhood has just ended, and the Noguchi family is digging into our keenly anticipated share of the bounty: a 30 kg bag of translucent, polished rice gems. The mere mention of V•Δ (shinmai, new rice) brings a gleam to my husband's eye.

Three-generations of a local family--"weekend farmers" who usually work in a nearby factory -- toil together every year to produce this delicacy in their tiny plot of irrigated land. They then pass it on to lucky neighbors like us. No one in the family can say exactly how long their ancestors have been performing this ritual. Their vague estimate is "mukashi kara (since a long time ago)."

Rice--like kanji--came to these islands from China. Rice was probably introduced here in about 300 B.C., but the Chinese were cultivating it for approximately 2,700 years before that. During those distant centuries, when kanji were first being developed, rice was an indispensable part of everyday Chinese life. Among the five grains the Chinese considered sacred--rice, wheat, soybeans, barley, and millet--rice was king.

Rice cultivation has greatly influenced the way of life in Japan and has given birth to numerous rice-related customs and rituals that survive to this day: autumn rice-harvest festivals, sake (rice wine) production, and New Year's mochi (rice cake) pounding, to name a few. It is only natural that many kanji still in use in China and Japan contain rice-related components. By analyzing those components, we can see how specific situations in ancient times gave rise to certain characters.

"The New Nelson" kanji dictionary (Charles E. Tuttle) lists over 150 kanji containing the component ‰Ρ, which some scholars say depicts a rice plant, or more specifically, the bristly fibers on a head of rice (nogi in Japanese). The character for the Japanese word meaning "rice plant," ˆξ (ine), contains ‰Ρ as its left-hand component.

Nelson also catalogs over 100 kanji containing the component •Δ, which is a character in its own right, pronounced kome. •Δ means "uncooked rice," not to be confused with ”Ρ (meshi or han), which represents the boiled version. Bread consumption may be on the rise in Japan, but ‚²”Ρ (gohan, "honorable" rice) still retains a secondary meaning of "food" itself: Someone who suggests "Gohan o tabemashoo (Let's eat!)" may in fact be envisioning a sandwich or pizza for lunch.

Characters ranging from the graphically simple, such as Ž„ (watashi, myself), ˜a (WA, peaceful), and —Ώ (RYOU, fee)--to the more complex Šn (KAKU, harvest), —Ζ (RYOU, provisions), and —Χ (RIN, neighboring)--all of these general-use characters contain ‰Ρ or •Δ. In learning how to write characters like these from memory, I have found it especially helpful to employ textbooks that break down each character into its constituent components and then provide a story or logical explanation to@tie these components neatly together. One such tool is Joseph De Roo's "2001 Kanji" (Bonjinsha). Here are some of his stories for rice-related characters:

H autumn, aki
In autumn, a fire ‰Ξ is made where the rice plants ‰Ρ grew.

‹G season, KI
The seasons are cyclical, just as rice plants ‰Ρ grow in a cycle and a woman's child- Žq producing ability is cyclical.

Ε tax, ZEI
A government official (an "older brother" ŒZ with horns) counts the rice plants ‰Ρ to determine the tax.

Žν variety, SHU seeds, tane
Harvested rice plants ‰Ρ, heavy d with seeds, are sorted out according to their variety. (This simple story will enable you to remember the two distinct meanings of Žν).

–ΐ be in doubt, mayo-u
While traveling on the road , one is in doubt about the price and availability of rice •Δ.

Ž• tooth, ha
Teeth close off (i.e.: stop Ž~ up) the mouth Œϋ. Their shape and color resemble rice grains •Δ.

The legacy of rice is evident in the modern written language of Japan and China. It is helpful to develop a new habit of viewing kanji not as whole units, but as the sum of their parts. Dissect the kanji surrounding you in Japan--or on signboards in a Chinatown near you. Among the kanji components displayed there, you will surely find the King of Grains.


Have you ever wondered why the United States, known for its potato and bread consumption, is called •Δ‘ (Beikoku, Rice Country) in Japanese? Here's the reason:

“–‚ΔŽš (ateji) "phonetic substitutes" are kanji used phonetically with little or no relation to their meanings. The atejionce assigned to the four syllables of "A-me-ri-ka" were ˆŸ•Δ—˜‰Α. ("ME" is an old reading for •Δ; the modern so-called "Chinese readings" for this kanji are "BEI" and "MAI"). •Δ has thus come to mean not only "rice," but "America," as well.

•Δ can be seen in a variety ofAmerica-related kanji compounds, such as: •Δ‘ (beikoku, U.S.A.), •ΔŒR (beigun, American armed forces), •Δ‰έ (beika, American currency), “n•Δ(tobei, going to America), and “ϊ•Δ (nichibei, Japan and the U.S.).

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