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Column #36 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, April 24, 2003
gCreators of kanji shared obsession with womenh

My first Japanese teacher chalked ("woman") on the blackboard. gIn this kanji,h she explained, gyou can see a curvaceous woman kneeling on the ground.h I looked, looked again, and then panicked: gThat doesnft look like any woman I know, curvaceous or otherwise. Uh-oh, maybe I am not suited to kanji learning!h

Simple pictures of actual objects and people, found on animal bones and tortoise shells dating back 4,000 or 5,000 years, are thought to be the worldfs oldest kanji. Subjected to centuries of simplification, many characters such as no longer bear much resemblance to the objects they represent. Only after I examined the original ancient pictograph, which does in fact call to mind a kneeling woman, could I begin to perceive how the modern character represents gwoman.h

In addition to standing proudly as a kanji in its own right, also serves as a component in over 200 characters used in modern Japanese--including 40 general-use characters. (onna) is one of the 214 radicals used to classify characters in kanji dictionaries. The kanji for gmanh (j otoko, comprised of gfieldh c and gstrengthh ), on the other hand, did not make the cut as a radical, and is only rarely called on to make an appearance as a kanji component. Perhaps the creators of kanji had a greater interest in phenomena surrounding women than in those related to men. Certainly, their knowledge of womanhood included its most intimate details.

Devisors of kanji added two breasts--nipples included-- to in order to create (haha), which means gmother.h Combining the components (woman) and q (child), they came up with the warm-and-fuzzy kanji D (su-ki), meaning glike.h Old forms of (yasu-raka, restful) picture not the usual kneeling female, but a woman sitting on a napkin during menstruation, allowed to rest quietly under a roof . One character for gpregnancy,h P (SHIN), is comprised of woman and C--which formerly meant gclamh-- to connote a living thing contained within a casing.

Typical stages in a womanfs life in ancient China are depicted in kanji, beginning with her birth. In matriarchal ancient China, only women generally used a family name: A (SEI, surname) was thus bestowed in the event of the birth of a female child. Until marriage, a young woman served in the role of a daughter musume (good female ) and was perhaps someonefs younger sister imouto (immature woman ). When she became a bride (yome), a woman went to a new home , where she found herself under the thumb of her older, powerful mother-in-law shuutome (old woman ). Whoopee! There was little respite from housework. A woman, probably dead tired, can be seen with a broom in two characters representing gwifeh: (tsuma)and w (FU).

Compounding her troubles, a wife may have had a philandering husband. (kira-i, dislike) is comprised of and ("two at once"--Note the double strokes at the top and bottom of this character, as well as the two vertical lines running through it), and refers to a womanfs negative feelings about sharing her husband with another woman. The two characters comprising the compound word gjealousy,h i (shitto), both feature women. The first, , pictures a woman suffering from the gdisease h of jealousy, and in the second, i, we see a woman with a rock . (Wonder what shefs about to do with it.)

Speaking of the gother woman,h a number of Sino-Japanese characters depict professional party girls at work: combined with (gdazzlingh--look for the two suns, and ) gives (SHOU, prostitute), and a similarly dazzlingly beautiful woman is busy entertaining customers under a roof in the general-use character (EN, banquet).

When their sweeping and entertaining days had come to an end, females became gold women,h k (baba), with billowing white hair, like the whitecaps of waves g down at the seashore.

Kanji serve as mirrors of many aspects of pre-Christian Era Chinese society, including relationships between classes and the sexes. For me, this is a large part of their charm, and I find the sexism in -based kanji insightful. Two additional politically incorrect kanji, (kashima-shii, three women=wickedness) and j (nabu-ru, a woman trapped between two men=ridicule), help demonstrate how grateful I am that I was born female in the 20th century as opposed to several millennia ago.

After reading the column, match each of the following -component kanji with its core meaning and one of its pronunciations. Answers are below.

10.i (New general-use character. View all 196).

a. daughter (musume)
b. restful, (yasu-raka)

c. wickedness (kashima-shii)

d. surname, (SEI)

e. mother-in-law (shuutome)
f. bride (yome)
g. younger sister (imouto)

h. like, (su-ki)
i. dislike (kira-i)
j. jealousy (TO)
k.old woman (baba) 
l. pregnancy, (SHIN)

ANSWERS: 1.h  2.b  3.l  4.d  5.a  6.g  7.f  8.e  9.i  10.j  11.k  12.c

Remember your every year on ̓ (Haha no hi, Motherfs Day), May 11. If you enjoy reading these columns, please let Mary Noguchi (a mother herself) hear from you.