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Kanji Clinic #41, The Japan Times, August 7, 2003
gAre animal kanji facing extinction in Japan?h

Two letters from readers inspired todayfs column. Dario, aged 16, a beginning kanji learner in Croatia, wrote: gMy Japanese pen pal told me that she doesnft learn kanji for many common plants and animals like groseh or ggiraffeh at school. I think there must be roses and giraffes (at least in zoos) in Japan. Donft the Japanese learn how to write the kanji for those things?!h

George, an American living in Japan who is an advanced kanji learner, sent this e-mail: gIt seems to me that the addiction the Japanese have to katakana is leading them to deprive themselves of beautiful kanji characters. Perhaps the most egregious examples of perfectly good kanji being replaced with katakana--I call them ekanji cop-outsf-- come from the animal kingdom. These can include general-use animal kanji like L (neko, cat) and ~ (kujira, whale) and sometimes, shockingly, even simple kanji like (inu, dog).

gTwo years ago while enjoying an afternoon at a Tokyo zoo, I was struck by the fact that the management used ]E (katakana for zou)@instead of (zou, elephant) to indicate the elephant exhibit. I was chagrined that a Japanese zoo, of all places, would fail to take the opportunity to help visitors, especially young people, make connections between the wide array of animal life and their kanji representations. Why not put the animal names in kanji with furigana (hiragana printed above the kanji to indicate their pronunciations)?h

Thank you, George and Dario, for inspiring me to investigate exactly how many animal kanji Japanese youngsters learn in school. In the first grade, they make friends with (inu, dog), L (kai, shellfish), and (mushi, insect). Four more follow in the second grade (ushi cow, sakana fish, uma n horse, and tori bird), but only three more critter kanji (hitsuji r sheep, zou elephant, and kaiko \ silkworm) raise their heads in the ensuing four grades. Junior high school students, who are introduced to all of the 1,945 general-use kanji before graduation, learn to read and write (saru, monkey), (buta, pig), L (neko, cat), u (hotaru, firefly), { (niwatori, chicken), ~ (kujira, whale), (ka, mosquito), and (hebi, snake). This brings their kanji menagerie to a mere 18 creatures.

In addition to the above, many Japanese are able to read a limited number of other animal kanji normally written in katakana. These may include such cherished members of the Japanese animal kingdom as carp koi, cranes tsuru, butterflies chou, and raccoon dogs K tanuki, as well as some relatively unpopular ones like pigeons hato, crows (or G) karasu, and ants a ari.

Virtually every widely known member of the animal kingdom--including creatures on land and in the sea and air -- can be represented with a single Sino-Japanese character, or a pair [C (sea-pig, iruka) is gdolphinh and S (hundred-legs, mukade) is gcentipede,h for example], but the majority are rarely seen in their kanji form. Some non-general-use animal kanji do regularly appear in place and personal names (e.g.: T kame turtle, F kuma bear, shika deer) and on menus (e.g.: sake salmon, CV ebi shrimp, and I kani crab). Incidentally, most of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac require special kanji, as seen on Japanese New Yearfs cards (e.g.: horse, \ monkey, dog).

Kanji learners like Dario who are just beginning to delve into kanji zoology might want to master the following components: (The first three are kanji in their own right).

@(insect): Look for it in ka mosquito, u hotaru firefly, I hachi bee, hebi snake and ^ kaeru frog.

@(fish): Seen in scores of fish-kanji (check out charts in seafood restaurants), as well as in k wani alligator and , one of the ways to write gsushi.h

@(bird): Appears in many feathered friend kanji: { niwatori chicken, hato pigeon, tsuru crane, taka hawk, and others. ( differs from gG crowh by just one stroke.)

(gbeasth): Left-side component of L neko cat, saru monkey, K tanuki raccoon dog, and inoshishi wild boar.

Animal kanji can be found in Japan in novels, ads, menus, on signboards, maps, etc., and so it would be incorrect to say they are extinct. Still, they are glaringly absent from many magazines as well as major newspapers: The latter have a general policy of using katakana in place of animal kanji, even for the 18 learned by Japanese school children.

So when it comes to giraffes (kirin), Dario, you are far more likely to encounter L (kirin) than i (kirin) in Japan. These two eye-popping kanji can also represent another gkirin,h however: a mythical Chinese dragon. You will find that dragon pictured-- along with i-- all over the archipelago on cans and bottles of Kirin Beer.


Do you know the Chinese zodiac animal sign corresponding to your birth year?

(Note: The animal as it is normally written in kanji appears in parenthesis).

nezumi q rat (l)
1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008

ushi@N ox ()
1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009

tora@ tiger ()
1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010

usagi@K rabbit (e)
1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011

tatsu@C dragon (C, , )
1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012

hebi@ snake ()
1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013
uma@ horse (n)
1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014
hitsuji@ sheep (r)
1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015
saru@\ monkey ()
1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016
tori@ cock ()
1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017@

inu@ dog ()
1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018
inoshishi@ boar ()
1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019

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