Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links

Kanji Clinic #42, The Japan Times, August 28, 2003
gSymbolic sun shows the way to remember a galaxy of kanjih

The August sun in Japan can be merciless, a blazing orb to be fended off with parasols and sunhats. Japanese children normally draw the sun in prominent red. Much to the surprise of his Japanese teachers at our Nagoya daycare, my first child, then aged three, would crayon the sun in bright yellow. This was the same color that I, his American mom, had automatically chosen when Sean and I created likenesses of the sun at home.

It is not surprising that Japanese children almost always depict the sun in red. After all, the national flag, the Hinomaru (̊, ball-of-sunjis comprised of a large red sun rising on a white background. Many Japanese people consider the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu O-Mikami, to be the creator of Japan. Little wonder that the sun is often cited as an important element of the Japanese psyche.

In early Chinese writing, a circle was used to represent the sun. Later, a sunspot in the center came to supplement the circle, and this was eventually squared off to form , the character used in China and Japan today. (hi, NICHI) helps to form Japanese compounds such as (nikkou, sun-bright, gsunshineh), v (nichibotsu, sun-sink, gsunseth), and H (nisshoku, sun-eat, gsolar eclipseh). Another general-use character, z (TAI) , also means gsun,h and is found in the commonly used word taiyou (z, large size-sun, gsunh).

Incidentally, millennia ago, Japan started to refer to its islands as the land gwhere the sun originatesh { (Nihon/Nippon, sun-origin, Japan). Marco Polo recorded gZipanguh as the Chinese pronunciation of {. Later, Portuguese traders encountered Malays near southern China who called it gJapang.h To this day speakers of European languages use an approximation of gJapanh as the name for the very same country that the Japanese refer to as gNihonh or gNippon.h

gSunh also represents gdays.h With this meaning, serves as a semantic building block in compounds like (kyou, now-day, gtodayh), (heijitsu, flat-day, gweekdayh), and (meinichi, fate-day, ganniversary of someonefs deathh).

Just as in English and some other European languages, the sun helps launch each new week in Japanese: j nichiyoubi ( sun{j day of the week + day= gSundayh). In compounds, standing without its mate { in some cases means gJapan:h e.g. (rainichi, come-Japan, gcoming to Japanh) and (nichigin, Japan-silver, gBank of Japanh).

In addition to standing as a kanji in its own right, also serves as an especially useful kanji component, and is found in dozens of Japanfs general-use characters. For example, when you join with that other major luminous celestial body, (tsuki, the moon), the resulting character, MEI, represents gradiance,h gwiseh (i.e., not dim) or gcheerful.h

Here are some other characters that contain the component , each one accompanied by a mnemonic from Kenneth C. Henshallfs invaluable gA Guide to Remembering Japanese Charactersh (Tuttle). In addition to providing a concise memory device that helps tie together all the components in each of Japanfs 1,945 general-use kanji, Henshall also explains the origin and subsequent evolution of each character.

(haya-i, early): The sun shows ten \ but itfs still early. (Hint: Picture a sundial).

(aida, space): Gate with space to let sun shine through.

t (haru, spring): Three O people l enjoy the spring sun .

(hoshi, star): Stars born from the sun .

(mukashi, the past): 21 (ten \+ ten \+ one = twenty-one) days ago is well in the past.

{ (JUN), 10-day period): 10-day cycle of the circling sun .

(sakai, boundary): Stand on sunny ground y, legs astride the boundary.

(haka, grave): Sun shines on big grass covered, earthen y grave.

If you are holed up with your air-conditioner turned on high, escaping the heat of the August (sun), I hope you are studying lots of Chinese characters. As always, my advice is to learn kanji not as whole units but as the sum of their parts.

Sean, by the way, is now a third-grader who draws the sun red like his Japanese mates when he is in Japan. In the art that he produces during our familyfs summer holidays in the United States, his suns appear in yellow. Our little bicultural guy seems to have it all worked out.

To read reviews of Henshallfs kanji magnum opus, go here and here .