Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links

Column #49 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, January 29, 2004
gFearsome tiger claws its way to Kanji of the Yearh

Last September, in celebration of the Hanshin Tigersffirst Central League pennant in 18 years, more than 5,000 Tigers fans plunged into the heavily polluted Dotonbori River in downtown Osaka. The underdog Tigers' victory became a spirited topic of conversation throughout the archipelago--even among those for whom the distinction between a double and a double-play remains largely a mystery. So it was not particularly surprising that kanji enthusiasts chose (gtiger,h tora) as the Kanji of the Year for 2003.

In the Kanji of the Year poll, sponsored at the close of each year by the Japan Kanji Proficiency Testing Foundation, the public is invited to cast votes for the single character which best symbolizes the past 12 months. The winner in 2002, A (return, kae-ru), memorialized the homecoming that year of five Japanese who were mysteriously abducted to North Korea in the late '70s. The 2003 poll drew a record 87,000 participants, a whopping 20 percent of whom raised as their kanji champion. Ձfs closest competitor, (war, SEN), was chosen by a mere two percent of poll participants.

Many advocates of expressed the hope that Japan, beset by a succession of social problems and a sluggish economy, would combat adversity with the courage and ferocity of a tiger. Others named as their choice because, in their view, Prime Minister Koizumifs decision to send the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq is tantamount to walking into a Ռ (tiger-hole, gtiger's den,h koketsu).

Unlike the Chinese pictograph that preceded it by thousands of years, no longer bears a resemblance to the clawed carnivore it represents. You may, however, be able to discern two of the tigerfs powerful legs at the bottom of the character.

( minus the legs) is one of the 214 radicals used to classify characters in kanji dictionaries, and serves as a productive kanji component. Joining with (claw), for example, yields s (gcruel,h GYAKU), a kanji seen in a variety of unsavory compounds, such as sE (cruel-kill, ggenocide,hgyakusatsu) and cs (infant-child-cruel-treat, gchild abuse,h youjigyakutai).

It is the tiger, not the lion, that has traditionally been viewed by the Chinese as the most fearsome and powerful beast in the animal kingdom. Dealing with tigers in ancient China, before the days of firearms, was a terror-fraught business. This fact is reflected in the memorable tableaus painted by the components of many kanji containing , including the four general-use characters below. The stories linking the components to one meaning of each character are from Joseph R. De Roo's self-instruction book "2001 Kanji" (Bonjinsha Publishers).

pictures a real-life drama: A farmer, holding a knife on the right, fighting with a tiger to defend his farm animals. Note the ill-fated pig (a component in the kanji buta, gpig,h) underneath the tiger.

A prudent person thinks (v) ahead carefully about the best way to handle an unexpected encounter with a deadly tiger .

A man (j) is held captive in a tigerfs cage.

FUTILE, muna-shii
When one encounters a pack of tigers lined up , all attempts to escape are futile. (Note: is a slightly modified version of the kanji nara-bu, gline uph).

Like other professional baseball and soccer teams in Japan, the Hanshin Tigers use a foreign loanword written in katakana in lieu of a Sino-Japanese character to render their name. So while may be the kanji champion of 2003, itfs the g^CK[Yh (gtah-ee-gah-zooh) who reign in the Central League.

To learn about last year's Kanji of the Year poll, read column #31.
Have you read the latest Reader Response?