Kanji Clinic #58 The Japan Times, August 12, 2004
"Love those bugs: Creepy crawler kanji need not be pests"

While Japanese parents sequester themselves in their air-conditioned homes and moan about the stifling heat, their offspring happily head outside to pursue a pastime long cherished by Japanese youngsters: catching bugs.

Armed with nets, magnifying glasses, and cages, these mini-entomologists continue the quest they began in spring. Then they were after butterflies, pill bugs, and water striders. Now, with summer vacation in full swing, their sights are set on cicadas, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and--the ultimate quarry--mighty stag and rhinoceros beetles.

Each of Japan's four seasons brings with it a new array of insects, ranging from the generally innocuous to the utterly horrible. The kanji representing insects and worms, (mushi), was born in ancient China as a pictograph of a large-headed snake. "Mushi" was originally written as a swarm of three insects, , but two of them were swatted out of the picture in post-WW II kanji simplification measures, and is the general-use character currently learned by Japanese first-graders.

Among Japan's 1,945 general-use characters, eight contain as a component, but only two are insects: (mosquito, ka) and u (firefly, hotaru). The "Chinese" (on) pronunciation for the component in is "bun," and it conveys the annoying sound mosquitoes make with their wings: gbun-bun.h The distinctive, wafting smell of the green mosquito coils burned to repel these demons ( mosquito-taking-incense, katorisenkou) is synonymous with summer here.

Sadly, the use of agricultural pesticides has made the sighting of another traditional feature of Japanese summer, the firefly (u), an increasingly rare treat for children. Before this character was simplified, the three strokes at the top of u were written as two fires (Ή), a vivid depiction of the yellow-green luminescence of the ill-fated firefly.

If you have ever had the misfortune of being bitten by a Japanese horsefly (, abu), you will have no trouble remembering the right-hand component of the kanji representing this pest, which is S, meaning gdie.h (No, you wonft die, but you will feel as though you were going to.)

The identical-twin characters of gbutterflyh (, chouchou), with its wafer-thin, leaf-like wings, are composed of on the left and the kanji meaning gleaf,h t , (minus its top three strokes), on the right. Ants (a, ari), known for working hard and marching in orderly lines, are gwell-manneredh insects: The right-hand component in a is ` (GI), a slightly modified form of the second character in sV (manners, gyougi).

is utilized as a component in kanji related not only to insects but also to other small animals, including reptiles and sea creatures. Two non-insect critters, (snake, hebi) and \ (silkworm, kaiko), are general-use kanji. Other less-commonly used characters include: ^ (frog, kaeru), (shrimp, ebi), and (octopus, tako).

also appears as a component in kanji that do not represent living things. Look for it in G (contact, SHOKU) alongside p tsuno, a kanji meaning ghorn.g The in this character was originally a more visually complex component meaning gcaterpillar,h which uses its horns to cling tightly to (i.e., insure contact with) leaves. (wriggleAugome-kasu) is a delightful but seldom-used character comprised of two commencing to wriggle around in the spring t (haru).

has the additional meaning of gin an unfavorable conditionh (i.e., worm-eaten), as seen in (worm eaten-teeth, dental caries, mushiba,) and (water-worm eaten, athlete's foot, mizumushi). It is also used as a suffix to indicate a negative quality in a person: gCrybabyh is (gcry-bug,h nakimushi) and gweaklingh is 㒎(gweak-bug,h yowamushi). By the way, that worm-shaped pouch attached to your colon is your (insect-hanging, chuusui)--or, as we say in English, gappendix.h

"Stag beetle" in Japanese is L` (hoe-shape-insect, kuwagatamushi), and "rhinoceros beetle" is b (helmet-insect, kabutomushi), a reference to the ornate samurai headdress this six-legged warrior appears to be wearing. Both varieties are for sale, often at exorbitant prices, in Japanese department stores and on the Internet. Living in the Japanese countryside, I would never dream of buying beetles: They commonly lumber out of the nearby woods, make their way to our front door, and beg my sons to take them in as pets so they can gorge themselves on yummy store-bought beetle jelly.

Not all of the bugs we co-exist with in and around our house are as pleasing as the docile beetle. Ever had a four-inch centipede (S, hundred-legs, mukade) crawl up your leg while you were watching a late-night video? Now that's enough to turn you into a real 㒎 (wimp, yowamushi,) about Japanese .

To read another summer column, go here.
Drop Mary a line at kanjiclinic@aol.com.

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