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Column #5 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, July 6, 2001
"Learning to predict kanji pronunciations--without the strain"

You have probably seen the Japanese word for hemorrhoid, (ji), written in vivid red on advertisements outside your local pharmacy. "Hemorrhoid" is usually rendered in hiragana because its kanji, , is not one of Japan's 1,945 general-use characters. According to my research, does not immediately pop up on the mental kanji screen of many Japanese people.

To see what I mean, please locate a willing subject to write, from memory, the kanji for . The point of this exercise is to witness the trial and error strategy a native speaker may employ when writing or pronouncing a relatively unfamiliar kanji such as . Your friend will probably begin by writing the kanji component ("sickness"). This will put her into the ballpark, but writing the rest of the character may prove more difficult. She might start wracking her brain for a component which signals the pronunciation "ji":

"Is it ("longevity")? Oh, no, is pronounced "ju," so that can't be right. Hmmm, how about ("blood," usually pronounced chi, but sometimes ji in compounds like hanaji "bloody nose")? Or maybe n ("ground," ji)? No," she moans, "that doesn't look right, either. OK, I think it's ("temple," ji) plus . Yes, . That's it!"

Your kanji guinea pig has just demonstrated how to use "phonetic components," which signal a high likelihood of a particular on ("Chinese") pronunciation. Some are kanji in and of themselves, as is ; others are "radicals," elements of kanji used to classify them in dictionaries. Kanji containing phonetic components are called "phonetic ideographs,"(` keiseimoji, literally, "shape-voice characters"). They consist of two parts: 1) a semantic component, or "radical," which conveys information about the character's meaning; and 2) a phonetic component that signals the on pronunciation.

In the hemorrhoid example, is the semantic component. Other examples include: ("water"), ("rock"), ("body part"), ("hand"), and ("eat"). Look for these as you dissect the following group of general-use characters-- all contain the phonetic component (hou) a character meaning "wrap":

A (hou, "bubble"), C (hou, "gun"), E (hou, "cell"), (hou, "embrace"), O (hou, "satiate").

In addition to its phonetic value, also happens to contribute to the meaning of the characters above, e.g.: "A bubble is air with a WRAPping of soapy water around it."

An estimated 85% of Japan's 1,945 general-use characters are phonetic ideographs. This is good news for us as we learn to make intelligent guesses about kanji pronunciations. "If phonetic components are such good friends," you may ask, "why doesn't my kanji textbook give me a proper introduction to them?" The snag is that until foreigners have mastered the shapes of a large number of kanji, textbooks cannot begin to present groups of characters that share a phonetic component.

Fortunately, James Heisig, in his "Remembering the Kanji II," has come to our rescue. Not only does he systematically arrange all the general-use kanji into groups that share the same phonetic component, he also deals with the wrinkle in this system: Not all kanji containing a particular phonetic component have the on pronunciation it normally signals--there are exceptions, and Heisig's text lists them for each phonetic component group.

Take the character (kou, "interchange"): As a phonetic component,@ is seen in other general-use characters-- Z ("school"), ("effect"), i ("strangle"), and x ("suburbs")--all read kou. But also inconveniently pops up in r ("compare") which has the pronunciation kaku instead of kou. Fortunately, the conforming kanji are in a sizable majority; don't let the "stragglers" discourage you from becoming fully acquainted with this handy technique.

Why not impress your Japanese students and in-laws by writing correctly from memory? It's easy when you use this story from Joseph De Roo's "2001 Kanji": Hemorrhoids are the sickness suffered by people who sit in meditative poses for long periods at Buddhist temples .

Incidentally, some readers last month tried saying "Higashi Miyako" instead of "Tokyo"(), but were told by Japanese friends that could not be pronounced "miyako." According to a number of dictionaries, and my word processing software, it is possible to write miyako using either or s, even though the Ministry of Science and Education does not include miyako as an officially "approved" reading for .