Kanji Clinic #82, The Japan Times, October 17, 2006
"Kanji ablaze with fiery imagery rooted in past"

In ancient times, the Chinese believed all things in the universe were composed of five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. They used kanji representing these elements (, , y, , ) to name the planets and -- along with the Chinese characters for sun and moon (, ) -- the days of the week. Today being Ηj, (kayoubi, Tuesday), or gfire day,h letfs take an in-depth look at (fire).

Long before electricity and kerosene heaters were invented, people in China depended, of course, on fire to cook their food, light their homes, and warm their bodies. When they began to create their written language some 4,000 years ago, the Chinese made heavy use of pictographs representing key elements in their everyday lives, including fire. Although it appears to depict two sparks flying off either side of a human being (l), is actually derived from a pictograph of a fire with three flickering flames.

Over 300 Sino-Japanese characters still used in modern Japanese feature as a component. One of them, the seasonal H (aki, autumn), currently can be seen on a wide variety of advertisements and posters all over the archipelago. H is comprised of a left-hand component meaning grice planth and a smoldering fire () on the right, and may have its roots in the practice of building fires to dry out the autumn rice harvest.

(hatake), a character created in Japan, is comprised of on the left and c (ta, rice field) on the right. represents a dry field (i.e., not a rice paddy) that is burned off after the harvest.

When is used as a kanji component, it can be written in several ways. One variation abbreviates to four dots. Look for this component at the bottom of (kuro-i, black), which pictures a sooty, black grill () positioned over a fire, as well as in (te-rasu, illuminate), (ko-geru, scorch), and M (NETSU, heat).

By the way, the four dots featured in animal characters (sakana, fish), (tori, bird), and n (uma, horse) are derived from the fins, wings, and legs in their original pictographs, and are not intended to depict a fire over which they might be prepared for human consumption.

Another lesser-known written variation of can be found in the crown-like component topping h (saka-eru, flourish) and u (hotaru, firefly). Before they were abbreviated in post-World War II kanji simplification reforms, these characters were written with two fires side-by-side (Ή) at their tops. h originally pictured a type of tree () covered with flowers as dazzling as two fires, and eventually came to mean gblossoming into something dazzlingh (i.e., gflourishh). Double fires illuminating the top of (mushi, insect) provided a vivid depiction of the yellow-green luminescence of the firefly.

Most kanji representing modes of cooking feature either or its four-dot variant. (ya-ku, grill/bake) graces signs outside ē (yakiniku, grilled meat) restaurants and on Ă (yakiimo, baked sweet potato) carts, sometimes seen outside train stations. Other fire-kanji, such as (ni-ru, boil) and (mu-su, steam), can be seen in recipe books and food-package instructions.

The kanji (honoo/EN, flames/inflammation), comprised of one fire piled upon another, is joined with (gwordsh) to represent a spirited gconversationh (k, DAN). And bordered on two sides by the component meaning gillnessh yields (TAN, phlegm).

Another kanji featuring two fires is emblazoned on the trash bags used in Japan for putting out the garbage: R (mo-eru, burn). Look for on the left of this character, and on the right, the meat (, derived from , niku, meat) of a dog (, inu) roasting over another fire.

(vexed) is a fire-kanji comprised of on the left and a component meaning gheadh (as in , atama, gheadh) on the right. Rid your life of ς킵 (wazurawashii, vexatious) kanji-learning methods: Visit KanjiClinic.com often to get the lowdown on a wide variety of organized study aids that break kanji down into their individual components, making them a snap to remember.

How many of these fire-kanji do you know? Match each with its meaning. One pronunciation has been provided for each, and answers are at the bottom of the page:


a.explode (BAKU) b.furnace (RO) c.coal (TAN) d.smoke (EN) e.disaster (SAI) f. lamp (TOU) g.dry up (SOU) h.ripen (JUKU)

Answers: 1.c 2.a 3.e 4.h 5.d 6.f 7.b 8.g

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