Column #90 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, April 15, 2008
"Simple kanji can prove to be a 'mouthful'"

I first encountered the kanji (kuchi, gmouthh) early in my Japanese studies, nearly three decades ago. gThis one is just a square; itfll be a breeze to master,h I surmised, scrawling it out for the first time. My subsequent marriage to a Japanese man with the surname (Noguchi, field-gate) led me to a lifelong association with , and I have discovered there is a great deal more to this unassuming kanji than first meets the eye.

When it was first created several millennia ago, before evolving into its current shape, did in fact resemble a human mouth. Although it may appear to be comprised of four strokes, the top and right-hand side of are written with one stroke, for a total of three. In print, resembles an equilateral box, but the handwritten version, featuring sides that bow in a bit at the bottom and a slightly rounded upper right-hand corner, is surprisingly difficult to reproduce. Even my husband-- who has, of course, been writing his name since childhood-- struggles to consistently write a perfectly balanced

Besides its core meaning of gmouth,h possesses a variety of related nuances, each of which serves as a building block for producing compound words (jukugo). As gmouth,h comprises such commonly used jukugo as (hitokuchi, one-mouth, a mouthful), L (koushuu, mouth-stink, bad breath), Ռ (kokou, tiger-mouth, dangerous situation),h (karakuchi, spicy-mouth, spicy), and Ì (amakuchi, sweet-mouth, mild flavor). Look for h and Ì wherever the ubiquitous Japanese-style curry is sold.

can also mean gnumber of peopleh (i.e., mouths to feed), as in l (jinkou, people-mouths, population).

With its related meaning of gtalk,h is utilized in compounds like (mukuchi, no-talk, taciturn), (kudo-ku, talk-persuade, seduce), (waruguchi, bad-talk, slander), and ~ (kuchidomeryou, talk-stop-fee, hush money). ٌ (ikudouon, different-talk-same-sound) is a pithy four-character jukugo meaning gunanimous.h

Finally, represents a variety of mouth-like openings, including gdoorh (, iriguchi, enter-door, entrance; , hijouguchi, not-the usual-door, emergency exit), gmouth of a riverh (͌, kakou, river-mouth, estuary), and gholeh (Ό, kakou, fire-hole, volcano crater; ֌, jaguchi, snake-hole, faucet).

Aside from existing as a kanji in its own right, serves as a component in hundreds of characters related to talking, eating, and other actions involving the mouth. (aji, taste) is comprised of (mouth) and (gincomplete,h here suggesting the idea of lingering, thus gsomething good lingering in the mouthh). An analysis of (to-u, ask) reveals someone using their mouth () to make an inquiry at a gate (). f (ha-ku, vomit) pictures filth (y; literally, gdirth) pouring forth out of a mouth. added to (bird) renders (MEI), meaning the cry of birds, other animals, and insects. The cry a dog makes has a kanji all its own: i (ho-eru, bark), comprised of Rover (, dog) and his mouth. Other mouth-component kanji include z (su-u, breathe in), (shita, tongue), P (seki, cough), (yo-bu, call), and (noro-u, cast a spell).

As a kanji enthusiast and columnist, I am sometimes asked to do the impossible: name my favorite character. Because I learned the shape and meaning of the 1,945 general-use kanji by linking their components together in vivid stories, some of my best kanji friends happen to be graphically complex characters. But the unadorned, minimalist beauty of the workhorse kanji puts it near the top of my list.

Mouth-Kanji Quiz
Try this alone or compete with a friend. You will need a pencil and paper. Draw the kanji for (gmouthh) and add only two strokes to make as many new kanji as possible. Twenty-eight possible answers, along with one pronunciation and meaning, are listed below according to grade level. Examples: c


Grade 1: c (ta, rice field) / (ishi, stone)/E (migi, right) /l (SHI, four)/ (me, eye)/ (shiro, white)
Grade 2: Z (ani, older brother)/ (furu-i, old)/ (DAI, platform)
Grade 3: (GOU, number)/\ (mou-su, say)/R (YU, reason)
Grade 4: (kuwa-eru, add)/j (SHI, history)/i (SHI, administer)
Grade 5: (KA, can)/ (KYUU, former)/ (KU, phrase)
General-use: b (koora, shell)/ (SHUU, prisoner)/ (me-su, partake)/ (urana-u, divine)
Others: @ (tata-ku, strike)/ (kana-eru, grant)/U (TAN, dawn)/ (TEI, courtesy)/ (shika-ru, scold)/ (tada, only)

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