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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mastery of kanji takes time to build, just like Rome

Special to The Japan Times

If you want yuyujiteki no seikatsu wo suru, to live the life of Riley, in Japan, then you should learn as many four-kanji expresssions as you can. (Yuyujiteki implies living in unsurpassed comfort for the rest of your days, an admirable goal if there ever was one.)

The ideal life balancing work and ease is expressed in the lovely phrase seikoudoku, or "clear tilling, rain reading," which means "on clear days till the field outside, on wet days read books inside." Nice work if you can get it.

Four-kanji phrases are, to my mind, the key to being articulate in Japanese. They are terse and profound at the same time.

Last week I brought up phrases useful in everyday life. This week I will concentrate on more abstract or philosophical expressions. The origins of many of these are Chinese, though some are originally Japanese.

If you are so fast asleep as to be dead to the world, you can say you are shirakawayofune, spending the night on the Shirakawa River, a river in Kyoto that has no boats.

In English we often say, "We are in the same boat," meaning that we share the same fate. The closest equivalent of this in Japanese is ichirentakusho. Ichiren refers to a single lotus blossom; takusho means "putting your life in the care of something." Our lives begin and end on the same lotus flower. As you can see, this four-kanji phrase, like many others, has a Buddhist origin.

But philosophy is not the only medicine for the soul, as we learn from the phrase hyakuyakunocho. This phrase of Chinese origins means "as good as a hundred medicines." In case you are in doubt as to what it is that is as good as a hundred medicines, it is "the good stuff" itself. Liquor is "good for what ails you." If you want four-kanji phrases that tell you to do things in moderation, there are scores of those, too; but why waste good newspaper space on that sort of thing, I ask you.

Perhaps the most Japanese of all four-kanji phrases in its sentiment is ichigoichie, literally "one occasion, one meeting." What this means is that you have only one chance at making this single encounter perfect, and you must do your utmost to make it so. This sentiment permeates the atmosphere of the tea ceremony, for instance. It gives some encounters in Japan the very special uniqueness that all of us have felt at some time.

Needless to say, some people just say nice things to everybody. This certainly dilutes the potency of kindness. These people might be called happobijin, or "(showing a) beautiful face in eight directions." A happobijin tries to please everyone, and they end up pleasing no one.

Some four-kanji phrases are so old that they should be out of date. This one belongs in that category. It is teishukanpaku, or "A man is a king in his own castle." Male chauvinist piggery is alive, well, and part of the living language of a nation.

Now, you may find these compound kanji phrases difficult. Well, they are difficult, even to Japanese. But it is worth persisting with them, if your goal is to truly master the language. Remember, taikibansei, "big vessels, late growing." You guessed it or maybe you didn't. This means, "Great talent takes a long time to grow." In other words, Rome wasn't built in a day.

I must end with my two favorite four-kanji phrases of all.


It's quite a mouthful, I know. The four kanji mean "ancient times (are) limitless," but this doesn't tell you much. It comes from an old Chinese poem, and it means: "The past is a far-reaching haze of dreams."

Finally, we should all strive for tenimuho, which literally means, "A heavenly garment has no seams."

This is the Japanese way to say that true beauty is natural beauty, a fabric that contains not a seam of artifice. Beauty and truth come together seamlessly in this exquisite expression.

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