November 15, 2020

Volume 4: Kanji Form Categories

Fun lesson on Japanese
Kanji characters were formed in several different ways. Knowing these forms may help with recognition.

Volume 4: Kanji Form Categories

六書: What is it? Today we will look at how etymology of kanji are categorized. That is, there are 6 ways the ancient Chinese used to explain how each kanji is put together. Some kanji may have more than one way. These 6 categories are called 六書 pronounced りくしょ (not ろく)

Why am I reading this? Well, probably because you have nothing better to do. But other than the obvious, knowing what these are can be very helpful when using a Japanese kanji dictionary since it will probably explain the kanji's origin.

象形 しょうけい
Kanji that look like (or originally was supposed to look like) the object it represents

 sun - originally somewhat round with a dot in the middle - not sure what the dot was for (if you know please post a comment below)
 moon, month
 mountain - a mountain ridge
 tree - a tree with low hanging branches
 person - a person with no arms doing a split
 child - a child needs a hug

指事 しじ
These are kanji whose meaning is somewhat abstract and is expressed as a kind of code.

 up, above - the small line is above ground level
 heaven - the biggest line is above the man on earth
 book - made from a tree (木)

会意 かいい
This is where 2 characters are put together to create a new meaning.

 ratio, compare - two people(人)
 watch, care for - hand (手) and (目)
 (mountain) pass - 山 (mountain), 上 (up) and 下 (down). This is a 和製漢字, for more click here

形声 けいせい
These are kanji with 2 parts usually one for the pronunciation and one for the meaning.

河 river - sound: 可 (permission) + meaning 水 (water - the three strokes on the left)
問 ask - sound: 門 (gate) + meaning: 口 (mouth)
枯 wither (as in a plant) - sound 古 (old) + meaning 木 (tree) & 古 (old)

転注 てんちゅう
These are kanji that have the original meanings changed (転) to new meanings.

The common example (at least in dictionaries that I consulted!) is the  in 音楽 (music) originally only dealt with music, but since listening to music is pleasurable, 楽 also took on that meaning -> 楽しい

仮借 かしゃ
These are kanji where the meaning is totally ignored. They are borrowed only for their sound.

This can also be called 当て字, ateji - which are kanji used usually for the pronunciation (but can rarely also have meaning like 倶楽部 for Club [together+fun+group = ku ra bu])

Examples of foreign words:
 あめりか - America
亜細亜 アジア - Asia

Examples where a new meaning developed

「来」 kuru/rai (to come) originally meant "barley."The pronunciation 「らい」 was kept but the meaning was dropped and replaced with "to come"

*In both cases, the original meaning of each kanji is ignored and only the sound is used. With 転注 ten chuu, the original meaning is changed not totally ignored.

Note: I believe I have a handle on these last two forms (転注・仮借) but I should consult a few big kanji dictionaries to make sure. If you see something wrong or have anything to add, please leave a comment! - Thanks

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