Kanji Are Concepts

I’d like to briefly revisit an issue old and dear to me. Kanji are not, by themselves, words in the Western sense. They are, rather, concepts that are used in the formation of words and ideas. From one concept, others are derived; from concepts, we come to ideas, which are expressed using words.

Kanji are the building blocks of written Japanese, but they are not an “alphabet” in the traditional sense. Let’s take one simple one:

This is the kanji for “heart.” If you look at it carefully, you’ll see the outlines of the valves of a human heart, as if the chest has been cut open to reveal it.

Just as in English, the heart stands for not just the literal, beating heart of a human being, but the figurative heart of a person; in other words, the mind and soul and emotional core of a person. Just as in English, “breaking someone’s heart” is purely emotional, so goes the Japanese expression 心が痛む (kokoro ga itamu) means, “It pains my heart.” This does not mean an early sign of a heart attack; it means being emotionally wounded. The heart hurts in a figurative sense.

Japanese mark the literal heart with the word 心臓 (shinzou), combining the above kanji with another that represents “viscera” and is used to mark the five viscera: liver, lungs, heart, kidney, and spleen (collectively known as 五臓 (gozou, 5 + viscera).

心底 (shinsoko, alternatively, shintei) is heart + bottom, and can be used to express “from the bottom of my heart” in ways that seem decidedly English. This can be used for heartfelt thanks to someone.

Kanji are the building blocks of the ideas represented by the Japanese language. This is why learning kanji in a step by step, sustainable way that leads an early learner to mastery of an increasing number of kanji is critical. Once learned and mastered, kanji convey ideas faster than words written with the Roman alphabet can manage. This leads to a greater sense of enjoyment when reading Japanese, from the simple to the complex.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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